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Using Computer Mediated Communication in Learning and Teaching

  What is CMC?

There are many forms of computer-mediated communication. CMC can include anything that is text-based, uses ICT as a technological base and can be used for two-way transmission of ideas. Examples of CMC can include:

  • emails;
  • mailbases;
  • shared network group folders;
  • annotatable webpages and databases;
  • discussion boards (or fora/forums);
  • frequently updated hyperlinked webpages.

These are all forms of asynchronous CMC.

Synchronous CMC includes:

  • chat,
  • instant messaging.

Another tool that falls into this category, although technically not computer-mediated communication is telephone text messaging.

  When should I use CMC?

CMC has been used for the following reasons in the ANNIE project:

  • To support a videoconference
  • To provide further contact with a guest lecturer after their lecture
  • To enable students to meet when a face-to-face session is difficult to organise
  • To provide additional opportunity for students to exchange ideas for subject areas that are more discursive

In our experience, CMC has only been used in conjunction with other forms of communication, either videoconferences or face-to-face interactions, never in isolation.

  Which CMC should I use?

The major factor in selecting a CMC medium is "should the communication be synchronous or asynchronous?" This decision should be based on the following criteria:

  • Can all of the participants meet at the same time?
  • Is the activity time-dependent (i.e. to fit in with a teaching programme)

If so, then a synchronous medium is most appropriate.

  • Are the participants part-time students/spread across time zones?
  • Is the subject matter one which requires in-depth analysis and response

If so, then an asynchronous medium is most appropriate.

With both synchronous and asynchronous media there are specific problems.

  Synchronous CMC

What are the biggest problems with synchronous CMC?

Problems that arise in synchronous communication are:

  • multiple threads of discussion are created which become too difficult to follow for some students, particularly true of those students who are communicating in another language other than their first language.
  • students on a slow connection always lag slightly behind in the discussion.
  • the discussion tends to lose focus because of many side discussions.
  • some students cannot jump in because they are slow typists.
  • responses get out of sequence.

Failing to provide a platform for all students to participate equally implicitly censors some of the participants.

How do I solve these?

The solution to this is to have a prepared set of questions, subjects to discuss, etc. and have a fixed order for the students to respond in.

Spend the first part of the chat session carrying out the following activities:

  • Allow a certain "open time" for students to chat with each other. This allows the students who are less familiar with the technology to practice, and provides an opportunity for students who are more familiar with the technology to introduce some of the abbreviation and emoticons used in chat to their less experienced peers. A certain disorganised time is inevitable at the start of the chat, while everyone logs on.
  • Ask each member of the class to identify themselves.
  • Explain the procedure for participation: i.e. that comments or responses have to be done in a strict sequence. If students don't wish to comment then they have to say "pass", but this queue is important for everyone to have a say.
  • Assign an order for the participants, in which they are to ask questions and respond.
  • Explain the structure of the session. For example, you may ask for the students to each give their opinion, then have the members of the group respond to those opinions in turn, or you may provide them with the opportunity to ask you questions, with your answers forming the basis of another round of questions.

What if I want the session to be a bit more spontaneous?

If you feel that this limits the spontaneity within chat, then you can return to the open time at points within the chat, but this needs to be alternated with the cycles of set responses.

What if I want the students' comments to be a bit more considered?

To add further value to the sessions, ask the students to prepare statements or questions before the chat session starts.

How do I make moderating a chat session easier?

To reduce pressure on yourself during the chat session, prepare the running order, structure of the session, explanations, questions, etc. beforehand in a Word document, and keep this Word document open at the same time as the chat. The prepared text can then be copied and pasted into the chat at the appropriate time. This also enables you to record particular points that arise in the chat that you wish to return to. Simply copy and paste the points from the chat window into the Word window, to keep a running set of notes.

How can I make use later of the material discussed in the chat?

Save the transcript of the chat session. If the software does not do this automatically, copy and paste the transcript into your open Word document. This can often be a useful resource for future work, particularly for the next time you run the session.

How do I deal with the students losing their connections?

You may encounter problems if the students are participating in the chat from home via dial-up modem. This can be a very unreliable technology, resulting in loss of connection the students for brief periods. It is too disruptive to the session to wait for the missing students to become reconnected and then reacquaint them with the discussion points missed. Recording the chat transcript means that the discussion can continue without the missing student, because it provides them with the chance to fill in the gaps later.

  Asynchronous CMC

What are the biggest problems with asynchronous CMC?

The levels of participation are usually very poor with CMC for the following reasons.

  • Posts to the discussion boards need to be frequent for people to maintain an interest in the boards, and so if the level participation drops below a certain degree, no further postings take place.
  • Checking the discussion board for posts requires learning to incorporate an additional activity to one's routine, which often means people don't take part.
  • The asynchronous nature encourages people to give participation a lower priority.

How can these problems be overcome?

  • Raise the profile of postings by using discussion board software which also sends emails to the users' email account (and so is a combination discussion board and mailbase). This acts as a prompt for users to participate.
  • Structure the discussions, so that there are specific activities for them to undertake. These activities are most effective if they gradually introduce participants to the forum (see
  • Regularly structure the discussion threads using some of the following actions:
    • Cut and paste discussion threads that diverge or are repeating discussions elsewhere, so that each thread corresponds to one topic
    • Occasionally summarise the discussion so far, weaving together the various points made by students
    •  Identify specific points within the threads to prompt particular discussions, eliciting answers to specific questions.
  • Make the discussion time-dependent, so that participants cannot procrastinate.
  • Assess students' levels of interaction. However, this is very problematic in itself, since instigating new assessment methodology for a module may require revalidation of the module, and determining assessment criteria for participation in a web-based discussion is very difficult.
  • Make the subjects being discussed part of a larger activity, e.g. a presentation to the class or the basis of an assignment.

Appendix: Example of chat introduction

soozXB: let me just set a loose order for questions for the 'discussion' part
soozXB: i will lead with a small 'presentation' of a few ideas, that are quite reflective of some of your concerns
soozXB: then let's have a few cycles of comments
soozXB: the queue is less to be strict than it is a chance to have everyone speak
soozXB: and it is a way to have ideas heard
soozXB: one of the most frustrating things about chat at times is that good ideas get lost in the excitement of back and forth chat
soozXB: so what i want to experiment with is keeping the 'buzz' but also fostering some depth
soozXB: can we have a round of comments, observations, responses beginning with susie...?
soozXB: if you really feel you don't have anything to say, just say pass
soozXB: that we we know no-one feels overlooked or silenced
soozXB: we had a big issue with people feeling implicitly censored because they could not 'jump into' the chat last time, i would like to avoid this!