CMC in Education: Student Perspectives
COMPUTER-MEDIATED COMMUNICATION IN EDUCATION:
Amy Nelson Bosley
Michael A. Mitrook
Nicholson School of Communication
University of Central Florida
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michael A. Mitrook
Nicholson School of Communication
P.O. Box 161344
Orlando, FL 32816-1344
Office phone: (407) 823-2859
Office Fax: (407) 823-6360
Internet: [log in to unmask]
Colleges and university's are adopting computer-mediated communication
(CMC) into the classroom with unprecedented speed without questioning the
end-user, the student, as to its efficacy. A series of focus groups was
conducted to gain insight into the ways students are using and perceiving CMC in
the classroom. Several key CMC issues were identified across the focus groups,
including student/faculty relationships, components of successful classes,
levels of skill and access to computer equipment. Students were found not to
consider CMC as a replacement for the traditional educational experience, but
rather appreciate the enhancements computer-mediated communication can offer.
Computer-mediated Communication in Education:
Computers have changed almost every aspect of our lives, from the way we
purchase gas (pay-at-the-pump), to the number of television channels we can
watch, to the elimination of weekly trips to the bank. More recently, computers
are changing the way we talk to one another and expanding our scope of friends
and acquaintances to include people we've never seen face-to-face.
Computer-mediated communication (CMC) has revolutionized the way we interact,
think and make decisions (Olaniran, Savage, & Sorenson, 1996).
What is computer-mediated communication? In its most technical sense,
computer-mediated communication is an infrastructure of international
telecommunications networks linked by computers, modems and software
applications (Cutler, 1996). According to Fuller (1996), CMC includes
electronic mail, usenet newsgroups, listserve subscriptions, interactions with
Gopher and World Wide Web, information repositories on the Internet, PHONE and
TALK utilities, Internet Relay Chat, Multi-User Domains (MUDs), and groupware
applications which support collaborative work. More importantly, these
utilities carry digital messages which can be stored very compactly on magnetic
media, and can be replicated as often as desired with complete perfection.
Businesses are using CMC to replace communication formerly handled by
traditional methods (i.e. memos, letters, telephone, and meetings). Compton,
White, & DeWine (1991) examined two organizations' use of CMC and found they
were using the technology for inter-organizational correspondence, electronic
calendaring, research, problem solving, and document preparation.
Banks and Fidoten (1996) note many office functions which previously relied
on a printed form are being replaced by electronic forms, allowing them to be
more easily manipulated and transferred to others. In addition, employees are
no longer tethered to their desks, but are able to engage in the virtual office
via computers and e-mail, cellular telephones, pagers, and other office
technologies enhancing workplace flexibility (Banks & Fidoten, 1996).
Due in part to the increased business usage, electronic mail (e-mail) has
grown exponentially since it was first used in 1969 (Pavlik, 1996). It allows
exact replication of messages and provides precise record keeping in a small
amount of space, eliminating bulky filing systems and inventories. Network
Wizards released their latest survey, reporting 43 million unique machines are
connected to the Internet and suggest that, by 2001, over 100 million machines
will be connected, with the annual projected growth of the Internet remaining at
the current rate of 46 percent (Sprenger, 1999).
The benefits of communicating via the computer are growing as the community of
users increases. However, potential drawbacks have been identified,
specifically addressing the use of e-mail in the business setting, but
applicable to any user of CMC.
According to Saul (1996), while e-mail may seem the ideal method of
communicating, one must be aware that sometimes it is inappropriate and there
are limitations to its success. These pitfalls, as noted by Saul, have been
addressed by many CMC users across disciplines, and include missed signals, lack
of context, permanence, and unfamiliarity. Missed signals indicate the lack of
nonverbal communication in e-mail transactions, while lack of context refers to
the often ambiguous nature of messages. It is frequently difficult to discern
the formality or informality of a message without the conventional context and
status indicators, such as a formal company policy update sent on letterhead.
Most important, it is critical to remember that thousands of new users log on to
the Internet for the first time each day. Everyone has to go through the
educational process of learning e-mail etiquette (netiquette) and other
conventions tied to CMC, yet there are few formal training opportunities
regarding these social skills.
As a reflection of CMC becoming a driving force in our society, educators are
incorporating the technology in the classroom, both to enhance their teaching
and presentation skills (Althaus, 1997; Laurilland, 1987; McComb, 1994) and to
better prepare the college graduate for the business world (Palmer, Collins, &
Roy, 1995/1996). The Clinton Administration has encouraged Internet access in
all public schools, and most colleges have already become "wired."
Administrators and politicians have promoted CMC in education, and students are
now showing their interest in technologoically advanced institutions. Beller
and Or (1998) note that the demands of the student are playing an important role
in developing higher education focus and strategy. They suggest learners are
responding to institutions which offer increased accessibility and convenience,
as well as lower costs.
Computer-mediated communication can address these issues and others,
ensuring access to class materials on the web around the clock, ease of access
from home or office, and possibly providing a vehicle through which an
educational institution can reduce costs and pass savings along to the student.
In addition, a well-rounded approach to education (involving a variety of
educational tools, from traditional lecture to visual aids to on-line
instruction) has been shown to increase student success through exposure to
information in a number of sensory channels (Athapilly, Durben & Woods, 1994).
The idea of combining multimedia instructional techniques and the traditional
lecture has been linked to "teaching for the MTV generation" (James, 1998). Not
only does a multimedia approach assist the instructor in keeping students'
attention, but improves learning by offering information in a variety of ways.
"If you're a professor, you'd rather go to the NASA Web site and pick up a live
satellite feed of Mars than have students look at a 5-year-old picture in the
text book. It's far more engaging for students (James, 1998)."
However, incorporating CMC into the classroom is challenging as students
and educators alike grapple with rapidly changing and complex technology
(Witmer, 1998). While administrators pursue online instruction and often
compete to be recognized as technologically advanced, more frequently than not,
the faculty members at these institutions are overwhelmed and intimidated by
computer-mediated communication (Kayany, 1998). Others fear on-line instruction
and learning, if taken to an extreme, will replace traditional, face-to-face
student-instructor relationships. Yet, Blackett (1998) notes that educators are
beginning to realize that technology and computers are a significant component
of the educational process. Computers and the Internet are transforming the
scope of higher education, and numerous scholars are touting CMC's advantages.
Subsequently, industries affiliated with education are attempting to reach
their consumer (the college student) via CMC. Introducing competition to the
college bookstore, several on-line textbook services (such as VarsityBooks.com)
are taking advantage of college students' interest and willingness to experiment
with shopping on the Internet (Wired News, 1999). Surveys suggest that 80
percent of college students use e-mail and 94 percent have access to the
Internet (Kaye & Medoff, 1999). In addition, Peterson's 1993 College Guide
identified 93 "cyberschools," and just four years later, reported 762
"cyberschools" in their 1997 guide (Gubernick & Ebeling, 1999). Highly regarded
schools, including Harvard and Oxford Universities, are also incorporating
web-based courses in their curricula (Sanderson, 1998). With this level of
interest from the target population identified, research into the adaptation of
the technology into the classroom is necessary.
Using Computer-mediated Communication To Enhance Learning And Relationships
Focusing on computer-mediated communication from an interpersonal approach,
Rheingold (1993) suggests that CMC is more than data and connections systems,
but also a social situation in which data, words, human relationships, power and
wealth relate. Attempting to explain these relationships with existing theories
has proved problematic, as people are interacting on-line in ways not previously
observed in traditional settings.
The relatively new social situation introduced through computer-mediated
interaction presents the opportunity for users to engage in new types of
relationships (Cutler, 1996). It is this idea that encourages research into the
types of relationships formed (either new or enhanced) and the types of people
forming these relationships. Past research establishing the parameters of this
population has been unable to define the typical CMC user and encourages further
research in this field. While popular media portray the stereotypical users of
on-line relationships as lonely, strange, and dysfunctional, the fact remains
that we know very little about those making connections with others on-line
(Parks & Floyd, 1998).
While the number of people on-line is almost impossible to tally,
evaluation of the people who are on-line and forming relationships can give
definition to the CMC user. Parks and Floyd (1998) found some people may have
stronger tendencies to develop on-line relationships than others. Their
research identified females as more likely to form an on-line personal
relationship, and noted that neither age nor marital status were correlated to
the development of relationships. However, the individual's duration and
frequency of participation in newsgroups was most related to the likelihood of
that person forming an on-line relationship. Parks and Floyd (1998) suggest
this can perhaps be explained through examining the comfort level and
familiarity of simple experience; that the more experiences we share, the more
comfortable and likely we are to form a relationship.
Skeptics of on-line relationships question whether or not these
relationships are "real" and suggest that, because the participants are not
meeting in person, perhaps the relationship is fantasy. However, established
indicators of relationships center on self-disclosure which is prevalent in
on-line discussions. Relationships, varying in degree from making an
acquaintance to falling in love and marrying, are being reported with increasing
frequency. Making use of this medium, with it's relationship-fostering
advantages, may increase opportunities to form or strengthen relationships
between students and faculty, in turn leading to greater success in a student's
Baker, Hale, and Gifford (1997) investigated the effects of regular access
to computer-mediated instructional materials and compared the results with
students enrolled in conventional courses. They found that students with access
to computer-mediated instructional materials achieved higher exam scores,
mastered their lessons quicker, and overall, developed a greater interest in the
discipline. Educators are using technology on varying levels from providing an
e-mail address for student contact to eliminating paper from the entire course,
sending everything via the Internet. A 1994 Study of Communications Technology
in Higher Education reported that, generally, all faculty and students had
access to a computer, and those students and faculty who had used e-mail as a
part of their class felt it enhanced their educational experience.
Regarding the role of CMC in higher education classes, Kayany (1998)
examined several instructional web pages and surveyed a number of faculty who
employ an on-line component within their course. In his study of instructional
web pages, Kayany (1998) noted the information most frequently found was
designed to enhance (not replace) the traditional classroom format. From 75
communication related course web pages, he noted that all 75 sites contained
organizational information about the course, such as the syllabus, assignments,
due dates, and grades. Links to relevant web pages and other online resources
were included in 74 percent, and 32 percent of the sites provided lecture notes
or essays for the students to consult at any time. Faculty reported using
on-line resources to eliminate the routine "housekeeping" chores required in an
educational setting, which in turn moved their classes to a higher level of
discussion and learning.
Kayany's research (1998) into instructor experiences with on-line course
pages found some similarities among the students using the technology. The
instructors reported that better students used the on-line component of the
course. With that observation, it becomes clear why it can be difficult to
evaluate the specific benefit of an on-line course component. If the better
students are the ones taking advantage of CMC, then can the increase in grades
and comprehension be attributed to an on-line course component?
In a study focused on computer-aided learning, Goldberg (1997) reported
results that, while anecdotal, suggest that those students with access to a
combination of traditional lectures and on-line course material in the form of a
web page performed better than those students with only one form of instruction.
Students in the World Wide Web-only class agreed that lectures, held in
conjunction with the web material, would be most effective. Most important,
however, is that most of the discussed classroom research focuses around the
central theme of computer-mediated communication as a beneficial tool for
Pedagogical Benefits of Computer-mediated Communication in the Classroom
The interest in the Internet and e-mail is spilling over to the university
classroom. Potential benefits, including the establishment of an active
learning environment, improvement of communication between students and faculty,
and avoidance of many limitations of face-to-face (FTF) communication, have been
noted. However, Berge and Collins (1995) suggest that successful integration of
CMC into the curriculum depends strongly on the instructor's ability to design
and use the technology to meet the course goals and student needs. In addition,
Woodlief (1997) notes that changes in educational theory and technique move
slowly. New ideas must be tested on many students to determine their success
Althaus (1997) notes that there is little hard evidence regarding the
success of CMC in the classroom, and we are lacking empirical support for the
notion that CMC can help create a superior learning environment. However,
Dicken-Garcia (1998) promotes the benefits of CMC in creating an active learning
environment. In active learning, the emphasis is placed on the brain as a user
of knowledge, rather than a receptor for knowledge. CMC can transform the
educational experience from teaching to learning. Woodlief (1997) notes the
impetus for instructors to involve themselves in this time-consuming technology
lies in the conviction that technology in education offers new ways for students
to learn, unmatched in the traditional classroom.
CMC can improve instructor-to-student and student-to-student communication,
especially if it is used as one element in a complete information delivery and
receipt system (Kilian, 1997; Rickard, 1999). Through e-mail, students can
discuss as much or as little about their academic and personal lives as they
wish to divulge to their instructor (Atamian & DeMoville, 1998).
Elimination of the face-to-face communication factor encourages some to display
less inhibited behavior. Students may feel comfortable communicating
electronically what they would never say in person. Dicken-Garcia (1998) writes
that, "Some students, for example, who never speak in class and shun
face-to-face consultations with teachers send them surprisingly loquacious
Electronic mail can provide users with the convenience and speed of a
traditional telephone call combined with the detail of a letter (Auter, 1996).
Students using e-mail to contact a professor report an improved perception of
the instructor's availability, while the professor may actually be on campus
less, connecting with the Internet and e-mail at home or in another location
(Atamian & DeMoville, 1998).
Research into the traditional classroom educational process has shown time and
again that interaction between the teacher and student is a key to learning
(Bloom, 1981; McHenry & Bozik, 1995; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Sprague,
1993). The absence of this key factor has been detrimental to the success and
widespread acceptance of traditional distance-learning networks in the past.
McComb (1994) suggests that the learning process is hinged on conversations
between teachers and students, not the transmission of knowledge in a lecture.
Because the teacher-student interaction is so vital to the learning process, it
would follow that media designed to supplement that interaction would enhance
the learning process (Kayany, 1998).
Computer-mediated communication provides a unique environment, avoiding many of
the limitations of traditional face-to-face communication (McComb, 1994).
Face-to-face communication requires students and their instructors to be in
close physical proximity, while computer-mediated communication is
place-independent. The only requirement for CMC is that both users have access
to a computer and a phone jack, services provided for students in many campus
CMC can be asynchronous, allowing students and faculty to communicate at
different times (Hua, 1996; Althaus, 1997). This allows the professor to
maintain a closer connection with students interested in fostering a more
developed relationship, while freeing the professor from long, unattended office
hours. Asynchronous communication also benefits the student by allowing a
method of contacting the professor whenever it may be convenient, even at 2:30
in the morning.
An article in PRNewswire (1998) notes that approximately seven million
adult learners are returning to college, many via distance learning technologies
such as the Internet. These students need and deserve the same access to
faculty, but may not be able to attend regularly scheduled office hours due to
conflicts with employment or other responsibilities. E-mail can help solve this
dilemma, and potentially increase the amount of communication between the
student and the professor. Additionally, the instructor can design the class
interactions over the Internet to create a "dynamic syllabus," cataloging all
class discussions and contributions over the semester to be used by other
students and classes (Woodlief, 1997). However, it is important to note the
most interactive and lively class discussions occur when the interaction is
synchronous, meaning that most of the students are on-line and in the forum at
the same time (Woodlief, 1997).
CMC can also benefit students affected by learning disabilities, who may
experience limitations when communicating face-to-face. Those students who
experience difficulty arranging and articulating their thoughts verbally
(Althaus, 1997). These students can carefully construct a message to the
professor and the professor, in turn, can provide a more thoughtful response.
Students who are particularly shy, or whose native language is not English may
also find CMC particularly helpful in communicating (Harasim, 1990).
On the Internet, people may take on new personalities, often typified by
less inhibited behavior, in turn promoting greater communication between the
student and his/her peers or faculty members. Livingood (1995) writes that
introverts are seeking their "revenge" through e-mail. Not only can an
introvert respond to messages if and when they choose, they can reread, rewrite,
and revise their message several times before choosing to send it. They are
also avoid interruption from a more extroverted personality. Livingood (1995,
p. 8) quotes a student respondent as commenting, "I don't always have a lot to
say in the first place; and when I do have something to say, I'll forget it if
the other person keeps babbling and interrupting. That is what makes me seem
quiet, not that I don't have opinions on the subject."
Potential Detractors from Computer-mediated Communication Success
While many researchers have extolled the benefits of CMC, others note factors
that may detract from the success of computer-mediated communication in the
classroom. Research and experience have revealed problems with unequal levels
of skill, limited access to equipment and the elimination of non-verbal cues in
CMC. These issues are discussed widely in the research and have (or have the
potential to) significantly impact the acceptance of CMC in the classroom.
Unequal levels of skill and limited access to technology are primary
concerns of CMC critics. Rogers (1983) proposed the diffusion of innovations
theory to explain the discrepant rate of acceptance for a technological advance.
Essentially, diffusion theory suggests that the introduction of innovations is a
process that occurs over time among members of a social system. People develop
curiosity, sample, and adopt new technologies at different times under different
circumstances causing a trickle-down effect in the diffusion of the technology.
The inconsistency in skill and access to CMC, potentially attributable to
diffusion theory, poses problems for educators employing computer-mediated
Atamian and DeMoville (1997) note the biggest obstacle to a paperless
course would be the lack of convenient access to equipment, as expressed by
several students in their study. Increasingly, educational institutions are
addressing this concern through a requirement that students come to campus with
their own computer (Gates, 1998; Resmer, Oblinger, & Mingle, 1995).
Another approach to ensuring equality of both equipment and skill is
demonstrated by the University of Delaware. New students at the University of
Delaware are required to pass an Electronic Community Citizenship Examination
(ECCE) before gaining access to computing resources. The process is teaching
students about responsible computing and good citizenship in the Internet
community (Allmendinger, 1995).
In addition to the hardware, knowledge of the software and other basic
skills are necessary to participate in CMC. Althaus (1997) notes that students
with little to no computer experience should be expected to have a more
difficult time mastering the technology, and that minimal typing and reading
comprehension skills are required for participation . The CMC arena is a series
of peaks and valleys, with students/faculty who are "techno-wizzes" and those
who cannot use basic e-mail. This requires the professor to synthesize a
variety of skill levels, vocabularies, and expectations of CMC in order to reach
While the amount and quality of communication between the professor and student
is expected to increase with the use of CMC, the loss of non-verbal or social
is a concern for some (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Culnan and Markus (1987)
described an approach as the "cues filtered out" theory (also called reduced
cues) which suggests that the computer has a low social presence because it
filters out important aspects of communication that participants in face-to-face
communication are privy to (paralanguage-pitch, intensity, stress, tempo,
volume), leaving a conversation in a social vacuum. Atamian and DeMoville
(1998) found that the elimination of body language increased the need for
precise word choice and communication. A few cases were described in their
study, in which a student wrongly perceived an instructor's comments (Atamain &
DeMoville, 1998). This is potentially detrimental to the success of CMC in the
classroom because a student who has wrongly perceived the mood or intent of an
instructor's comments may withdraw from the medium. Instructors must take great
care in reading and responding when communicating with students via CMC.
Critics of on-line communication suggest that it lacks the social cues and
unpredictability of face-to-face communication (Dicken-Garcia, 1998). However,
frequent users of the technology have developed code words, acronyms, and
symbols to help express these non-verbal, social cues. Called emoticons, these
marks and symbols help reveal the sender's mood (Chenault, 1998). Emoticons are
used most frequently in "meet and greet" situations where one wants to appear
approachable. A few examples include ":-)" (a smiling face indicating a laugh,
smile, happy response), "ROTFL" (rolling on the floor laughing), "LOL" (laugh
out loud) among others. These help indicate the receiver's reaction to the
message in ways that model the non-verbal cues normally seen or heard. Lea and
Spears (1995) note that a learning curve exists with CMC, and those who are
seasoned communicators become more adept at interpreting emoticons and
paralinguistic codes. Yet, even first time users were able to form impressions
of others' personalities and communication styles via CMC.
Weighing the pros and cons, the decision to enter the on-line education
community is one which must come with great consideration. Several issues
affect the success of the program and educational viability of instruction via
the Internet. Primarily, the instructor must realize that the customary
authoritative role of the instructor in the classroom is altered in an
electronic environment. Students perceive instructors more as guides than the
traditional "sage on the stage." Resmer, et. al. (1995) notes classes can be
restructured to encourage learning through doing and discovering instead of
passively receiving, thus shifting the educational paradigm from a
teacher-centered to a learner-centered approach. Furthermore, it is critical
that everyone concerned realize the expense involved in offering on-line
education. It is consuming in money, time, and resources, as participants
require training and the on-line course (or portion thereof) must be written and
designed (Kilian, 1997). The effort required to create and individualize the
material is substantial, yet the advantages of CMC in the classroom are seen as
tremendous (McClure, 1998).
While disadvantages exist with any technology, the reported advantages of
computer-mediated communication in the classroom are enticing college faculty
and administrators. The Internet has become a part of the college classroom
with unprecedented speed. Instructors are working (sometimes willingly,
sometimes not) to incorporate some level of computer-mediated communication into
their syllabus and most studies dealing with the effectiveness of CMC are
centered around the instructor's perceptions. While this is a valid subject
group, another equally important group has been less researched with regard to
the effectiveness of CMC in the classroom, the end user. Students have rarely
been investigated to determine their perceptions of the contributions CMC is
making to their learning experience. This disparity in the research drives this
baseline study of students' perceptions of CMC in the classroom.
Because the investment in computer-mediated communication technology,
training, and development is great, both in financial and time commitments, it
is important to determine how the students themselves perceive the benefits.
Atamain and DeMoville (1997) experimented with a paperless class, requiring
their students to submit assignments and contact them strictly via e-mail.
Their results suggest that students perceived the instructor as more available,
while the professor was actually less present on campus and accessed e-mail from
home. However, few studies have focused solely on the students' perspective.
In addition, studies that investigated student opinions were written by those
instructors who were investigating the success of the technology in their own
classrooms. Because students have been less researched, it is not clear how
they perceive computer-mediated communication in the classroom. Thus, the first
question asked is:
RQ1: What issues will the students identify as important
regarding computer-mediated communication in the classroom?
CMC does not enjoy complete acceptance and use by the educational community. A
variety of options are available to faculty with regard to the level of
computer-mediated communication employed in the classroom. Some faculty do not
use CMC in any way, while others teach their entire class on-line. Research in
this field has not examined the students' perceptions of CMC when considered
across all courses taken at the college level. In addition, researchers have
not interviewed the end-user (the student) to determine what level of CMC is
most desired and beneficial. To address this area, the following questions are
RQ2: Considering all courses the student has taken, do students
perceive computer-mediated communication efforts to be beneficial and
enhance their learning experience?
RQ3: What level of CMC do students perceive as most beneficial?
This study examines student attitudes toward computer-mediated communication
in the college classroom, specifically concerning student/faculty relationships
and interest levels in CMC. The qualitative approach taken allows for a more
in-depth look at student perceptions. Stacks and Hocking (1992) suggest that
interview methods may be used to gather qualitative information to design a
subsequent quantitative study. The use of qualitative methods in this study is
appropriate because previous research on which to build a quantitative study is
lacking. And, with little information about student perspectives of
computer-mediated communication in the classroom available, it is difficult to
project those issues that will be important to students. Therefore, focus
groups were used to identify, and gain detailed knowledge of, the CMC issues
that are of interest to the students.
A series of five focus groups was conducted in a small group communication lab.
Trained moderators conducted the focus groups while the researcher observed from
the booth equipped with a one-way glass window. Participants for the focus
groups were recruited from undergraduate classes, with an average of six
participants per group, totaling 31 students. Subjects were recruited at a
large southeastern university considered one of the "100 Most Wired
Universities" in Yahoo's annual survey (1998). Students have access to a number
of services on-line, including registration, drop/add, and transcripts. In
addition, 25 percent of the classes offer on-line materials and 30 percent
require on-line work. The average wait time for a computer in a campus lab is
15 to 30 minutes and 65 percent of students own a computer.
The participants were called by the researcher the evening before the
meeting to remind them of the study and give them directions to the small group
lab. All students recruited were offered extra credit in their class, at the
discretion of their instructor. The average age of the participants was 19
years and both genders were represented equally. Several areas of study were
represented, including education, computer science, business, graphic design,
engineering, political science, and communication, as well as several
participants who were undecided as to their major. Finally, the participants
reported varying levels of experience and comfort with computers.
Group #1: Group #2:
Male 19 Computer Engineering Male 21 Undecided
Male 20 Graphic Design Male 19 Undecided
Male 21 Business Female 20 Education
Female 20 Business Finance Male 19 (not reported)
Female 19 Undecided Female 19 Education
Male 18 (not reported) Male 21 Education
Group #3: Group #4:
Female 19 Political Science Female 18 Bus. Admin.
Male 20 Business Management Female 19 Undecided
Female 18 Undecided Female 19 Comm.
Male 18 Political Science Male 19 Computer Sci.
Female 19 Political Science Female 19 Education
Female 19 Business Male 18 Hospitality
Male 19 Undecided Female 18 Legal Studies
Male 21 Political Science
Male 19 Business Management
Female 18 Computer Science
Male 19 Engineering
Female 22 Elementary Education
The focus groups were conducted during the afternoon on two consecutive
days. As the participants arrived, they were asked to sign in, fill out a name
tag (to aid in the facilitation of the discussion) and were offered a seat at
the conference table. The table was arranged with an equal number of
participants seated on each side and the moderator seated among them. Reading
from the provided script (Appendix A), the moderator thanked the students for
participating and explained computer-mediated communication to assist in
focusing on the topic, ensuring everyone understood the general concepts being
discussed. Following the introduction, the moderator asked the participants to
complete a survey regarding their experience with CMC. A pilot test for
follow-up quantitative research, the survey clarified points and focused the
participants on the narrow portion of CMC to be discussed. Initial survey
questions were developed based on faculty perspectives reported in previous
Upon completion of the survey, the moderator opened the discussion of
computer-mediated communication with the participants. A series of discussion
points derived from previous research on faculty perspectives toward
computer-mediated communication in education was provided for the moderator
(Appendix A). However, it was not required that each of the discussion
questions be asked, as these points simply served as guide. The goal of this
research was to identify topics/issues of interest to the student which had not
previously been established. Therefore, the moderator used the topic list as a
springboard, but moved the conversation in the direction taken by the students,
allowing for a more detailed analysis of student opinions.
To insure an accurate record of the focus groups, the discussions were
audio taped. Following the group meetings, the tapes were reviewed and then
transcribed. Overall issues presented by the participants were identified
through a cross-case analysis. This method was selected because variations in
individuals were not the focus, rather the research goal was to determine
different perspectives on central issues relating to computer-mediated
communication (Patton, 1990). Primary analysis of the issues and topics
regarding CMC that are important to students must be completed before detailed,
individual experiences can be examined. Therefore, after the overall issues
were identified, case analyses were conducted to evaluate individual experiences
and perspectives regarding these issues.
Findings and Discussion
In relatively new fields of study, it is difficult to accurately predict those
issues of importance to the population being researched. Before extensive
quantitative analysis can be conducted, it is essential to discuss the topic
with a sample group to determine the issues which should be investigated. In
this study, computer-mediated communication in education was discussed with
those which are directly affected by its use, the students. A large-scale
quantitative analysis may be beneficial to faculty and administration in making
decisions regarding the employment of computer-mediated communication in their
institutions, however, it is important that the issues of importance to the
student first be identified before such an instrument can be designed.
Through the discussions held with the students in the focus groups, we
noted several recurring points of interest and/or concern. Primarily, the
students discussed: (1) developing student/faculty relationships; (2)
components of successful classes; and (3) levels of skill and access to
computer equipment to participate in computer-mediated communication. These
overriding issues focused the discussion of CMC and revealed student perceptions
of the usefulness and acceptance of this technology in the classroom.
Student/faculty relationships have been identified as an important component of
a successful college experience (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Positive
relationships have been linked to mastery of the course work, increased interest
in learning, and ultimately, higher graduation rates. Integrating the technical
elements of the computer with the social implications of relationships is
critical to the success of CMC. Research suggests that faculty perceive
computer-mediated communication as a way to develop and/or enhance the
relationships formed with students (Atamain & DeMoville, 1997; Kayany, 1999).
Students in the focus groups concurred with Pascarella and Terenzini
(1991), that student/faculty relationships are important to their success in
education, and most indicated that they attempt to build and enhance their
relationships with the faculty. However, students reported that e-mail is not
their preferred method of relationship building. The participants rely on
traditional methods for forming relationships, such as meeting the professor
before or after class, during office hours, or via a phone call. The majority
agreed that e-mail was acceptable for asking simple questions, clarification of
assignments, and some relationship maintenance, but indicated that it was
important to establish the relationship face-to-face. In addition, most
reported that e-mail would be used as a second option, a backup, to reach the
instructor. The preferred method of contact remains face-to-face. Student
_ (If you have a better relationship) they (faculty) would be more
prone to help you and want to understand who you are. And you would be
more likely to give out more information to them, not just be so scared
to talk to them. Male, 19, Business Management
_ I think it's important to get to know your professor because
they get to know your potential and can help recognize problems you may
be having with the material. Female, 22, Elementary Education
_ You need to establish some personal contact with them (faculty),
you know, face-to-face, get to know them personally. Then you can use
e-mail to ask questions. Female, 19, Political Science
_ I would not use e-mail to contact my instructors, regardless of
the purpose. It's so impersonal - I would do whatever it takes to find
them in person. Male, 21,
Communicating with students via CMC raised concerns with the faculty.
Atamain & DeMoville (1997) reported a potential for misunderstanding or
misinterpretation of e-mail messages sent between students and faculty due to
the lack of nonverbal cues. While much of the research regarding reduced social
cues (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986) has been refuted, it is important to note that
communicating nonverbal messages via e-mail takes practice and skill. The
disparity in skill level is discussed more thoroughly later; however, it is
important to note that all students are not equal in their experience and skill,
and that all are not adept at communicating via the computer. Therefore, it is
important for both the student and faculty to be aware of the potential for
misunderstanding, thus magnifying the importance of word choice, sentence
structure, and even punctuation carefully when communicating via e-mail.
Student comments included:
_ I think e-mail is okay, but I would never choose e-mail over
going to talk to someone in person. You can clarify questions, respond
to answers and read their body language. You get to know them better
one-on-one. Male, 21, Computer Engineering
_ I think that's probably a disadvantage of using e-mail, that you
can be misunderstood. I know people who have sent letters to people
and the way they would read it and the way they would perceive it was
different than the way the original person wrote it out to
be. Male, 19,
_ That's one of the risks you have to take if you are going to
participate in e-mail. Everyone is not going to understand everyone
else with written words. All you have to do is just try your best to
explain yourself through words and if people misinterpret that, well,
that's the best you can do. Male,
18, (not reported)
The participants agree that e-mail has a place in the college classroom, but
what role should other methods of CMC take? The majority of today's classrooms
are still dominated by traditional lecture methods; however, a variety of
technological innovations are taking hold (Terenzini & Upcraft, 1999). From
PowerPoint presentations and audio/video components, to e-mail and course web
pages, to virtual classrooms, administrators and faculty are pushing to move the
classroom beyond the lectern and into technology. Most institutions have
developed, or are in the process of developing, courses conducted exclusively
on-line, and many instructors are adding on-line components to their traditional
courses. What is the student's perception of the "new" classroom?
In the discussions, we found that students are less interested in courses
conducted exclusively on-line. Several participants commented that success in
on-line courses is harder to achieve because of the self-paced nature and lack
of face-to-face accountability. Typically, two students said:
_ I'm not motivated to take a class that's strictly on the web
- if I don't have to go, then I won't go. I need a motivation to go
class. Male, 19, Undecided
_ I think it's better to go to a class when the teacher
actually knows your face - you feel more responsible. Female, 19,
All of the participants expressed interest in course web pages designed to
supplement their in-class experience. Kayany (1999) found that instructors
valued course web pages as a way to eliminate "housekeeping" chores in class and
increase the level of discussion and learning. Instructors who placed lecture
notes on-line found that students came to class better prepared and contributed
more to the class discussion. Several focus group participants had used such a
web page and reported success when they used it in conjunction with traditional
methods. Participants said they used a course web page to access notes if they
were absent, check the syllabus and assignment due dates, gather supplemental
materials for the class, and as a reference when preparing for an exam. The
students suggested that such an enhancement should be an option, not a
requirement for the class, and should contain the syllabus, assignment
information and due dates, class notes, study guides, and links to web sites
related to the course. Again, students said:
_ I think what's different is that, a long time ago, when there
wasn't e-mail, everything that we were supposed to learn was restricted
only to the classroom. Now that we have on-line services and stuff, it
breaks that limit to where you can learn at home as well as in the
classroom. Learning isn't confined to the classroom now. Male, 19,
_ Basically, to learn, you have to experience the material and you
can't necessarily experience it only from reading a computer screen.
It means you need interaction, writing on the board, and other methods
including the computer, but not only the computer. Female, 20, Business
_ I think it is better when you can get the notes from the web
before class because then I can pay attention to the lecture without
having to scribble down the notes. Male, 21, Undecided
_ I don't think it can be used as a substitute, there has to be
some kind of interaction, otherwise, you're just reading about
something that you haven't really learned. Like in my economics class,
we have to download the notes from the web and then bring them to class
and add to them. I think it's easier because see, when we started out
in the economics class, he would just present the lecture and we'd have
to write it down. Everyone really complained about it because we
weren't really learning. We had to write down every little thing. He
started posting the notes on the web, at least an outline. Then you'd
have at least the 123's of what you were going to learn that day. When
you'd bring that in, you knew you were going to get more details so I
was able to learn better that way. Male, 20, Graphic
The final question asked participants which components they would include if
they were designing a class exclusively for themselves. Every participant
selected at least five components, and most selected all but one or two. In the
discussion, the students indicated that a variety of tools are needed in the
classroom to reach each student. Students explained:
_ I checked everything (on the survey). I think that even if you
don't use all of it, the option that it's there, that you can use it
helps to increase the learning experience. To make a class that's only
e-mail and audio/video and on-line chat with instructors, some people
might not respond to that, they might respond to a lecture better.
They wouldn't benefit from that at all. But if you have all of those
things, even if some don't use it, you're going to have something for
everybody. Male, 21, Education
_ The only things I didn't check were the on-line chat with
instructors and classmates. I've done that before, where we've had
on-line meetings, and it just doesn't work. It's hard to ask questions
and the chat gets off the subject a lot. Female, 19, Political
_ I didn't check those two (on-line chat with
instructors/classmates) either. If you have a question, it's much
easier to call the instructor or go to their office. Male, 19,
An important caveat of including computer-mediated communication in the
classroom is ensuring that all students have access to the equipment and the
skills necessary to participate in CMC, especially if the instructor requires
use of e-mail or a course web page. Terenzini and Upcraft (1999) note that
students have come to expect computer accessibility on their campuses, and
universities are going to great lengths to meet those expectations. While
on-campus computer labs have become quite commonplace, several universities are
either requiring students to bring their own computer to campus or are placing
computers in every residence hall room. As recently as one year ago, the goal
for many institutions was to be rated as one of the "most wired" universities.
Now, several campuses are moving to become the most "wireless" as wireless
telecommunications networks (similar to cellular phone networks) are being
installed to permit significantly increased accessibility to the Internet.
Obviously, the expansion of computer access to students is not cheap (for the
institution or the student), but do students perceive computer access to be an
The students in the focus groups reported that access to computers is a
critical issue since computer-mediated communication is an increasingly popular
component of their courses. Not only did the students discuss access to the
hardware, but also problems with software compatibility and levels of skill
among their classmates. Referring to the diffusion of innovations theory
(Rogers, 1983), it is expected that there will be a trickle-down effect of the
technology throughout the society. This is especially evident on the college
campus where it is possible to examine access and skill level on a smaller
scale. Students in the study reported varying levels of skill and comfort with
the computer which translate into their acceptance of CMC as a viable component
Regarding access to computers, students said:
_ That's a real problem. I don't know, I really don't know.
They have open labs on campus but it's a real pain to get to them.
Male, 20, Graphic Design
_ They're (computer labs) in the middle of campus and every
parking lot is the same distance away from them. It's really
inconvenient. You can't just park right next to it and walk in.
Male, 19, (not reported)
_ Sometimes you have to wait for a computer after you've just
waited for a parking spot. It's a pain. Female, 20, Business
_ My roommate doesn't have a computer and I do. He is always
on my computer so I rarely get to use it. I wish every student had
own computer, especially my roommate. Male, 19, Undecided
_ I've e-mailed my professors papers before using Microsoft
Word and if they don't have Microsoft Word, then they can't read the
paper. That's another big problem is that everyone has to be using
same program. Basically what that means is that you'd have to give
everyone in the class a copy of the program, and that's not really
going to happen anytime soon. Male, 21, Business
_ A big disadvantage to CMC is that not everyone has the
knowledge of how to use the computer. Female, 19, Undecided
_ The computer classes offered here only teach you how to
turn on the computer and program dumb pictures. They need to teach
people how to use the practical stuff, the stuff our teachers make
use. Female, 19, Education
_ You can't even turn in a paper anymore unless it's typed.
You have to be trained to keep up. Male, 21, Education
_ It's not fair either for the one guy in the class that's a
real "computer nerd." He gets bombarded with questions on how to do
stuff. If you are smart about computers, you better keep it to
yourself or people will bug the hell out of you to help them. Male,
Conclusion and Suggestions for Future Research
Overall, students are accustomed to the idea that computers are a part of
their education and everyday lives. Most reported using the computer to
communicate with friends and family back home, or with people they had met in
chat rooms. However, in-depth examination of the role of computers in education
is essential to success. If students are to be productive and manage desirable
social outcomes through the use of technology, the employment of that technology
must be designed with the end-user as the focus. Creating a system that
satisfies the administration and faculty, but not the student, is simply not a
success. The results from the focus groups suggest that while students and
faculty agree on issues such as increasing the efficiency of the class through a
course web page, the students are not willing to forgo the traditional methods
of building relationships with the faculty and instructional techniques.
It is clear that higher education is not turning away from
computer-mediated instruction. Furthermore, the rapidly changing technology and
the innumerable ways it can be used present a tremendous challenge to both
instructors and researchers. Future researchers may want to further investigate
the issues discussed by the students in this study, as well as ways different
disciplines use CMC in instruction, issues regarding ethics on the Internet
(cheating, false representation), and a large-scale quantitative look at the
viability of CMC in the classroom.
Essentially, all of the participants agree that e-mail and CMC are
valuable in education; however, on an individual level, they are reluctant to
rely on it. One participant noted that she is hesitant to e-mail assignments
because she isn't 100% sure that they will be received. Students interviewed in
this study do not look to computer-mediated communication as a replacement for
the traditional educational experience, but rather appreciate the enhancements
CMC can offer.
Focus Group Discussion Points
Participants in the focus groups will be briefed on computer-mediated
communication to insure understanding of the medium being examined.
SCRIPT: "Good morning/afternoon. My name is __(moderator)__ and
I'd like to thank you for participating in this focus group about
computer-mediated communication in the classroom. To begin our
discussion, please complete this survey. The survey specifically looks
at the ways you may communicate with your instructors via the
computer. Examples of computer-mediated communication include e-mail,
course web pages and courses conducted exclusively on-line. When
completing the survey, please consider your entire college experience.
This survey will take approximately five minutes. Following the
survey, we will discuss your responses and experiences as a group."
The survey instrument will be distributed and the participants will be asked to
complete the survey. Following the survey, the floor will be opened to the
participants. Following are some suggested points/questions for the moderator:
1. How important is a relationship with your instructor? Does a
good relationship improve your success in the class?
2. How can a good relationship be fostered between an instructor
and his students?
3. What is your experience with computer-mediated communication in
4. What is your opinion of that experience?
5. Discuss the survey instrument, inquire as to any question that
may be difficult to understand.
6. What advantages/disadvantages have you experienced with
computer-mediated communication in the classroom?
7. What are the primary problems associated with the use of CMC in
8. How have you used CMC in your education? Research? E-mail?
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