Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 2/ February 1, 1995 / Page 6

Computer-Mediated Communication and the
Online Classroom: Overview and Perspectives

by Zane Berge ( and Mauri Collins (

This chapter is the introductory chapter of the first volume, Overview and Perspectives, the three book series, Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom, from Hampton Press (Cresskill, NJ).


As used in this book, the term computer-mediated communication (CMC) signifies the ways in which telecommunication technologies have merged with computers and computer networks to give us new tools to support teaching and learning. CMC describes the ways we humans use computer systems and networks to transfer, store, and retrieve information, but our emphasis is always on communication. In our model, the computer network is primarily a mediator for communication rather than a processor of information. As it is currently used to support instructional purposes, CMC provides electronic mail and real-time chat capabilities, delivers instruction, and facilitates student-to- student and student-to-teacher interactions across a desk or across the world. These uses are enabling and promoting several paradigmatic shifts in teaching and learning, including the shift from instructor-centered distance education to student-centered distance learning and the merging of informal dialogues, invisible colleges, oral presentations, and scholarly publications into a kind of dialogic (or even multilogic) virtual university.

Considered together, the chapters in this volume revolve around the questions: "What do we know about teaching and learning?" and "How can educators and learners use CMC productively as we move into the 21st century?" Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom: Overview and Perspective, the first in a 3-volume set, provides an overview of several themes relating to the use of computer-mediated communication both in class and in distance learning. These themes include accommodation of different learning styles and the empowerment of learners, regardless of physical challenges or social/cultural differences. Further, learners may now use the same tools and methods that professionals use; at the same time, pioneer educators using CMC are taking an interdisciplinary, project- oriented approach to teaching and learning--all of which creates authentic practice.

We find that CMC is changing instructional methods in several ways, including: (a) generating improved technological tools that allow classes to use a fuller range of interactive methodologies, and (b) encouraging teachers and administrators to pay more attention to the instructional design of courses. Both of these factors can improve the quality, quantity, and patterns of communication in the skills students practice during learning- a change that requires, in many cases, both teachers and students to learn different roles.

Educators often categorize the use of instructional CMC in three ways: for conferencing, informatics, and computer-assisted instruction (CAI). Computer conferencing provides e-mail, interactive messaging, and small and large group discussion. Informatics (repositories or maintainers of organized information) include library online public access catalogs (OPACs), interactive access to remote databases, program/data archive sites (e.g., archives of files for pictures, sound, text, movies), campus-wide information systems (CWIS), wide-area information systems (WAIS), and information managers, such as Gopher and Veronica.

In CAI, the computer is used to structure and manage both the presentation of information and the possible responses available to the human user. Uses of computer conferencing, informatics, and CAI include:

As the authors in this volume discuss the various methods, it becomes clear that there are many benefits to using CMC, but there are also some limitations that must be recognized. As the reader moves through these chapters, it will become apparent that one of the greatest benefits of CMC is its ability to liberate instruction from the constraints of time and distance. The convenience of access from home, school, or office permits many students and instructors to better meet travel, job, and family responsibilities. Educators and trainers, especially those involved in distance learning, have been searching for the "Holy Grail" of instruction for a long time--to be able to teach and have students learn anything, anytime, anywhere. To a large degree, CMC now can fulfill two-thirds of this desire.

CMC promotes self-discipline and requires students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Using CMC, instructors can vary a course's instructional design to include everything from structured projects to open projects in which students are free to work on "messy"--but authentic--problem solving. On the other hand, because students must manage their own learning, this newfound independence may be a hindrance to those students who need more structure.

No one can deny that we have entered an information age in which power comes to those who have information and know how to access it. If we consider which factors of CMC will be most important to education in the information age, it seems that our goals should be to develop self-motivated learners and help people learn to find and share information. If designed well, CMC applications can be used effectively to facilitate collaboration among students as peers, teachers as learners and facilitators, and guests or experts from outside the classroom.

One of the more important aspects of CMC use in instruction is that it is text-based. Facility in writing is essential across the entire curriculum, and with the present technology one cannot communicate on a computer network without writing. Just as important, if used effectively, CMC encourages and motivates students to become involved in authentic projects and to write for a real audience of their peers or persons in the larger world community, instead of merely composing assignments for the teacher. At the same time, we must recognize that not all students can express themselves well in writing, and, even for those who can, the act of writing and using online text-based applications can be a time-consuming struggle.

In this regard, there is an emerging body of literature, added to by several authors in this volume, who speak from their own experiences concerning the empowerment of persons with disabilities, physical impairment, disfigurement, or speech impediments, which hinder their equal participation in face-to-face encounters. CMC promotes an equalization of users. Because CMC is, at present, primarily text-only, the consequent reduction in social cues leads to a protective ignorance surrounding a person's social roles, rank, and status. Further, it is impossible to know if another person took several hours to draft a one screen response, or several minutes. Responses are judged by the ideas and thoughts conveyed, more so than by who is doing the writing. As a result, the lack of social cues and the asynchronous nature of the medium affords those with physical limitations or personal reticence the possibility of participating fully and equally in communicative activities within a mainstream environment. However, researchers realize that when social context cues are minimized nonreticent personalities can be encouraged to become overly zealous in their responses, or to become publicly inflammatory and aggressive on a personal level in ways that generally do not occur in other media. Second, it has been noted that some students prefer the social aspects of the classroom and are unsettled by the lack of face-to-face interaction in CMC, or the lack of a (sometimes) charismatic lecturer during presentation.

Another potential benefit of CMC is in promoting multicultural awareness. With the demographic make-up of many countries changing so rapidly, it is becoming increasingly important to develop communication skills for a culturally diverse community and world. Still, although CMC enhances some of these valuable skills for the 21st century, we must remember that because the bulk of CMC is conducted in English and in the written rather than in the spoken word, it may perpetuate some cultural hegemonies.

Many authors recognize CMC's capability, under certain circumstances, to reduce the sense of isolation sometimes felt by students and teachers. However, still others believe that the lack of social cues and face-to-face interaction increases the sense of isolation for persons using this medium to teach and learn. They point out that CMC may interfere with face-to-face relationships or be addictive.

However, as the chapters in this volume make clear, we cannot deny its value as a teaching tool. We simply need to remember that responsible use of CMC means using it in addition to other media, not as a replacement. As educators, our job is to provide options to fit a variety of learning styles, and it is in this regard that CMC can help the most. There are technical benefits to using CMC, such as the ease of circulating and archiving files and documents (e.g., teacher messages, student work, assignments).

On the other hand, the learning curve, with regard to learning the system and the technical "how tos" of the computer and telecommunications, can be steep. The cost of buying and supporting systems or accessing other networks is a significant "overhead" item in schools and colleges today, as is the cost and inconvenience of upgrading, repairing, or replacing hardware. Further, computer systems are not 100% reliable, a fact that adds to inconvenience and wasted time. With so many systems to learn and sources to tap, information overload has become a problem as some users struggle with the lack of criteria to help them to decide what to keep and what to discard from the swiftly flowing stream of incoming information.

All these factors--the idea that teachers, information designers, and instructional developers can use CMC to promote collaboration, cooperation, the sharing of ideas, and as an equalizing medium--means that the roles of students and teachers will change. No longer perceived as the sole experts and information providers, teachers become facilitators and guides. Conversely, students are no longer passive learners, attempting to mimic what they see and hear from the expert teacher. They become participants, collaborators in the creation of knowledge and meaning. Yet we must attempt not to reproduce or augment the problems associated with the gap between technology "haves" and "have nots" when we design CMC and computer conferencing applications and curricula. Every software, networking, or curriculum innovation reflects, to some degree, the unarticulated assumptions about the world view of the culture that created it. We must be aware of this fact and strive to create and use CMC innovations that allow for multiplicity, for change, for difference.

In response to increased pressure on universities and instructors to provide instructional delivery systems that go beyond the traditional "chalk-and-talk" form of lecture, computer-mediated conferencing has emerged as a tool for instructional communication not bound by prescribed meeting times or by geographic proximity. Successful integration of CMC into the curriculum, however, depends on one's ability to design and use CMC applications that meet course goals, delivery goals, or both. As part of course planning, we must address issues such as course goals, hardware availability, and student readiness. Large expenditures on CMC for the classroom will not help unless teachers understand how the technology helps fulfill the goals of the course. To this end, the chapters in this volume provide examples and practical advice.

Chapter 1 provides a foundation for understanding the terminology and processes of computer-mediated communication. Gerald M. Santoro defines CMC and gives examples of the various ways in which computers are used to mediate human communication, especially in support of instruction. This chapter describes how typical members of the academic community use computers for direct, human-to-human communication, informatics, and computer- aided instruction. Santoro describes the basic functions of electronic mail, group conferencing, and interactive messaging systems before going on to discuss the purposes of online databases and campus-wide information systems. This chapter provides the basic concepts and context necessary for understanding the more specific and in-depth information provided in later chapters.

In Chapter 2, Jill H. Ellsworth addresses the second half of our title, "And the Online Classroom." In an effort to expand access, meet learner needs, and overcome problems encountered by nontraditional, commuter students, she instituted CMC in two courses requiring intensive interaction between student and faculty. For many students, CMC provided a new avenue for learning--one not reliant on time, location, or instructor--that allowed them to access information in an exploratory fashion. Further, CMC gave many students a chance to use electronic mail, computer conferencing, and synchronous communication with their peers to independently build their own useful knowledge structures.

CMC's flexibility and variety allows instructors to meet numerous learning and personal needs, especially when working with individuals with special needs and those who are less mobile or shy. However, many CMC applications require that students first take the time to learn considerable information and skills and be provided with access to computers and software that can be costly.

Ellsworth determined that CMC enhances both the teaching and the learning process. In considering the major benefits of CMC, her students said that they appreciated the timely feedback, the accessibility of faculty and resources outside of class hours, and their ability to get more out of the class.

James N. Shimabukuro, in Chapter 3, examines the potential impact of computer-mediated communication on writing instruction by developing a future scenario in a college setting. However, the scenario is equally relevant to other instructional levels. He next describes the growth of computer networks, using a generational model:

First: Local Area Network (LAN)
Second: Wide Area Network (WAN)
Third: Remote Access Network (RAN); and
Fourth: Global Access Network (GAN).
In the fourth generation model, the traditional college campus is no longer the focal point of instructional delivery; instructors and students are electronically linked around the world, and they seldom, if ever, meet face-to-face. Faculty offices do not have to be grouped at a single geographical location; instructors are able to work out of home offices, often far removed from a physical campus. A campus may house conferencing and administrative facilities, but traditional classrooms have all but disappeared-the future campus is primarily the geographical base for the mainframe or whatever system functions as the network server. Shimabukuro has based his future scenario on the ways the university community might use CMC in a fourth generation network, and he closes his chapter with a discussion of the consequences and implications of this model for classroom teachers today.

Joseph Kinner's and Norman Coombs's chapter (Chapter 4) outlines the problems and opportunities of adaptive computing and provides vignettes of persons who have made significant use of adaptive computing in school. The chapter gives an in-depth report on a pilot project that enabled two courses using the Internet to unite classes of hearing and deaf students from Gallaudet University and the Rochester Institute of Technology into a single, virtual classroom. Two-thirds of the participants were hearing impaired, and one was blind. The success of this project demonstrates ways in which CMC can mainstream disabled learners into the educational system.

Kinner and Coombs take the position that the personal computer equipped with adaptive technology is one of the most empowering and liberating tools in the lives of persons with physical disabilities. The computer, along with the CMC it enables, opens education and the entire information world to a new population. Further, it has been demonstrated that CMC can enable this population in a mainstream environment.

In Chapter 5, Ann Pemberton and Robert Zenhausern explore how CMC can be used as a rehabilitation technique by providing basic computer literacy, motivational reading, writing, and thinking activities, and an introduction to the world to adolescents with educational disabilities. The authors summarize actual classroom situations that have arisen over the past two years as a result of their CMC activities, and at the same time show how special education teachers can use CMC to address their own professional needs. They draw their examples from the archives of a series of listserv discussion groups located at St. John's University in New York City and transcripts of the online experiences of learning disabled adolescents in a high school in rural Virginia. The chapter concludes with tips for teachers and a list of available online resources specific to the needs of those involved in special education.

Linda S. Fowler and Daniel D. Wheeler (Chapter 6) conducted a nationwide survey of 25 Kindergarten-Grade 12 teachers actively using computer-mediated communications in their classrooms and found that these teachers were pleased with their successes. The teachers reported that their use of CMC contributed to the development of a cooperative learning environment in which their students worked not only with each other, but also with peers around the world. They also noted an increase in cultural understanding and an improvement in writing skills. These teachers, all enthusiastic pioneers of CMC, overcame considerable difficulties to achieve their successes, but noted that better institutional support will be necessary if CMC is to become widespread in K-12 classrooms.

In Chapter 8, Katy Silberger examines changes in the traditional role and structure of libraries in higher education as they face the technological opportunities and pressures stemming from increased use of new electronic information formats, such as electronic journals and monographs, and electronic publishing networks. In forecasting the role of the library of the future, Silberger notes that the proliferation of electronic text will add to, rather than replace, paper-based library holdings. Not all libraries will choose to archive electronic text, but instead will provide local, national, and international access and retrieval services for their patrons. Silberger believes libraries will remain the scholarly information centers of universities, but increasingly, their added role will be to facilitate research and communication within the global scholarly community.

George D. Baldwin's chapter (Chapter 9) opens with a discussion of the implicit conflict between Indian cultural values and beliefs and the English language used in most CMC. Indian students can adapt to the features of CMC that promote cooperative, active learning; however, the text-based nature of the medium is problematic, especially when students are required to participate before they have ascertained the relative ranking of other correspondents. But as long as students are allowed to watch, "listen in," and reflect prior to active participation, CMC can help them learn some of the skills necessary for success in the information society. Baldwin also reports on a number of Native American educational computer conferencing networks, providing access information and addresses.

John J. Saraille and Thomas A. Gentry (Chapter 10) present the Fractal Factory, a virtual laboratory for teaching and research that is evolving from a combination of computer networks, new analytical programs, digital image compression technology, and the expanding resources of the Internet. The model and core concept for the Fractal Factory come from the process of computing fractal dimensions, a process that has applications in many subject areas and provides a new cognitive linkage between the quantitative methods used in teaching science and real-world problems. The authors discuss the current status of the Fractal Factory in the hope that their example will help others gain access to collaboration in this CMC venue. They suggest that the study of fractals provides both a rich source of new insight on the natural world and a subject matter with broad applications for CMC-based instruction.

Raleigh C. Muns, in Chapter 11, suggests a continuity in scholarly communication from the Socratic dialog to the computer- mediated scholarly discussion groups typically found on the Internet. He describes and contrasts the Internet's e-mail-based communication channels, listserv discussion groups, and Usenet newsgroups, and offers two possible ways to evaluate online discussions: forum analysis and a methodology he developed for his own electronic publication, the List Review Service. Muns briefly reviews five existing online discussion forums that he has found useful for both learning about online communication and uncovering Internet resources: PACS-L, Comserve, IPCT-L, VPIEJ-L, and LIBREF-L.

Michael Szabo's chapter (Chapter 12) has two purposes: to provide a brief historical overview of PLATO and to examine several of PLATO's features that support and promote a wide range of communication for student learning. In developing one of the most powerful systems for the computer-assisted instruction form of computer-human interaction, PLATO's creators pioneered new methods of conferencing, messaging, and database management. Examining these new methods should give educators ideas about how they might develop their own communications applications using evolving network systems such as PLATO.

In the 13th and final chapter, Fay Sudweeks, Mauri Collins and John December introduce and explain several other important resources for those interested in computer networks, networking, and the Internet. They describe the basic navigation tools (FTP and Telnet) and give instructions on how to use these tools to search for, discover, and retrieve needed information. The authors compare and contrast various interactive conferencing systems, with an eye toward their potential uses in education. December' s CMC list offers readers a compact but comprehensive guide to a broad range of resources concerning computer-mediated communication available in several media. ¤

Zane Berge is Director of the Center for Teaching and Technology and Assistant Director for Training Service, Academic Computer Center at Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

Mauri Collins is a doctoral student in Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University and instructional Television Program assistant at WPSX-TV.

This chapter is the introductory chapter of the first volume, Overview and Perspectives, the three volume series, Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom, from Hampton Press (Cresskill, NJ). For more information on these books, send email to with the message body "GET intro1.ham."

Copyright © 1995 by Hampton Press. All Rights Reserved. Printed by Permission

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