Sunday, July 29, 2007

Communication and Flat-Classroom Projects

I was inspired by a post during the school year at Julie Lindsay's E-Learning Blog. Julie, Vicki Davis, a number of educators and their students have been engaged in the Horizon Project. A cursory explanation of the project is that it is a multi-classroom student collaborative to develop a wiki on emergent technologies.

The concern was raised regarding the confusion students were experiencing from alternate spellings for certain English language words. My original comment amounted to 'Don't worry about it, the students will benefit from figuring it out themselves' and I linked to an article I had read about other young students here.

While to me, alternate spellings seemed only mildly problematic, it may be a sign of some issues yet to arise. As I began to plan for my own flat classroom projects, what other communication concerns do I need to address as learning moves from immediate to asynchronous?

This post (and probably a few more) represents a reflection on my learning and should not be confused with a treatise on communication theories. I have been greatly enlightened by a series of essays here. They represent introductory concepts but I believe most educators will find them interesting reading.

A General Model of Communication

I first came across Shannon-Weaver when our Marine Research students were trying to find a way to compare biodiversity data gathered from a number of communities. The Shannon-Weaver Biodiversity Index came out of the work Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver did for Bell Labs in the 1940's.

While the original research had nothing to do with biodiversity, it had everything to do with improving the communication of information. The initial communication model came out of an effort to reduce mechanical noise, or interference, from the information-carrying signal in telecommunications. (Bell Labs? Telephone? Hello.)

Their original model proposes that all communication systems include essentially 5 parts:

  • an information source which produces the message to be communicated
  • a transmitter which converts the message into a signal
  • a channel which is the medium used to transmit the signal
  • a receiver to reconstruct the message from the signal
  • a destination which is the intended target of the message

Mechanical noise might be generalized as any source which restricts, degrades or otherwise interferes with the integrity of the original message. While noise can be introduced at any point in the model, we are considering, in this post, interference whereby the signal received is not identical to the signal transmitted.

So, if we were to assign the 5 essential elements of a communication system to a simplified model of a flat-classroom project it might look like this ....

... and the noise addressed by Shannon-Weaver would be introduced inclusive of components 2, 3 and 4. The analogous noise in a flat-classroom system is ultimately the result of a mismatch between the operations of the transmitter and the receiver. The question is then, "what noise sources might we encounter in our system?"

A short list might include:

  • Bandwidth
  • Operating Systems - not so much platform but the version of the OS could impact item 3
  • Browser incompatibility- different ways browsers display mark-up, plug-in availability for handling media files.
  • Filters, Filters, Filters!

Take heart! These problems are surmountable.

Addressing these issues will require a good working relationship between the classroom teacher and the IT person (people). While I know that there are some "IT departments that s**k", (Call me old-fashioned, but I don't let my students use that word either.), I personally found people able and willing to support what I tried to do this year. Network filters are the biggest roadblocks to this type of project. I wish I had more access to directly handle this problem. As it stands now, there is a request and review process in order to have a site unblocked. The positive side is that, to date, I have not been refused a request.

So, establish a communication link with someone in IT.

While Shannon-Weaver is a good place to start a discussion about communication systems and flat-classroom projects, there are some limitations in its strict application.

  • It's obvious linearity.
  • It, ideally, addresses the technological aspects of communication and thus...
  • ...It operates irregardless of the meaning contained within the signal (message).

Shannon-Weaver was not inordinately concerned with the communication of intent, purpose or meaning. Yet, this is really at the core of our flat-classroom activities. Noise, in this case semantic noise, is not introduced because of a mismatch of technologies, but because of a mismatch which exists between the source and the receiver. (Items 1 and 2 in Figure 2). Such as occurs with different spellings for the same word.

Ahh.. now we have finally gotten to the original prompt for the post, but I think that topic will have to wait for next time.


Durff said...

Since it was I who brought up the spelling error in the first place, it is only fitting that I comment. The error of using American spellings over British spellings, which I didn't even realise until British-speaking friends pointed it out, revealed my ethnocentrism in a big way.
This blunder opened the way for classroom discussion (and we were only peer reviewers) about the need to examine our ethnocentric culture and the need for transparency and accountability.
I greatly valued that teachable moment, for in truth there teachable hours from my insensitivity.
The discussions that came out of that error will help prepare citizens of the future. We can only imagine the cross-cultural challenges they will face...

Jeff said...

durff- You are so right! I think that most of us will be awakened to how, as Americans, we have been shelterd from so much of the rest of the world.

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