... but First There Are the Communication Skills

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

We live in exciting days. Never has it been easier and cheaper to communicate. Instructors and learners can, provided that they have access to appropriate technology, now bridge geographic boundaries by using the advanced communication media and possibilities that we have at our disposal such as e-mail, fax, and computer conferencing. The new opportunities have led to a renewed and challenging interest in e-learning (in most instances e-learning includes distance education) which depend on instrumentally rational and strategic actions that have to be imparted with the help of technology (Peters, 2000). However, new channels of communication do not necessarily imply better ones. The critical issue, from a communication perspective, is thus to deploy and integrate technology in such a way in the teaching and learning process that deep and meaningful learning takes place.

Contrary to many of the other contributions in this interesting journal, this contribution will not focus on communication technology itself, but will focus on those communication processes that are conducive to learning and instruction (i.e., that encourage and foster learning processes). We briefly discuss some theoretical aspects of communication and then bring into this discussion the opinion of distance learners from a variety of contexts and areas by presenting the results of a pilot study and a follow-up exploratory study of communication skills and processes in distance learning environments. The theoretical background and the results of these studies will lead to a variety of suggestions as to how to improve communication and thus enhance the learning experience of students.

The nature and quality of communication in various (learning) environments have been the focus of a number of studies and scholarly reflections over the past decades. We have selected from the contributions to this area of thinking three different but complementary perspectives that served as the impetus for the two research studies and for our recommendations.

THREE IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SCIENCE OF COMMUNICATION

SHANNON AND WEAVER'S VIEW

Let's first look at what happened some 50 years ago. About 10 years after World War II, the exciting possibilities that audiovisual instruction offered began to receive significant attention in teaching and learning environments. The challenges and opportunities audiovisual instruction offered, mostly through the development and expansion of radio and television networks, sometimes caused the practitioners to forget how important sound communication processes are and the role of communication as the glue that holds a system together.

The new opportunities to offer audiovisual instruction were accompanied by interesting thoughts that communication specialists and psychologists like Shannon and Weaver and Rogers developed. It started out in a very simple way with statements such as that a communication process involves a sender of a message, a receiver of a message, and content and that, if one of these three elements is missing, there cannot be any communication. Numerous subsequent theories and models of communication were based on this early work. By the end of the 1940s, Shannon and Weaver had developed a very simple communication model that basically looked at three elements: a transmitter who develops or produces a relationship (the signal) that travels to a receiver (Shannon & Weaver, 1963). Shannon had a personal and professional interest in communication, as he was a scientist at Bell Telephone Company.

Berlo (1963, who was a communication specialist, built on the work of Shannon and Weaver and identified two encoding skills: speaking and writing, and two decoding skills: listening and reading, and a crucial fifth skill that relates to both encoding and decoding: thought and reasoning. How we think, what we think about, and how we express our thinking are determined by our ability to use language effectively: we need to have the ability to encode the thoughts we have. …