Written by Brian Newberry
Educators have a rich history of adopting and adapting new tools and technologies into their teaching practice. This is especially the case for tools or technologies that support activities that are historically part of the curriculum and especially well integrated in ways that are consistent with the instructional philosophy of the teacher. Communication activities, where students converse or correspond with other students, subject matter experts as well as interesting individuals of all sorts, have long been a part of the experience of both teachers and students. Because of this, any number of technology supported communication activities are consistent with the instructional philosophy of many teachers, and can be used in ways that are analogous to activities that have historically been a part of the curriculum. Additionally, because of the communication revolution, new technologies make possible a range of activities that extend the scope and range of communication opportunities available to students in the classroom.
Because of the development of new communication technologies, and the creation of activities in which the new communications technologies are being used, it is important to examine the ways the usage of different technologies impact the quality or nature of communications between people. This is because different technologies have different impacts or effects on the messages conveyed. Additionally, the use of different media types have different effects on the way that individuals perceive each other as they communicate. It is important to have an understanding of these potential effects when undertaking communication activities in a classroom. This is especially the case when new activities are being designed, or new tools are being used. Knowledge about the impacts different media types can have on the message and the impressions of the individuals involved in the communication can help guide an instructional designer as he/she develops activities or chooses communication technologies for use in his/her classroom. There are several theories that can help in the process of understanding these issues. They include media richness theory and social presence theory.
An understanding of media richness theory is useful in when examining the impact that different communication media types potentially have on the message. Media richness theory comes primarily from the literature on computer-mediated communications (CMC) and is most often associated with business communication. In this context, media richness theory is used to analyze communication media choices and to help reduce ambiguity of communication through the appropriate selection of communication media.
Media richness is explained by some researchers (Trevino, Lengel et al. 1987) as the ability of a medium to carry information. Sitkin, Sutcliffe, and Barrios-Choplin, (1992) identify two components of a medium's ability to carry information. These two components are the data carrying capacity and the symbol carrying capacity. Data carrying capacity refers to the medium's ability to transmit information while symbol carrying capacity refers to the medium's ability to carry information about the information or about the individuals who are communicating.
Researchers who work with media richness theory often rank communication media on their abilities to carry both information types, but especially the second type, symbolic information. The criteria for ranking a medium's ability to carry information can be based on the ability of the media to, relay immediate feedback, provide feedback cues such as body language, allow the message to be created or altered specifically for an intended recipient, and transmit the feelings or emotions of the communicators. (Daft and Lengel 1984). In discussing communication in online classes, Newberry (2001) builds on the work of these researchers to construct the following table which attempts to place seven different types of communications media in a three-position matrix (high, medium, and low) expressing the media's performance or it's ability to carry: feedback, multiple cues such as body language, message tailoring, and emotions.
By assigning the numerical value of 3 for high, 2, for medium and 1 for low, Newberry (2001) ranked the seven different media types into a hierarchy from richest to leanest media. Rich media are media that carry the most information; lean media carries the least information.
Text - Based Chat
E-mail / Asynchronous Audio
Attempting to rank different media choices does not imply that one is better than the other. Each media type has its own advantages and disadvantages and each is probably more appropriate than the others in different situations. In fact that is the point of much of the media richness research; one should choose the media type that offers the greatest efficiency and the greatest opportunity for the intended message to be conveyed accurately. In educational activities the choice of media can be influenced by many factors. Some of which include, technology availability, time constraints, familiarity with the technology, task appropriateness of the technology and desired outcomes of the learning activity.
In situations where information exchange is the desired outcome, leaner media types can sometimes offer more efficiency than richer media types. Examining the hierarchy in the table above it should be noted that synchronous media types tend to be richer than asynchronous media types. But synchronous by its very nature, requires that all communicating parties be available and attending to the communication activity at the same time. Because of this, synchronous education activities tend to be harder to coordinate and accomplish than activities using asynchronous technologies. Asynchronous technologies do not require all participants to be available at the same time.
In some cases, the intent of the communication in an educational activity goes beyond just information exchange. In some cases it is important or desirable for individuals to become aware of others as people and be able to more readily empathize and understand the people with whom they are communicating. In situations such as this it is important to understand something about social presence theory. Short (1976) explained social presence as the salience of another person in a mediated environment. Others have extended this definition. Russo (2000b) defines social presence as the degree to which a person is perceived to be real in a mediated environment. In the context of educational activities, salience is the degree to which the communicators recognize that they are communicating with another human being and not with the technology that is between them. Rourke, Anderson and Garrison (1999) have explained social presence "...as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively into a community of inquiry."
The degree of social presence in a communications activity may have a number of different impacts on the participant's perception, appreciation, participation, or level of satisfaction. Environments where participants do not feel they are recognized as individuals, or in which their input does not seem to be valued may result in a reduced motivation to participate. Because of this it is important to use richer communications media in situations where it is desirable to have the participants more strongly identify with each other. However, richer media sometimes bring with them certain constraints or problems that must be considered before they are used. These include increased time spent in the activity and sometimes a higher level of technology or support is required.
When planning or conducting an instructional activity it is a good idea to consider both media richness and social presence to ensure that the technologies chosen to support activities will contribute most effectively to the planed activity. Media richness theory can help inform the choice of communications technology chosen for an activity by helping the instructional designer choose a communications technology that has the greatest efficiency or the most desirable characteristics for the planned interaction. Social presence theory can aid in the selection of media technologies and the design of instructional environments that achieve the desired degree of personal interchange and relationship building. In situations where only information exchange is intended an asynchronous and fairly lean medium such as email is often most efficient. Instructional activities that intend the formation of a personal relationship or degree of empathy need more time and richer media such as text-based chat or desktop videoconfencing to ensure a greater chance of success.
Daft, R. L. and R. H. Lengel (1984). Information richness: a new approach to managerial behavior and organizational design. Research in Organizational Behavior 6, 191-233.
Newberry. (2001). Raising Student Social Presence In Online Classes. WebNet 2001 Proceedings (In Press)
Rourke, L. Anderson, T. & Garrison D. (1999) Assessing Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-Based Computer Conferencing. Journal of Distance Education/Revue de l'enseignement a distance: 14, 2.
Russo, T. (2000). Social Presence: Teaching and Learning with Invisible Others. WSU Presentation.
Short, J. Williams, E. & Christie, B. (1976) The social psychology of telecommunications. London: Wiley.
Sitkin, S. Sutcliffe, K. &Barrios-Choplin, J. (1992) A Dual-Capacity Model of Communication Media Choice in Organizations. Human Communication Research 18 4. 563-598.
Trevino, L. Lengel R. & Daft R. (1987) Media Symbolism, Media Richness, and Media Choice in Organizations. Communications Research 14 5 P 553-574.