Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

Exploring Social Communication in Computer Conferencing

Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

Exploring Social Communication in Computer Conferencing

Article excerpt

This study explores the relationship between asynchronous, text-based forms of social communication and students' perceptions of the social climate of computer conferences. A 21-item questionnaire was administered to 74 students from 4 faculties. Students rated the social climate of the conference along six dimensions. A majority of students found the conference warm, friendly, trusting, disinhibiting, and personal. Students also rated the perceived frequency of 15 types of social communication The correlation between aggregate scores for both sets of variables was r = .4, p <.001, r squared = .16. A series of one way-ANOVA's indicated that an increase in the perceived frequency of 7 of the 15 social expressions corresponded to more positive ratings of the social environment. The 7 social expressions included addressing others by name, complimenting, expressing appreciation, using the reply feature to post messages, expressing emotions, using humor, and salutations. Based on responses to two open-ended questi ons, moderators are encouraged to seek a balance between social communication and challenging and productive discussion.

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Computer conferencing is becoming a popular component in the delivery of both distributed and on-campus education. This circumstance has been driven, in its most defensible moments, by a growing interest in models of teaching and learning that use peer and peer- instructor interaction as a strategy for facilitating higher-order learning. However, the special nature of interaction in asynchronous, text-based environments is not well understood. Several authors advise instructors not to neglect the social environment of the conference, but few offer research-based suggestions about exactly what this entails. This study examines the relationship between computer-mediated forms of social communication and students' perceptions of the social climate of computer conferences.

Setting the Climate for Discussion

Climate setting is an important element in all models of teaching and learning that are based on peer collaboration. As Johnson and Johnson (1994) explained: "We are not born instinctually knowing how to interact effectively with others. Interpersonal and small group skills do not magically appear when they are needed. Students must be taught the social skills required for high quality collaboration and be motivated to use them if cooperative groups are to be productive" (p. 184). Communication theorists argue that these issues become particularly salient in novel communication environments such as asynchronous, text-based computer conferencing in which the communicative repertoire is limited to text. Short, Williams, and Christie's (1976), exhaustive review of the media comparison studies culminated in the following conclusion:

In most cases, the function of non-verbal cues has been in some way related to forming, building, or maintaining the relationship between interactants. The absence of the visual channel reduces the possibilities for expression of socio-emotional material and decreases the information available about the other's self-image, attitudes, moods, and reactions. So, regarding the medium as an information transmission system, the removal of the visual channel is likely to produce a serious disturbance of the affective interaction. (p. 59-60)

Three consequences of the reduced repertoire of communication cues are discernable in the computer conferencing literature. The first, predicted accurately by Short et al. (1976), is the lack of information concerning mutual attention and awareness. Bullen (1998) summarized his students feeling in this regard: "The asynchronous communication left them feeling remote, detached, and isolated" (p. 10).

A second problem, also identified by Short et al. (1976), was the lack of immediate feedback. Feenberg (1989) observed that communicating online involves a personal risk, and "a response, any response is generally interpreted as a success while silence means failure" (p. …

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