Contrasting Time Mode and Sensory Modality in the Performance of Computer Mediated Groups Using Asynchronous Videoconferencing.

Nowak, K. L., Watt, J., Walther, J. B., Pascal, C., Hill, S., & Lynch, M. (2004/01/01/). Contrasting time mode and sensory modality in the performance of computer mediated groups using asynchronous videoconferencing. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 37th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Place of Publication: Los Alamitos, CA, USA; Big Island, HI, USA. Country of Publication: USA.

A foundational issue to my dissertation research is the question of what real differences there are between Face to Face (FtF) communication and various media, specifically video communication. This issue can be viewed from various perspectives, such as comprehension and retention, enjoyment, social bonding, ease of use, willingness to participate, etc. I frequently struggle with trying to avoid falling into the trap of perceiving one communication medium as inherently superior or inferior and instead attempt to look toward identifying what the real differences are and how they affect our communication choices and perceptions. However, identifying a given method’s superiority, or even a hierarchical inferiority-to-superiority structure of communication media is a common approach (e.g. theories of media richness, media synchronicity, and media naturalness). Generally, it is seen that FtF communication is at the top of the list with other media falling beneath it, based on the number and type of modalities they offer. FtF communication seems to be the communication mode against which others are compared. Nowak, et al. note that, “researchers have compared media interactions to face to face interactions and media have almost always been shown to be lacking in some way. (2)”

This article confronts the question of whether such perceptions–that media are inferior to FtF conditions of communication– are socially or technologically determined. It questions, “Is the way people utilize telecommunication systems governed primarily by socially determined rules, or by limitations in the features of the interface, in other words, are they socially or technologically determined?” It can be seen that communication technology offers us the ability to transcend many barriers of space and time, but at a price: the loss of many social and communication clues that help convey and clarify meaning between conversants. Without these cues, communication is often strained and resulting in misperceived meaning, intent, and tone.

Several theories I’ve discussed in the past (see social presence theory, social context clues hypothesis, media richness theory, and media synchronicity theory) suggest that communication methods that limit or remove nonverbal cues may not be sufficient for complex tasks. These theories argue that nonverbal cues are essential for quick and accurate comprehension of a message. While these theories have received some criticism in regard to whether FtF is really more effective or if the measurements on which these theories are founded are even acceptable, there is some evidence users prefer to use the communication methods and media that offer more modes and cues. This is, in part, a point that my own research will address.

The availability and inclusion of non-verbal cues does add to the verbal message, at times clarifying meaning and tone, but such cues are not always redundant. “the relationship of nonverbal to verbal behavior is often complementary, rather than redundant, with nonverbal behavior adding qualification, uncertainty, or contradiction to the verbal substance (2). The authors also state that in the face of contradictions with verbal message and non verbal cues, people tend to favor the non-verbal. “In considering technological determinism, processing both messages is possible in a unitary-symbol system such as text-based communication.” However, I disagree with any suggestion that this ability to process both methods results in more accurate internal processing of the writer’s meaning. In a text-based situation, the reader’s perception of non-verbal communication is more subjective, since the speaker (author) is not present.

The authors state that communication with multiple, simultaneous cues actually takes less effort to process and comprehend. Therefore, such communication, “should allow partners to reserve more effort to their information processing task and less to their intentional communication behavior. (3)” Additionally, both synchronous and asynchronous video communication provides advantages over non-visual and at times even over FtF communication. Video provides a shared workspace in which participants contextualize and add meaning to experienced cues. Allows participants to present and observer specific artifacts, which may directly relate to a point of discussion, thus further contextualizing the discussion. Therefore, in certain settings, such as when participants are discussing a particular object, video communication can be more useful than FtF communication.

Another point this article addresses, one that I have addressed in the past, is that video communication liberates participants from both temporal and spatial constraints.
“[A]synchronous communication channels allow groups to overcome the problems associated with competing demands for attention and time that make face-to-face meetings difficult by allowing people to write and respond independent of geographic location or time zones. (3)”

In regard to spatial liberation, conversational participants can be virtually anyplace, thus saving travel time and costs. “[D]ispersion allows members to remain embedded in important sites or clients’ spaces while simultaneously enjoined in the group.”

If all things were equal, it would be difficult to avoid looking at FtF communication at the unparalleled pinnacle in a linear hierarchical value structure. Admittedly, there are elements to it that do seem (and scholars have shown) to be superior. But, this is for a specific purpose, in a specific setting. Ergo, all things are not equal. Clearly, there are benefits to the exposure that FtF communication provides of both verbal and non-verbal cues. Most other communication forms are missing on or more of these modalities that are linked to the use of such cues. Video does capture such cues quite effectively. However, the largest differences with video are those of temporal and spatial nature. Again, in given settings, one can see how such difference might be more or less beneficial than FtF communication. My research examines one such situation; the use of asynchronous video in the online, distance classroom.

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