Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 7 : 8 August 2007
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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Cooperative Learning Incorporating Computer-Mediated Communication:
Participation, Perceptions, and Learning Outcomes in a Deaf Education Classroom

Michelle Pandian, M.S.


Many researchers have documented deaf students' struggles with reading, writing, and communication in the classroom over the last twenty years (Long & Beil, 2005; Antia, et al., 2005; Mallory & Long, 2002; Mallory et al., 2006, Johnson & Johnson, 1986; Karchmer & Mitchell, 2003). With the advent of email and text pagers, students today need to be exposed to the communication technologies of the future (Marschark et al., 2002; Bruce & Levin, 2003); especially deaf students, who will more typically rely on technology in the workplace for communication than hearing people (Wood, 2002). This exploratory research study with deaf undergraduate students examined whether computer-mediated communication (CMC) facilitated equitable participation and learning outcomes in a classroom activity. The study also examined the students' perceptions of CMC as a valid instructional approach and whether they felt they could communicate easily via CMC. Results showed that participation was significantly more balanced within the CMC group pairs than within the comparison group pairs. It was also found that learning outcomes were significantly greater for the CMC group than the comparison group. In addition, students using CMC agreed that they could communicate easily and that CMC was an enjoyable method of communication in the classroom.


Since the inception of PL-94-142 (the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) in 1975, the mainstreaming of students with disabilities, including deaf and hard-of-hearing students, has become more and more common. Currently, around seventy-five percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing (hereafter referred to as "deaf") students are mainstreamed in public schools across the United States (Karchmer & Mitchell, 2003). This trend toward integration of the school environment has forced mainstream teachers to seek methods of instruction that accommodate the learning needs of all students in their classrooms. Student-centered cooperative learning lessons have been designed to meet some of these learning needs (Sherman, 2000).

As conceived by social and cognitive psychologists Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, Lewin, and others, the social constructivist theories of how people learn have contributed greatly to the development of cooperative learning practices used in schools today (Sherman, 2000). Yet while cooperative learning strategies are powerful teaching tools in the classroom (Bransford, et al., 2000; Slavin, 2001; Felder, 1995), the foundation for a cooperative learning system is communication - the very element which can pose a stumbling block to mainstreamed deaf students' participation and hence could interfere with their learning in a cooperative classroom environment (Long & Beil, 2005; Antia et al., 2005). Deaf and hard-of-hearing students arrive in school from many different communication backgrounds and continue to develop various communication preferences throughout their school experiences. These students often find communicating with their partners or small groups difficult (Johnson & Johnson, 1986; Long & Beil, 2005).Thus, it has become imperative to find ways to facilitate dialogue and participation of students with varying communication needs or styles in any cooperative learning lesson.

Can computer-mediated communication (CMC) help facilitate communication during group work for students with different communication backgrounds and preferences? Just as the advent of the TTY (or TDD) revolutionized telephone communication for deaf people, the technological advances of email, IM, and text pagers, have revolutionized the way deaf people can and do communicate with both hearing people and each other (Power & Power, 2004). Many computer programs have been developed capitalizing on communication technologies to make them available to students within the classroom (Bruce & Peyton, 2002). These synchronous and quasi-synchronous programs have brought instant messaging text-as-you-type communication capabilities to students' fingertips. Communication strategies such as these may eliminate some of the communication barriers that exist between deaf students who are relying on amplification devices such as FM systems and/or who depend on interpreters, and non-signing students and teachers in the classroom. An examination of theories and practices in cooperative learning, computer-mediated communication, deaf students' writing, and social issues related to deaf education follows in the literature review. The attempt here is to examine the potential success of using synchronous IM technology to help reduce communication barriers that exist in cooperative learning environments with deaf students in the mainstream or deaf students with diverse communication modes.

A Review of the Literature

Cooperative Learning and Deafness

When students are engaged in a creative open-ended task, the more that they talk and work together, the more they will learn (Cohen, 2002).

Elizabeth Cohen's quote from the conference for the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education in June 2002, describes cooperative learning in a nutshell. Active collaboration in the classroom involves students exchanging ideas, comments and insights, then synthesizing a stronger conceptual understanding of academic material. Research on collaborative group activities has shown that students recall and comprehend curricular content more effectively than when they work individually, which leads to higher academic achievement and a more positive student perception of the educational experience (Johnson & Johnson, 1986; Felder, 1995). Cooperative learning strategies and applications have been shown to facilitate more efficient acquisition of knowledge and problem solving methods, and to improve human relations within groups of diverse learners (Sherman, 2000). In theory, teachers have some power to ensure that no student is isolated or alienated from his or her peers (Johnson & Johnson, 2002). In the past thirty years, educational and social psychologists have developed volumes of research supporting the success of many different small group cooperative learning frameworks at the elementary and secondary education levels, and more current research efforts involve post-secondary/university learning environments (Sherman, 2000).

As the name implies, cooperative learning incorporates what Sherman (2000; p. 3) calls "cooperative goal structures," where two or more students are grouped heterogeneously and given a task that requires positive interdependence of all in the group. Heterogeneous grouping implies specifically sorting individuals by diversifying characteristics such as academic ability, gender, ethnic background, and real or perceived disability. For deaf students in the mainstream, heterogeneous grouping would consider deafness a diversifying characteristic. For deaf students in a residential setting or university setting, communication preference (ASL, signed English, cued speech, oral method) and student background would be diversifying characteristics. Sherman (2000) goes on to suggest that cooperative goal structures must include face-to-face interactions, individual accountability (for participating in the group and contributing toward the goal), and group processing of information that incorporates each participant's views and ideas surrounding the task at hand.

The communication barriers faced by heterogeneous groups of deaf and hearing students or heterogeneous groups of deaf students with varying communication preferences pose challenges to Sherman's cooperative goal structures that must be addressed. First, face-to-face interaction can be awkward for both hearing and deaf students who communicate with each other through interpreters and/or FM systems, and therefore a less than desirable level of information may be exchanged in the process (Johnson & Johnson, 1986). Schull, Axelrod, and Quinsland note that, "When deaf and hearing individuals converse in combined groups, conversational strategies often conflict and fail, despite interpreter's Herculean efforts" (Schull, et al., 2006, p. 3). Second, when a deaf student is paired or grouped with other students and is accustomed to a communication mode different from those students, he or she may miss information that is being transmitted (Long & Beil, 2005). Under these circumstances, communications may be kept short and cover less depth of content. The potential for greater learning is truncated and educational outcomes are limited, because the key to successful cooperative learning situations is fluid communication between participants.

Group processing of information, and therefore learning, is also compromised by poor access to communication. Cooperative learning helps students develop higher-order thinking (Vygotsky, 1978). A group's ability to mull over and reflect upon information together leads to a refinement of ideas and new ownership of the materials on a more personal level for the participants. Freedom and ease of communication are required for more complex reasoning to occur within the group and for students to share personal information and opinions, both of which will lead to increased social interaction and greater transfer of learning. Research by Long and Beil (2005, p. 6) has found that if communication breaks down, students are "less likely to become engaged, active learners," and the exchange of ideas is limited. In a study of US and Thai information technology students collaborating on a group project, Sarker (2005) found that both the US and the Thai students perceived that US members of the team transmitted more learning and information, even though capability and experience levels were equal. She suggests this resulted from a communication/language barrier, because the language medium was English. Although the Thai members of the team could potentially have contributed to the whole team's learning, it was perceived by both sides that they did not contribute in proportion to their potential. Even the Thai team members felt they had not been able to make a substantial contribution to the team's learning outcomes. Sarker (2005) stated that it is possible the Thai team members experienced frustration with the language barrier and could not share their knowledge effectively. In the same way, deaf students in a predominantly hearing setting or deaf students in a group that has differing preferences in communication modes may experience the same feeling of not being able to contribute to the group's learning. This feeling underscores the necessity of providing a mode of communication where all group members feel they can express themselves well and communicate their ideas to their peers.

Computer-Mediated Communication and Deafness

Sherman (2000, p. 6) notes, "meanings are historically situated and constructed and reconstructed through language." In other words, communication is vital for learning to take place. The act of communication involves a reciprocal process of dialogue where individuals engage another's perception of reality (Schmuck & Schmuck, 1997). Therefore, communication can be considered an inter-dependent activity and an integral aspect of the cooperative learning environment. If deaf students experience communication barriers, they may not be able to participate fully in the learning environment. Therefore, they may not be able to contribute effectively to their cooperative group. The whole group suffers when one member cannot contribute to their full or optimum potential.

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) seeks to break down these language and communication barriers by leveling the playing field - bringing equal access to participation through one shared mode of communication (Mallory & Long, 2002; Liu et al., 2003). All students are required to practice the same skills in thinking and writing (Cohen, 2002). In CMC, face-to-face dialogue is replaced by synchronous or asynchronous written interaction via computer technology. Discussion threads and shared collaborative writing documents are created on a computer or internet site via Instant Messaging software programs specifically designed for classroom use. Students' typed messages are sent immediately to others in the group for them to respond, elaborate, or inquire about the material. Communication in CMC is accomplished through informal register "social" English, i.e. the language of Instant Messaging. An informal study done by Rosemary Stifter (2005) on deaf college students found that practice using social English facilitates the development of deaf students' academic English. Participants overcome anxiety related to writing and become more willing to share their input (Stifter, 2005; Bishop et al., 2000; Hertz-Lazarowitz & Bar-Natan, 2001). Students who may not have completely polished English writing skills need not worry about minor spelling or grammatical errors, as long as they can be clearly understood. Deaf and hearing students at all levels of English proficiency can benefit from writing exercises where they practice expressing their opinions and ideas in writing (Liu et al., 2003; Lang, 2004). In a study that surveyed deaf students in undergraduate classes using computer-mediated communication at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, students said CMC provided "ease of communication" both with their instructor and their peers (Mallory, et al., 2006, pp. 6-7). In testing an innovative new CMC program, Schull, et al., (2006) found "three to four times as many discrete utterances (turns taken)" were exhibited in discussions using the program in comparison with discussions facilitated by an interpreter (Schull, et al., 6). This indicates a greater participation level by students using CMC.

One major benefit of computer-mediated communication is that a transcript of the dialogue is available to the students and the professor, both during and after the dialogue has taken place. While face-to-face discussions are fleeting and permit no permanent record unless taped or recorded in some way (Sherman, 2000), CMC software creates verbatim documentation of dialogue texts. Participants have the benefit of immediate live printed feedback, and they can scroll back in the created transcript to see what has been said before. The transcripts can also be analyzed at a later date by instructors/researchers for content and quality as well as higher-level thinking. Teachers can monitor or join any of the group discussions with the click of a mouse, and can re-direct the discussion thread or clarify any confusion. CMC discussions also provide an exact record of student responses, which instructors can use to adjust their lesson plans for following sessions, note student affect and motivation, monitor the group collaboration process, or even use for remedial purposes if they notice a student who is not understanding main concepts of the lesson being presented. Transcripts can be edited and given back to students as an outline or as notes for the day's proceedings. CMC records also help make plain students' metacognitive processes as they work through the discussion with their peers. With time for reflection, students can review transcripts of their CMC activity and discuss how to improve their cooperative skills.

Though very little research on computer-mediated communication has been done with deaf students, Mallory, et al., (2006) found that asynchronous CMC has shown improved communication between deaf & hearing students. Stephenson (1997), in a case study of a Deaf Listserv, found that CMC minimized differences in hearing status and communication modality, enabling participants to focus on the content of the topic rather than the mode by which information was being presented. Several studies in distance education support the use of CMC as an educational tool that provides motivation and positive interactive learning outcomes (Sorg & McElhinney, 2000; Chou, 2001). These studies and the research done by Mallory, et al., (2006) provide evidence that computer-mediated communication can be a viable method of communication for group work involving deaf students.

The use of computer-mediated communication is not without some difficulties. Research on the captioning of filmstrips, conferences, and television has shown that captioning speeds of up to two hundred words per minute, such as the typical adult news program, are very challenging for deaf people (Marschark, Lang, & Albertini, 2002). This, combined with the fact that a deaf person must divide his or her attention between the speaker and the text, makes reading captions an arduous activity, especially for deaf middle school and high school students. Yet with computer-mediated communication, the problem of reading text typed in by another user is alleviated by the fact that the entire screen is devoted to the text conversation (not only a small section of the screen, as in captioning). There is no need to divide attention between a speaker and the written word. Because the users are students themselves, their typing rate will be far slower than a professional captionist. Additionally, text remains on the screen for an extended period of time, allowing students the convenience of reading at their own pace and reflecting on their answers before responding (Mallory, et al., 2006). Also, if the student misses a point or wants to re-read something typed previously that has scrolled off the screen, she or he can scroll back to find the information. These features are not often available with captioning.

Another potential difficulty of computer-mediated communication is that it comprises a cue-reduced environment in which to hold a discussion. Quan-Haase, Cothrel, and Wellman (2005) pinpoint a key issue in communication, particularly with deaf individuals - that of social presence. When dialogue occurs via computer technology, many visual cues are missing. Quan-Haase and her colleagues remind us that, "low social presence means diminished cues about the characteristics of a person…and no information on a person's facial and bodily expressions" (2005, p. 4); criteria that greatly enhance comprehension for deaf students whose native language is sign language (either ASL or a form of signed English). Without those visual cues, which add meaning to utterances, misunderstandings are possible. However, research by Nowak, Watt, and Walther (2005) suggests that a low cue environment may not have as many drawbacks as feared. Participants in groups using low cue, synchronous CMC as the mode of communication rated their conversations as being more effective, felt their partners were more credible, and reported more involvement in the interaction process as compared to groups communicating face-to-face (Nowak, et al., 2005). Although their research was conducted with hearing individuals, it suggests benefits in communication for learning that may equal or even outweigh the liabilities associated with cue-reduced environments.

An additional drawback to using CMC in the classroom might involve the users' keyboarding proficiency. By the time students enter high school, many have had practice with keyboarding through word processing programs and email. A study by Pilkington and Walker (2003) observing teenagers using CMC found that the participants adapted as they gained more experience and the learning curve was steep. Regardless of students' present keyboarding capability, CMC is a skill they will need as they ascend the educational ladder into college or the workplace, and therefore it can be legitimately incorporated into the classroom curriculum and activities. Bruce and Levin (2003, p. 3) state, "The process of digitization, of incorporating new information and communication technologies into our social practices, has not only continued, but accelerated, over the last decade." Marschark, Lang, and Albertini (2002, p. 210) add, "Schools in the United States and in other countries are making substantial investments in computer technology for Internet access and are moving forward with classroom activities and interactive, collaborative academic projects that utilize the Internet." Societal changes in technological literacy practices have implications for education (Bruce & Levin, 2003, p. 4). Email and instant message style communication is exploding in America - on the busiest day of the year in 2001, America Online reported 300 million messages were sent - up from only 50 million in 1998 (Mount, 2001, pp. 44-45, cited in Mallory & Schmidt, 2003). According to a September 2004 study "How Americans Use Instant Messaging," by Shiu and Lenhart in the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 53 million adults send instant messages on a daily basis, and 24 percent of them use IM more frequently than email. These changes in the way America communicates should be mirrored in the classroom. Thus, teaching students new skills in computer-mediated communication is necessary to prepare them for interaction with communication technologies of the future.

The necessity of learning about and becoming skilled at technological innovations for communication and collaboration has been known for more than ten years. Elizabeth Dole, as US Secretary of Labor, presented the "SCANS" report (The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991) that listed future goals for public education. Sherman (2000, p. 7) adds, those goals "include the ability to use sophisticated technology to communicate and collaborate." Currently, employees in many organizations collaborate using instant messaging programs to complement or even replace email communications, because it adds speed and ease to communication in the workplace (Quan-Haase, et al., 2005). Leslie Rach (2000) in the English Department at Gallaudet reported research that found deaf graduates can be required to participate in 17 different reading and writing activities in general in their places of work. She suggests that technology is the most efficient tool for such text-based tasks. Computer-mediated communication is an important communication mode of the future. It is being used by many companies as a way to facilitate internal contact between departments and individuals (Sarker, 2005; Cho et al., 2005). Cooperative learning that incorporates computer-mediated communication meets the SCANS report criterion and helps prepare students, hearing and deaf, for the work environments of the future.


Cooperative Learning Incorporating Computer-Mediated Communication: Participation, Perceptions, and Learning Outcomes in a Deaf Education Classroom | Ethnic Killing in India | Exotic Phonemes: A Study of Manipuri Phonemes | Tendulkar's Silence! The Court is in Session: Social Criticism and Individual Tragedy | Nonverbal Communication: The Language of Motivation for Pakistani Students | Building Community in Countries of Adoption - Situation in Singapore | HOME PAGE OF AUGUST 2007 ISSUE | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Michelle F. Pandian, M.S.
Deaf Education Instructor
Wisconsin, U.S.A.

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