Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (1)

Not only do new technologies, new ways of doing things, eliminate specific tasks and workplaces … but the remaining work is frequently done asynchronously in terms of both time and space.  But how and where … is discernment, trust, and collaboration learned, experience and caution passed on, when people no longer work, build, create, and learn together or share sequence and consequence in the course of a common task? (Franklin, 1999, p. 172).

Trust, discernment, and collaboration depend on empathy.  Can we engage in collaboration or create genuine community in the asynchronous, detached environment of a typical online class, when empathy and emotion may be absent or easily misread?  How do we effectively convey empathy in an online classroom—and what role does empathy play in building a community? 

Specifically, are emoticons an acceptable or feasible tool for community building?  Our JForum tool in “Learn” lets each participant choose from a roster of emoticon images, and the instructor can include also emoticons in Announcements.  In the next entry or two, I’m going to look at who uses emoticons in “Learn” and summarize some of the attitudes that came up about emoticons and community building, based on a student-run online seminar that has just finished. 

But first, let the scholars speak:

CMC instructors can use paralinguistic cues such as emoticons appropriately to express their attitudes toward the topic being communicated…. Usually, an instructor’s appropriate use of emoticons can give students a positive impression of a more vivid, dynamic, and graphic description of their feelings and actions than of a traditional textual description (Liu and Ginther, 2001).

Another study on feedback in web-based instruction notes that appropriate use of paralinguistic cues like emoticons “can give readers a [more] positive impression of … the writer’s feelings and actions than would otherwise be discernible through traditional text communication” (Reid, 1995, qtd. in Andreatta, 2003, p. 24).  Grounding this supposition is that emoticons represent social presence, and an increase in social presence enhances a learning experience.   Thus

... feedback messages that include the use of emoticons, along with supportive language, should work to further increase student satisfaction beyond that achieved through the use of supportive language alone. By providing a visual cue to establish emotional context, the level of understanding between the teacher and the students should increase, thereby improving student satisfaction  (Andreatta, 2003, pp. 24-25).

A series of studies in the late 1990s has also shown (unsurprisingly according to Andreatta), that “the use of emoticons was found to positively contribute to text-based communication in web-based environments (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Liu & Ginther, 1999; qtd. in Andreatta, 2003, p. 97)

Bolstering this theoretical case for using emoticons in online learning, a recent online learning guide advises students about the usefulness of emoticons, especially in group work—

It helps to use emoticons to convey your tone.  Having a conflict or misunderstanding doesn’t mean you don’t like the person any more, but people often forget that reality, or don’t like to say it.  It may be most needed during a tense interaction. (Lynch, 2004, p. 126).

On the instructor’s end, I found this comment in the KairosNews blog:  “I use [emoticons] all the time in corresponding with students with the idea that they should make a difference”.  This instructor tries to model a style of interaction that she/he would like to see students adopting (see http://www.kairosnews.org/the-secret-cause-of-flame-wars#comments for more).  This comment resonates for me because that’s the approach I’ve been using as an instructor in “Learn,” creating a model that says it’s okay to smile, laugh, groan, or be ironic in this particular “classroom.”

So how’s this been working so far?  Is “Learn” festooned with emoticons?

More to follow … !     :- D



Andreatta, P. (2003).  The effect of affective corrective feedback variation in web-based instruction on community college student satisfaction and retention.  Unpublished dissertation (123 pp excerpt).  University of San Francisco.  Available from http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/andreattap/dissertation.pdf (though there is currently a file-open error).

Franklin, U. (1999).  The real world of technology. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Liu, Y., & Ginther, D. W.  (2001).  Instructional strategies for achieving a positive impression in computer-mediated communication (CMC) distance education courses.  2001 Proceedings, Sixth Annual Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, Murfreesboro, TN:  Middle Tennessee State University.  Retrieved 10 March 2007 from http://www.mtsu.edu/~itconf/proceed01/8.html

Lynch, M. M.  (2004).  Learning online:  A guide to success in the virtual classroom.  New York:  Routledge Falmer.


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