Communication Management and Control in Distance Learning Scenarios

Article excerpt


Communication plays a major role in successful e-learning scenarios. Most of the e-learning or learning management software environments available on the market offer at least some kind of communication support. But the focus of e-education still lies on producing content and distributing course material via the Internet. In spite of the fact that knowledge is growing faster and faster and the need for e-learning that is up-to-date is obvious, just providing well structured and preprocessed content is not sufficient to fulfill the goals of modern education. Only discussing, applying and working with the acquired new knowledge builds up the competencies that students need to face the challenges of their professional and private life (Salmon, 2000).

An approach to place emphasis on communication in contrast to just providing content is to separate content-related and communicational aspects of learning environments. This approach is part of the e-learning research activities at the Department of Information Systems at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (Schertler & Bodendorf, 2002). Besides the need for content students demand intellectual exchange, individual advice, and personal guidance. Based on elementary communication patterns and an effective and efficient technical infrastructure a set of reference communication processes has been created to be carried out depending on the chosen teaching method (for example lectures, exercises, tutorials, case studies, business games, role plays and so forth).

A support system for so called scheduled learning in e-learning scenarios is presented. Scheduled learning is a paradigm that is mainly based on a tight time structure (schedule) of an e-learning process. The term scheduled refers to a precise and detailed placement of learning and teaching acts within one educational scenario. The schedule has the following objectives:

* Each participant, either student or tutor, is able to determine at any time, which tasks are handled at the moment and which tasks are to be solved in the near future. A possible "lost-in-elearning", similar to "lost-in-hyperspace", can be prevented.

* Organization of group learning processes is simplified. The schedule eases the coordination of sub-processes like assigning tasks to group members, making decisions on group learning strategies and so forth.

* Communication processes between tutors and students as well as among students themselves are carried out in a more systematic way. Communication problems not particularly concerning the contents of an e-learning course are reduced.

* Mapping of supporting tools with teaching or learning acts is facilitated. The tool allocation makes more sense and learners as well as tutors are not overstrained by an excessive supply of communication channels. The development of communication process descriptions and corresponding communication channel support is mainly task of full-time didactical designers in an educational institution. As regular tutors often are seasonal staff they may neither have the expertise nor the time to define communication processes and tool support by themselves.

E-learning scenarios live on a tight over-all organization. Disordered communication processes lower learning success and motivation to go on with a course. A schedule of default actions supports target-oriented processes and learning flows.


In a traditional classroom many communication problems do not arise because they dissolve en passant. Tutors and students use verbal, non-verbal and paraverbal techniques to channel their communication acts either on purpose or by incident. In e-learning scenarios conditions are different. Problems emerge from temporal and regional distribution, the broad variety of so-called supportive tools and a lack of guidance during communication (Schertler & Bodendorf, 2002). The most outstanding problems are:

* Tutors have problems to react to student's behavior in a proper way because they cannot rely on non- or paraverbal behavior (Boudourides, 1995) as they do in conventional courses to control the class. …