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Learner support in computer mediated conferencing

May 8, 2010

Image: WOMAD flags

This course, like the rest of the OU eLearning masters’ programme, revolves around a series of CMC forums where students interact online with the course materials, their tutor and each other. So if every technology has its trademark affordances – its inherent predisposition to construct the world one way rather than another, Neil Postman’s ideological bias – how does CMC impact upon our experience, perceptions and performance as students?

This week we’ve looked at two studies, both conducted here at the Open University, comparing student perceptions of course quality on CMC-based versus traditional face-to-face versions of the same courses. The first, carried out in 2002 by Price et al using a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques, investigated student experiences across a range of metrics including clarity of goals, appropriateness of workload, degree of student autonomy and quality of tutoring (Price L, 2007). It also investigated differences in approach to study between the F2F and CMC students, using the twin axes deep approach/strategic approach/surface approach and role of self/role of peers/role of tutors.

The study found no significant differences between the two groups over most of the measures – except that in quality of tutoring the F2F course scored consistently higher than the CMC version. Possible explanations offered by the study’s authors include insufficient attention to the pastoral as opposed to the academic aspect of tutorial support, insufficient training for tutors in CMC tutorial support, and insufficient attention to the organisation of interactions in online tutorials, given that these “are severely impoverished from a communication perspective.”

The second study carried out in 2006 by John Richardson used the same quantitative survey instruments to study two groups of students across F2F and CMC versions of two OU humanities courses (Richardson J, 2009). This study, which did not include any qualitative investigation, but was based on a considerably larger sample size, found no significant difference across any of the measures of student experience or approach to study, with quality of tutoring scoring roughly equally in both versions of the course, and online students just as likely to take a deep or strategic approach to their studies as their offline peers. Richardson concludes that – in the humanities at least – course designers should have confidence in the efficacy of online tutorial support.

So far, so inconclusive!

To my mind there’s something missing from both pieces of research. The focus in both studies on quality of tutoring frames the issue of academic and pastoral support in terms of the traditional classroom, where the tutor is the sole or main provider. But a CMC forum typically has a much richer mix of interactions between tutor, individual student and the student group, with this three-way interaction taking over much of the provision of both learning content and student support. As Mary Thorpe, one of the architects of the OU MA programme puts it,

It is the purpose of the online interaction to use the learners themselves as a resource, and to build on their experience, reading and perspectives. (Thorpe M, 2002)

If Price et al and Richardson had asked students about the quality of academic and pastoral support they received not just from tutors but also from fellow students, the findings of both studies might have been more interesting…

A second, related, problem with the two studies is Price’s description, unchallenged by Richardson, of the CMC environment as being “impoverished from a communication perspective.” She is referring of course to the conventional wisdom that, stripped of the paralinguistic cues – vocality, eye contact, gesture, positioning etc – that supplement face-to-face conversation, CMC is unable to communicate much social or emotional meaning.

However there is now a growing body of research (eg Chenault 1998, Walther 2006) suggesting that CMC-users in fact deploy a number of online-native rhetorical devices for conveying socio-emotional information, effectively substituting them for the absent real-world nonverbal cues. These devices for constructing impressions and managing relationships online – Walther calls them social information processing – include:

  • syntactic dynamics which manipulate punctuation, case or layout to form a type of textual code; emoticons are an instance of this
  • social dynamics such as intensity of social presence, and acts of welcoming, sharing or personal disclosure – what Yossi Vardi calls “dopamine over IP”
  • temporal dynamics which send social signals via temporal patterns or the sequencing, pace, duration or latency of online interactions. Walther calls these chronemic cues.

Walther argues that these socio-emotive dynamics potentially compensate for the paralinguistic plainness of text-only environments, enabling them to afford as much pastoral support as a physical classroom:

The.. impression-bearing and relational functions, for which [offline] communicators rely on nonverbal cues FtF, are translated into verbal content, linguistic, stylistic and chronemic cues in the CMC environment.. All other things being equal, CMC is as capable as FtF communication of sharing impressions and managing relational communication, based on the substitutability of verbal and nonverbal cues in the service of social functions. (Walther J 2006)

Or as my fellow H800 student Carolyn Edwards put it in her course blog,

People make friends without paralinguistics (using chat and messenger, for example) all the time. It would be disingenuous to claim that it’s not more difficult, especially on a formal high-level course as opposed to a dating site, but then I think as humans we find a way – the odd joke or cultural reference here, the odd 😉 or ; – ) there, the seizing on things we have in common, the letting people know about illness or family problems and the sympathetic responses, etc. etc. Shepherds without a cue, posted 4th May 2010


Price L et al, 2007. Face-to-face versus online tutoring support in distance education. Studies in Higher Education vol 32, No 1, pp 1-20

Richardson J, 2009. Face-to-face Versus Online tutoring Support in Humanities Courses in Distance Education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education vol 8(1), pp69-85

Thorpe M, 2002. Rethinking Learner Support: the challenge of collaborative online learning. Open Learning, Vol 17, No 2, p 112. Carfax Publishing

Chenault B, 1998. Developing Personal and Emotional Relationships via Computer-Mediated Communication. CMC Magazine, May 1998

Walther J, 2006. Nonverbal Dynamics in Computer-Mediated Communication. In The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication, Manusov V and Patterson M, Eds. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA


From → H800

  1. Well hello Mr Millner! Lovely to be quoted, especially in the depths of ECA wrangling and incoherence (mine at least!) Cheers! I’m hoping that getting lost and confused in a project is a necessary part of the process and that I shall rise triumphant at the last minute – putting faith in a burst of connected thinking to happen around Wednesday teatime is perfectly normal academic procedure as far as I can make out. Your blog is an inspiration – thanks and appreciation! xx

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