Investigating design features of a computer-mediated communication system

Kear, Karen Lesley (2007). Investigating design features of a computer-mediated communication system. PhD thesis The Open University.



Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is increasingly used in higher education, but it is not without problems. The effectiveness of CMC depends on many factors, including the characteristics of CMC systems themselves. The research reported here therefore aimed to investigate how an educational CMC system might be improved, in order to support learning more effectively.

The main context for the research was distance learning at the UK Open University (OU). A two-stage, mixed methods research approach was adopted. In the first stage, interviews and observations were carried out to explore the benefits and problems experienced by users. This revealed two major issues: information overload and lack of social presence. Information overload relates to users’ problems dealing with large numbers of messages. Social presence relates to the need for users to feel connected with each other.

The second stage investigated system features aimed at addressing these issues, implemented in a prototype computer conferencing system. Features to address overload included branched message threading and user recommendations. Features to address social presence were ‘résumés’ and instant messaging. These features were evaluated using questionnaires, with several cohorts of students in an OU course.

Students expressed approval of the features, although some features were not widely used. Students preferred branched threading to chronological threading because branching helped them to follow ‘conversations’. Students were uncomfortable recommending messages, feeling that the value of a message would vary between people. They were also uncomfortable using instant messaging to contact others whom they did not know. However, the awareness aspect of instant messaging provided a sense of solidarity.

The research demonstrated that the problems of overload and lack of social presence are significant, and each has social aspects which must be addressed. Students’ relationships with each other affect whether and how they use the features of CMC systems. We can conclude that particular attention must be paid to the social aspects of online communication, both when designing educational CMC systems and when considering how they are used. To maximise the benefits for learning, students need to feel comfortable with each other online, and there are few short cuts to achieving this.

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