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Online v offline communication

Realise it’s time to get back into blogging after my trip to Brazil and looking for inspiration went to the Daily Post … never fails … there’s a post on this http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/daily-prompt-text-speak/ How do you communicate differently online than in person, if at all? How do you communicate emotion and intent in a purely written medium?

Luckily I’ve got something to say on this, well I should have. It’s one of the core things I do research on – how do people communicate online. I’ve looked a lot at how people’s behaviour offline translates to online, and there’s no real consistency. The stereotypical transition is the quiet shy student in class, who when given the chance to communicate in an environment where they don’t feel so exposed, suddenly blossom into a talkative and dominant contributor. These students do exist, cyberdisinhibition is such a useful tool that any educator who doesn’t provide his or her students with a mechanism to communicate online as an intrinsic part of their course is a bit of a twat really. If you choose to limit communication to only the face-to-face activity of a classroom then you are acting to censor a proportion of the student body through your own apathy or laziness. My ability to communicate in a face-to-face situation is often very limited. I don’t think very well while someone else is talking, I need silence to collect my thoughts. So in a conversation I need a second or two pause before I can start talking. I was recently at a meeting where that break didn’t happen for about the first hour of the meeting. Ideas got tossed backwards and forwards, some of which I didn’t have anything to contribute to, some of which I could have done, but didn’t because at all times the start of one person’t contribution overlapped with the end of the previous person’s contribution. I spent that hour feeling more and more frustrated, and more and more withdrawn. I guess feeling the after effects of flu slowed me down a bit more than normal too. Finally they all shut up long enough for me to make my contribution. It took about 10 minutes, and they waited until I’d finished, but I would have much preferred a dialogue to a monologue. I think that’s why I prefer online communication to offline. It’s just so much easier to get a word in.

Online does have disadvantages though. I think tone is sometimes difficult to read. Sure we should get into the habit of using :-p when we don’t mean something or flagging that we’re being ironic because putting little pseudo html around phrases <sarcasm> is just so hard </sarcasm>. But even when I’m reading stuff by people I know really well, I can still read them as literal when actually they’re meant ironically. But then the same is true face to face. If not more so. The number of arguments I’ve had with (now ex) partners because I had a particular expression on my face, or a tone, which they misinterpreted because they had a much greater confidence in their ability to read body language than was warranted. There’s nothing more annoying than being told what you actually feel by someone who doesn’t know how to read expressions and think they do. Really there’s something to be said for putting a paper bag on our heads before we begin a conversation with some people. Or on theirs.

Another reason why some learners prefer online to offline is that they can turn it off when they need to get back to work. A study I did at Warwick a while ago (with the acronym BLUPs) identified this as a big incentive. Students could drop onto chat if they needed some help, could stay around to socialise a bit but then go offline when they needed to. online was more manageable.

There are some students who really don’t like communication online but are fine offline. Another study I did looked at students’ responses to using virtual worlds. In the discussion we had about it, the majority of the comments were negative, by about a 2 to 1 ratio. In the survey the students were positive about it in about a 3 to 1 ratio. It appeared that those 1 in 4 students who hated the online interaction were those dominating the face-to-face discussion and were about 3 times more active than those that liked it. The interpretation of what they were saying about online interaction was that they were so at ease with offline, had such a fluency and ability with it, that they felt the loss more than those who liked online. In effect they had lost their superiority and were railing against it.

As a result I’m always deeply suspicious of people who demand that all their interactions take place face-to-face. I agree there is something very worthwhile about meeting in that way, at the moment I’m taking time out to meet a lot of projects all over the UK, taking several hours to travel to do it. The issues with ensuring everyone gets to speak don’t arise (since I’m chairing them), and it does produce a lot more ideas, and comaraderie and trust. All of those things. But people who refuse to interact online? My first thought is why do they want to make sure they can limit what’s being said. Purely offline people tend to be assholes in my experience.

The final two ways that offline to online can translate are those students who are fine in both modes (which is good). But really any of these are fine. The ones I do worry about are those that don’t communicate in either mode. Again in the BLUPs study the few students that fell into this category really seemed to be at risk and unis do very little to proactively seek these out, tending to respond just to students who flag that they’re struggling. Like drowning people, the ones who are really in trouble are the ones who aren’t saying anything, not the ones waving.

Oh and I’ve realised that I’ve pretty much gone off topic. But in short answering the question, use emoticons, hashtags, pseudo html, different fonts. Emotion can actually be conveyed much more precisely online than offline.

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One thought on “Online v offline communication

  1. Hopefully learning analytics will help teachers better understand learners’ interactions online and enable them to provide more targeted support. The trick is for teachers to maximise the benefits of both online and face-to-face interaction, both are important imho. I never have a problem getting a word in edgeways face-to-face but agree online enables you to have space to think, although texting can be pretty immediate in my experience!

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