The complexities of computer-mediated communication (CMC) are visible in the diversity of the theoretical models that try to explain the implications of electronic communication. The different approaches are not necessarily contradictory, but they emphasize different qualities or characteristics of CMC. In this chapter we review six of the most prominent models: the Social Presence Model; the Media Richness Theory; the Reduced Social Cues model; the Social Information Processing Model; the Social Identity Model and the Hyperpersonal Communication Theory. Initial studies on CMC tend to view this form of communication as impersonal and very limited in expressing emotions and complex social interactions. However, recent research has shown that electronic communication can promote a very rich relational communication and be effective in problem solving situations, in attaining results and in achieving objectives in tasks performed at a distance. The understanding of these communication processes involves a detailed analysis of several variables, such as group communication processes, the different use of verbal and non-verbal communication channels in face to face and virtual settings, and the social construction of the processes of connecting, bonding and building psychological immediacy in mediated contexts. The studies show that in several indicators of group well-being or in task efficacy indicators, better results are obtained in virtual groups, when compared to their face to face equivalents, as long as the time variable is controlled. A relevant aspect to take into account is that virtual groups take more time to socialize and to reach objectives than do face to face groups. In this chapter we discuss some explanatory hypotheses for these somewhat surprising results and analyze their consequences in terms of online education. We suggest that we now have a reasonable understanding of online communication and interaction processes, and that this knowledge should shape the practices of those who work in Online Education and Distance Education.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Mediated Immediacy: Mediated immediacy refers to communicative cues in mediated channels that can shape perceptions of psychological closeness between participants.
Verbal Immediacy: Verbal immediacy behaviors include using personal examples, asking questions, using humor, addressing others by name, praising others, initiating discussion, and using inclusive pronouns (“we” vs. “I”).
Hyperpersonal Communication: The concept of hyperpersonal communication describes the way in which online communication sometimes surpasses the level of affection and emotion of parallel face-to-face communication.
Transactional Distance: Transactional distance is the pedagogical and psychological distance (not the geographical distance) that exists in a distant course between teachers and students, that are physically separated.
Transactional Presence: Transactional presence refers to the degree to which the distance student perceives the availability of, and the connectedness with, the other individuals involved in the interaction.
Social Presence: Social presence is defined as the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationship. It is related to the degree to which a person is perceived as “real and present” in a given mediated communication.
Immediacy: Immediacy refers to communicative behaviors that reduce the physical or psychological distance between individuals and foster affiliation. Immediacy behaviors may be verbal or non-verbal.
Nonverbal Immediacy: Non-verbal immediacy behaviors include reducing physical distance; touching; displaying relaxed postures and movements; using gestures; smiling; using vocal variety; and engaging in eye contact during interactions.
Bandwidth Hypothesis: In communication theory the term bandwidth hypothesis is used to represent the number of communication channels that the different media can support. According to social presence theory and media richness theory, “rich media,” such as video, allow ample information transfer while “lean” media, like text, allow little.