ILS-538 Indexing & abstracting
©2005-2007 Amy Ranger
CMC Applications and Implementation paper : Library weblogs
Main index

This term paper was researched and written by Amy Proni (now Amy Ranger) for the course ILS-538, Computer-mediated communication, taught by Dr. E. Sierpe, Southern Connecticut State University, Spring, 2005.

Assignment: The purpose of this assignment is to give you the opportunity to explore an area of CMC and CMC research. The area will be entirely of your choice. There are no restrictions on the characteristics of the area chosen as long as it pertains to CMC, our field, or the application of CMC technologies to the dissemination of information. The possibilities are almost infinite. You do not have to concentrate on CMC problems related to libraries in the traditional sense.

The Term Paper will be developed during the entire academic session. At the end of our course you should have a well structured paper. Your paper should give its intended audience a clear understanding of the area of interest as well as insights on the issues that have been explored.

Term paper
An investigation of the confluence of technology, computer-mediated communication, and distance learning

This paper discusses the confluence of technological innovation, computer-mediated communication, and the World Wide Web as a virtual place where individuals may pursue distance and life-long learning.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the confluence of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and technology with distance learning and lifelong learning. The effects of this learning environment on individuals and implications for continuing education will be discussed.

Part 1. Education
There was a time in American society when a person’s destiny was dictated by biology and a strict adherence to social constructs. Formal education ended for most people early in life. The phrase “distance education” might have referred to boarding school, but the concept as it is today did not exist. Over the course of two hundred years the United States evolved from one of a rural/agrarian culture to that of an industrial/technological superpower; education in the country evolved as well, from an elite system to one of mass higher education. (Goodyear, 1998). Compulsory education laws were enacted, beginning with Massachusetts in 1852; by 1918 all of the states mandated education for children. (Novello, 1998). Early distance learning programs were correspondence courses based on an exchange of printed materials via the postal service. Later programs used interactive radio, sometimes in conjunction with broadcast television, or video-recordings and CD-ROMs. As defined by the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), distance education is an “education program whereby students may complete all or part of an educational program in a geographical location apart from the institution hosting the program; the final award given is equivalent in standard and content to an award program completed on campus.” (USDLA, 2005). The Association also defines distance learning as “The acquisition of Knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance.” (USDLA, 2005).

Distance modes have empowered students to determine when, where, and how they study and so have freed them from the constraints of face-to-face instruction. (Wells, 1992). “It is understood that modern telecommunications, computers, and innovative software can greatly enhance the educational capabilities of the broadcasting technologies. Courses on the Web can be offered asynchronously, enabling people in remote areas or with busy schedules to take them from any location and at convenient times. Professionals can upgrade their skills or learn new ones without committing to a formal program in fixed classrooms. However, it has not yet been demonstrated, for the currently available technologies, that they can be effectively used under all conditions for all students.” (Niederman & Rollier, 2000, p. 59). In other words, a variety of distance learning options does not mean that each option works equally well for every learner.

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Part 2. Technology & communications
    Communications in19th century America, primarily based on written words or symbols (such as by semaphore), were transmitted via personal messenger, rudimentary postal service, other delivery service, or line-of-sight. (USPS, 2005; Fang and Ross, 1996). The development of the telegraph, then the telephone, followed by the broadcast media of radio and television, were the beginning of a revolution in communications. The development of computers for government, military, and scientific applications in the mid-20th century served as a catalyst for a true transformation of communications technologies. Personal computers (PCs), which were introduced to the American public in the mid-1970s, quickly became a necessity in the business environment, spreading from there to the classroom and the home environments. Electronic mail (e-mail), developed “in 1965 as a way for multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer to communicate” (Wikipedia, 2005) took communications to an entirely new level through the use of the internet, a worldwide system of interconnected computer networks that transmits electronic data. E-mail is essentially a message sent from one computer to another, using specialized software, over standard telephone lines, high-speed data lines, cable television, or via satellite. Like the computer, e-mail and the internet were also developed primarily for government and research. E-mail was the killer app (a colloquial expression meaning “prominent or essential [software] application”) that truly changed how people communicate with each other. The development of the World Wide Web (known simply as the web) and Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) further fueled societal transformations evidenced by the sense of living in a global community. The web is a virtual space accessed through the internet with an electronic device such as a personal computer (PC), personal digital assistant (PDA), telephone or cellular phone, and specialized browser software. HTML is a simple but powerful computer language used to describe web pages (also called web sites) and is the main interface language to the web. (Stewart, 2005). The brief messages that had been popularized by e-mail in the 1960s were precursors to a universal dialect utilizing abbreviated words, phrases, and acronyms in the 21st century. The specialized language associated with e-mail is also useful for text-messaging and instant-messaging (IM) which can be done on a PC, PDA, or cell phone. When viewed in context, the potent mixture of innovations in technology and communications enabled computer-mediated communications to become a major force for change in the 21st century.

An overview of lifelong and distance learning
“Every individual must be in a position to keep learning throughout his life. The idea of Lifelong education is the keystone of the learning society.” (Faure, 1972). Learning and education today are not limited to pre-specified times and places. People realized that a formal education would not be enough to provide all of the knowledge and skills that necessary to succeed in the new knowledge economy. (Sharples, Corlett, & Westmancott, 2002). That realization, combined with the emergence of new learning styles and technologies led to the development in the late 20th century of hybrid subjects and courses and the evolution of new paradigms regarding knowledge production. This in turn caused academic institutions to reinvent themselves in an effort to meet the needs of a continually expanding market. (Scott, 2005). Four dominant sub-systems that co-evolved with education are information technology, communication systems, the economics of the market place, and cultural forces. Information technology, using ever more powerful communication systems, transformed the educational process from a place-and-time-bound set of interactions to a fluid and virtual environment where students are as likely to participate from within a home or office as from within the traditional academic building. Policy makers now must consider the high cost of institutional infrastructures such as administrative overhead, academic costs, student services, and facility maintenance. The emergence of continuous learning, resulting in fluid career choices, coupled with a global and continuing information explosion, are but two of the cultural forces that threaten the status quo. (Achleitner, Vowell, & Wyatt, 1998).
The technologies necessary to support lifelong learning are many and varied. It is not enough for an individual to have access to a computer that is connected to the internet and the web. Individuals must also have access to technologies that are portable – or at least available at a time and place when the user is ready to learn. The supporting technologies must also be individual and adaptable to the learners’ abilities, knowledge and learning style, and designed to support personal learning. Ideally they will be unobtrusive or seamless allowing the learner to focus on learning and not just on technologies. They must be widely available and persistent. A lifelong learner needs to access the accumulated resources and knowledge despite technological changes. The burden of dealing with multiple computers, operating systems, storage media, and formats is challenging for even technically-minded individuals. It is overwhelming for those who are “computer-challenged,” are techno-phobic, or have minimal technological expertise. Finally, innovative technologies that support lifelong learning must be useful and easy to use—suitable to meet everyday needs of communication, reference, work, and learning. (Sharples, Corlett, & Westmancott, 2002, p. 223). Given the rate of change and development in computers and integrated electronics since 1975 one can only hope that the exponential growth and innovations witnessed so far will continue, and that truly intelligent machines are just around the corner. 

It is important that discussions on the influence of computer-mediated communication also take into account certain contextual factors, as the type of technology employed by a learner will impact the experience. These contextual factors include the channel (e-mail or website) and mode of communication employed (text, graphics, multi-media, or a combination); the type and number of participants (male or female, young or old; one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many); the length (long-term or brief) and nature of the relationships of the individuals (personal or professional). Other factors that must be considered are the topic (course work, research, personal interactions) and purpose of the exchange (academic, private, or commercial); whether it is synchronous (occurring in real-time) or asynchronous (delayed or sequential, but not in real-time); whether it is public or private (interpersonal, small group, or mass communication) and moderated or unmoderated; and, finally, the attitude of the participants towards CMC (enthused or skeptical, committed or disinterested) and length of time they have been doing it (novice or experienced). (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004). A distance learning class may include individuals subject to any or all of those contextual factors. For these and other reasons, an instructor must be technologically competent, patient, and aware that the students are vulnerable to a host of factors that could adversely impact their learning.

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Distance education gains acceptance by Americans
“The rapid growth in numbers of distance education courses and programs continues to have a profound impact on the ideas and beliefs that encompass teaching and learning. The use of e-mail and the Internet, coupled with Web-based coursework, has become a core method of instruction, particularly in higher education. The number of students enrolled, course offerings, and the availability of distance education as a reliable method of instruction gained tremendous momentum during the last decade.” (Derrick, 2003, p. 6). It is accepted as a fact of life that Americans do everything on the run: from shortened vacations to fast food, there is a sense that multi-tasking and doing things as quickly as possible is both effective and preferred. This attitude is reflected in the marketplace, where there is a constant demand for greater computing power, improved software, and faster online connections. Consumers have come to believe that Moore’s Law, an empirical observation that the rate of technological development on the complexity of integrated circuits increases exponentially every 18 months, (attributed to Gordon E. Moore) (Wikipedia, 2005b) applies to everything, and not only to the semiconductor industry.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project of 2,201 adults (aged 18 and over), 81% of the people between the ages of 18 to 29, and 78% of those aged 30 to 49 go online on a typical day. (Pew, 2005). On an average day, 77 million American adults go online; some 58% of them have internet access at home. About 2% of those 77 million adults go online to take a class online just for personal enjoyment or enrichment, and 2% will take a class online for credit toward a degree of some kind. (Pew, 2005b). Two percent may not seem like a significant number, but the National Center for Education Statistics published similar information in 2004: “course enrollments in distance education have increased from 1.7 million to 3.1 million between 1997-98 and 2000-01 at both undergraduate and graduate levels. The growth of course enrollments at public 2-year institutions is particularly notable. In 1997-98, public 2- and 4-year institutions each had approximately 710,000 enrollments in distance education courses. In 2000-01, enrollments at public 2-year institutions rose to nearly 1.5 million, compared with 945,000 at public 4-year institutions. By 2000-01, about half of all course enrollments in distance education courses were at public 2-year colleges.” (Wirt et al., 2004, p. 79). The demand for distance learning that is fast, easy and cheap (in spite of the fact that these are concepts which are most definitely in conflict with reality) will likely increase, if for no other reason than the “cool factor” that seems to be associated with all things related to the internet or web. This argument follows the logic of the “Technology Acceptance Model,” which suggests that users will be influenced by a number of factors on how and when they will use new software presented to them, including its perceived usefulness and perceived ease-of-use. (Wikipedia, 2004). As more individuals perceive the value of distance education, more will embrace it. The technologies associated with CMC and distance learning are still very much in their infancy and can be expected to evolve considerably over the next decade. Estimates from the United States Department of Education indicate that about 9 percent (between 14.5 and 16 million persons) of the resident population (ages 18 to 64) in the year 2000 were enrolled in postsecondary education. (U.S.D.o.E., 2005). The fact that more than three million Americans were enrolled in distance learning courses in 2004 indicates that distance education is perceived as valuable by a significant percentage of the population, and not only by the early adopters of technology.

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A complicated experience for instructors and students
Contrary to the traditional mode of stand-up-in-front-and-talk, teachers in classrooms using communication technology often find a dramatic change in classroom dynamics. An essential spirit of collaboration between teacher and learner in the computer classroom means that the teacher also becomes the learner. The emphasis on process (exploration, evaluation, collaboration, discussion, reflection, and formulation of individual and shared meanings) requires that teachers participate as learners alongside students. (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004). This is an important aspect of the constructivist view of learning: that learning is a collaborative process based on prior knowledge, wherein the instructor acts as a mentor or guide. Prior educational experiences are unlikely to prepare students for this new type of learner-centered setting, in which the responsibility for success is squarely on the shoulders of the student. The reality is that students involved in distance learning must be active participants and prepared to take personal responsibility for their role in the learning process. The value of computer-mediated instruction for today’s adult learners must be evaluated by considering basic questions about the teaching and learning process. (Muirhead, 2000). Students who fail to explore the nature of distance education may also find it difficult to complete a graduate-level program. In general, teaching and learning are thought of as inherently social endeavors. The absence of face-to-face contact with professors and classmates can be a concern for learners, and rightly so: it means that the computer-mediated communication style of learning is less than ideal for those who tend to be more verbal than textual, or who possess oral/aural learning styles. (Bird, 2004). Some students may be intimidated by the communication styles exhibited by their peers, or feel inadequate with regard to life experiences or topic knowledge. Some instructors are unable to provide consistent, timely, and relevant feedback, creating a situation reminiscent of the ‘sound of one hand clapping.’ The online learning environment necessitates all participants work together, significantly more so than in a traditional learning environment. “Because I consider myself a lifelong learner, I decided I needed the experience of learning through CMC… I made arrangements, worked through the computer complexities and technical problems, and found myself in a ‘virtual classroom.’ Having managed to arrive at the level of doctoral student and having taught at both high school and university levels, I feel I am quite familiar with the world of the classroom. However, I was not prepared for what transpired during those 13 weeks in that virtual classroom: my learning style and conceptual framework were challenged, and my pedagogical paradigm given a good shake.” (Bird, 2004, p. [253]).

The experience of this author is similar in that the specific challenges associated with online learning were unexpected. The effort of searching and finding relevant information for assignments has been quite difficult. Some professors seem reluctant to state precisely what they want, so that the student must then  set to work as a mind-reader. The coursework in the majority of courses taken in pursuit of a master’s degree in library science has been overwhelming. Lest the reader think that distance learning has been dry and dull, it should be stated that the program has included moments of humor. One professor’s comments on a paper proposing an instructional design were written in capital letters (the CMC equivalent of shouting, which is considered to be rather rude). He indicated that if the proposed plan were implemented perhaps as many as half of the students for whom the instruction had been designed would be overlooked, because the plan did not include all possible combinations of students, learning styles, and learning needs. Oh, the irony of it all! Very few instructional design proposals are able to meet the needs of all learners at all times, and that includes distance education.

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Interactions and patterns of engagement
And yet, for other students the level of discourse within online classrooms is as good or better than what may be experienced in a traditional setting. Reasons for this are primarily traceable to the asychronicity of CMC, which allows students to consult and incorporate outside resource materials into their response; reflect at leisure before responding; and participate anytime, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, the accessibility of the online environment can facilitate and sustain a level of intensity that is rarely achieved in face-to-face classes. (Wells, 1992). The freedom to participate in class at a time of day that is most convenient for the learner is routinely mentioned as one of the most positive aspects of asynchronous learning. For courses in which both time and space separate students from each other and from the instructor, electronic discussion boards often provide the main forum for class discussion. A candidate for a master’s degree in business communication says “It’s a place a teacher can post a series of topics for discussion. At your own leisure, you go to the site and write a response. Your classmates also write responses. You comment on their responses, they comment on yours, and you have a real back-and-forth dialog.” (Mariani, 2001). Discussion boards also allow students to seek aid. When one student had trouble getting her computer programs to compile for a class in data structures, she turned to her school’s discussion board and to e-mail. “I posted to a new discussion group, and people responded, saying they were having the same problems.” Suggestions were offered in this venue, and some classmates followed up with e-mail messages. (Mariani, 2001). Studies have shown that there are significant relationships between classroom community and perceived cognitive learning. (Rovai, 2002). The formats utilized in distance learning have the potential to support that sense of community.

Social presence, conceptualized from the theory of knowledge as socially-constructed, refers to the degree of interpersonal awareness found in an online environment. Computer-mediated communication possesses limited social presence and is therefore perceived as an impersonal medium because it is unable to provide ‘social context cues.’ By connecting with others in new social situations we create a social presence or degree of interpersonal contact. The challenge in online learning environments is facilitating this degree of interpersonal contact with the instructor and other participants. (Aragon, 2003). Perhaps the most compelling argument for the necessity of social presence is its perception as a spark that transforms alpha-numeric characters on the computer screen into a real person. An environment lacking in social presence can feel impersonal to the participants, resulting in a reduced amount of interaction. In a face-to-face classroom, lack of participation can be attributed to diverse factors, including shyness, apathy, personality or cultural style. An online course that is at once experiential and reflective presents a difficult learning environment for students who are accustomed to the myriad non-verbal cues and group dynamics of a traditional classroom environment. The virtual classroom does not allow for an easy resolution of issues with communications. (Davis & Ralph, 2001). And though it may seem to be counterintuitive, there is a case to be made for a ‘lean’ communications medium: it is useful when breaking bad news to people, for example, or as a means of hiding nervousness through impersonal but professional e-mail messages. Participants are forced to slow down by the very nature of the media—especially asynchronous CMC—which enables them to take the time to compose messages more thoughtfully. (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004).

Research by Mike Davis and Sue Ralph on the levels of participation in an online course indicated that while there was enthusiasm for CMC among the learners and instructors, the environment was difficult to manage and participation levels were disappointing. A subsequent course the next semester with many of the same students was more successful. In that course, the increased activity level was attributed to a more structured environment and task, the necessity of meeting a course deadline, and an increased confidence in the use of the technology. (Davis & Ralph, 2001). Student participation is highly dependent upon a number of factors. There are a different ways to measure engagement in cyberspace, from hits on the server to the number of words written. In the study by Davis & Ralph, comments made during the evaluation phase of the course indicated that students who in face-to-face environments would be quiet observers became active participants and intense followers of the arguments and unfolding debates in the online course. One woman admitted that she found it difficult to speak out in a group, but during the course she made the most contributions, most hits on the server, and wrote more words than anyone else. In contrast, a man working as a television presenter who is generally a very confident speaker stated unequivocally that he preferred the face-to-face mode of communicating, because it was there that he felt he would be in control of his messages and how they would be received. (Davis & Ralph, 2001).

Paradoxically, few qualitative research studies on student satisfaction with CMC distance education have been performed (Hara & Kling, 1999). That in itself renders it difficult to fully evaluate the effectiveness of distance education: there may be anecdotal knowledge regarding individual experiences with distance education and learning, but not definitive data. This reflects the difficulty associated with fully implementing new modes of learning: how can the experience be refined or improved without answers to the at-present unasked questions?

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Lifelong learning and education at mid-life
No consensus between economists, sociologists, career-guidance professionals, or other labor market observers has been reached concerning the relevant and appropriate criteria that should be used for defining careers and career changes; as a result, there are no reliable statistics or estimates on the number of times people change careers in the course of their lives. (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005). Even so, the conventional wisdom suggests that the workforce of today requires that workers must adapt to rapidly evolving demands for new knowledge, skills, and competencies, (many of which were not anticipated during their formal education), and therefore must develop competent information technology skills, both as an end goal and as a means for other learning. (Kirby et al., 2002). As aging baby-boomers retire, the effects on the overall economy and on certain occupations and industries will be substantial, creating a need for younger workers to fill the vacated jobs, many of which require relatively high levels of skill. (Dohm, 2000). “Organizational success in the 21st Century will surely require an emphasis on lifelong learning. Throughout the world there is an increasing mismatch between the level of education being attained by the majority of the population and the needs of employers.” (Neiderman & Rollier, 2000, p. 57).

The intersection of lifelong learning and distance education provides opportunities for individuals to learn for the pleasure of learning, and not only for reasons of economy. Self-directed learning may be guided by attributes such as initiative, resourcefulness, and persistence—qualities valued by organizations that rely upon innovation and a vibrant workforce. Distance- and e-learning have the capacity to influence worker productivity and performance, attributes that directly affect the economic growth of business and industry. Skills and expertise needed for the future will require workers who are learning-oriented; online learning opportunities will be a catalyst for sweeping changes in the structure of the workplace environment and the workforce. Well-designed distance learning should not be viewed as correspondence courses because the environment is the medium and not the outcome. Traditional course curricula, however, are not easily transferred to a distance learning platform. The goals and the objectives of the course should remain constant, but the delivery must be suited to the medium. (Derrick, 2003). The pressure on instructors is quite significantand at the same time, students must realize that the workload of online courses will be much more substantial than that of a traditional learning environment.

By choosing distance learning via computer-mediated communication, a middle-age student will have the opportunity to experience learning as a journey, in which the end result is secondary to the process. As learners develop an understanding of their capacities for learning—any learning—they are fundamentally changed with regard to their personal view of their capabilities and competence. The learning reinforces beliefs and supports successful behaviors for lifelong and sustained learning. (Derrick, 2003).

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Senior citizens and CMC
Handheld camcorders, digital cameras, cell phones, portable music devices (MP3 players) and PDAs (personal data assistants) are among the myriad electronic devices enjoyed by Americans in the early 21st century. Senior citizens have not been entirely left behind in this digital revolution: according to a survey of 22,610,000 householders aged 65 and older, 6,344,000 (28.1%) have access to a computer in the home; 5,329,000 (23.6%) use the Internet at home (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). A related survey provides information on the purpose of Internet use by seniors: the killer app for most (87.1%) of those interviewed was e-mail; 61.7% access information on products or services; 32.1% purchase products or services; 29.3% play online games; 1.5% take an online course. Not surprisingly, older people who own computers and go online are also more likely to participate in adult education programs. The level of formal education and socioeconomic status of senior learners, as well as their gender (male users predominate), are also important factors. Many older adults, particularly those who live more than 50 miles from their families, were willing to try out electronic communication because they were not able to get together face to face as frequently as they would like, and they wanted to be involved in the lives of their children even at a distance. (Timmerman, 1998).

It stands to reason however that a large majority of older adults at this time are not early adopters of new technologies, and have not learned how to use computers. However, one may speculate that older adults will be willing to use them once their value has been demonstrated. A SeniorNet study (Adler, 1996) found that the use of high-tech products historically considered “cutting edge” was almost as high among these older Americans as among the general population. Among the respondents, 89 percent owned a microwave oven, 74 percent owned a VCR, and 62 percent subscribed to cable TV. The longer the product has been available, the more likely it is that older Americans will incorporate it into their lives. (Timmerman, 1998).

A variety of courses designed for senior learners, and information about lifelong learning, are available online, through organizations like SeniorNet, the AARP, PBS Campus, and local libraries. Good courses employ a non-threatening teaching methodology and self-paced instruction. Once older learners master the basics of computer use, they become empowered and are eager to use the technology. The virtual classroom has great potential to attract older computer users and meet their needs both for growth and for socialization; this is particularly true for those people who are homebound due to physical disabilities, who are caring for others at home and find it difficult to attend classes, or who want to participate in night-time activities but do not drive at night. (Timmerman, 1998).

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Rapid technological change and societal needs have coalesced in recent years to allow lifelong learning to become both a necessity and a reality for millions of people. Simultaneously, the perception of distance learning by the general public has moved from a state of low status to one of acceptance, with increased confidence as its methods are adopted across education as a whole. Distance education has evolved from an essentially modernist form of education based first upon printed matter and postal service, followed by television or radio broadcasting and two-way radiotelephone feedback, into a post-modernist phenomenon using multimedia technologies and computer-mediated communication “with a focus on the student as consumer, on �flexibility, and on global reach.” (Rumble, 2001, p. 31). The possibility now exists for learners of all ages to engage in informal and serendipitous learning, driven by general interest and curiosity rather than just career incentives. (Flew, 2002). The era of computer-mediated communication as a force for change in distance and lifelong learning has just begun.

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