CMC and the Online Classroom Vol. 1 Chapter 1


Volume One: Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom: Overview and Perspectives
Editors: Dr. Zane L. Berge &
Dr. Mauri P. Collins




Chapter 1: What is Computer-Mediated Communication

Gerald M. Santoro

Pennsylvania State University

What is Computer-Mediated Communication?

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is the name given to a large set of functions in which computers are used to support human communication. CMC can be defined narrowly or broadly, depending on how one defines human communication. At its narrowest, CMC refers to computer applications for direct human-to-human communication. This includes electronic mail, group conferencing systems, and interactive ‘chat’ systems. At its broadest, CMC can encompass virtually all computer uses.

The broad interpretation derives from the recognition that computer systems were developed to receive data from humans (or from the environment in a way that mimics or extends human senses) and eventually return some form of that data to humans for some human purpose. Seen this way, such diverse applications as statistical analysis programs, remote-sensing systems, and financial modeling programs all fit within the concept of human communication. The meaning of CMC for the purpose of this book will be a compromise between these two extremes. The focus is on the use of computer systems and networks for the transfer, storage, and retrieval of information among humans. In this definition, the computer/network system is a primarily a mediator rather than a processor of the information.

A special focus of this book is on the use of CMC as a tool for instructional support. That support can range from simply providing students with electronic mail in an otherwise traditional class, to actually delivering instruction and supporting student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction at a distance.

Who Uses CMC?

Let us first examine a few numbers that are descriptive of the extent to which information technologies pervade our world. Between 1977 and 1987 it is estimated that some 20% to 25% of American households adopted and began to extensively use personal computers (Chesebro & Bonsall, 1989).

Clearly some of this growth in the home use of computers stems from the evolution of the American economy from an agricultural and industrial base to an information base. Analyses by Porat (1974, 1977) and Ehrenhalt (1986) indicate that 28% of the U.S. labor force is employed in the primary information sector of the economy, with an additional 24% working as information processors in the industrial sector.

The increasing use of computers in primary, secondary, postsecondary, and continuing education is also a factor stimulating growth in the use of information technologies. Computer laboratories, once viewed as a luxury, are now considered to be as essential to education as libraries. Campuswide networks and the connection of these networks to the Internet are strategic goals at virtually every college and university worldwide.

The importance of information technology to education and to the U.S. economy was reflected in the theme of the Net ‘91 conference in Washington, DC: “Towards a National Information Infrastructure.” This conference drew over 400 representatives from higher education, industry, and government concerned with the future of national educational and research networking (MERIT, 1991). Also in 1991, Senator Al Gore (then D-Tenn) introduced Senate Bill 272, which authorized the National Education and Research Network (NREN). This bill demonstrated recognition of a national telecommunication infrastructure as being as important to the U.S. economy as the interstate highway system.

So who uses CMC? Although there is no “typical” user of CMC, it might be helpful in defining CMC to consider the work and technical environments of three representative types of users. The examples given are by no means comprehensive. In fact, the variety of uses and applications of CMC are as diverse as the variety of human users.

Persons working in information-intensive professions. As mentioned earlier, a large segment of the U.S. labor force directly or indirectly uses computer-based information systems in their work. Many of these professionals have access to microcomputers or terminals in their offices. Most of these systems are connected to local networks (LANs), many of which are then connected to wide-area networks (WANs), and many of these are then gatewayed to the Internet.

These users access databases, specialized hardware/software, electronic mail, and (possibly) group conferencing systems to support their profession. A large number of these professionals use home computers (or portable computers) and modems to access information sources while at home or traveling.

The functionality of these systems, taken to a logical extreme, is reflected in the growing practice of “telecommuting” (Schneier, 1992). Telecommuting is a practice in which employees work partially or primarily from home, using microcomputers and modems to access information systems, and perform their daily duties without regard to their actual physical location.

Students. The dramatic drop in cost and increase in power of microcomputers and modems have made it desirable for many students to own personal computers, which they may use in support of their educational goals. Such uses include word processing, programming, database development, courseware, and access to electronic mail and group conferencing systems.

The equally dramatic increase in the number of campus-based computer stores and computer industry discounts on computer systems for resale to students reflects the recognition of the value of students having such systems. So, too, does the increased emphasis on the use of CMC as an instructional delivery system for persons who cannot otherwise attend “traditional” classroom-based courses.

Individuals, families, or hobbyist. The personal computer was originally developed in the 1970s as a home system for entertainment or hobby use. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the evolution of the personal computer and the development of commercial information systems such as CompuServe, PRODIGY, and America On-Line has propelled the personal computer from being an oddity to being a home appliance as essential as VCRs, microwave ovens, and stereos.

At the same time, thousands of public bulletin-board systems and free or low-cost software packages (FREEWARE/SHAREWARE) have been developed to provide the home user with access to information technology once available only to those with access to industrial or educational computer systems.

Commonalities Among These Users.

Three major common threads can be seen in the computer use of these different types of information system users. First, human computer users typically have access to a personal computer, which acts as a devoted workstation for local processing and access to remote host computers.

Second, most of these personal computers utilize modems or computer networks to access information, software, or specialized computer hardware at remote locations. In most cases the human computer users need not know the actual location of the remote host computer; access is attained through the use of a telephone number or network address.

Third, human computer users are increasingly using these systems to manage information transfer with other humans. In addition to work-oriented communication, much human communication through computer systems is social. Many friendships and deeper social relationships have begun on, and are supported by, CMC. In a survey of heavy computer users, Hellerstein (1986) found that social activity is regarded as a major application of computer systems. This is supported by an examination of the dramatic growth of transactions on bulletin board systems and group conferencing systems such as Usenet news (NETNEWS).

Three Categories of CMC

Following the middle-of-the-road definition of CMC, just provided, one can discern three broad categories of CMC functions. These categories are distinguished by the nature of the human-computer interaction and by the role taken by the computer in mediating the human communication process.

Although these categories are described and explained separately, it is most important to note that they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is both likely and desirable that functions from each of these categories be combined in a way that meets the specific needs of the human computer users—as well as the capabilities of the computer/network resources available to these users.

I describe these three categories briefly, with more in-depth descriptions to follow. The first category of CMC involves direct human-human communication, with the computer acting simply as a transaction router, or providing simple storage and retrieval functions. I refer to this category as computer-based conferencing or simply as conferencing. This category includes such functions as electronic mail, interactive messaging, and group conference support systems such as Listserv, Usenet NETNEWS, bulletin board systems, and so on.

The second category of CMC is one in which the computer has a more active role as the repository or maintainer of organized information, which originates with human contributors and is utilized by human retrievers. I refer to this category as informatics. Part of the current explosion of interest in the Internet is a result in the rapid growth of Internet-accessible informatics resources, including online public-access library catalogs (OPACs), interactive remote databases, and program/data archive sites.

The third category of CMC includes the computer structuring and managing of both the presentation of information and the possible choices available to the human user. The computer is programmed to take a more active role toward the human user in this category as opposed to the other two categories, in which the computer more passively carries out commands. This is the realm of computers as teachers or guides. I use the fairly generic term computer-assisted instruction (CAI) to refer to this category.

The differences in types of human interaction with the computer and in the different roles played by the computer in each of these three categories are quite significant. With conferencing it might appear that the computer is doing nothing more than playing telephone or postal delivery person. In fact, the messages, destinations, and purpose of communication are entirely provided by the human users. However, the computer, although operating primarily in the background, does have a major influence on the effectiveness of the communication process—particularly in ongoing group communication.

Because of this influence, it is important that design considerations for conferencing systems take into account what is known (or more importantly not known) about the nature of human communication interpersonally, in groups, and in organizations.

The roles of human and computer with informatics are more involved than with conferencing. In this category a true interaction takes place between the human, who is seeking information, and one or more networked computer systems, which potentially have the information being sought. Again, the design of the computer system is paramount to the successful location of needed information.

There are approaches being taken to the design of informatics resources. The first is to adopt standards (often rooted in technical evolution) that are then documented at great length to make them understandable. This is not an unreasonable approach because the effort is placed on training the human users in utilization of the resources. The second approach is to attempt to make the resources more “intuitive” or “user-friendly” by design. At first glance this would appear to be an obviously better approach, however, it suffers from two major hangups. The first is that “intuition” is a very fuzzy concept which varies considerably with cultural background and degree of prior computer experience. The second is that the human computer user can never be sure whether the requested information was not received because it was really not available, or because he or she just didn’t formulate the inquiry properly.

With computer-assisted instruction the roles of human and computer are their most complex. The human is cast as student or apprentice and the computer is the teacher or guide. Although the information programmed into the computer originated with some other human, and quite possibly with a team of humans, it is the job of the computer to manage the instructional process within the limitations of its programming. Each of these three categories of CMC is evolving rapidly. The next three sections describe them in greater detail.

Computer-Based Conferencing

Computer-based conferencing takes three primary forms. The first is electronic mail, the second group conferencing systems, and the third interactive messaging systems. Each of these is designed for the support of direct human-human communication.

Numerous studies and analyses of human communication via CMC have shown that this method of communication incorporates aspects of written (literal) as well as spoken (oral) communication. An examination of “smilies” (Lewis, 1986) and the use of CHAT systems such as the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) show a communication form that is uniquely shaped by the medium, yet unquestionably human in nature.

Electronic Mail

Electronic mail (or e-mail) is unquestionably one of the most commonly used forms of CMC. In its most basic form it involves a human computer user composing and sending an online “letter” to another computer user. The recipient of this online ‘letter’ may then elect to read it, discard it, save it for later use, print it, reply to it, or send it to another computer user. This form of communication can be thought of as a “one-to-one” communication (Quarterman, 1990), although most e-mail programs permit mail to be sent to multiple recipients.

Electronic mail has been used on mainframe computers for at least two decades. Its current explosion in popularity derives from two factors. The first is the interconnection of hundreds of thousands of computers, ranging in size from giant supercomputers to inexpensive microcomputers, by electronic data-transfer networks such as the Internet, BITnet, UUCP, and so on. (The nature and use of the networks are further explained in Sudweeks’s chapter, this volume.) The second is the adoption of electronic mail standards that permit the transfer of electronic mail from one kind of computer system (and software) to another without loss of information.

The usefulness of electronic mail as a human communication medium stems partly from its ease of use. One can send an electronic mail letter to another computer user simply by knowing their electronic mail “address.” This address encodes the actual physical location of the recipients’ computer as well as their particular electronic “mailbox” on that computer. In function, this address operates much like a telephone number in the international telephone network.

Another reason for the growing use of electronic mail is that it provides for fast “asynchronous” human communication. This is communication in which the participants need not be online simultaneously. Human A composes and sends an electronic letter to human B. It sits in human B’s electronic mailbox until human B (who is doing something else) gets to it. When convenient, human B responds to the letter by sending a reply back to human A. It waits in human A’s electronic mailbox until human A is ready to deal with it, and so on.

This procedure is really no different than that of sending hardcopy letters through the postal system. However, there are a number of important additional features to electronic mail that make it advantageous for users. One of these is that electronic mail delivery may take mere seconds, even when the recipient’s computer is located on the other side of the planet. This significantly reduces overall transaction time when people are working together via electronic mail over a long period of time.

Another useful feature is that local mailer programs often incorporate useful e-mail-management features such as automatic return addressing for e-mail replies, an ability to define group nicknames, an ability to store and selectively retrieve received e-mail, and automatic redirection of incoming electronic mail to another computer account.

A third useful feature of electronic mail is that it is an extremely convenient tool for managing communications when the user does a lot of other work on the computer as well. Many students, workers, and individuals have convenient access to personal computers. Why not use these systems to manage and support correspondence as well? It can be far easier to take a writing-in-progress from a word processor and transfer it to a colleague (for critical analysis, of course) via electronic mail rather than print it, address an envelope, and wait for days to make sure it reached its destination. Further, the information transferred via electronic mail is not limited to text. Pictures, sounds, and virtually any type of data that can be encoded onto a computer file is fair game for electronic mail transfer. (Although in fairness it must be added that with the current state of technology some pre- and posttransfer processing of the data file may be necessary.)

An interesting side note to electronic mail is the extent to which it is being used for social communication. Some early critics of electronic mail hinged their objection on what they perceived to be a “mechanical” approach. They felt it would be dehumanizing and limited strictly to task-oriented discussion. In fact, the opposite is actually true, and the range of orientation of electronic mail is truly as diverse as the range of human communication. Rice and Love (1987) observed that CMC systems can facilitate the exchange of socio-emotional content. From this it can be noted that technology does not necessarily dehumanize; rather, technology can be humanized to meet everyone’s needs.

Group Conferencing Systems

Group conferencing systems are essentially an extension of electronic mail. With electronic mail one can send an electronic “letter” to a group of persons as easily as to one person—provided that each of their electronic mail addresses is known. Group conferencing systems were developed to help manage special problems of group-oriented conferencing. These problems include managing large and changing group membership lists, providing efficient distribution of e-mail among group members, and providing for retrieval of prior, and perhaps related, transactions.

Group conferencing systems come in a variety of types. I mention three popular approaches here. The first is an electronic mail exploder system such as the Listserv program that originated on BITnet-connected IBM mainframes and was later copied (at least partially) to the unix platform.

An e-mail exploder handles two primary functions of group electronic mail. First, it manages the group subscription list. This allows (if the nature of the group warrants) computer users to join or leave the group at will. This way an individual group member does not have to keep track of the current status of all group members. This is a good thing because some Listserv groups have memberships in the thousands.

Second, the exploder takes any single group member’s contribution to the conference and copies it to all other group members. This is the exploding function. Group members participate in the group by sending their contributions to the exploder. It makes sure that copies go to all other current group members. This long-lasting distribution method results in “one-to-many” communication (Quarterman, 1990). The exploder typically also keeps an archive of all previous conference transactions. This allows a new group member to examine previous transactions to gain an understanding of the current context in which discussion is taking place.

A second popular approach to group conferencing systems is the bulletin board system or BBS. This approach simulates the bulletin board at a shopping center or the lunchroom of a company. With physical bulletin boards, messages are usually written on 3 x 5 cards and thumb-tacked to the board for all to see. If there are enough entries (and enough space), the board may have separate areas for announcements, items for sale, help wanted, and so on.

A computer bulletin board typically has a number of subject areas into which a user may post messages. Other users may read these messages and elect to respond to the group or to the individual who originated the posting. One example of BBS-type group conferencing is Usenet NEWS. This collection of newsgroups originated on the UUCP network. Individual conference “postings” are transferred through the Internet through a protocol named nntp. Users access Usenet NEWS through a local client newsreader, such as the NETNEWS program for VM/CMS operating systems.

Usenet NEWS originated with a fairly small group of unix-based computers connected via the UUCP network. It has since developed into a far more powerful system that runs over the Internet and BITnet in addition to UUCP. Hundreds of original topic groups (newsgroups) have exploded to the point that (when I last looked a few minutes ago) over 2,000 newsgroups are represented. These span the breadth of human experience from telecommunication protocols to alternative backrubs.

A third approach to group conferencing is what I call conference management systems. These are systems that support conference participants by imposing a structured approach on the conference. The structured approach allows certain features of database management systems to come into play. One example of this is thread management. In a conference, a thread is a particular line of discussion. It can often be difficult to follow threads properly when a conference has hundreds, or even thousands, of members. Sometimes there are multiple discussion threads happening at the same time. Thread management allows a given user to isolate only the thread of interest and track the evolution of that thread through various contributions.

Because of the structured approach, conference management systems can be fairly easy to learn and use. Examples of conference management systems are DEC VAXNotes, CoSy, Caucus, Confer, and EIES. The thread management capability, combined with other functions in support of group communications, results in a form of “many-to-many” communication. One of the growing uses of group conferencing systems is to support instructional communication. A number of universities utilize conference management systems such as VAXNotes for this purpose. At Penn State over 90 courses are taught incorporating private NETNEWS groups for course announcements, discourse, and other purposes.

It is tempting to think of instructional group conferencing as an obvious application of technology to instruction; however, various realities delayed its widespread use until the mid-1980s. Among the problems encountered were lack of convenient access to microcomputers/terminals, lack of centralized support for instructors/students, the reluctance of many faculty to explore new instructional approaches, and the reluctance of academic departments to give adequate recognition to those faculty who did successfully explore new instructional approaches.

These problems are being overcome in a number of ways. First, technology is increasing in power and decreasing in price. Although this trend may not be following the predictions of Moore’s Law (Patterson, Kiser, & Smith, 1989),1 it has nevertheless resulted in a situation in which $1,000 can purchase a quite usable personal workstation and modem for both local work and telecommunication. Second, large organizations are recognizing the need for both centralized and decentralized provision of training and support. In the 1960s and 1970s, the university computer center was a place where mainframe computer access was meted out to users. In the 1990s, the computer center is primarily a provider of training and expert support for distributed computing resources. Third, a growing body of literature is reporting on various approaches, strategies, and outcomes for instructional conferencing. Finally, there is a growing recognition by academic administrators of the value of technical innovation in instruction. This is partly because of hopes for greater efficiency and partly in recognition of the need to prepare students for an increasingly technical world.

One pioneer in the application of conferencing to instruction has noted that communication within a learning group often increases as a result of computer use (Hiltz, 1986). My own experience in seven years of using conferencing to support Liberal Arts courses shows that students embrace the technology and quickly adapt it to their own purposes (Santoro, 1989).

Interactive Messaging

In addition to the asynchronous forms of computer conferencing discussed thus far, many computer systems have the capability for computer users to communicate in synchronous mode. Synchronous communication requires that all participants be online at the same time. As a result, the communication flows much like a telephone conversation. Because of the interaction that results, this form of conferencing is known as interactive messaging.

Early interactive messaging took place between people logged into the same computer system, even though they might be physically located far apart from one another. As computer networks were developed, some included the capability for interactive messaging between different computer hosts, and others omitted this capability. For example, the UUCP network does not support interactive messaging of any kind. The BITnet network supports unsolicited interactive messaging. This means that one computer user on BITnet can interrupt another computer user with a message. (Many systems do include commands for filtering or turning off such messages entirely.) The Internet supports interactive messaging, but not unsolicited messages. If a person on Internet wants to communicate interactively with another Internet user (assuming both have software permitting this), the initiator’s software would send a request to the other person. That person would have to acknowledge that he or she is willing to communicate. If he or she does so, the software will then establish an interactive messaging session.

A simple example of interactive messaging is the unix “talk” program, which is covered in detail in Sudweek’s chapter (this volume). A more robust example of interactive messaging is represented by the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) system. IRC follows the paradigm of a citizen’s band radio in providing an environment for interactive messaging. A user first runs a local IRC client program, which then connects to one of a network of IRC servers on the Internet. The client program can be located on the user’s PC or on a mainframe computer for which the user has an account. However, the PC or mainframe must have an Internet connection. The IRC servers manage traffic flow between IRC clients to ensure efficient network utilization.

The user selects a “nickname” and a ‘channel’ for communication. If the channel already exists, the user will be joined to it and will be able to communicate interactively with all other persons on that channel. If the channel does not exist, IRC will create it, and the user will be the owner (and initially the only resident) of that channel.

Once on an IRC channel, whatever a person types will be seen by all other channel members, and vice versa. The nicknames will be appended to each message, so each person knows who is saying what. IRC also provides other capabilities for managing interactive sessions, including maintaining a transcript on a computer file, private messaging, private/public channels, designation of channel topics, listing of available public channels, and preset option preferences.

Human-Computer-Human CMC

The second major category of CMC is that in which the computer takes a more active role in storing and retrieving information for the human user. This form of CMC is often referred to as informatics. With informatics, the computer is programmed to act like an interactive library or database. People access the desired computer system through a variety of methods and issue a series of commands to locate and retrieve the desired information.

For informatics to work, the user must first establish a connection with the computer on which the desired information resides. In some cases this interaction is managed asynchronously by sending interactive or e-mail messages to the remote computer with the body of the message containing the command to be executed.

Users connected to the Internet have the more convenient option of using the ‘Telnet’ protocol to establish a real-time interactive link with the remote computer. Technically, Telnet is the Internet protocol for remote terminal access. This allows any Internet-connected user to log onto any Internet-connected host computer as if they had a local terminal connection to that computer. The growth in Internet-connected users has fueled a growth in the number and diversity of informatics applications. I describe a few of these below.

Online Databases

With an online database, the user establishes a connection to the remote host computer, issues any appropriate log-on sequences, and then issues the proper commands to locate and retrieve the desired information. Hundreds of online databases are currently available through the Internet, with at least a few of these also supporting some kind of asynchronous query mechanism.

Some examples of online databases include library catalog systems (OPACs), online medical/legal information servers, and weather information servers. Some specialized online databases include interactive game systems, NASA and FDA information servers, and a Ham Radio Callsign database. Popular guides to online databases include “Accessing Online Bibliographic Databases” by Barron (n.d.), and “Special Internet Connections” by Yanoff (n.d.). (Both of these files may be found on the anonymous ftp archive in the /pub/internexus subdirectory. The Barron file is named LIBRARIE.TXT, and the Yanoff file is named INTERNET.SERVICES.)

Online file archives are network-accessible computers that store libraries of computer files for retrieval by users. The method of retrieval may vary depending on the exact setup of the archive. One of the most popular retrieval methods is the Internet file transfer protocol (FTP). Other retrieval methods include electronic mail and interactive messaging requests. With FTP retrieval, the file is immediately and interactively retrieved. With electronic mail and interactive messaging retrieval, the request is queued to a file server that sends the file to the requester via electronic mail. (The Listserv program supports queued file retrieval.)

The kinds of information that may be stored in online computer file archives is as varied as the nature of computer files themselves. Files may include programs (both in source and compiled form), data sets (raw and processed), pictures, sounds, text, and even animation and movies. There are only two requirements for the successful use of online file archives. The first requirement is that the user may have to possess a file decryptor or extractor program to process the file after transferring it. This is often necessary with binary programs because they are processed into encrypted or compressed form to ensure successful transfer. The second requirement is that the user possess whatever program necessary to utilize the computer file once it is retrieved. In many cases the necessary decryptor or extractor will be available from the same site as the binary programs. For example, if a user retrieves a weather satellite image from the archive (which are stored in GIF format), then the user must have the necessary software for displaying and manipulating the image.

Campus-Wide Information Systems

Expanding college/university networks and the ever-improving availability of network-accessible microcomputers/terminals has led to the development of campuswide information systems (CWIS). These are information servers that combine online database capabilities with menu-driven front-ends to other Telnet-accessible information servers.

Typically, the online database function provides users with campus information formerly available through publications or campus newspapers. This information may include the schedule of classes, the faculty/staff/student telephone directory, the policies/procedures manual, and other “official” information. It may also include a listing of campus events, the semester calendar, and announcements from various clubs and student organizations. In general, the idea is that the database component of a CWIS provides the most current information possible without the delays and waste associated with printed versions.

Two popular approaches to campuswide information systems are MIT’s TECHINFO and Minnesota’s Gopher. Both systems provide users with a hierarchy of menus. The user navigates through this set of menus searching for the desired information. In some cases the selection of a menu item will result in the display of information. In other cases the selection of a menu item will result in a Telnet session to some remote information server.

Both TECHINFO and Gopher are based on a client-server model. The user runs a client program on his or her local PC or a connected mainframe that provides the user interface and processes menu selections for the server. The server is typically located on another computer and accessed by the client program using Telnet. Client programs for both TECHINFO and Gopher are available for the Apple Macintosh, IBM-PS/2, various workstations, and various mainframe operating systems.

A slightly different approach to the problem of current information dissemination is found in the Wide-Area Information System (WAIS) developed by Thinking Machines Corporation. WAIS is also based on a client-server model, but in this case the user runs a local client to develop a number of query profiles that resemble problems. Each query profile contains two pieces of information. The first is a set of data that qualifies the kind of information being sought. For example, someone seeking information on computer-mediated communication might use the string “CMC.” The second piece of information is the set of WAIS servers to be searched. These are in the form of Internet domain addresses, such as (WAIS FAQ, 1993).

The WAIS approach is interesting in that a given user may develop a set of query profiles and issue them periodically to see if any new information has emerged. Such an approach can be extremely useful to persons who are interested in certain topics from online group conferences, but who are too busy to actively screen all conference transactions. If a WAIS server exists for the conference, it may be possible to create a query profile to elicit only relevant transactions from the complete set of conference transactions. On the other hand, WAIS suffers from the same major problem as other online databases. Namely, if a person does not find the desired information, it may be because the information does not exist, or it may be because they have not used the correct query profile to obtain it.

Computer-Assisted Instruction

Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) refers to a broad category of computer use the purpose or which is to provide instruction to some human user. According to Burke (1982), the terms computer-based instruction (CBI) and computer-managed instruction (CMI) are also used to describe this category, although CMI also includes the notion of computerized testing, diagnosis, and record keeping.

The main idea behind CAI is that most instruction can be systematized into an algorithmic process. Once this has been done, it is possible to write a computer program to interactively deliver the instruction. In addition, the program will periodically test the student to ensure that the desired material is being learned. Such a CAI program is commonly referred to as courseware.

Two major advantages to CAI courseware are: (a) the ability of a student to learn at his or her own pace, and (b) the effective distribution of the instructional process to the student, reducing this load on a human teacher. In many cases the role of the human teacher is not eliminated, rather it is changed into that of a guide and mentor. In recent years, the principles and approaches of CAI are being combined with the functional capabilities of conferencing and informatics to form the emerging discipline of distance education (DE). One pioneer of distance education, Morton Flate Paulson (of the European SUPERNET project on Distance Learning), sums up the expected potential of this application of CMC: “My proposition is that it is possible to create a virtual school around a computer-based information system and that virtual schools will dominate the future of distance education” (Paulson, 1987, p. 72).


The three major areas described in this overview chapter are different in their purpose and use, yet they are similar in that all three are essentially methods for information transfer between and among human computer users. This leads back to the original premise that computer systems—the grand symbol manipulators—are essentially tools for human communication. Just as communication activities permeate human existence, so will computer systems permeate human endeavor, whether in business, education, socialization, or leisure activities.

It is important to keep in mind that we are both the creator and the object of the creation of CMC. In the final analysis, the potential for benefit or harm stemming from CMC will be up to the humans who design, implement, and use it. On the plus side, CMC technology can permit the worldwide sharing of information in ways that seemed inconceivable only a few decades ago. On the negative side, the potential exists for a massive invasion of privacy and the creation of a two-tiered society comprised of those with network access and those without it.

As one participant in the development of CMC I wish to conclude this overview of CMC technology with the fervent hope that technical achievements can be paralleled by a dedication to its appropriate use and social responsibility.


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Santoro, G.M. (1989). Support of group problem-solving instruction through computer-mediated communication. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University.

Schneier, B. (1992, October 12). Does telecommuting work? MacWeek, p. 8

Yanoff, S. (n.d.) Special Internet connections. Periodically updated and available from FTP archive site under subdirectory /pub/internexus as file INTERNET.SERVICES.

WAIS FAQ. (1993). Published on Usenet NEWS in newsgroup COMP.ANSWERS.

CMC and the Online Classroom (3 volumes) was published by Hampton Press in November 1994, and is now out of print. Used copies are available at

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