The social, relational, and affective dynamics are receiving more and more attention in the study of learning processes, as cognitive, affective, and emotional dimensions of learning seem to be closely related. This kind of co-origination, borne out in the context of neurosciences, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and education, has also been recognized in the field of Web-based learning. The research framework of computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) has emphasized the role that a well-established social dimension plays in collaborative learning and groupbased working within communities of learners. According to the socioconstructivist model, learning always implies a social dialogical process where individuals are mutually engaged in the construction and sharing of new knowledge (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994; Wenger, 1998). Pedagogical approaches based on these assumptions combine the advantages of a learning strategy that promotes deeper level learning, critical thinking, and shared understanding with those related to the development of social and communication skills (Garrison & Anderson, 2003).
Early approaches in the study of CMC noted that the lack of nonverbal cues (e.g., facial expression, posture, gesture, proximity) would limit the richness and scope of communication (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). CMC was thought to be an impoverished means of communication giving little chance to gather important information about the context, the commonly shared rules of conduct and their influence on communication, all of which foster uninhibited speech and flaming. Moreover, as anonymity, which is a frequent feature of online interactions, reduces these control indicators, communication would be more de-individualized and de-personalized, and that would have different and unpredictable consequences on the various speech contexts. Lacking nonverbal indicators, CMC was seen to be characterized by a very low level of social presence, and it was thought that this feature could invalidate the learning purpose.
In recent times, a number of studies have shown that with written communication alone, typically used in chat and e-mail, it is possible to stimulate social and affective presence, provided that interlocutors are allowed to manage their time freely. Other authors underlined the similarity between the development of relationships in both face-to-face and online contexts, showing that although the latter need more time to grow, they can be more socially oriented than the former (Walther, 1996). Users compensate for the communicative lack of written discourse with linguistic inventions and adaptations (e.g., emoticons, typographical marks, and other textual features, including the use of capital letters, ellipses, exclamation marks, as well as typing errors) in order to express with appropriate orthographical strategies the aspects of nonverbal communication (Crystal, 2001). In this way, a higher degree of familiarity and intimacy in content, style, structures, and timing of the exchanged postings would not only be a linguistic adaptation able to incorporate colloquial and informal registers, but it could also strike a balance between the features of the medium and an acceptable level of immediacy.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Computer-Mediated Communication: CMC is any form of communication between two or more people who interact via computer on the Internet. CMC mostly occurs through e-mail, chat, instant messaging, bulletin boards, list-servers, and MUDs (some also include audio and video communication). Today Wiki and Weblogs emerged as special forms of socially-oriented collaborative writing.
Content Analysis: This is a research technique based on the analysis of transcripts of interactions. Specific indicators are counted, classified, and interpreted as descriptive data to create an understanding of the content. It is a crossover technique that combines qualitative and quantitative methods. It includes the following phases: unitization, coding, inter-rater reliability tests, analysis and interpretation.
Social Network Analysis: SNA has emerged as a new approach for understanding relationships among participants in an online learning environment. It serves to identify a set of structural variables such as density, connectivity, and heterogeneity that are implied in a network, and incorporates mathematical and statistical devices to measure individual positions within a network of participants.
Community Of Practice: First used in 1991 by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, the concept refers to the process of social learning that occurs among people who share a common interest in some subject or problem and are linked to each other over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions, and build innovations. The concept of community of practice has been recently associated with knowledge management and organizational development.
Social Constructivism: Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of culture and context in the process of knowledge construction. Learning is meant to be a social process that occurs when individuals take part in social activities. Instructional models based on this perspective stress the need for collaboration among learners and with practitioners in society.
Social Presence: Social presence was initially defined as the degree of other person salience in a mediated communication and the consequent salience of their interpersonal interactions. The term was soon after associated with the concept of media richness, according to which social presence is a quality of the communication medium itself. In more recent times, it has been redefined as the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally, as “real” people, through the medium of communication being used.