Refining the conceptual framework for online instruction

Electronifying oral communication: refining the conceptual framework for online instruction

Roy Schwartzman

This essay examines three issues that emerge from the literature on computer-mediated instruction and from the experience of teaching online oral communication courses: (1) To what extent can online courses realize economies of scale to reduce cost and increase enrollment? (2) What productive potential does tracking and monitoring online communication hold? (3) How does online instruction affect the relationship between information quantity and educational quality? The author suggests that future discussions depart from treating online environments as ways to increase the quantity of instruction and instead address methods that can improve the quality of communication, information management, and instructional techniques.


Instead of neatly tying up loose ends, Howard Rheingold concludes his modern classic The Virtual Community with a challenge. The final sentence says simply: “What happens next is largely up to us” (Rheingold, 1993, p. 300). Rheingold’s call to action comports well with the agenda of this essay. Shunning technological determinism, Rheingold emphasizes that the fate of electronic communication depends less on the hardware of technical wizardry than on the ingenuity of how people use technological tools. Similarly, this essay contends that the complaints and compliments attendant to “electronified” learning–defined as web-based or web-augmented instruction–often stem from the ways the technology is used rather than features inherent to the technology itself. Many of the commonest claims and concerns about online education reflect erroneous attributions of characteristics to the technology itself. In reality, several hopes and concerns attached to online education per se reflect problematic conceptualizations or applications of particular technological tools. Thus many contentions about the nature of online learning actually represent commentary on specific–often flawed–uses of electronic pedagogy, not virtues or vices of the technology itself.

Online education has come under increasing scrutiny as instructors of these courses encounter unanticipated demands on their time (Easton, 2003), unclear or absent data regarding online learning outcomes (Turman & Schrodt, 2005), and uncertainties about how and why students learn online. This investigation responds to such concerns by refining theoretical models of online learning in light of extensive experience in developing and teaching an online oral communication course. The present essay indicates that many reservations and objections to online teaching and learning reflect improperly designed or conceptualized courses rather than limitations inherent to computer-mediated communication or online education. The experiences of developing and teaching a fully online introductory oral communication course since 2001 interface with the literature regarding online education throughout various disciplines. The unique situation of an online version of a required oral communication course covering interviews, conversations, group collaboration, and public speaking offers insight regarding the kinship and divergence between the theory and practice of computer-mediated instruction. Specifically, the online basic oral communication course receives critical examination in light of research regarding several aspects of online instruction. First, to what extent can–or should–online courses realize economies of scale to reduce cost and increase enrollment? Second, what implications and opportunities emerge from the ability to track and monitor online communication? Third, how does enhanced capacity to produce information online affect the processing of that information? The broader issue stemming from the final question is the relationship between information quantity and educational quality.

The Illusion of Infinite Scalability

A major concern of faculty who teach online has been that online courses become subject to unreasonably high enrollment caps because administrators believe online teaching is more efficient than traditional instruction (Easton, 2003). Theoretically most mundane, time-consuming tasks of the traditional classroom (such as repetitive course preparation and assessment) could be replaced with automated, virtually maintenance-free electronic components. This erroneous belief has been bred by the assumption that online education automatically generates economies of scale with less time expenditure per student. The myth of infinite scalability rests on the faulty assumption that economies of scale have virtually no limits. Such misconceptions have been nurtured by early claims that online course enrollments will reach into the thousands per section with tuition of $100 or less per student (Draves, 2000). These estimates fail to account for performance-based courses such as online oral communication, where the addition of one student means at least half a dozen additional oral presentations to view and evaluate. Furthermore, the start-up time for developing online components coupled with conscientiously updating course materials rarely receive recognition (Shedletsky & Aitken, 2001; MacDonald et al., 2005). Another factor overlooked in the claims of infinite scalability is that online courses may require substantial individual communicative interactions with students to approach the perceived personalization and immediacy of traditional courses (Lane & Shelton, 2001; Carrell & Menzel, 2001). There is more to an online course than sheer information content. Very little attention has been devoted to these affective components in online course design and administration.

Proponents of infinite scalability often neglect the necessity for updating course components, failing to factor in the maintenance required to keep course content current and functional. A simple example is replacement of dead links. Harwood (2000) estimates that “link rot” (i.e., dead links) occurs on twenty percent of college and university web site links. That is a “conservative estimate,” so on the average one out of every five links on college web pages is dead (p. 23). The labor to replace dead links exemplifies ongoing maintenance efforts associated with online and web-augmented courses. Furthermore, the engaging multimedia features touted as the hallmark of effective online education require substantial resources to develop and maintain. These multimedia exercises, such as simulations, often engage instructors working alongside information technology and design specialists in efforts that far exceed the time to develop classroom exercises (MacDonald et al., 2005).

Beneficent Surveillance

Research on computer-mediated communication in corporate environments suggests that while such technology might democratize access to communication and thereby reduce “managerial hierarchies,” simultaneously “authority may become more highly centralized” (Dordick, 1989, p. 209). Presumably electronic communication allows wider and deeper penetration into the work environment of subordinates, an infusion of organizational messages and formats not as possible or as pervasive in the less easily monitored activity of oral message exchange. The typical example of potentially repressive surveillance is the monitoring of employee e-mail correspondence.

In the context of online instruction, the “surveillance” functions might actually operate to empower and reward students for genuine effort. Two examples demonstrate this potential benefit. The tracking features of courseware that document access dates and usage data for each student can pinpoint where (and whether) students are devoting time in a course. This information can be used to troubleshoot and improve the course. This tracking data, for instance, was used in the online oral communication course to control access to various units so students would stay on task and not jump ahead to unrelated material. Important pedagogical questions can be answered with usage data. One such question is: do student grades correlate with the amount of time they spend in the course units associated with particular assignments? Suppose students demonstrate poor knowledge or skills in one area: interviewing. Usage data might indicate that the students spend less time in the units devoted to interviewing than they do in units associated with other tasks. The information could stimulate an instructor to intensify the learning opportunities in interviewing, causing students to devote more time to additional skill development activities in the interview units.

A second example of beneficent surveillance is the use of threaded discussions for group activities. The transparency of threaded discussions enables students to “show their work,” revealing the process that enables them to reach decisions. Transparency of the group decision-making process allows continual monitoring of each group’s progress, a daunting task in face-to-face group meetings without the instructor present. All group interactions are “on the record.” Using the record of threaded discussion posts, student contributions can be quantified, documented, and preserved. This transparency provides an excellent way to operationalize standards for contributing to group discussions. Instructors can identify specific student posts as models to emulate. Since some evidence indicates that reticent students will contribute more in online than in traditional classroom environments (Warschauer, 1999), the full input of these ordinarily under-recognized contributors can be acknowledged.

Although a great deal of research has been conducted on threaded discussions (Meyer, 2003; Jeong, 2003; Klemm, 2002), studies generally have not examined the role they play in an online basic communication course. This omission has significant consequences because the nature of an introductory oral communication course generates substantial apprehension about public performance. Thus the findings that laud more extensive or deeper student participation when using threaded discussions may not apply equally in courses that generate performance anxiety. If students gravitate to the online oral communication course sections to avoid interaction, will they initiate and continue interactions in threaded discussion forums?

Threaded discussions make deliberations among group members public, injecting more accountability into group participation. Non-participants cannot simply be carried by the rest of the group and hope to remain invisible. In online group projects, the non-participants clearly stand out by the absence of their posts on the discussion boards. As Shedletsky and Aitken (2004) note, “online no one can ‘hide’ and everyone must participate” (p. 218). Since threaded discussions compel group members to “show their work” during the deliberative process instead of simply assert such participation after the fact, they can enhance collaborative deliberation. Discussions are effective only when students do openly share ideas, so the presence of discussion boards can foster collaboration (Shedletsky & Aitken, 2004). Discussion boards, whether implemented to replace or to augment traditional face-to-face group meetings, close a loophole that concerns conscientious students and instructors. An ongoing challenge in group work is to identify, track, and duly reward group participation. Journals and other reflections after the fact do not capture the process of group deliberation in progress. With threaded discussions, the instructor or other group members can intervene during the process to encourage participation, stimulate ideas, or invigorate discourse in medias res. With retroactive reports, the instructor can only speculate about what the group might have done differently at a previous point in the group’s activities.

For discussion forums to work effectively, students must post frequently and reply to other posts promptly. Participation means more than mere presence; it involves actively contributing discourse that propels the group forward. Group projects may require more start-up time in the online format because the group members have not already developed a rapport through regular personal encounters in a classroom. This lack of personal interaction becomes especially noteworthy if the group project occurs early in the course, before students feel comfortable with each other. One method that stimulates early participation is to engage group members in social interaction through brief self-introductions and non-task related chats (Barnes, 2003). These social interactions, while useful, still must transition into task-oriented discussions to enable groups to proceed with their tasks.

Many features of online courseware enable acquisition of information that can be used productively. Hyperlinks to external resources do empower students to explore concepts further, and student-generated public bibliographies of hyperlinks (called “webliographies” in the eCollege platform) allow students to help build the resources available to other students. Television and radio also allow surfing, but the information producers controlled the tides and the searches tend to be random explorations of available fare. By contributing to course resources such as the webliography, the information consumers pool their preferred resources for public distribution. Since students benefit most from high quality sources, each student takes great care to add links to the most current, relevant, reliable resources.

Information Production and Processing: The Quality-Quantity Conundrum

As early as 1993, Rheingold labeled the infusion of computers into schools a failure. Rheingold uttered his pronouncement because computers were being used merely to accelerate the transfer of information from teachers to students rather than to engage learners and teachers in cooperative educational ventures (1993, pp. 244-245). The “broadcast paradigm” describes a one-way, linear transfer of knowledge from instructor to student (Rheingold, 1993, p. 244). Students essentially occupy the position of an undifferentiated mass of consumers fed standardized informational content. The broadcast paradigm is one-to-many not only in the sense of one source to many receivers, but also in the sense of one version of the message considered as suitable for many different learning styles, experiential backgrounds, and cognitive abilities. This broadcast paradigm partially underlies claims that computer-mediated instruction is infinitely scalable. Certainly electronically augmented instruction always can be cheaply, efficiently, and conveniently employed if the course content requires no customization or updating.

The broadcast model also has political implications. Although not dealing with computer-mediated instruction, Paulo Freire (1970) observes that this philosophy, which he labels the banking model, presumes that the educational establishment qualifies as the only legitimate source of knowledge. Thus when instructors fail to engage students actively in the learning process, they do more than foster personal passivity. The lecture method of transmitting knowledge from instructor to student is authoritarian in at least two ways. First, placing the instructor consistently as the sole source of knowledge production renders the instructor as the sole authorized originator and transmitter of valid information. Epistemologically, this approach configures knowledge as something students encounter or find rather than as a developmental process of questioning, validating, and testing information. Second, the broadcast or banking model lessens the prospect for inquiry that might initiate social change, a point that especially concerns Freire. If students see knowledge as something already completed and given, then the student role devolves into a vessel for preserving that knowledge intact. As a result, the knowledge can become enshrined rather than engaged, so it is not adapted to changing circumstances or challenged. Obedience ossifies knowledge into dogma.

The supposed implication of the online learning environment is democratized knowledge production and dissemination, summarized by the familiar slogan in online education: “The sage on the stage becomes the guide on the side.” Yet the online environment is not automatically fertile ground for democracy simply by virtue of the electronic medium. Electronic resources can enable or enfeeble inquiry, as the history of educational technology demonstrates.

With characteristic bluntness, artificial intelligence pioneer Roger Schank expresses the difference between the old paradigm of educational software design and the new paradigm of online learning. Schank comments: “Computers are the potential savior of the school system, because they allow one-on-one teaching. Unfortunately, every piece of educational software you see in the market today is stupid, because it was designed to follow the same old curriculum” (1995, p. 173). Standardized software programs tended to force-fit student learning into the pedagogical framework of the software design, offering an inflexible set of procedures that limited student ability to interact and use the educational materials. The newer model constructs educational resources from collections of digitized materials known as learning objects. By recombining these learning objects, instructors can customize the components of exercises, demonstrations, and other resources to fit the pedagogical needs of individual courses (Hodgins, 2000).

The one-to-many educational methods associated with broadcasting contrast with the many-to-many communication patterns that typify networking. The networking paradigm (Rheingold, 1993, p. 245) considers student peers equal partners in the educational process, turning the monologue of instructor to students into a multilogue of students communicating with each other as well as with the instructor. This networking paradigm suits electronic forums such as threaded discussions and chats particularly well. Overall the online medium offers promising opportunities for devising the liberating educational climate that thinkers such as Freire have discussed but not clearly exemplified in their writing. The democratizing potential of online environments seems to place a premium on student input and participation, but what implications does that potential have for actual instruction and learning?

Quality of Instruction

Some analysts of online education believe that the proliferation of online courses will encourage and reward quality instruction. The argument presumes that the wider selection of instructors will encourage competition and students will act as intelligent consumers, selecting only the finest experts (Draves, 2000). That is the theory, but the practice of online education has revealed a different kind of consumer. Draves and others such as Beller and Or (1998) optimistically posit that students will behave as quality-conscious consumers and seek the best online courses and instructors. In reality, much online course demand seems to be driven by a different profile of consumer: the bargain basement shopper who prefers the quickest, easiest, cheapest path to the desired educational credentials. Ritzer (1996) offers the apt analogy of such educational consumers with fast-food customers “who can obtain what they need more quickly with less effort” (p. 35). As a result, a noticeable migration of online students has not been to the luminaries of their fields, but to the most economical course option regardless of instructor prestige or educational rigor.

The online basic communication course exemplifies this demand phenomenon. Although it attracts a wide variety of students, in many senses the online sections have become more of a remedial environment than the face-to-face classrooms. The online course attracts a different mix of students than the traditional sections. Because they cannot imagine how oral communication can be taught online, some students declare that they enroll in the course because they believe that no presentations will be required. Actually the presentation requirement is identical to the on-ground sections. Only the medium differs slightly: recordings of live presentations instead of presenting in the classroom to the instructor.

More generally, lower achieving students seem especially attracted to an online offering of a course because they mistakenly believe that online means low expectations. Reflecting the popular misconception that online courses place fewer demands on students (Shedletsky & Aitken, 2004), the less academically motivated students may gravitate to online sections. The online basic oral communication course, for example, has a disproportionately large number of students who previously earned failing grades in the course. While this demographic could be explained partially by the fact that the online section is more practical to fit into a student’s schedule, students’ self-introductions often disclose that they perceive the online section to offer exemption from the expectations in the on-ground sections. Some researchers have observed that many online students, accustomed to following the instructor’s lead rather than learning independently, may underestimate the self-motivation and discipline, time requirements, or task management skills necessary to learn successfully online (Martinez, 2000).

Meyer (2003) notes that online students on the average work almost twice as many hours at their jobs weekly compared to students in traditional classrooms. Qualitative data from the online oral communication course reveals a similar profile. When asked in the introductory assignment to explain why they are taking the course online, students often identify work obligations as preventing them from taking on-campus classes that require meeting at specific times. Perhaps this fact explains why non-traditional online students dislike collaborative online group work even when they otherwise participate actively in the course (Easton, 2003).

Quality of Information

Merely making more information available online will not assure successful educational outcomes. The online format must assist in making information more understandable and relevant to students. Access to information means little without comprehension (Barnes, 2003). Occasionally education might suffer from students not knowing how to obtain information. Information is not scarce; if anything, the problem lies with information oversupply. Plenitude of information creates a critically important perceptual question of which information will–and should–garner enough attention to be processed (Simon, 2002, pp. 62-63). Thus the technological challenge is not to present more information, but to assist in filtering the available information to allow determination of what is usable and worthy of further processing (Stoll, 1999).

More often, students can access information but encounter difficulty processing it or finding its relevance. In his reflections on the effects of computers, Negroponte (1995) observed that technical improvements such as ever-escalating bandwidth, burgeoning pixels of video resolution, and other flashy innovations acquire significance only if people can make sense of the information transmitted and (in the language of communication research) transform messages to meanings.

Web-based research exemplifies the disconnects between information availability and information quality. Although access to online research databases such as InfoTrak, EBSCO, and others should improve the quality of research, often it has little effect. Instead of judiciously selecting appropriate databases and weighing different viewpoints, many students prefer the instant and illusory gratification of bypassing libraries and databases entirely, opting to search the Internet using one of the popular search engines such as Yahoo! or Google. Since the Internet has no built-in quality control, the results yield a wild conglomeration of resources ranging from peer-reviewed articles to utter nonsense.

The prevalence of drawbacks such as flashy and distracting graphics, uncertain source credentials, unacknowledged sources, and unknown dates of creation means that work relying solely on web searches is inferior to library-based research (Barnes, 2003). A web site, for example, may acquire superficial credibility because of its professional appearance regardless of information accuracy or source credentials. Unless students learn judicious information management techniques, they are likely to miss the difference between an online peer-reviewed journal and a random rant on a weblog (blog). In a high-tech version of “seeing is believing,” the fact that information can be accessed online may for some students constitute prima facie proof of its legitimacy (Lane & Shelton, 2001). Thus the more democratic means of disseminating information online improves access but may send a misleading message that data disseminated equals data validated.

Ease of message production also generates rising expectations for instructor feedback on assignments. Because content is easier to generate than ever before, online students expect quicker grading and commentary (Easton, 2003) although the courseware provides no means for instructors to accelerate evaluation despite tools that expedite return of evaluated assignments. Since e-mails are transmitted almost instantaneously, students may reason that grades and commentary should flow with similar speed. Again, speedy information transfer gets conflated with the rapid information processing, which runs contrary to the fact that the pace of information production exceeds the pace of analysis and evaluation. Online course instructors would be prudent not to accelerate expectations for the pace of evaluation in online courses. Instead, the standard timetable for the traditional classroom should suffice. The pressure to provide rapid evaluation also may conflict with the need for more explicit, thorough feedback in the online environment without oral clarifications that might emerge from class discussions or casual personal encounters where questions arise.

Quality of Interaction

Bunz and Campbell (2004) argue that indicators of politeness as simple as using “please” and “thank you” could “enrich” electronic communication, since politeness is detectable in electronic as well as interpersonal interactions. In the online oral communication course, some elementary politeness cues also add personalization, an important factor in computer-mediated instruction that lacks direct student-teacher contact. Easton (2003) cites extensive research that finds students respond positively when online instructors write “their content in a way that ensures immediacy and conversational tone” (p. 90). For example, every reply to a student e-mail begins with a direct address to the student by name, usually “Hi, .” All guidelines for assignments are written in second person, including objectives phrased as “You will learn …” instead of the more impersonal “Students will learn …” Interactive exercises use inclusive, first person plural language: “We will observe scenarios that illustrate our speech habits.” Instructor posts to discussion boards often take the tone of a classmate or group member, since the objective is to stimulate discussion instead of dictate its content. These collegial posts often accomplish their purpose better than command-oriented posts because the students can act more from a sense of responsibility than from an imposed obligation of obedience. For instance, “Let’s see who can gather the most recent crime statistics from law enforcement agencies” steers students toward high quality information (recent, from qualified sources), plus it offers a friendly challenge that impels information acquisition and evaluation.

In addition to methods that acknowledge the student as an individual, the course includes a written guarantee of prompt response: a reply to every e-mail within one day of receipt. Rapid response to student e-mail not only obeys the basic principles of effective feedback, but it also prevents students from feeling disengaged in an online course removed from face-to-face instructor encouragement and peer support.

Student-to-student interaction also contributes to the level of satisfaction with online educational experiences. Students do prefer face-to-face interaction for group work. This factor needs to be taken into account, so online group discussions should strive to resemble personal interaction as much as possible. Empirical studies note that students who engage in face-to-face group projects experience greater satisfaction with the process than students who complete the same projects through online threaded discussions (Barnes, 2003; Olaniran, Grant, & Sorenson, 1996) even when the online groups produce better products such as more comprehensive reports (Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 1999). Frustrations with online group discussions stem from procrastination and slow response time, factors that seem easier to remedy when peers can personally urge colleagues to participate. In their written reflections about the online group experience in the oral communication course, students report mixed opinions about whether they were able to form a cohesive group. This ambivalence emerged clearly in one student’s comments:

I think that our group appeared to

have cohesiveness. However, I do

not believe that we truly did. I don’t

think that we all listened to exactly

what each of us was saying. Also,

when each member had their [minimum

required number of] three

posts done, they tended to quit contributing

to that step. It was almost

as if we weren’t working together at

all sometimes.

The student’s insight confirms assessments that the posts on discussion boards often resemble monologues due to lack of engagement with points made by other students (Klemm, 2002) and fear of risking disagreement (Jeong, 2003).

Naturally the lack of face-to-face meetings inhibits intimacy. This barrier, however, seems balanced by the fact that the online medium reduces the digressions and distractions that plague peer meetings among students. Another student observed that her group’s threaded discussion posts were frequent and lively. To cope with the relative anonymity of the online format, this group initiated personal interactions outside the threaded discussions to break the ice and establish an esprit de corps.

Factors that influenced our group’s

cohesiveness may have been because

we all felt like we knew each other.

It was good to have group member

names posted before the assignments

because it gave everyone a chance

for introductions before the project

began…. Sometimes it is difficult to

get your ideas spelled out in postings

and difficult to communicate

without facial expressions or body

language. For a positive group experience,

I recommend e-mailing

group members to introduce everyone

before beginning. It made our

group members feel like we were a


The student’s observations show how social interactions paved the way for task-oriented communication. Although instructors might consider task-oriented group communication to assume logical and pedagogical primacy, the student demonstrates that social group communication should assume temporal priority because it facilitates the unity needed to accomplish tasks.

More generally, Reeves and Nass (1996) find that face-to-face interaction serves as the basic reference point for communication, so students may consider electronically mediated group discussions an inferior substitute, not a replacement, for personal meetings. Interpersonal communication still serves as the yardstick for interaction. Electronic communication needs to move toward closer resemblance to personal conversation rather than the reverse. Indeed, the perception of personalized human contact remains critically important to “pedagogical quality and effectiveness in technology-mediated learning environments” (Wulff, Hanor, & Bulik, 2000, pp. 146-147).


Treating the online learning environment as a bastion of democracy privileges expressiveness, especially when cast as liberating the voices of students and expanding the options for educational experiences. This essay questions whether the value of expressiveness alone suffices to justify the superiority of electronified instruction. Indiscriminately increasing the supply of information and the speed of its dissemination may require a different vocabulary and another set of assumptions than the market-based metaphor of “the more media the better.” The question is no longer whether to teach online, but what kinds of activities and interactions foster wiser use of the online medium.

Perhaps a better way to think about electronified instruction would be to discard the concept of knowledge production. The production metaphor could give way to knowledge management, or how to create useful and reliable information (Rosenberg, 2001, p. 66) instead of simply migrating more content online. This shift in terminology also reflects a shift in mindset from increasing the quantity of information to improving the quality of information. Rosenberg (2001) distinguishes between instructional needs and informational needs that mirror this perspectival shift. The move toward knowledge management casts the instructor as a resource to help students determine how they will learn instead of transferring knowledge to students in ways dictated by the structure of the classroom environment, such as time and spatial constraints (Rosenberg, 2001, p. 77; Barnes, 2003, pp. 218-219).

Much has been made of designing online course components to enhance student control. Borrowing from the consumer empowerment movement, the language of student empowerment infuses computer-mediated instruction. “Learner-centered design,” however, is not sufficient to assure learning outcomes (Web-Based Training Information Center, 2002). Simply because a student controls elements within a course does not necessarily mean learning improves. For example, users control myriad functions in almost every computer game, yet often these games have minimal pedagogical value. Merely shifting control to the student offers few advantages without considering instructional objectives and methods. Uncritically applauding the democratic nature of online education resembles urging higher voter turnout absent any attempt to educate the electorate about the election. The purported advantages of online learning do not follow automatically from digitization of course content. As in the traditional classroom, online learning places unique demands on students and instructors. Democracy, be it in classes or in the polis, must be continually created and reinforced. Contrary to prevailing claims about online education (Draves, 2000; Barnes, 2003), the online environment can be as repressive–or more set–than the walled classroom. Intellectual liberation in electronified courses constitutes an ongoing process, not an inexorable fact.


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Professor, Department of Communication Studies

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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