Volume One: Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom: Overview and Perspectives
Editors: Dr. Zane L. Berge &
Chapter 2: Using Computer-Mediated Communication in Teaching University Courses
Jill H. Ellsworth , Southwest Texas State University
In the university, a limited range of teaching/learning methodologies are typically utilized. In the humanities the teaching will typically use the lecture method; in the sciences, there is the lecture/lab combination.
In an effort to provide expanded access, meet the needs of learners, and overcome some of the problems encountered by students who live and work at a distance from the university, I introduced Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) into my undergraduate and graduate courses. The students frequently travel 1 to 2 hours to class, and CMC offered the hope of improved communication and enriched and improved instruction. CMC can provide communication access to persons, resources, and information, independent of time and distance. In some cases it is one-way, in others two-way, and in yet other cases it is interactive.
CMC can open up a new avenue for learning—it is not time-reliant, allowing for a certain interpersonal distance for those who desire it. It allows students to access information in an exploratory fashion, with fairly random access to information, or by using a structure that is useful to him or her, as opposed to one structured by the instructor.
Our CMC class activities were carried out with nontraditional undergraduates and graduate students at Southwest Texas State University. The students were enrolled in either an undergraduate Portfolio Assessment course, the initial course in the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree (BAAS), or a graduate research methods course, for the Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies (MSIS).
The BAAS and the MSIS are both interdisciplinary degree programs designed for adults who desire and/or need individualized academic programs, and one that awards credit for nontraditional forms of learning. The individualized interdisciplinary program allows adult students, in conjunction with a faculty mentor, to cooperatively select educational goals and academic courses that are related to their career and life objectives.
These are intensive degree programs requiring extensive interaction between students and faculty. The mentoring activity is the key in the initial phases of the degree programs when the students are developing a prior extra-institutional learning assessment portfolio (in the case of both graduate and undergraduate students) and taking the research methods course (in the case of the graduate students). To meet the needs of working, less mobile, physically challenged, or older adults, the students have access to both a faculty-maintained computer-based BBS and a Digital Corporation VAX mainframe for information and assistance with course assignments.
Originally, it was anticipated that CMC would be an ancillary process or facilitative process to instruction, useful primarily for beta learning. As I progressed with CMC, I discovered that CMC was useful in both alpha and beta learning. Alpha learning is learning that is the major exposition of the concepts, ideas, facts, and processes. Beta learning is learning that could be called reinforcement or adjunct to the alpha learning. Alpha learning in my graduate research course, for example, would be a lecture on correlations and descriptive statistics, and beta learning would be the assignment of homework using a data set to make such correlations. I found that alpha learning using CMC was possible, even desirable, in meeting students’ needs. I experimented with placing new concepts into the VAX Notes computer conference and found that it was effective in teaching these concept to the students.
CMC in a course or, more generally, in a university setting, can take many forms. In this particular instance, it took a myriad of forms ranging from advisement to course-specific activities, using a variety of systems, including the use of a mainframe and the use of a departmental computer Bulletin Board System (BBS).
The teaching/learning process can involve a wide variety of CMC activities ranging from simple e-mail to rather sophisticated uses of computers for research activities, in which the interactions could be any combinations of student-to-student, student-to-faculty, faculty-to-student, faculty-to-faculty, student-to-others, others-to-student, and so forth.
The communication could be private, that is to say, only those who are communicating “see” and participate in the communication, or it could be public. In public CMC, all participants can “see” and participate in the communication activity if they choose. Some students preferred that their participation remain at a low level, or in the parlance of the students, they preferred to be “lurkers.”
The communication format could also be didactic: in this case, communication flows from faculty to student, similar to read-only files.
CMC principles and forms such as e-mail, computer conferencing, group computer conferencing, interactive messaging, and online database and archive searching were used in specific applications designed to achieve course and educational objectives, examples of which follow.
E-mail was used to provide a variety of kinds of interactions: student-to-student interaction, in which students could cooperatively complete assignments and communicate about class, processes, and content; or student-to-faculty and faculty-to-student interaction, encompassing a full range of communication ranging from advising, explanations, course content, evaluation, and the turning in of written assignments.
Conferencing via the mainframe involved a private computer conference (exclusive to class members) to provide shared, posted views, ideas, and collaborative writing activities, including peer-to-peer interactions. The computer conference allowed for this peer-to-peer communication to take on intellectual, or high-level content, without the influence of the teacher. Didactic postings, involving one-way communication, were used for making assignments. Postings in the computer conference were broad ranging in their purpose, level of formality, and intent. For example, one conference subsection dealt with locus of control research and was very scholarly in form and intent. Several of the graduate students had found this construct useful and were exploring it. Other topics included our new telephone registration (commentary ran 10:1 against), and more recently, the conference included a lot of discussion concerning the Clinton/Bush election campaigns and the activities of the Clinton administration as it settled in.
To extend the learning environment, students were encouraged to network more widely via various scholarly discussion lists using group conferencing and to extend their participation to include class-to-class communication with students from other institutions worldwide. The lists represented ranged from ERL-L (Education Research), RESEARCH, and QUALRS (focusing on forms of research) to INFO-NETS and HELP-NET, which recursively focus on using the nets themselves. Other lists explored included sociology, psychology, Spanish, and football.
An example of a specific undergraduate assignment involved the posting, to their class discussion group, of a section of the portfolio they were writing. The posting was read for discussion on the computer conference. Specifically, they were to upload a four-page piece of their writing, and each of the other students was responsible for posting at least one suggestion for improvement, a constructive comment, or a reaction. The first student was then to revise the passage by the next class and repost it. Additionally, the professor would offer a critique privately via e-mail to the student, and finally, assign a letter grade on the revised assignment.
The undergraduate students were also required to use references from at least one online database for a fairly traditional term paper. Specifically, they were to use a Telnet connection to the Washington and Lee Law Library, or utilize Bureau of Labor Statistics information in order to complete the assignment.
An example of a graduate-course CMC assignment involved locating and employing specific online research tools utilizing the Internet. The students utilized both Telnet and FTP to access databases and documents. They were to post a summary of it to the subsection of our class computer conference on resources. They were required to identify several useful tools, critique them, and give very specific directions for accessing the information. The resource file was then available to all students. The resources accessed ranged from ERIC to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), using Gopher, the Maastricht Treaty on European Union (Cornell), Sports Schedules (NHL), plus many others.
Both graduate and undergraduate students used the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) mode for interactive messaging. In most cases, IRC was used to communicate with each other, although from time to time it was used to communicate interactively with the professor.
The majority of the time, CMC was used in communication regarding course content, both in gaining content—alpha learning, and in reinforcement such as asking questions—beta learning. CMC was used, however, for other academic activities: It was used in problem solving, both in course-related and non-course-related material. And CMC was used to advise students on academic matters covering the usual topics, including degree planning. These were generally carried out via e-mail and IRC on the campus computer, and as such was interactive. Occasionally, it took the form of a broadcast message to all students via e-mail or computer conference. It could be simultaneous or time-independent in nature, synchronous or asynchronous.
Assessment and evaluation activities were carried out via CMC on a variety of levels. Specific assignments were critiqued and evaluated using CMC, as well as providing a forum for less formal assessment activities. CMC provided for “on-the-fly” opportunities for networking and mentoring as well. With the exception of the final portfolio or research proposal, which had to contain original signatures, I allowed any assignment to be submitted electronically. This meant that students did not have to be on campus in order to turn in papers.
In addition to the more serious teaching and learning activities, CMC was used as relief from stress, sometimes expressing itself as humor. In almost all cases, sometime during the semester, students began some form of a humor sub-topic or thread.
Early on during courses, I attempt to be more available via e-mail than by telephone, in order to encourage the use of CMC and reinforce procedural learning. This synthetic availability followed the initial training on the use of e-mail.
One problem encountered with CMC was that of access to the hardware and software needed to interface. Some students did not have access to a computer with a modem or a mainframe terminal. For some students, this necessitated coming to campus to use the technology, or in some cases, borrowing, or renting collaboratively needed items.
As a professor, I find that the systems set-up and preparation of materials require considerably more frontloading of my time and energy. Also, when a system breaks down, I must solve the problem on a tight timetable. However, I regain much of that time as CMC provides support for the teaching enterprise.
After using CMC in a broad spectrum of ways in support of diverse educational objectives, I discovered that there are developmental learning tasks that will make for a more successful integration of CMC in the teaching activity. The successful use of CMC in university courses depends on the utilization of tiers of developmental teaching and learning. Each plane of such learning requires mastery of the previous level. Tier 1 teaching and learning involves the exposition and mastery of the general context for the other learning tasks, answering such questions as “What are the general objectives of this course learning? What is expected, and how does CMC fit into the overall course?” Essentially, this tier lays the groundwork for the entire course; the student must have a matrix or context for the more specific learning and must understand the role and value of CMC in that learning. In effect, they must see the connection between what is being taught (the content) and the vehicles (methods and media) for that teaching.
Tier 2 teaching and learning builds on Tier 1 and involves introductory hands-on learning of the technical access and process information that students must acquire in order to start using the various technologies and tools. These are the skills or “how to” operational-level tasks: the rules of interaction. Typically, this will entail learning how to use a terminal and/or PC in order to access the mainframe or the BBS, covering such questions as “How do I sign on? and How do I use this communication program?” This involves using the hardware and learning the various software and protocols involved in the course, such as the Internet, e-mail, up- and downloading, using the computer conference, and in the case of the graduate students, using the various online tools such as ERIC. Each of these tools was used by students to communicate with each other, to communicate with the instructor, to retrieve information, and to turn in assignments.
Tier 3 teaching and learning necessitates gaining proficiency and mastery of the tools to the extent that they become second nature. Both teacher and learner must have sufficient facility with the tools of CMC, so that the tools themselves are not a communication barrier. This level results in the actual utilization of CMC in problem solving, information gathering, negotiating, and turning in assignments.
The teaching of these Tier 1, 2 ,and 3 skills must become part of the course, which may mean in-class time or formal adjunct lab instruction. Also, all too often, when faculty want to use CMC as an enhancement or as a major delivery system, they overlook the need to provide Tier 2 technical “how to” information. They will, for example, ask students to sign on to a mainframe and use the course notes conference to discuss their reading. The student has no clue as to how to do this, does not dare to reveal this, and does not know from whom to get the answer—and they do not complete the assignment.
Students have a variety of learning and personality needs that are especially well addressed by CMC options. Some fairly introverted students (as assessed by the Myers Briggs personality inventory: Myers, 1984) found that interactions with peers and professors were facilitated using CMC. They found it easier to communicate via CMC than in face-to-face situations. Also, students with certain learning styles as identified by the Learning Styles Inventory (Kolb, 1985) found that CMC enhanced their learning, especially those with learning styles in the domains of Reflective Observer and Active Experimentation. The individual with a learning style in the Reflective Observer domain prefers to learn in a situation that permits little personal interaction and allows for observation versus interaction; those with a learning style in Active Experimentation prefer learning situations that emphasize new approaches or the ability to control some of the learning situations themselves.
Access to information and ideas was enhanced using CMC and allowed for a less hierarchical approach, again meeting certain learning-style needs. The information was available when the student preferred to use it as opposed to being structured by faculty. In traditional information exchanges, faculty decide when information is imparted and in what order. CMC allows for more lateral exploration access as structured by the student, developing path-oriented and self-directed learning. CMC provides additional feedback paths and mechanisms, surprising responses, and yet another way to support flexibility in learning.
CMC has some unique characteristics that can enhance the teaching/learning enterprise. It is quick and can provide group interaction without requiring all persons to be in one location in order to meet. Because so many of our students are professionals; we often had one or more individuals participating in discussions from distant locations.
CMC provides for both synchronous and asynchronous communications. Communication that is not time-dependent allows students to participate at times most convenient for them. It crosses time barriers, providing great flexibility for teacher and learners. Students can leave communications of all kinds and homework when they wish, send large or small text files, formal papers, informal feedback, carry out ideation/brainstorming, offer critiques, and so forth. The IRC mode provided synchronous communication on similar content. Interaction that is not time-specific is increasingly important as students are not as campus-based as they once were and often work a variety of schedules. Quick feedback on homework and other assignments is more easily accomplished, allowing for faster turnaround because courses for adults frequently meet just once a week making feedback on written work difficult.
CMC allows for interpersonal distance simply not possible in a traditional classroom: Students did not have to see other students or the professor, nor did they have to interact. A few students began to take on outside-of-class CMC “personae” that were in some cases subtly different from their in-class personae. In some cases, the personae were quite different: for example, a student who was reserved and shy in the regular classroom became more vocal, even using humor to make her points. We allowed for anonymous postings, which although risky, appeared to break barriers associated with status, ethnicity, race, sex, and other characteristics. The students who were vocal in class were not the same students who were “vocal” in CMC.
CMC has many implications for the teaching/learning enterprise, and in balance, the positive far outweighs the negative. On the positive side, there are many advantages to using the approach: It meets numerous learning and personality needs; provides access in a variety of modes; and ideation and brainstorming can be less inhibited, promoting active thinking. CMC approaches have great value to working individuals, especially those who are less mobile or shy. For students who find traditional approaches difficult, interpersonal transactions “cost” less.
CMC presents a few problematic issues for the student. These include requiring the frontloading of considerable information and skills (Tier 1 and 2 learning), necessitating the expenditure of time and energy. From the professor’s point of view, it can cost instructional time, which means either outside-of-class requirements or the truncation of some other content. Additionally, individuals and institutions must provide access to hardware and systems, the cost of which may be considerable.
I found that the use of CMC very much enhanced the teaching and learning activity. Students, too, found it valuable. Although commentary on my course and teaching evaluations did reveal that the necessary frontloading of skills before they were operational was frustrating. This frustration faded, but was nonetheless a factor for a few students. Overall, comparing my teaching evaluations for similar courses revealed significantly higher ratings in many areas regarding feedback and accessibility outside of class, and in content acquisition. Overall, I will continue to use CMC broadly and encourage others to do the same.
Kolb, D.A. (1985). Learning style inventory. Boston: McBer & Co.
Myers, I.B. (1984) Myers Briggs type indicator. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.