The Internet as a Communication Tool

What is Using the Internet as a Communication Tool?

The Internet has become for many Americans and others around the world a major channel for communication. Three of these tools for communication that Internet users take advantage of are email, Instant Messaging, and asynchronous discussions. Through email, the Internet has replaced to a large degree the U.S. Postal service because of the speed and convenience by which communication is made possible and which many prefer. Email email.jpg(electronic mail) is communication through the electronic communications system. Through email, messages are typed, sent, stored on ones computer, and retrieved. A message can be composed and sent to multiple addresses, and massages that are received can be forwarded on to new recipients. Billions of emails are sent out throughout the world every day. The are received within by the recipients usually within moments. For educational purposes, email has been an important tool by which instructors at the elementary and secondary level and parents can keep communication lines open. It has also helped students maintain a closer contact with instructors at all levels of education.
Instant messaging is another tool with which to communicate online. Instant messaging, or IM, is more instantaneous than email. With IM, a user maintains a list of people with whom she wants to communicate, called her buddy list. When she goes online, she can check her buddy list to see who else is online and can communicate with anyone else on her list who is online. Like email, with IM the users communicate by typing their messages to one another. The messages show up on a small window on the computer screen. Both the user and her buddy can see the messages on their screens. As soon as she types and sends her message, both users can see the message and the messages stay up for the duration of the conversation. On IM, a user can also send vidoes, images, files, links to websites, and sounds. Instant messaging can also be set up to work like a phone. Most cell phones are capable of sending instant messages.

Asynchronous discussion is an educational online tool by which instructors and students can interact via discussions without the constraints of time and classrooms. An effort is made in asynchronous discussions to mimic the traditional discussions of face-to-face classroom. The asynchronous discussions typically require that students provide their own reflection or critical analysis of the topic being discussed. Rubrics have been drawn up to ensure quality discussions from the students.

Learning Theories that Guide the Use the Internet as a Communication Tool

The learning theory that perhaps best encapsulates the Internet as a communication tool is Constructivism. Like the theory of Constructivism would suggest, learning happens when people, through exploration and experience, are able to attach new experiences to previous ones, thus building upon their total knowledge. When we use the Internet as a tool for communication, we use new methods and means to do what we have always done- speak to each other, relate our stories and experiences to those of others, etc. This interaction indicates that Internet as a communication tool involves the Social Learning Theory. Instead of having face-to-face or verbal interaction with others, we communicate through the medium of a machine, which seems highly impersonal. Yet the instantaneous contact we are able to have with others, facilitated by Internet communication tools, allows many to stay in contact with those they could not easily reach by other means. Likewise, despite the seemingly impersonal medium of the Internet, many people form new, meaningful, and lasting bonds with those they "encounter" via the virtual world. In addition to Constructivism, and as Vygotsky's theories of learning and development would suggest, Internet communication technologies also promote social learning.

For students, learning through the use of Internet communication technologies could help them develop new ways of doing old things, and find meaning in relating previous experiences with communication to new experiences with communication. Just as learning how to write, converse, and talk on the telephone were once important and meaningful steps in the development of communication skills, so too can be learning to use the Internet for the same purposes. In order to build on Constructivist and social learning theories while utilizing Internet communication technologies, teachers and parents should emphasize safe, monitored exploration and structured, educational communication opportunities.

The Benefits of Using the Internet as a Communication Tool

One of the benefits of both email and asynchronous discussions is that it gives students the opportunity to take some time to process their thoughts before replying. For some learners, this extra time may be a necessary part of the learning process for them and an opportunity that they rarely have in the regular classroom.

Another benefit of using the Internet as a communication tool is that it encourages social interaction. All three online tools provide the means by which users can interact with others to exchange thoughts and ideas and share their own. This reflects the social interaction essential to learning according to the theories of Vygotsky and others.

Email has an advantage that many oral communications do not provide. It provides a written record of the communication that transpired.

The Challenges of Using the Internet as a Communication Tool

A challenge of using one of the Internet communication tools is that the users will be limited on the complexity of the information that is relayed. Very complex material, or information that requires a significant amount of inference, may not be able to be conveyed adequately without the aid of graphics, videos, live demonstrations, etc.

A disadvantage of using email and asynchronous discussion is the wait time for feedback. A person who wishes immediate feedback will need to resort to a different form of communication.

Sensitive information also should not be conveyed through the Internet.

Another challenge presented by Internet communication is the inability to decipher tone and sometimes, intent in a correspondence or conversation. Often clarification is necessary at some point during an online communication to ensure that parties involved are understanding one another properly. webicon.jpgUnfortunately, the ability to communicate extensively online, and consequently, anonymously, has lead some ill-intentioned individuals to attempt to exploit those they converse with. Internet scams and Internet predators are sad examples of the way in which this tool has been manipulated by some to deceive or harm others. As with any form of communication, it is important to establish boundaries when sharing information with others, especially if the person you are sharing information with is not someone you know. Children's use of the Internet as a tool for communication should be limited and vigilantly overseen by parents, teachers, and other responsible adults to avoid exploitation and victimization by Internet predators.

Because of the increase in the use of email over the past several use, the amount of spam, or unwanted email, and the threat of viruses being passed along has become a concern to many users.

Special Guidance for Using the Internet as a Communication Tool

The primary advantages of using the Internet as a communication tool are the flexibility and ease it provides. Hence, little is needed in the way of guidance for email and instant messaging. However, here are a few basic guidelines for using email:
  • Respond quickly
  • Be concise
  • Make the main point at the start of the email
  • Use simple English
  • Use attachments if necessary----

A simple guideline for instant messaging is not to talk to strangers. While it is typical for for users to talk only to those on their buddy list, others who are online that are not on their buddy list are able to enter into instant messaging conversations.

Synchronous discussion has become widely used in recent years and requires some special considerations. When considering which format to use for a class, use synchronous discussion when:
  • It is helpful for students to have the time they need to assemble their thoughts and compose their messages.
  • It is of some advantage for discussions to be recorded.
  • When students’ schedules prevent them from being able to be available at the same time.

As the instructor of an asynchronous discussion group, some guidelines to follow include:
  • Determine the rules of discussion. Guy_Looking_At_Laptop.jpg
  • Initiate discussion topics with prompts or questions.
  • Encourage students also to initiate discussions.
  • Guide discussions in the directions in which they need to go.
  • Summarize key points that need to be made.

Research on Using the Internet as a Communication Tool

Borenstein, N. Email With a Mind of its Own: The Safe-Tcl Language for Enabled Mail.
Researchers are working on an email program, using a language called Safe-Tcl, that is interactive, that is, the user can respond to the email and the email will adjust its message according to the response.

Murphy, E. Recognizing and Promoting Collaboration in an Online Asynchronous Discussion
Research has been done to determine the effectiveness of collaboration in online asynchronous discussions. Overall, results suggest that participants shared individual perspectives but did not reach desired level of shared goals and collaborative effort.

Nardi, B., Whittaker, S., & Bradner, E. Interaction and outeraction: instant messaging in action.
Based on an ethnographic study, this journal article discusses the ways in which instant messaging supports informal communication.

Using the Internet as a Communication Tool Lesson Ideas

Teachers could use Internet communication tools, such as e-mail and Instant Messaging, to enable students to communicate with other students about various educational topics, or to contact experts in various fields to obtain information about particular subjects of interest. For example, a foreign language teacher might arrange for students in their class to converse, via e-mail or Instant Messaging, with students in another country. E-mails could be sent in the language of the writer, and the recipient student would be responsible for translating that message into their own language. If the timing could be appropriately arranged, the same sort of exchanges could be possible through the use of Instant Messages. In either situation, students would benefit not only from having "hands-on" experience in learning a foreign language, but would also have the opportunity to speak with a peer in another part of the world, a rare and exciting educational opportunity.

Similarly, teachers could design lessons that require students to correspond with an expert about a particular subject. A science teacher might ask students to e-mail professionals who use scientific knowledge and expertise everyday in their careers. Students could find out how meterologists, astronauts, forensic scientists, and doctors use information they are currently learning about in their classes each day in their respective fields. This kind of communication, facilitated through the medium of Internet communication tools, could make infomation being learned seem relevant and important to students, rather than unexciting and abstract.

Using the Internet as a Communication Tool Links

Asynchronous Discussions
High Tech Learning. Learning Spaces: Email & Text Messaging
How Instant Messaging Works