Computer-mediated communication (CMC) should be viewed as the larger category incorporating Bulletin Board Systems and other forms of online communication. The reason for revisiting some of the area covered by Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) with the concept of CMC is that it represents a good example of how a technology develops into a more generic educational approach. CMC became a popular phrase around 1996 and represents higher education beginning to engage with online tools in a more meaningful theoretical, conceptual manner, comparable to the way higher education had engaged with early developments in conventional open and distance education, when there had been considerable research on the pedagogic implications of educating in this manner. CMC has a broad definition of various forms of human communication that is conducted through networked computers. It is usually divided into two main formats of synchronous, i.e., occurring in real time, and asynchronous, i.e., not restricted to simultaneous timing. The types of CMC technologies back in 1996 included instant messaging, email, BBS, early Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video systems (precursors to the likes of Skype), online databases, discussion forums, and even online multi-user games (the Multi-User Dungeon [MUD] being an early form of distributed online gaming).
The adoption of CMC was particularly driven by a shift from purely text-based systems to graphical interfaces which made them easier to use. For instance, the Open University (OU) switched from the text-based CoSy system to the graphical FirstClass system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FirstClass). As well as being more user friendly, these systems also had sophisticated administrative back-end systems that allowed the automatic allocation of students to groups, multiple roles with a range of different permissions, offline synchronization, threading to structure conversations, and a high degree of personalization for users. This highlights the shift to a more educational focus in the deployment of CMC and tools developed with education more specifically as a target market.
Such systems were forerunners to LMS, both technically and culturally. Many CMC systems were simple enough to use for most students that the pedagogic benefits could now be realized. This is again a recurrent ed tech theme — when the barriers to the use of a particular technology become low enough (and in the case of smart phones, say, almost invisible) that its use can be generalized, then it gains broad acceptance across disciplines. From CMC, a number of approaches and concepts were derived that would inform much of the e-learning developments that would follow, including online tutor groups, e-moderation (Salmon, 2004), forums, online conferences, netiquette, and so on. What CMC brought to the fore was the need to develop models for how this technology could be used effectively across multiple subject domains. For example, online tutor groups are not the same as face-to-face tutor groups, they require a different set of behaviours to be learned by students and educators and activities need to be structured accordingly. With CMC, asynchronous online group work became a possibility, but at the same time, it was also a very frustrating experience for students. A collaborative activity that could usually be completed in an afternoon in a face-to-face setting would probably occupy students for three weeks or so when completing it online and asynchronously. It required that they introduce themselves, establish roles, allocate work, conduct the work, and then combine it.
The social elements in these tasks can happen in a short time frame when in a face-to-face setting (“Who wants to be the project manager? Okay, you do it.”), but can stretch over days when people are communicating asynchronously, perhaps lack the social cues to interact, are waiting for responses, or if someone may be offline for an extended period. It is probably the case that as educators many of us became rather overenthusiastic about the new communication possibilities, and I have sympathy with the student on one of my early online courses who bemoaned, “It was a new collaborative activity every week!” This work in online collaboration, however, was driven by a strong theoretical underpinning, drawing on pedagogic and communication research, particularly in the area of constructivism (see chapter 4). Gradually the viability of online teaching via CMC gained credibility until it became the norm for many.
If the benefit of the web was the removal of barriers to broadcast and publishing, then CMC delivered the ability to collaborate at a distance. This is arguably more powerful in education than the democratization of broadcast, but it also gets to the heart of different views about education. The use of the web to disseminate information cheaply to a mass audience was represented by what can be termed the “infinite lecture hall” model, whereby large numbers of students could be taught relatively cheaply, because the cost of delivering content to 10,000 students was largely the same as delivering it to 10 students if it was based around a broadcast model. The use of the Internet to facilitate collaboration and discussion in groups at a distance emphasizes a more student focused, less industrial model. In such a model, there is more dialogue between students, but this requires moderation and support. Student dialogue forms a much greater part of these courses — in a conventional course, the educator accounts for approximately 80% of the dialogue, whereas CMC structured courses have only 10–15% of dialogue attributable to the educator (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag, 1995). Therefore, this student exchange cannot be “captured” beforehand in the way a conventional lecture can but needs to be facilitated during the course itself. The costs associated with e-learning will be examined in chapter 8, but the difference between these approaches was highlighted by Bates (1995) who analyzed several costs associated with the broadcast model versus the communication model. Adopting a cost per student study-hour model he found that the broadcast (or in the terminology of the time, computer-based training, CBT) models were characterized by high initial fixed costs associated with development or purchase, but low variable costs — hence the infinite lecture hall model since adding more students did not noticeably increase costs. A more CMC-based course, however, showed that the
total costs rise directly with student numbers. There is relatively little front-end investment in these courses, and if interactivity, a major feature of CMC, is to be effective, the number of instructors increases with the number of students. Instructors are the main cost with this technology. (Bates, 1995, p. 223)
In this we see another common theme in which technology brings underlying beliefs regarding education into focus and exaggerates them. These two fundamental models are still behind many of the different approaches in ed tech; for example, the two different models of MOOC that we will see in chapter 19 are termed “xMOOC” and “cMOOC” and map closely onto broadcast and communication models, respectively.
CMC then, building on BBS, raised the significance of communication. This is again one of the recurring themes in ed tech, that the implementation of technology makes people evaluate what is core in education itself, which had hitherto been implicit. When CMC became more mainstream, then it required educators to explicitly design communication into their courses. When it occurred online, it didn’t “just happen,” or rather it can’t be assumed to just arise as it does in face-to-face, informal settings. When there was no alternative to face-to-face settings, the function of communication was not considered in such detail, but in fact, when analyzed, universities were designed specifically to foreground effective communication. Students were brought together in one physical location, over a tightly constrained time frame, with a strict timetable which occurs within an architecture that offers students multiple spaces (cafes, bars, common areas) and opportunities for informal discussion. This is all obvious in retrospect, but it was so commonplace that the intentionality of the structure became invisible. But when the online element was introduced, educators were forced to consider how they either replicated these interactions or improved upon them.
CMC raises the following sorts of questions: When should we explicitly direct communication between students? How do we facilitate this? Should it be assessed? If so, how? How does the learning environment inhibit, or encourage this type of communication? How does the design of the course encourage the type of informal discussion that aids so much of campus-based education? And so on. For most educators when they become new lecturers at a traditional face-to-face university, I suspect these types of questions are not really asked of their educational approach–it is assumed within the architecture, timetabling, and structure of the physical campus. When that education moves online, then these questions are pertinent not just for the technologized version of a course but for the original face-to-face one too.
This is one of the often unspoken, and largely intangible, benefits of ed tech — that it surfaces assumptions in existing practice that bear analysis. This led to a wealth of research, experimentation, and theorizing, which continues to this day.