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Formative Evaluation of Synchronous CMC Systems for a Learner-Centered Online Course.

This research used formative evaluation methods to examine a number of synchronous computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems for online learning. CMC systems provide an ideal venue for both knowledge construction and community building. The principles of learner-centeredness, constructivism, and sociocultural theories provided the bases for the design of synchronous activities such as student-moderated seminars in this study. Several synchronous online activities were introduced and evaluated. Based on the results of observers' logs, ratings on social presence, communication effectiveness, and communication interface, 10 desirable features of synchronous CMC systems were recommended

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) systems are indispensable for distance education networks. CMC systems, as defined by Kerr and Hiltz (1982, P. 2) "use computers to structure, store, and process communications." Studies have indicated that CMC systems can support both cognitive and social aspects of online learning (Parker, 1999; Verdejo & Cerri, 1994). Many research projects have focused on the CMC system as a tool that facilitates collaboration, interaction, and learning (Bonk & King, 1998; Harasim, 1990; Wagner, 1998). Most of the research focuses on the effectiveness of asynchronous CMC networks, as these are the major means of instructional technology used in distance education (Lewis, Snow, Farris, & Levin, 1999). Very few studies have been done on synchronous CMC systems. This article evaluated the various existing synchronous CMC systems such as web chat, audio-video conferencing, and enhanced virtual systems for distance learning. By examining how system architecture interfaces with instruction al design, this research can further the understanding on how synchronous CMC systems can be maximized to enhance learning interests in distance education. The purposes of this research were to: (a) examine the characteristics of different synchronous CMC systems; (b) identify the features of the synchronous CMC tools that are conducive to online interactions; (c) understand how novice learners adapt to synchronous CMC systems; and (d) investigate the features that would be central to the design of synchronous learning systems.


There are few CMC systems that support a wide array of online learning activities such as brainstorming, problem-solving, information exchanges, collaboration and co-construction of knowledge (Bonk & King, 1998; Gunawardena, Lowe, & Anderson, 1997; Harasim, 1990). CMC can also facilitate social aspects of online learning, for example, equal participation and community building (Berg, 1999; Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; McDonald & Gibson, 1998). Cognitive and affective developments are equally important to successful online learning. CMC systems alone cannot support these aspects of online learning. CMC systems should have specific embedded features (e.g., bulletin boards) that support specific learning activities (e.g., debate). Most of all, a well-designed instructional unit that allows learners to carry out specific tasks through appropriately selected CMC systems is the foundation for meeting the learning objectives.

What are the theoretical foundations that instructional designers and instructors themselves use when designing an online instructional unit? What considerations do CMC system programmers make when introducing new systems? The research in the field of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) has continued to provide new insights that cover both grounds. Bonk and Cunningham (1998) summarize three theoretical views on collaborative technology: (a) learner-centered principles, (b) constructivism and (c) sociocultural theory.

Learner-Centered Principles

Learner-centered principles (LCPs) were first drafted by the American Psychological Association (APA) to be used as the basis for school curriculum reform. These principles "provide an essential framework to be incorporated in new designs for curriculum and instruction, and assessment systems for evaluating educational goal attainments" (American Psychological Association, 1997). The 14 LCPs present a distinct shift from the traditional teacher-centered approach to a learner-centered approach of instruction (Wagner & McCombs, 1995). Instead of focusing on transmission of knowledge and instructor's domination of the learning environments, LCPs emphasize learners' developments in areas such as cognition, metacognition, motivation, affect, and social influences.

While LCPs are not developed specifically for the context of computer-based instruction, collaborative learning systems offer an opportunity for the implementation of these principles. Much research has supported the success of employing LCPs to CSCL environments (King, 1998: Wagner & McCombs, 1995). Based on LCPs, CSCL tools provide functionality for learners to build a know ledge community, reflect on their learning, collaborate on projects, engage in active learning, and assess learning outcomes (Brown & Campione, 1996; Hewitt & Scardamalia, 1998).


Constructivism is another perspective that has tremendous impact on the design of emerging CSCL and CMC environments, While it is hard to pin down the roots of this philosophy, there have been many variations on constructivism presented in the literature (Phillips, 1995). Many constructivist theorists agree that the works of Vygotsky and Piaget had a strong influence on the formation of the constructivist philosophy (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998) Constructivist theorists who draw from Piaget put more emphasis on individual constructions of knowledge as a result of interaction with the physical environments. Constructivist theorists who are influenced by Vygotsky posit that knowledge is constructed through the appropriation of culturally relevant activities. In other words, knowledge is co-constructed with peers or experts and through the immersion in a social context (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998). Despite the variations in the views, both highlight the importance of active and generative learning in which students can generate not only answers for problems but also many perspectives of the problem statements themselves (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1991).

According to Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell. and Haag (1995), the four constructivist attributes for building learning systems are: (a) context, (b) construction. (c) collaboration, and (d) conversation. Context refers to the "real world" scenario in which learners can carry out learning tasks as close to the real world as possible. Learning tasks should have real-world implications so that learners can connect what they learn in the classroom with the real world. Construction concerns knowledge that is built upon "active process of articulation and reflection within a context" (Jonassen et al., 1995, p. 8). Learners will learn better when they can link their own experience with learning materials and make sense of them. Learners master a subject better in the process of constructing knowledge. Collaboration helps learners to develop, test, and evaluate their ideas with peers. Learners are exposed to multiple perspectives in a problem-solving case and then come to a self-selected conclusion on a partic ular issue. This is an important part of the learning process. Conversation is used by group members for purposes such as planning, collaboration, and meaning-making. It is especially important for distance learning since most communication is done through online exchanges. A successful conversation will lead to good preparations for and completion of, online tasks.

Sociocultural Theory

In terms of knowledge construction, Cobb (1994, p. 4) emphasized the importance of the "socially and culturally situated constructions." In other words, learners do not simply construct knowledge within their own minds. The sociocultural factors attribute to the process of knowledge construction. This leads to the third theoretical perspective on collaborative technology: sociocultural views. Sociocultural theory is closely related to Vygotsky's theory on "zones of proximal development" (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978). ZDP refers to the gap between the knowledge level of the novice (e.g., students) and that of the experts (e.g., teachers) in a learning context. Through social interaction with experts, students acquire individual knowledge and the knowledge grows more complex (Roblyer, Edwards, & Havriluk, 1997). ZDP also includes not only the learners but also the co-participants, activities, artifacts, and the assisted learning tools in the milieu (Brown, Ash, Rutherford, Nakagawa, Gordon, & Campione, 1993; Wells, 19 97). Teachers can use "scaffolding" to help students develop their knowledge base. Interacting with peers and experts is an important part of the learning process. Learning does not take place only within one's own mind. Sociocultural theory emphasizes situated learning in which students solve problems that have real-world applications.

Bonk and Cunningham (1998) summarized some principles and strategies that sociocultural theory offer for the design of CSCL environments as follows: mediation, internalization, cognitive apprenticeship (as teleapprenticeship), ZDP, assisted learning (e.g., scaffolding and fading, modeling, coaching, questioning, feedback, reflection), and distributed intelligence. Many learning environments have provided learners more tools to facilitate discussion with experts and peers, reflect on their learning, and collaborate on problems that have real-world applications (Teles, 1993; Harasim, 1990). The premises of socio-cultural theory highlight the importance of the social context of learning. Theorists believe that knowledge is "negotiated by members of a community of practice, the classroom should be organized to guide student learning toward membership in a learning community" (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998, p. 37).

In short, each of the theoretical perspectives has its focal point on learning but they are not mutually exclusive. The author contends that these three views are complementary. The three perspectives overlap in three general areas: (a) construction of knowledge, (b) social interaction, and (c) collaboration. All emphasize that knowledge construction through interaction and collaboration in a social context can contribute to successful learning experience.

Online Conversations

Online discourse, either through synchronous or asynchronous means, can assist learners to interact and collaborate with peers or experts for the purpose of knowledge construction. Online conversations are a way of supporting generative learning (Sherry, 2000). According to the observations by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1996), students who are linked through a central network and share databases by way of Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE) are active in building and using the databases. They contribute new ideas, point out discrepant information, accommodate different perspectives, and form new relationships. Online conversations can support both academic and social needs. Pea (1993) postulated the stages of online community. First, through conversation space, participants establish the common grounds of experience, meaning, and understanding, collaboratively. After the norms are established, meaning-making takes place when participants take turns and actions. Through the two-way com munication, the participants negotiate, interpret, and share knowledge on a given topic. Finally, they internalize and acquire the knowledge derived from the interactions in the learning community.

What are the factors that may influence online conversations? Sherry (2000) groups the factors into three categories: (a) the features of the CMC technologies, (b) the characteristics of participants, and (c) the organizational factors such as technical support and staff training (Sherry, Lawyer-Brook, & Black, 1997). For the first category, asynchronous conferencing systems allow participants to carry on the discussions beyond the classroom; participants can give more thoughtful reflections on a given topic whereas synchronous conferencing systems render immediate feedback and provide space for more social interaction. When selecting synchronous conferencing tools for online learning, it is critical to consider the characteristics of text-based conferencing systems and audio-video conferencing systems. The former is easily accessible from most users' terminals and it takes little bandwidth. The latter makes the interaction more authentic since the participants can see and hear each other. For the second cat egory of individual characteristics, not all learners are ready for computer conferences. Some may have more experience than others and some may need time to overcome communication apprehension. Wegerif (1998) noted a "threshold experience" among students. Students who crossed the threshold would participate in full communication for all course projects. Students who did not make it to the threshold usually fell out of the loop and became onlookers of the learning community (p. 38). Sherry (2000) summarized five strategies for dealing with individual learner characteristics: (a) demonstrating clear payoff: create a need to engage in discussion; (b) overcoming technophobia: helping students to overcome their fear of technology; (c) cultural/ personal compatibility: providing diverse activities to meet the needs of the students; (d) proper scaffolding: offering only the necessary assistance to guide students to work independently; and (e) finding ways to express themselves. Some students may need more help than the others. Employing various strategies to meet the needs of different students will help them to get on the track of learning more smoothly.


Settings and Procedures

This research is based on a writing-intensive online course offered in the Communication Department at the University of Hawaii. The course was titled Theories and Applications for Computer-Mediated Communication Systems. This course was first piloted in the summer of 1998 and then repeated in the fall semester. The CMC systems employed in this course included the following three categories: (a) text-based systems, (b) audio-video conferencing, and (c) enhanced virtual systems. The main objective of this course was to improve the understanding of CMC systems through efficient use of various CMC systems. The student population consisted of junior, senior, and graduate students in communication, business, journalism, ESL and philosophy. The majority of students were majors in the communication department. The instructor was also the researcher.

This course was conducted through both synchronous and asynchronous CMC systems. This research focused only on the synchronous components. The main activity is a student-moderated seminar conducted once a week by way of various CMC systems. Each group took turns to moderate the discussions. The host group needed to choose a topic related to CMC theories and post questions for discussion in advance. On the day of the seminar, the host group moderated and facilitated the discussions. The members of the host group had to collaborate online on the following tasks: searching and determining on a topic, discussing the seminar procedure, and providing background information for the class to read before the seminar.

The main communication system was WebCT, which is web-based learning courseware. WebCT provided a set of tools for instructor and students to engage in online instruction and learning. In addition to WebCT, this course also used the following systems for synchronous learning: (a) text-based conferencing systems: ICQ & WebCT chat; (b) audio-video conferencing systems: Netscape CoolTalk & CU-SeeMe; (c) enhanced virtual systems: ActiveWorlds [less than]http://www.activeworlds.coml[greater than] and The Palace [less than][greater than].

The selections of these CMC systems were intended to assist the students develop the skills to manage various types of CMC systems. The main criteria of the selections were based on economic considerations. Programs that could be freely downloaded or affordable were first considered. The next section reviews the synchronous online learning activities by way of these CMC systems.

Synchronous Activities

Most online learning environments are based on the model of asynchronous learning in which students engage in online activities at a time of their choosing. For courses that emphasize memorization of factual knowledge, asynchronous communication may be sufficient. For a course, such as this study that was designed to improve online communication skills, synchronous communication is no less important than asynchronous communication. Students can learn the techniques for online discussions and develop the skills to operate these CMC technologies through synchronous learning. Synchronous communication and asynchronous communication are of equal importance in the curriculum. A list of synchronous activities is shown in Table 1.

To help the students in getting ready for synchronous discussion, two strategies were used: dividing students into small groups and providing guidelines for discussions. Ill-prepared synchronous communication can be characterized as non-linear, chaotic, unfocused, and unproductive. Small group discussions have the advantages of initiating focused, equal, dynamic, interactive, and quality discussions. Sharan and Sharan (1976, p. 10) postulated that "small groups are an effective organizational medium for encouraging, clarifying, and guiding student participation in planning classroom activities, both academic and social."

Furthermore, the guidelines directed the students toward a good start for online discussions. All students were given a set of Student-Centered Discussion (SCD) guidelines at the beginning of the semester (Chou, 1999). The SCD guidelines were adapted from Shoop and Wright's model of SCD (1997). The SCD guidelines were introduced for the purpose of facilitating discussions and increasing the quality of student participation. The SCD guidelines were extremely helpful in facilitating the online discussions. See the Discussion section for the reports of student-moderated seminars.


Bloom, Hastings, and Madaus (1971, P. 117) defined formative evaluation as "the use of systematic evaluation in the process of curriculum construction, teaching and learning for the purpose of improving any of these three processes." They stated that "the purpose of formative observation is to determine the degree of mastery of a given learning task and to pinpoint the part of the task not mastered" (p. 61). The results of formative evaluation can help instructors improve curriculum design for better learning outcomes. Furthermore, formative evaluation can contribute to the improvement of computer-based educational technology (Flagg, 1990). The evaluation should be a continuous process at different stages of the instructional design. Consequently, the instruction can be revised and improved constantly as the course progresses. By the same token, the results of the formative evaluation in this study can help educators to make useful decisions in selecting CMC systems.

Data Collection

The data collected for this study included observers' logs, and data on CMC skill improvement, social presence, communication effectiveness and communication interface.

1. Observer's Logs: Four observers who were doctoral candidates specializing in distance education kept a log of their observations of the class. In the log, the observers were asked to observe the course in three areas: (a) student development, (b) instructor-student interaction, and (c) course elements. They read student postings, student journals, and conference transcripts. They also observed the online discussions and fieldtested various functions of the CMC systems.

2. CMC Skill Improvement: Students filled out a self-evaluative rating sheet on their CMC skills at the beginning, middle, and end of semester on a one-to-five Likert scale. They rated their skills at one as a novice user, three as an average user, and five as an expert user of course-related CMC tools.

3. Ratings on CMC systems: After each use of the CMC system, students were asked to complete an online rating sheet on social presence, communication effectiveness, and communication interface. All ratings used semantic differential techniques that included a number of bipolar questions based on a one-to-seven scale. The rating regarded one as the negative feature and seven as the positive feature of a CMC system. The questions were placed in mixed order. Some started with negative features and some began with positive features to prevent students from giving similar answers to all questions. The ratings were adapted from Short, Williams, and Christie (1976). Each segment of the survey is explained as follows:

a. Social Presence: The degree to which the senders and receivers can sense each other during their communication (Short et al., 1976). People interact differently according to the degree of social presence that they can feel. High social presence can convey multiple, nonverbal communication channels and continuous feedback. The ratings included the following bipolar pairs: Impersonal--Personal; Distant--Close; Dehumanizing--Humanizing; Expressive--Inexpressive; Emotional--Unemotional; Insensitive--Sensitive.

b. Communication Effectiveness: Communication effectiveness can be determined by both how people feel about the effectiveness of the communication with partners and the effectiveness of the communication technology that transmits the information. Although an effective communication process does not necessarily equate to effective performance, research has shown that the correlation is highly significant. O'Reilly and Roberts (1977) found evidence that links communication effectiveness to perceived performance. Hackman (1990) also found that those groups who communicate more effectively also perform better. Students were asked to rate the communication effectiveness on the following bipolar pairs: Good--Bad; Accessible--Inaccessible; Distorted--Accurate; True -- False; Pleasurable -- Painful; Meaningless -- Meaningful; Slow -- Fast; Successful -- Unsuccessful.

c. Communication Interface: The design of the communication interface affects the outcomes of communication. The design of the communication systems should be transparent to the users so that they can concentrate on the conversation. Transparent design includes the characteristics of simplicity, accessibility, easy navigation, and open space.


In this section, the discussion is divided into three parts: (a) expert view: the comments of the observers on student development, instructor-student relationship, and course elements; (b) student adaptation to CMC systems: the summary from the evaluators and the results of the CMC skill improvement ratings; and (c) characteristics of CMC systems: results from students' ratings on the CMC systems.

Expert View: Observers' Evaluations

Four observers took turns every week writing down their evaluations of the course in a pre-designed log. The observations were done during the sessions of the pilot course that was a six-week intensive summer course. The suggestions from the observers' logs were extremely useful for the revisions of the course content, learning environments, online activities, and use of technology. There are slight variations in their observations but for the most parts the general impressions are consistent. The observations and suggestions are summarized into three main areas.

1. Student development. This area includes progress in knowledge and skills as well as the degree of interests and curiosity. One observer commented that the increased background knowledge of CMC and related technologies were demonstrated in the frequent use of jargon in the writings and extensive use of technology to communicate with fellow students. As a result of the familiarity with the course structure and the technologies, they knew what was expected of them in terms of communication on the topic, how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the communication technologies, and how to communicate with their peers. Students showed more confidence talking about a topic regardless if they had mastered the topic area. One observer noted the following progress:

* increased analysis and introspection;

* integration of theory and practice into their daily lives and philosophies; and

* analysis and evaluation of current technologies, and predictions about future technologies.

2. Instructor-student relationship. One observer pointed out what the instructor did to facilitate the online learning:

* continuous guidance and support to students,

* being responsive to students,

* individual/ one-to-one coaching,

* concern for students' progress,

* clarification of instruction at all times,

* positive attitude and good rapport with the students,

* being accessible to the students,

* immediate feedback, and

* explanation of class policy and criteria for grading up-front.

It was the consensus among the observers that the instructor's attitude played an important role in encouraging students to fully participate the course activities.

3. Course elements. There were many aspects to the structure of the course. The discussions here concentrate on the evaluations of the synchronous activities in the course. One of the most criticized course elements at the beginning of the summer session course was the online chat. It was originally called Happy Hour for the purpose of connecting students together to practice skills for online discussions. It served both social and academic purposes. The SCD guidelines were not introduced at the beginning of the semester. The observers often noticed playful tones in student conversations and a lack of focus in the overall online conversations. Students' frustration with online chats could have been a negative influence on the students' attitude toward the effective use of the online chat. It was not until the fourth week, at the suggestion of one observer, when the SCD guidelines were introduced as the format of the online chat, that the discussion became more organized and less chaotic. Yet, the term Happy H our might have misled the students and they showed up with no preparations for any serious discussions. However, in the fall semester the SCD guidelines were introduced at the beginning with strong emphasis on the importance of the formalities and chat etiquette. It was renamed from Happy Hour to Weekly Seminar. Student moderators sent out pre-seminar information by way of e-mail and came to the seminar with questions to discus, with the participants. The results in the fall course were much more successful and productive.

Student Adaptation to New Synchronous CMC Systems

Observers' remarks. In terms of attitude toward technology, all observers became aware of notable positive changes in student attitude toward technology. The number of reports on technical difficulties was noticeably less at the end of the semester. Students demonstrated more confidence in using the CMC systems. The initial technical anxiety was internalized as an inevitable process in learning about technology. Some simply blamed themselves for not being able to use the system in a more efficient way. The response from the instructor played a crucial role in easing student discomfort caused by technical anxiety. The instructor's timely feedback on questions raised in the weekly seminars, virtual office hours, class e-mail lists, or reflection journals proved to be important "affective affirmations." In short, student adaptation to technology can be summarized in four stages:

* The WOW stage: At the initial phase, students were fascinated with the potential of technology and amazed at what CMC systems could have accomplished.

* The FUN stage: At the second phase, students actually used the systems for simple tasks and have derived a great deal of pleasure in the hands-on experience.

* The OH-OH stage: This was the frustrating stage when more complex tasks were given and students' skills hadn't developed enough to handle these tasks.

* The "Back-to-Normal" stage: Students either became more competent in the use of technology or have become used to dealing with technical difficulties. They internalized their anxiety and accepted that technical glitches were inevitable in the learning process.

Skill improvement. Interestingly, students seemed to feel an overall improvement m their technical skills even on systems that they had never used. For example, the Electronic Meeting Room (EMR) was a group-decision support system, which was used in the summer course but not in the fall course. Table 2 shows the results of the fall course on CMC skill improvement. The mean skill level of EMR increased slightly even though most students considered their skills below average. Overall, there was a significant increase on the skill level when comparing pre-semester mean with end-semester mean (F=8.95, p=0.007) using analysis of variance.

Characteristics of the CMC Systems

Student ratings. Students completed a short survey on the following CMC characteristics: social presence, communication effectiveness at an interpersonal level and at a system level, and communication interface ratings right after each use of the system. Some systems were used only once throughout the entire semester. Some systems were used repeatedly, for example, WebCT. Pretest and posttests were conducted for systems used more than once. The ratings were semi-anonymous, web-based surveys. Students were asked to include the last four digits of their SSN, not their names, for identification. The results of the ratings are indicated by the mean scores of each system using a one-to-seven scale. There were 15 students in the class, but not all submitted their surveys. The number of survey returned is indicated in the parenthesis. The higher the mean score, the more positive experience that each student had in using a system. The results are shown in Table 3.

There was a general consistency among all four ratings except for small variations. A system that received high social presence rating was also rated high in communication effectiveness and communication interface. Each factor was significantly correlated. Interestingly, students complained a great deal about WebCT in their journals at the first week of practice, and yet WebCT received the highest ratings at the end of the semester. This may explain that time is a critical factor in adapting a new system. The more often the students practised on one system, the more comfortable they were with the system. Furthermore, the ease of use of the text-based conferencing (WebCT) made the conversation much smoother and less distracting in online conferencing. The enhanced virtual system (The Palace) came in second place. This was an indication that the add-on affective components (wearable-avatars, voice-activation, bubble messages, etc.) made the conversation more realistic. Students clearly enjoyed using the avatar s to express their emotions during the online conversations.

The ratings for the audio-video conferencing systems such as CUSeeme and CoolTalkfc were much lower than the text-based and virtual reality conferencing systems. This is partially due to the poor audio and video quality during the seminars. The video and sound quality was constrained by the available bandwidth when the seminars were held. The time lags during conversations made the communication laborious. Students had to repeat questions several times to get the messages across the wire. Although, in the reflection journals, students appeared to be excited about the possibilities of audio-video conferencing, the results of the social presence ratings indicated that they were not convinced that audio-video conferencing systems were ideal for effective communication at the time that the conference took place.


While there are a range of CMC tools for synchronous communication, affordable synchronous CMC systems that can facilitate collaboration and critical thinking remain limited. Since not every instructor can afford expensive CMC systems designed for institutional use, it is more important to start with the design of pedagogically sound activities and then look for the systems to facilitate the learning process. The design of the online activities for the course in this study were based on the theoretical principles of learner-centered, constructivist, and sociocultural theories that emphasize cooperative learning, knowledge construction, and community building. The selections of tools were mostly cheap or freely downloadable. The only exception is WebCT, which was purchased and maintained by the Information Technology Services at the University of Hawaii.

Drawing from the comments of the observers, reflections of the students, results of the surveys, and experience of the instructor, the features of the CMC systems that would be central to the design of a synchronous learning environment are summarized as follows:

1. Low bandwidth: Students hate waiting a long time for a program to load. The advantage of a text-based conferencing is that it is fast to load. In addition, the time lags between sending and viewing a message are much less compared with other high-bandwidth programs such as video-conferencing systems.

2. Ease of navigation: Students become easily frustrated when they are lost in a virtual environment. To some students, the anxiety of engaging in an online conversation can be aggravated when navigation tools are not clearly marked.

3. Accessibility: Students should be able to access the system without going through too many hurdles. ICQ is a good example for accessibility. It creates a small icon on the desktop. Once students obtain permissions from fellow students and establish a buddy list. Students can contact anyone on the buddy list when they are both online. It takes little computer memory and the speed of communication is fast.

4. Non-intrusiveness: In some CMC systems, students are allowed to create their own rooms for small groups. In this course, for example, the division of seminar room, virtual office and student lounges renders a sense of place. Small group members meet at their own rooms to discuss group-related matters. They roam freely in and out without bumping into the instructor or other fellow students when they do not want to be interrupted.

5. Affective affirmation: Students enjoy receiving positive feedback from the systems when they are doing things fight. In The Palace, fellow students can change the facial expressions of the avatars to indicate the moods or tone of voice. Affective confirmation through a smiling face or praise from fellow students do enhance the collegiality and team spirits among students.

6. Fun and pleasure: Systems such as The Palace and the ActiveWorlds have game-like appearances that relax the students before and during the discussions. Moving from a plain-text conferencing system to a graphicenhanced system, students find the conversations much more enjoyable.

7. Humanizing and sensitive qualities: Some students enjoy virtual reality type of systems for the humanizing factors. They can choose an avatar to represent themselves and change moods at ease. The add-on non-verbal cues facilitate the communication greatly. The design of the avatars should be sensitive to gender differences and not offensive to any ethnic groups. The avatars can be offensive to female students when the female avatars are dressed like a sex object.

8. Good audio-video quality: Desktop audio-video conferencing systems are still very limited in their functions and constrained to network bottlenecks. Students' interest fades quickly when they cannot understand each other over the wire.

9. Support tools for knowledge construction: Built-in functions such as conferencing transcript recording, a whiteboard, file transfer, brainstorming, note-taking and voting are ideal tools to facilitate online conversations. The moderator can store questions to facilitate the discussions beforehand. The participants can retrieve transcripts afterward if they need to refer back to the discussions.

10. Community building: Students are more eager to engage in conversation when they feel like part of a community. Collaborating on tasks in private rooms is a good way to establish a sense of community among students.

The author does not recommend that all CMC systems should have virtual-reality quality or avatars built-in. These tools can be made available and customized by users. The freedom of choices empowers the users to take control of their learning process. In some instances, the add-on tools can be a distraction for online conversation. In some instances, they are great tools for increasing interpersonal connections. The use of the tools should match the pedagogical goals of an instructional unit, not just used for the sake of using the tools.

In short, this article examined the process of student-centered discussion for synchronous learning and discussed the design of learning activities over various synchronous CMC systems to facilitate collaboration and community building. While, it is evident that the SOD guidelines fostered student social interactions and cultivated their abilities to engage in online discussions, time is considered an important factor in student adaptation to new technology. Furthermore, the success in using the virtual reality system The Palace shows the importance of communication interface design. Learning tasks, learning systems, and pedagogical-sound instructional design are the three key elements for successful synchronous learning.


The author would like to thank Monica Medeiros de Oliveira-Gajdys, Xun Ge, Kelly Yamashiro, and Jenifer Winter for their thoughtful observations and comments on the pilot course.


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Table 1
Activities for Synchronous CMC Systems
Activities CMC systems
Virtual office WebCT Chat
 (text-based conferencing
Student lounges Web CT Chat
in CMC cafe
Page a pal ICQ (text-based
 conferencing and
 paging system)
Weekly seminars WebCT Chat
Guest speaker CU-Seeme (video-
 conferencing system)
Guided tour ActiveWorlds (3D graphic-
 enhanced system) +
 CoolTalk (audio-
Role play The Palace (enhanced
 virtual system)
Activities Purposes
Virtual office In addition to the physical
 office, students can also find
 the instructor in the virtual
 office at regular hours.
Student lounges A cyberspace for (1) social
in CMC cafe activities among students; (2)
 break-out sessions during
 weekly seminars.
Page a pal Small group collaboration on
 case study, pre-seminar
 discussions, and social
 activities. A buddy list keeps
 students informed when a
 group member is online.
Weekly seminars Student-moderated discussions
 to engage in conversations on a
 pre-chosen CMC-related topic.
Guest speaker Desktop video-conferencing for
 interviewing a CMC educator in
Guided tour A guided tour to the Virtual
 University while learning to
 use the ActiveWorlds program.
 Students interact with the
 speaker using the chat window
 in the ActiveWorlds or a
 microphone via CoolTalk.
Role play Role play in small groups with
 a remote host in each room
 for a better understanding
 of a virtual CMC system.
Table 2
CMC Skill Improvement (n=15)
CMC tools pre-semester SD mid-semester SD
 mean mean
E-mail 3.53 0.99 3.85 0.22
Newsgroups 2.27 1.22 2.69 0.33
Listservs 2.47 1.25 3.23 0.32
CU-SeeMe 1.13 0.35 1.83 0.27
MOO/MUD 1.20 0.56 1.67 0.28
EMR 1.40 0.74 1.83 0.32
Web search 3.47 1.3 3.77 0.20
courseware 2.13 1.19 3.08 0.24
Web chat 2.47 1.19 3.46 0.22
audio-conferencing 1.27 0.46 2.00 0.25
video-conferencing 1.27 0.46 1.92 0.24
HTML editor 1.87 1.36 2.92 0.35
CMC tools end-semester SD
E-mail 3.93 0.73
Newsgroups 2.93 1.33
Listservs 3.43 0.76
CU-SeeMe 2.14 0.95
MOO/MUD 2.07 1.00
EMR 2.21 1.12
Web search 4.00 0.82
courseware 3.71 0.73
Web chat 3.50 0.85
audio-conferencing 2.50 1.02
video-conferencing 2.54 0.97
HTML editor 2.93 1.27
Table 3
Mean Scores on Social Presence, Communications Effectiveness and
Communication Interface (One-to-Seven Scale, One as Negative Rating
and Seven as Positive Rating)
CMC systems Frequency Social Communication Effectiveness
 (times) Presence interpersonal level
(n=12) weekly 5.26 5.71
(n=12) 2 4.86 5.27
(n=14) weekly 4.17 4.57
(n=15) 2 4.17 4.42
Active Worlds
(n=8) 1 4.24 4.34
(n=9) 1 3.93 3.73
(n=13) 1 3.58 3.14
CMC systems Communication Effectiveness Communication Over all
 system level Interface Mean
(n=12) 5.75 5.65 5.59
(n=12) 5.11 5.15 5.1
(n=14) 4.87 5.05 4.67
(n=15) 4.49 4.47 4.39
Active Worlds
(n=8) 4.52 4.36 4.37
(n=9) 3.79 3.22 3.67
(n=13) 3.12 3.08 3.33
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Title Annotation:computer-mediated communication
Publication:Journal of Interactive Learning Research
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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