Computer-Mediated Communication and the On-Line Classroom in Distance Education: From Marks in the Sand to Computer Conferencing Via Fiber Optics

Zane L. Berge

Director, Training Systems
University of Maryland

Substantial parts of this article are excepts from Berge and Collins, 1995. For information on obtaining any of the three volumes in Computer Mediated Communication and the On-line Classroom call Hampton Press at 1-800-894-8955

In this chapter I discuss the way modern communication technologies reshape the process of distance education. I also look at the challenges that the new era brings for the educators. These changes involve more than the simple addition of new technologies to the traditional ways of teaching and learning. Furthermore, the new electronic tools promote a paradigmatic shift in the organization of the educational process. The computer network in this model serves as a mediator rather than as an information processor. This creates a favorable environment for an active learning process, with opportunities for the students to solve some authentic problems. Nevertheless, emerging technologies may look different depending upon who builds them. Educators must clearly articulate and promulgate their goals. Their new visions of distance learning must drive the decisions about the uses of technology, not vice-versa.

Throughout the history of human communication, advances in technology have powered paradigmatic shifts in education (Frick, 1991). Technology changes both what we can do and what we decide is best to do; big shifts in culture cannot occur until the tools are available. Although before the invention of the printing press, people could read and write, it was the press that enabled widespread literacy, and an almost total accessibility to the written word. This spread of literacy changed both class structure and the educational system, with consequences that still shape our attitudes today.

The impact of the printing press upon students of the time has been analyzed and reanalyzed. The press made it possible for all people to accumulate knowledge, to record it, and to preserve it. But always, as new technology enables shifts at the level of delivery, old technologies are augmented, not totally replaced. Today, although many of us have access to inventions such as radio, television, and computers, we still use and will continue to use books, speech, and pen or pencil. Just as the printing press caused change in the system of educational delivery but did not result in a complete abolishment of either the written word or the oral/aural connection (witness the popularity of lecture classes even now), so too the new electric and electronic technologies will find their level before settling comfortably and permanently into the education scheme.

Schooling is only a part of education. Much of education takes place outside of schooling, both as planned activities and as unplanned learning. We may not understand the instructional goals of the Music Television (MTV) channel broadcasts, and those goals may differ from those of educators, but that doesn't mean MTV viewers don't learn anything. Ultimately we must consider what kind of world we as educators want to help build. If we envision computers and telecommunications merging as a new tool for teaching and learning, now is the time to clearly articulate and promulgate our goals in order to shape future uses of instructional technology.

Environments. For communications to take place, there must be a sender, a receiver and a message. If this message is intended as instruction, then besides student, teacher, and content, we must also consider the environment in which this educational communication occurs. Environments that benefit the educational system in some ways may also constrain it in others. Part of the "new" learning environment will probably include various technologies and media. If "the medium is the message," that is, if technology changes what we can do and how we think about it, then the various media enabled by instructional technology can also change both what we can do in education and how we conceive of it.

Isolation vs. socialization. For many years, educators have been exploring ways in which to combine theories of differing learning styles and student-constructed knowledge with the theory of practice-centered learning. Instead of being considered passive recipients of knowledge poured into them by the teacher, students are now seen as being capable of constructing their own knowledge with guidance from the teacher. We can offer part of this tutorial guidance by setting up an environment that will provide students the resources necessary for independent exploration. Using emerging computer-based technology as a resource, we can encourage students to explore their own interests and to become active educational workers, with opportunities to solve some authentic problems.

The concept of "tutorial," however, puts focus on the question of isolation vs. socialization, an issue in technological education delivery. As an agent for socialization (Margolies, 1991) and collaboration, the networked computer has a greater potential in education than does the stand-alone, knowledge-server computer. The active environment of social learning provided by a computer with access to local, national, and international networks actually increases interaction and communication among students, teachers, peers, parents, and other members of the world community.

Life-long learning. Changes in our environment involve more than just adding new technology to old ways of organizing teaching and learning (Moore, 1993). The paradigm shift is from a teaching environment to a learning environment. Another notion current in educational circles is the need to develop motivated, skillful, life-long learners. As knowledge in many fields increases exponentially, aspiring professionals must acknowledge that during formal schooling, they can acquire only a small segment of the knowledge base they will need in their careers. Teaching and learning in their fields that may have been static for decades are now undergoing extraordinary change. We can teach students to become life-long learners with the aid of technology that can help them locate the resources to continue learning.

Computer mediated communication. Educators now have use of a technology that merges computers and telecommunication. Known as Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), it can be used in instruction in three ways--for conferencing, informatics, and computer-assisted instruction (CAI) (Santoro, 1995). Computer conferencing provides e-mail, interactive messaging, and small and large group discussion. Informatics (repositories or maintainers of organized information) include library on-line public access catalogs (OPACs), interactive access to remote databases, program/data archive sites (e.g., archives of files for pictures, sound, text, movies), campus-wide information systems (CWIS), wide area information systems (WAIS), and Gopher/Veronica.

Distance education. A seemingly indisputable plus resulting from technology is the ability to deliver distance-education. Although there are some differences between distance education and classroom education, the significant issues concerning the use of computer networking and other emerging technologies to promote learning in both are similar.

Distance educators are beginning to focus on a related set of notions: (a) that there are different learning styles, (b) that students create their own meaning when learning new things, and (c) that what makes a difference in content retention and transfer is not so much what is done by teachers, but what students as learners can be encouraged to do.

Historically, we have not done a very good job of implementing the concept of learner-centered education in distance education. One of the reasons for this failure has been that the tools were not available to do much besides deliver education (as opposed to enable learning) at a distance. Now, improvements in computers and telecommunications allow for a more interactive, integrated learning environment.

The notion of practice-centered learning is also important to distance learning. CMC mergers of computers and telecommunication technologies give us new tools to support teaching and learning by using computer systems and networks to transfer, store, and retrieve information between humans. The computer network in this model serves as a mediator rather than as an information processor. CMC provides electronic mail capabilities, delivers instruction, facilitates student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions across a desk or across the world--a truly valuable tool for distance-education. CMC promotes paradigmatic shifts in teaching and learning from distance education to distance learning to merging informal dialogues, invisible colleges, oral presentations, and scholarly publications. But our new visions of distance learning must drive our decisions about our use of technology, not vice versa.

While major cultural shifts do not occur without the tools that make them possible, once those tools are at hand, the shifts are inevitable. Emerging technologies such as interactive television and the "superhighway" for information exchange may look different depending upon who builds them (e.g., telephone companies; cable-television companies; federal governments), but we may be assured that they will be built by someone. How we as educators will participate in this enterprise is a vital issue.

Uses of computer conferencing, informatics, and CAI include:

The reengineering of education involves not only rethinking the organization of site-based schools, but also finding ways to unite computers and telecommunications and bringing down the schoolhouse walls--a means to deliver instructional content when and where it is needed, whether in the home, the work-place, or the school.

CMC promotes interaction that is often lacking in the traditional teacher-based classroom. It allows learners the freedom to explore alternative pathways--to find and develop their own style of learning. An example: What if content could be delivered in the form of graphics, text, and/or full-motion video, whenever and wherever in the world it is requested? As teachers and educators, responsibly participating in and making use of the inevitable technological changes at hand, we must view computers not as a threat, but as a signal for change. Computer technologies allow professionals to share with students the tools to provide guidance to help students develop meaningful ways to construct their own knowledge.

Technology enables us to implement these new visions in distance learning. As Berge (1993) points out:

Technology overcomes limits to investigations, opening them to students from any or many classrooms, schools, grades, countries, and including experts in the field of inquiry from the collaboration. Effective learning hinges on active engagement by the student and the construction of knowledge on their own leads to understanding (Sheingold, 1991). This learning then becomes not a solitary process, but rather an occurrence in a larger world of people and technology.

More than merely a shift within education, this movement will bring about major shifts in society and culture. As the number of students increases, and the number of persons requiring off-campus classes rises, the very existence and future of a university or college may hinge upon serving this newly defined and diverse population.

CMC can help us serve that population. In combination with other media, computers can utilize an instructional design that teaches to the multiple intelligences that Gardner (1983) speaks of in Frames of Mind (linguistic, logico-mathematical, intrapersonal, spatial, musical, bodily kinesthetic, and interpersonal). The idea behind this instructional design is to use as many methods and formats for instruction (e.g., small group discussion, graphics, lecture, hands-on labs, writing/reflection, sound, CMC, and conferencing) as possible, provided that instructional goals and design dictate their use.

Benefits and limitations of CMC teaching and learning. There are many benefits to using CMC, but there are also some limitations that we should recognize. One of the greatest benefits of CMC is its ability to liberate instruction from the constraints of time and distance. The convenience of access from home, school, or office permits many students and instructors to better meet travel, job, and family responsibilities.

CMC promotes self-discipline and requires students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Using CMC, the course's instructional design can be varied from structured projects to open projects, where students are free to work on "messy" but authentic problem-solving. Teacher-caution is advised, however, because for some students more structure may be needed. Our goals should be to develop self-motivated learners, but also to offer help where needed. If designed well, CMC applications can be used effectively to facilitate collaboration among students, teachers and guests or experts from outside the classroom.

The use of CMC in instruction is that it is text-based. Writing is essential across the entire curriculum; to communicate on a computer network requires writing. Used effectively, CMC encourages and motivates students to become involved in authentic projects, to write for a real audience of their peers or persons in the larger world community, instead of merely composing assignments for the teacher. However, educators must still recognize that not all students can express themselves well in writing, and that even for those who can, the act of writing and using on-line text-based applications can be a time-consuming struggle.

A bonus service of CMC is highlighted by an emerging body of literature, added to by several authors in this volume. They speak from their own experiences, and deal with the empowerment of persons with disabilities or physical traits, such as disfigurements or speech impediments, that might prevent them from equal participation in face-to-face encounters. CMC promotes an equalization of users. Because CMC is at present primarily text-only, the consequent reduction in social cues leads to a protective ignorance about whether the person is someone of greater, equal, or lesser social self-image. It is impossible to see if the writer took several hours to draft a one screen response, or several minutes. Responses are judged by the ideas and thoughts conveyed, more than by who is doing the writing. The lack of social cues and the asynchronous nature of the medium affords those with physical limitations or personal reticence the possibility of participating fully and equally in communicative activities within a main stream environment. However, the researchers realize that the changed social context cues can encourage the opposite response, encouraging non-reticent personalities to become overly zealous in their responses, or even to become publicly inflammatory and aggressive on a personal level in ways that are generally considered offensive. It has also been noted that some students prefer the social aspects of the classroom and are unsettled by the lack of the face-to-face interaction in CMC, or the lack of a (sometimes) charismatic lecturer during presentation.

Another potential benefit of CMC is in promoting multicultural awareness. With the demographic makeup of many countries changing so rapidly, it is becoming increasingly important to develop communication skills for a culturally diverse community and world. On the other hand, because the bulk of CMC is conducted in English and in the written, rather than spoken word, it may perpetuate some cultural hegemonies.

Technical benefits to using CMC include the ease of circulating and archiving files and documents (e.g., teacher messages, student work, assignments). On the other hand, the learning curve can be steep with regard to learning the system and technical how-tos of the computer and telecommunications system. The cost of buying and supporting systems, or accessing other networks is a significant "overhead" item in schools and colleges today, as is the cost and inconvenience of repairing or replacing hardware. Further, systems are not 100% reliable, which adds to inconvenience and wasted time. With so many systems to learn and sources to tap, information overload has become a problem as some users struggle with the lack of criteria to help them in deciding what to keep and what to discard from the swiftly flowing stream of incoming information.


All these factors--the idea that teachers, information designers and instructional developers can use CMC to promote collaboration, cooperation, sharing of ideas, and as an equalizing medium--mean that the roles of students and teachers will change. No longer experts and information providers, teachers become facilitators and guides. Conversely, students are no longer passive learners, attempting to mimic what they see and hear from the expert teacher. They become participants, collaborators in the creation of knowledge and meaning. A problem exists with the gap between technology haves and have-nots that reflects, to some degree, the world of the culture that created it. We must be aware of this fact, and strive to create and use CMC innovations which allow for multiplicity, for change, for difference.

There is increased pressure on universities and instructors to provide instructional delivery systems that go beyond the traditional chalk-and-talk form of lecture. Computer-mediated conferencing has emerged as a tool for instructional communication not bound by prescribed meeting times or by geographic proximity. Successful integration of CMC into the curriculum, however, depends on our ability to design and use CMC applications which meet course goals, delivery goals.

CMC should be used for what was impossible or very difficult to do without it. CMC can provide an efficient way for students to turn in and receive back their homework, reduce the cost of classroom handouts, cut travel costs for students and teachers. Some instructors have used CMC to create a virtual laboratory to allow teaching and learning to transcend time and place, while expanding access to the very best instructors.

CMC helps to motivate students to write, establishing a meaningful audience and context, encouraging writing practice and collaboration across the curriculum, using models of the writing process.

Educators have also used CMC for:

Change is a watch-word in today's society. Most of the changes educators propose involve three types of problems and opportunities: access, quality, and productivity. One of the goals of education must be equal access to (quality) education for all persons seeking it. Educational systems, in their struggle to provide equal access, must not lose sight of the need to provide a high quality of education, despite limited resources available. Thus far, technology has not been especially successful in providing tools used for increasing productivity.

There is no shortage of educational vision necessary to use technology to create new educational environments for the 21st century. Success in helping to meet all three of the goals in teaching and learning is the challenge of the future, a challenge teachers must meet and defeat.


Berge, Z. L. (1993). Beyond computers as tools: Reengineering education. Computers in the Schools. 9(2/3), 167-178.

Collins, A. (1991) The role of computer technology in restructuring schools. Phi Delta Kappan, September, 28-36.

Frick, T. W. (1991). Restructuring education through technology. Fastback Series #326. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Margolies, R. (1991). The computer as social skills agent. T.H.E. Journal. January 1991, 70-71.

Moore, M. G. (1993). Is teaching like flying? A total systems view of distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 7(1), 1-10.

Santoro, G. (1995) Overview of computer-mediated communication in education. In Zane Berge and Mauri Collins (Eds.) Computer-mediated communication and the on-line classroom,. Volume 1: Overview and Perspectives. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Sheingold, K. (1991). Restructuring for learning with technology: the potential for synergy. Phi Delta Kappan, September, 17-27.

This refers to text omitted in revision. Thornburg, David D. (1991). Education, technology and paradigms of change for the 21st century. Starsong Publications.

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