by Sunnie (Leslie Bowman)
Teachers in traditional classes use many strategies to communicate with students beginning on the very first day of class. All of these strategies involve nonverbal communication to a great extent. Nonverbal communication like facial expressions and body language are types of communication that we often take for granted. As teachers in front of a room of students on the first day of class, sometimes we intentionally use nonverbal communication to present an aura that we don't really feel. For example, on the first day of school we may be nervous and consciously try to hide that from the students.
Nonverbal communication accompanies our spoken words to effectively present a specific message. In a traditional classroom, we take for granted the effects of a smile or a frown or a puzzled facial expression. The way we stand in front of the class also sends a message to our students. Hands on hips, leaning on a desk or table, hiding behind a desk, tightly gripping a pen or notes -- all of these send a specific, albeit sometimes unintentional, message to our students.
Our students know when we having a bad day or a great day. They know when we are down and when we are excited about our lesson. They know when we are tired and when we are full of energy simply by looking at our eyes. Whether or not we speak, our students know how we feel unless we make a great effort to project nonverbal language that sends a completely different message. Perhaps this is part of the reason that teachers feel drained at the end of the day -- they are "on stage" all day long while in the presence of their students.
Nonverbal communication plays a big part in how we teach and relate to students on a day to day basis. What happens when nonverbal communication is taken completely out of the equation? What happens when the ONLY communication between teacher and student is totally text-based?
There are many kinds of distance learning, some of which include videotapes of lectures, live video during lectures and teleconferencing via voice only or with video. All of these types of distance learning that allow for nonverbal elements of communication require hardware that many students and teachers do not have available to them. For that reason, the majority of online classes now are text-based in either synchronous (live) format or asynchronous (threaded discussion and/or email) format, all of which rely totally on text-based communication.
The primary difficulty with text-based communication is simply a lack of experience in that mode of communication. Letter writing among family and friends has, according to some people, become a lost art thanks to telecommunications. With the advent of email, communication through writing has revived somewhat, particularly in the business world. With the growth of written communication has also come an increase in misperception of intent and misunderstanding of meaning on the part of the recipient. This miscommunication is a result of inexperience in communicating without benefit of nonverbal cues. When the reader cannot see facial expressions or hear tone of voice, then the reader's own interpretation is projected into the written words.
Most people who communicate via text in a web-based medium understand that there is much more to text-based communication than just the written word. While there is no nonverbal communication, emotions and attitude are inferred through the use of words. Tone, attitude, frame of mind, feelings, intent, and much more can be "read" into the written text. This communication, which goes beyond the written text, is called extraverbal communication by some CMC researchers.
Extraverbal communication serves to personalize text-based communication. People communicate via text for a variety of purposes: social, learning, business, idle chit chat. All of these communications have different purposes and different styles. In comparing a business email to a personal email from a family member the differences are obvious and those differences are a result of the extraverbal communication within the text.
How does this affect learning in an online environment? First of all, students (and teachers) must learn how to communicate effectively in a totally text-based environment. An important thing to remember is that students have limited understanding of writing for discussion. For most students, the purpose of writing in any learning environment is to answer questions rather than critically examine and discuss issues. Rarely in school are students taught to write for the purpose of communicating ideas and discussing issues. They have no need for that; all discussions in the classroom are verbal.
When students are given essay assignments, often the essay item begins with "Discuss such-and-such." This leads to the mistaken belief that students write for the purpose of discussion when in fact, discussion in this instance simply means "explain" rather than give a short one-line answer. One cannot have a "discussion" without the involvement of another person. Therefore a "discussion question" is not communication, it is merely an answer to a question. True discussion is communication about issues, not questions or topics. True discussion is a sharing of critical and creative examination of issues. This type of discussion in a text-based medium is totally foreign to most students.
Students need an orientation to text-based communication before embarking on learning via a text-based medium. They need to learn that how they write is every bit as important as what they write. Tone comes through strong and clear in text-based communication and this is all too often misinterpreted by the recipient. Therefore people need to be cognizant of their tone in framing words to get across a point or idea. It is simply too easy for the recipient to misunderstand intent from the written word. Therefore the writer needs to be skilled in framing written responses. Unfortunately, this is skill that most students (and some teachers) simply have not learned.
In a social online environment, misperceptions are rampant, mostly as a result of anonymity and mistrust. In an academic learning environment, sincere and thoughtful communication via text is the norm. All identities are known and verified through college registration. No one is allowed to enter class with a false name nor can students provide false information about area of residence, work, etc. When this relative anonymity is lost, people are far less likely to project false images of their personalities and character. People are also far less likely to write rude and socially unacceptable messages to their classmates. Instead, when identities are known (and expulsion from the class is a consequence), students tend to communicate through writing as they do face-to-face. They are accountable for what and how they write. Accountability serves to make people think twice before writing something that is unacceptable.
Text-based communication in an online academic environment is often quite different from that found in an online social environment. Professional discourse is absolutely required and rude, insulting messages are not tolerated. Instructors are responsible for moderating text-based discussions and keeping discussions on track. Very often, instructors also set up an area for social and off-topic discussions. This is important for building a sense of community in an online learning environment and this will be the topic of my next article.
Students often need assistance in learning how to communicate via a totally text-based medium. This responsibility falls to the instructor whose role includes modeling appropriate communication skills and moderating text-based discussions. Text-based communication is rich and intensive and allows for deeper consideration, reflection and discussion of issues than does f2f communication in a traditional classroom. Online instructors must be experienced and skilled in not only moderating text-based discussion, but also in teaching and modeling what, for most students, is a new means of communication.
Leslie Bowman (Sunnie) is a frequent contributor to the Teachers.Net Gazette. Other articles written by her are;