What is “real” conversation anyway?

For the last few months I have been meeting exclusively in IM sessions for my class on online learning theory. Every wednesday, we all make sure to log in to a javascript based chat window in a moodle system to discuss the readings and continue the conversation that has been taking place inside of a few discussion forums.

This last two weeks, I was the designated facilitator for the class and we were concentrating on articles that related to the use of WIKIs for collaborative knowledge construction. In addition, we were trying to establish the purpose and scope of an actual wiki site were will build with the rest of the semester that could possibly be published.

The first time I “led” a synchronous discussion with 9 or so folks, it didn’t go all that well. The second time was even more stressful. As I would throw out questions to the chat, they always seemed a bit off topic. When we would ask questions like: what should the topic be? A swarm of ideas would come in with very little real conversation taking place (IMHO). For the last 15 minutes of the chat I found myself wanting to get a smaller group face to face, where I would be much more comfortable.

Now the funny thing is that we did meet face to face and a wonderful discussion arose. I had a conversation with one of the students that was also struggling with hte format. We were wondering if it was even possible to study online tools while only living “inside” of them. We both felt that the quality of the discourse that happens when people are in the same room was somehow more natural and productive. We also expressed frustration with the lack of non verbal conversation that is provided by gesture and tone during a conversation when you can both see and hear someone while they are talking.

These concerns were raised in our face to face time and I was surprised that few of the other students couldn’t disagree more. On student in particular spends quite a bit of time online. I believe she even made the statement that she actually prefers text chat over f2f because it moves along faster (more conversations at once), it cant be reviewed (scrolling up in the chat window) and so forth.

My sister in law also seems to agree. She has friends all over the world that she chats with using IM on a dialy basis. For a time, I would even say that she spent more time online chatting than in “real” conversation.

IM style chat does have a number of advantages:

  • It is non-geographical
  • It records the conversation
  • It works wonderfully when you want to include text/links/images
  • My question is therefore, can a person’s communication skills improve over this medium so they can communicate non-verbally? The evidence of communication device history seems to see so. Have you ever seen someone who is stil getting used to the idea of a telephone? I know that is rare these days, but I know that for people that saw this technology come into use after they had already learned how to communicate, it was a real adjustment. Closer to home, I still encounter people that don’t understand the social norms of email. It is as though they are writing letters with a fountain pen that will be carried by horse!

    In a conversation I had with a group over at Wisconsin Public TV, one participant kept saying that despite the new technology, we all need to learn how to work in “real” conversation. So I asked, what is real conversation anyway? Why is face to face any more real than any other format?

    I am beginning to understand that each mode of communication requires the development of skills in the use of that mode.

    The scary part is that you might be an expert on the podium talking to thousands, but unable to hold a decent diner conversation.

    As McLuhan said, new media not only changes how we communicate, but it changes us as well.


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