AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

4. Learning by any other name: Communication Research Traditions in Learning and Media

4.1 Introduction
4.2 Research Beginnings
4.3 Technical Perspective
4.4 Psychological Perspective
4.5 Social-Cultural Perspective
4.6 Review of Elements of Communication
4.7 An Integrated Approach to Learning
4.8 Conclusion
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4.5 Social-Cultural perspective

4.5.1 Definition

Even as psychologically oriented research was gaining attention and dominance in the field (i.e., during the 1940s and 1950s), theorists had begun to explore the influence of social relationships on communication. Whereas psychological theories saw messages filtered through individuals' cognitions, this perspective argues that communication occurs only through social interaction. One's definition of and experience with objects, events, other people, and even oneself, is determined through a network of interpersonal relationships. That is, the meanings we form are products of social "negotiation" with other people. These relationships determine both the symbols we use to communicate and the meanings of those symbols (Mead, 1934; Blumer, 1939, 1969). In essence, the symbols, objects, events, and self images that make up our world are the creation of a shared meaning through social communication. This model clearly demonstrates the linkage between communication theory and social psychology. It explores the potential of media as a unifying force in society. This section will describe the contributions of research traditions that emphasize the social and cultural dimensions of the communication process. This model clearly demonstrated the linkage between communication theory and social psychology. It explored the potential of media as a unifying force in society. Rather than focusing on the filtering of messages solely through cognitive constructs, researchers were interested in the ways in which messages were mediated by interpersonal networks.

4.5.2 Elements of Communication

Social-cultural perspectives present a significant refraining of the communication process. Many of die elements presented by technical and psychological models are conceptualized in very different ways (Fisher, 1978; Swanson & Delia, 1976). Senders and receivers, for example, become "participants," or "interactants," stressing their mutually dependent roles as communicators. Each interactant's perception of self, others, and the situation, working within a framework of shared culture, knowledge, and language, is a major influence on communicative episodes. This refraining of senders and receivers takes Schramm (1955) and Osgood (1954) even further in the view of socially defined interaction.

Messages, in the social-cultural view, are products of negotiation: All participants must arrive at shared meaning for successful communication. Heath and Bryant (1992) state that the message, in this case, is the effect of the sender's behavior on the receiver. They cite Whorf (1956) and his colleague Sapir, who hypothesized that the rules of one's language system contain the society's culture, world view, and collective identity. This language, in turn, affects the way we perceive the world. In short, words define reality; reality does not give us objective meaning. This presents a problematic conception of feedback, because it is difficult to tell when feedback is truly a response to a message and not just another message in and of itself (Heath & Bryant, 1992).

The most compelling application of social-cultural perspectives to mass communication has been in the conceptualization of audience. McQuail (1983) points out that one meaning for "mass" audience has been an "aggregate in which individuality is lost" (Oxford English Dictionary, 1971). Blumer (1969), on the other hand, preferred to distinguish between the "mass" and smaller groups of "publics," "crowds," and "groups." Increasingly, media use Occurs in these smaller aggregates of audience members, each with a particular medium or content form that serves preexisting interests, goals, or values.

These groups form through "boundary properties" (such as demographic characteristics like political affiliation) and "internal structures" (such as belief or value systems) that arise through attention to particular media content and the possibility of interaction about that content (Ennis, 1961). Within such audience groups, three types of internal structures reveal the social character of audience experiences with media (McQuail, 1983). The first, social differentiation, refers to basic differences in audience members' interests, attention, and perceptions of various issues and topics.

A second internal structure is the extent of social interaction within the group. Four factors are included here. Sociability refers to the extent to which media use is primarily a social occasion and secondarily a communicative event between individuals (e.g., how much interaction is permitted while watching television in a group), Groups such as families often employ media for various social purposes (e.g., teaching children about values, avoiding arguments) as well (Lull, 1980). A third factor governing the extent of interaction is the degree of social isolation that may result from excessive media use (especially television). Finally, the presence of para-social relationships (e.g., a viewer's perceived relationship with a favorite TV or radio personality) may indicate the social interaction made possible between media users and easily recognized characters.

A third internal structure in the social character of audience experience with mass media is the control norms that a society holds for its mass media. This refers to the value systems and social norms that regulate media use, types of appropriate content for each medium, and audience expectations of media performance. For example, Americans may come to expect objective news reporting on television, but may not consider a graphic portrayal of murder appropriate for their evening newscast. The types of programming we expect to see may be identified with the medium itself.

4.5.3 Assumptions and Research Focus

The idea that communication is a product of social relationships is the most pervasive assumption of the social-cultural perspective. Several other assumptions guide this philosophical stance, however (Fisher, 1978). Establishment of self is believed primarily through symbolic communication with others. This means that until one acquires the cognitive or empathic ability to "take the role of the other," the self does not exist--nor does meaningful social activity. Such activity takes place only by assuming the role of others or the generalized other. This process of role taking is a collective sharing of selves; it cannot be centered in media structures. It is not an individual act but one clearly dependent on social interaction for its purpose and existence. The concepts of self, roles, and collective meaning creation, then, are the focus of a great deal of investigation within social-cultural communication theories.

4.5.4 Discussion of Representative Research Two-Step Flow Research. A prime example of social-cultural research is the two-step flow model of mass communication (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955). A landmark study that examined voters in Erie County, Ohio, during the 1940 presidential election, focused on the content of political media messages and social interaction about the election. The study (Lazarsfeld, Berelson & Gaudet, 1948), was based on a 6-month panel survey of voting behaviors and decision making. The study sought to chart various influences on voting decisions, including the emerging medium of radio. Findings demonstrated only limited media impact. People who reported making an initial decision or changing their minds, did so after speaking with others about the election. Often these "opinion leaders" received a great deal of information from mass media. The study refrained the one -way, direct-effects model of mass communication processes to account for this "two-step flow" in media influence. The first step reflects the role of opinion leaders in a community who seek out media content related to politics. In the second step, they filter and pass along political information to their social contacts. Media effects, then, were achieved by reaching opinion leaders, not mass audiences.

These findings were later elaborated in a subsequent panel study of women in Decatur, Illinois. Researchers examined the role of opinion leaders on more subtle, day-to-day issues (for example, fashions and household products) (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955). The hypothesis was that on less significant topics, the two-step flow would prove to be an even more dynamic and powerful process than with phenomena such as presidential elections. The findings confirmed this expectation, again noting the existence of a two-step flow of information,

Both of these studies demonstrated clearly that mediating factors intervened in the media effects process. They were among the first to identify social factors that intervened between message and audience response based on the earlier stimulus-response model. Within this theoretical framework, however, the flow of information is still linear and universal. In other words, the media message remains relatively intact. Opinion leaders, often only those wealthy enough to own radio or television and subscribe to magazines, were conduits of media messages. Research on Social Context of Media Use. Another research tradition that falls under the general category of social-cultural research is the body of literature examining social contexts of media use such as on family and home media use (see also 11.5.4). A great deal of research has examined parent-child coviewing of media. According to one study (Desmond, Singer, Singer, Calum & Calimore, 1985), parental mediation in the media-child relationship takes three forms: (1) critical comments about programs or the medium in general, (2) interpretive comments that explain content or media to younger children, and (3) rule making/disciplinary intervention that forcibly regulates the child's viewing habits. Parental interpretation and rule making were framed as a major influence on children's viewing and comprehension of media content. One study (St. Peters, Fitch, Huston, Eakins & Wright, 1991) found that when such coviewing did take place, it was predicted more by the adult's personal viewing habits than the child's. In other words, children and parents coviewed more adult than children's programming. Further, parents' participation in regulating viewing declined as children grew older; and parental guidance or mediation with content was not related to coviewing. Dorr, Kovaric, and Doubleday (1989) echoed the finding that coviewing was largely a coincidence of viewing habits and preferences. They also found weak evidence for the positive consequences of such coviewing, but questioned the value of this concept as an indicator of parental mediation of content.

Such concerns were also discussed by Bryce and Leichter (1983) on a methodological level. They argued that quantitative measures of viewing habits and coviewing may not capture more routine or subtle processes of family viewing that mediate potential effects. They proposed using ethnographic methods (see 40.2) to study the unintentional and nonverbal behaviors that mediate television effects, as well as assessing those mediating behaviors that take place away from television. Jordan (1992) used ethnographic and depth interview techniques for just such a purpose. She concluded that family routines, use and definition of time, and the social roles of family members all played a part in the use of media. Children learned at least as much, if not more, from these daily routines than any formal efforts to regulate media use.

Corder-Bolz (1980) proposed that groups and institutions such as family, peers, school, and church should be considered as primary socializing agents that both provide social information (e.g., facts, ideas, and values) and respond to social communication about this information. McDonald (1986) pointed out that peer coviewing is more frequent and influential among young viewers. Media were defined by Corder-Bolz as the group of "secondary socializing agents" that can provide social information but cannot enforce their messages with child viewers. Media, then, can provide social facts, ideas, and values, but this information's influence is limited to the extent that the child's environment presents no competing messages or that the viewer uncritically adopts such views from media content. Thus, external factors limit the potential impact of content.

Desmond et al. (1985) studied the cognitive skills necessary to comprehend and interpret television content and the effects of family communication on these skills. In their sample of kindergarten and first-grade children, comprehension of and beliefs about the reality of television content were linked to parental mediation styles and general patterns of discipline. Children who watched low levels of TV, in environments that included family control of television, TV-related rules, and strong discipline, were better able to discern reality from fantasy in programming. Those who were raised with TV-specific rules, positive communication between child and mother, and a pattern of explanation of content from adults and older siblings were better able to gain knowledge from television content and about television techniques (e.g., camera zooms and slow motion). Further, this study found that family environmental variables influence the amount of television children viewed. Heavy viewers in this study grew up in homes where parents were heavy viewers and did not mediate viewing often. Family communication was considered the critical variable that determined a child's ability to comprehend televised material and develop the cognitive skills necessary to understand and interpret content.

The research on families and media use suggests that, especially in early childhood, family members are a prime influence on the images children form of media. The amount of and motivations for media use are part of the family's daily social routine (Bryce & Leichter, 1983). Further, other family members' responses to media content serve to shape the developing child's own responses (Corder-Bolz, 1980; Desmond et al., 1985). Such influences likely originate with both family and peers with older, school-aged children. As these children encounter media within classroom contexts, new images of mass media must compete with the definitions and expectations shaped by home media use. Learner-Centered Studies. In addition, a series of learner-centered studies has begun to emerge from research on instructional media applications. Many of these studies address contextual and social factors that influence the communication process. Thus, they are included in the discussion of social-cultural research. One important research tradition began with a strong psychological orientation exploring students' attitudes toward the individual media systems as determinants of the amount and kinds of learning experienced. Clark (1982, 1983) identified three fundamental dimensions of people's expectations about the media: preference, difficulty, and learning. Salomon used the notion of media expectations as the foundation of a series of studies (1981, 1983, 1984) based on the learner's preconceptions about a given media activity and the relationship of those expectations to learning outcomes. His concept ion of the model relied on predicted relationships among three constructs: the perceived demand characteristics of the activity, the individual's perceived self-efficacy for using a particular medium, and the amount of mental effort the individual invested in processing the presentation. Oltman (1983) elaborated on Salomon's model by suggesting that older students may be especially familiar with certain media characteristics or the meaning of certain media codes. This familiarity may increase their perceived self-efficacy with a medium and form attitudes about the medium's impact on their thinking about both the content and the medium. It is clear that this approach assumes an active processor who approaches media activities in an individualistic but relatively sophisticated manner.

However, an additional concept missing from Salomon's model is the notion of a kind of cultural identity or stereotype associated with individual media systems and its role in influencing learning outcomes. In his research he failed to disentangle individual and cultural perceptions of media experiences. Both contributed to the kinds of outcomes he examined. That is, individuals' expectations about media experiences are based, at least in part, on the cultural identity of a medium. For example, television in the U.S. is considered primarily an entertainment medium. Though Salomon did not address the significance of a medium's cultural identity in his model, later research attempted to disentangle media perceptions and expectations to include some understanding of the broad cultural identity of media systems. Thus, the model has been included in the discussion under the social-cultural perspective. Despite its original emphasis only on the learner and the psychological orientation of the model, subsequent studies evolved to embrace a stronger social-cultural approach.

According to Salomon's original model, the relationships among these three constructs--perceived demand characteristics, perceived self-efficacy, and amount of invested mental effort--would explain the amount of learning that would result from media exposure. For example, he compared students' learning from reading a book with learning from a televised presentation of the same content. Salomon found more learning from print media, which he attributed to the high perceived demand characteristics of book learning. Students confronted with high demands, he argued, would invest more effort in processing instructional content. Conversely, students would invest the least effort, he predicted, in media perceived to be the easiest to use, thus resulting in lower levels of learning.

In a test of this model, Salomon and Leigh (1984) concluded that students preferred the medium they found easiest to use; the easier it was to use, the more they felt they learned from it. However, measures of inference making suggested that these perceptions of enhanced learning from the "easy" medium were misleading. In fact, students learned more from the "hard" medium, the one in which they invested more mental effort. A series of studies extended Salomon's work to examine the effect of media predispositions and expectations on learning outcomes. Several studies used the same medium, television, to deliver the content but manipulated instructions to viewers about the purpose of viewing. The treatment groups were designed to yield one group with high investments and one with low investments of mental effort.

Though this research began as an extension of traditional research on learning in planned, instructional settings, it quickly evolved to, include consideration of context as an independent variable related to learning outcomes. Krendl and Watkins (1983) demonstrated significant differences between treatment groups following instructions to students to view a program and compare it to other programs they watched at home (entertainment context), as opposed to viewing in order to compare it to other videos they saw in school (educational context). This study reported that students instructed to view the program for educational purposes responded to the content with a deeper level of understanding. That is, they recalled more story elements and included more analytical statements about the show's meaning or significance when asked to reconstruct the content than did students in the entertainment context.

Two other studies (Beentjes, 1989; BeentJes & van der Wort, 1991) attempted to replicate Salomon's work in another cultural context, the Netherlands. In these studies children were asked to indicate their levels of mental effort in relation to two media (television and books) and across content types within those media. The second study asked children either watching or reading a story to reproduce the content in writing. Beenqes concluded, "the invested mental effort and the perceived self-efficacy depend not only on the medium, but also on the type of television program or book involved" (1989, p. 55). Bordeaux and Lange (1991) supported these findings in a study of home television viewing. Children and parents were surveyed about the former's active cognitive processing of program content. The researchers concluded that the amount of mental effort invested varied as a function of viewer age and the type of program being viewed. These studies raise the possibility of profound cultural differences in response to various media and genres. Though few studies have examined the notion of cultural differences, clearly the learner-centered approach must investigate the existence and nature of cultural factors related to the understanding of media experiences and learning outcomes.

A longitudinal study emerging from the learner-centered studies (Krend), 1986) asked students to compare media (print, computer, and television) activities on Clark's (1982, 1983) dimensions of preference, difficulty, and learning. That is, students were asked to compare the activities on the basis of which activity they would prefer, which they would find more difficult, and which they thought would result in more learning. Results suggested that students' judgments about media activities were directly related to the particular dimension to which they were responding. Media activities have multidimensional, complex sets of expectations associated with them. The findings suggest that simplistic, stereotypical characterizations of media experiences (for example, books are hard) are not very helpful in understanding audiences' responses to media.

These studies begin to merge the traditions of mass communication research on learning and studies of the learning process in formal instructional contexts. The focus on individuals' attitudes toward, and perceptions of, various media has begun to introduce a multidimensional understanding of learning in relation to media experiences. Multiple factors influence the learning process-mode of delivery, content, context of reception, as well as individual characteristics such as perceived self-efficacy and cognitive abilities.

One additional approach (Becker, 1985) points to the perspectives offered by poststructural reader theories that define the learner as a creator of meaning. The student interacts with media content and actively constructs meaning from texts, previous experience, and outside influences (e.g., family and peers) rather than passively receiving and remembering content. According to this approach, cultural and social factors are seen as active forces in the construction of meaning.

Abelman (1989) offered a similar perspective in his study of experiential learning, within the context of computer-mediated instruction. The emphasis in this research is on cooperative or collaborative learning; students are seen in partnership with teachers, each other, and delivery systems. The idea is that media can create "microworlds" where students can have some direct experience with new, sophisticated ideas (see Abelman described a program called "Space Shuttle Commander that teaches principles of motion through student-computer interaction in a simulated space environment. In effect, the student and the computer form a learning partnership.

Jonassen (1985) and Rowntree (1982) have pointed out that such perspectives force us to ask how the student controls learning rather than letting our concerns about the technology drive the research agenda. The concern with technology clearly describes early research on educational media, which took an ad hoc approach to measuring learning outcomes in relation to instructional treatments for each new advance in technology.

Updated October 14, 2003
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