Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Communications Theory - Introduction

Communications are at the core of our trade. From the various fields of theory that support Instructional Design, I can’t think of anything more complicated than communications. When I began thinking about this post my mind became so boggled (yes, I know it doesn’t take much) I decided to take my own advice, and exercising the adroitness for organizing information inherent to us humans, developed a concept map about the topic.  If you not familiar with the subject of mapping check out Concept Maps at Wikipedia.

Please take a few minutes and examine the concept map. You can view the map at Cj’s Mind Map of Human Communications.(1)   You might even want to print it out. It might be helpful in answering the poll question.
Great! You’re back.  I think you’ll agree a complicated topic. How does one simplify the complex? Use a model.
Communication Models
The overriding goal of communications is the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information. This may be accomplished by various modes including: speech, writing, or signs.
The value of a model is that it simplifies a complex process. Communication is just such a complex process, and using a model will help you send and receive communications—and will help ensure that your message is received.
There are lots of communications models available.  I prefer the Schramm (2) Model of communication; an oldie but a goody.
1.   The sender encodes a message influenced by his or her field of experience.
2.   The message is sent via some media (visual, auditory, written)
3.   The message may be affected by noise from the environment
4.   The receiver decodes the message vis-à-vis his or her field of experience
5.   Feedback is the corrective mechanism (If the media has the capacity) and the sender becomes the receiver.
Graphically it looks like:


Applying the Schramm Model to ID
Schramm step 1: Sender encodes message
This step certainly links up to analysis phase of an ID model. Effectively encoding your message will depend significantly on what you know about your audience.  A good audience analysis will include:
·        Entry behaviors (think prerequisite knowledge, skills)
·        Prior knowledge of the topic
·        Attitudes toward the content, organization, work group, and potential delivery media
Dick & Carey(3) share, “Don’t assume that learners are very interested in the topic, find it relevant to their interests or job, feel confident that they can learn it , and will be satisfied when they do. (Remember ARCS from the motivation post?).
You can conduct surveys prior to your course to gain information about your audience. If it is not practical for you to do a pre-course assessment, you can get a real time snapshot by having the students complete an “effectiveness grid(4) at the beginning of your course.
Moving on to the Design phase.  You can’t communicate unless you have your learners’ attention and you can’t hold attention without creating an interest in your subject.  Attention is gained through novelty, intensity or movement. Establishing interest is by sharing the value of the content with the learner. This is usually accomplished by sharing the learning objectives.  Recall, learning objectives must be shared in a manner understandable to the learner and rarely in the rigorous form used by the designer (revisit the post on Learning Objectives, the Rosetta Stone of ISD).
Schramm step 2: Media
For this post, I’m going to restrict media selection down to a single question. Does your learning outcomes require one or two-way communications? A need for two-way communication will eliminate some media.  Determining the level of how fluid a two-way communication is needed will help guide your selection since some media are better than others.  For example: face-to-face vs. an asynchronous WEB based media.
Schramm step 3: Noise
Interference to your message may come the learning environment or internal to student. For the external influences like construction, cell phones or noise from the room next door, you can control them by scheduling, or relocation.  For internal needs think Maslow’s Hierarchy (see motivation post). Provide health food and water. I have experienced a technique called the “parking log”. At the beginning of each session the students are offered an opportunity to write down what is there current major stressor on the back of a sticky note and then put the sticky note on a flipchart or white board titled “parking lot” and explain that it will still be there when the class is over but for now you don’t have to worry about because it’s parked.
Schramm step 4: Receiver Decodes
If all your pre planning come to fruition and your media doesn’t fail, the learner will get your message.   Success can be determined by observing non-verbal cues such as: snoring, bobbing heads, yawns or excited glowing faces.
Schramm Step: 5 Feedback
Feedback can in the forms of comments, questions or answers . The tool you can put to good use is asking questions. One of the best and comprehensive resources on this topic is in the book The complete guide to training delivery: a competency-based approach by King, King and Rothwell (5); available in the HAMMER Safety Library.
The key to making questions valuable and relevant is to ask questions at a level appropriate to the learning objective. Then, assess the learner feedback, adjust the teaching method if necessary, or send a clarifying message.
Closing Thoughts on Using a Model
Regardless of which model you use the goal is to communicate with intent to help the learner create knowledge; not to inform. Our learners are not empty vessels into which you can pour whatever knowledge you would like them to have. As we have seen, learners are in the driving seat, not you. They determine what it is to which they pay attention; they decide whether or not to make the effort to transfer what they have learned into long-term memory; it is their mental models into which the new knowledge will be integrated, not yours.
There is a vast difference between what is taught and what is learned. As Theodore Roszak(6) explains, “Information is not knowledge”. You can mass-produce raw data and incredible quantities of facts and figures. You cannot mass-produce knowledge, which is created by individual minds, drawing on individual experience, separating the significant from the irrelevant, making value judgments.”

What’s in a Buzz Word? Soap Box Time
Thomas Davenport (7) in his book Information Ecology: Mastering the information and knowledge environment suggests, “The more an organization knows about the term or concept relevant to its business, the less likely it is to agree on a common term or meaning for it.” This can lead to confusion, incorrect training, and/or embarrassment.
A Too Close to Home Example:
The following is a quote from a Hanford Site program (to remain nameless) and leverages a training requirement for a specific audience, “...training will include a hands-on element. In my world of work the term “hands-on” is the greatest buzz word of all times.  Yep, even greater than the idea of idea of the ADDIE Process. In the case described by Davenport above, I think we’re guilty as charged.
Within the realm of instructional design and learning strategies I have never run across an authoritative source defining or describing the strategy of “hands-on” or a “hands-on element”.  The closest I have come is the Glossary of Instructional Strategies’  with its poorly written, nondescript: “Hands-On means any instructional activity that is emphasizes students working with objects relevant to the content being studied.”  I hope you can see the vulnerability this can put you and your organization in from internal or outside assessments do to vagueness and interpretation. Hum… does the concept of shooting oneself in the foot come to mind here.
Further, delineating such requirements devalues the instructional design process by implying it can’t identify the appropriated training method and ties your hands as the instructional designer by predetermining what the content should be and how it should be taught. I submit the content should be based on your analysis, the learning objectives, and strategies and methods congruent to achieving the criteria of the objectives; and not the buzz. 
We often mistake fluency (using the word frequently) with comprehension (we both have the same meaning for the words).  Just because we understand what something means to us, it must mean the same to everyone else is a false assumption.
Solution: When you hear jargon used it should be a RED flag to ask, “In the context of your (choose one: situation, training, organization) what does the (state the term) mean?
Example:  In the context of the beryllium worker training what does the term “hands-on” mean?

 My Advice:
If a requirement statement must be included into a requirements document, I suggest that the appropriate requirement would be to have training developed in accordance with your local procedure covering instructional design.  For us at MSA this means, MSA-PRO-26025, Developing Training Programs; which is required to be followed for “the development of training activities or program in support of work under the Mission Support Contract or training activities or program developed by MSC organizations in support of other Hanford contractors.”
Don’t write buzz word statements for training constraints into requirements documents and adamantly prevent others from doing so.

1.   Cj Mind Map of Human Communications. All rights reserved Cj Stape (2012).
2.   Heinich Robert, Molenda, Michael, Russell James, D. & Smaldino Sharon E. (1993). Instructional Media and Technologies for Learning. Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Prentice Hall.
3.   Dick, W., & Carey, L. (1996). The systematic design of instruction (4th Ed.).  New York, NY: Harper Collins.
4.   Participant Pre-assessment Technique – Effectiveness Grid. All rights reserved Cj Stape (2010).
5.   Davenport Thomas, H. (1997) Information Ecology: Mastering the information and knowledge environment. Oxford University Press. New York, New York.
6.   Theodore Roszak (1994) The Cult of Information. University of California Press.
7. Stephen B. King, Marhsa King, and William K. Rothwell (2001). The complete guide to training delivery: a competency-based approach. AMACOM. New York, New York.


  1. Here's an instructional video on communication....


    1. Thanks for sharing that one. It was a home run!

  2. If...
    "Just because we understand what something means to us, it must mean the same to everyone else is a false assumption.
    And...delineating such requirements
    ...devalues the instructional design process
    And...ties your hands
    And...predetermines the content
    And...Don’t write buzz word statements for training constraints into requirements documents and adamantly prevent others from doing so."

    How can a descriptive requirement be written that is both specific and non-specific? Not delineating but not making assumptions. Spelled out but not tied down?

    1. Good question. I am suggesting let the design process determine the content and method. Have faith! Here are some more details form the example. I was helping develop training for Beryllium Workers. The program requirement stated that it need to contain a hands on element. OK what did that mean? It turns out that the authors were trying to ensure the training included protective clothing dress-undress practice. So working from the requirements document how was the developer to know that was what was meant? It could have just as easily been interpreted that all workers need to make something out of beryllium. Further, how did the person writing the requirement know that was needed? That is why we do an analysis. Just like it is better to let a professional electrician do electrical work. Let the training professionals do their job. How? Include in the requirements a mandate for them to follwo the procedures they are bound by.

  3. I recently attended a training for personnel working in an underground space (900 feet undergound). The company document stated that training must meet the requirements specified in a CFR (Code of Federal Requlations). The CFR stated that the emlopyees would be provided hands on training on the self-rescue respirator that converts carbon dioxide (generated by a fire the "mine") into oxygen while you get out, which might include you climbing a series of ladders to the top of the shaft. The instructor took out one of the units, unpacked and demonstrated how to put the device on (mouth piece in, nose clip on, and harness on your head). When I asked him why their was no hand-on training, he said that he didn't have enough respirators for everyone so the lesson plan just says to offer the students a chance to try one of the few he did have, but didn't follow the lesson plan because a) he didn't have enought for everyone, b) if someone puts one on you have sanitize it before the next class, and SME said that demonstrating it met the requirement because the instructor demonstrated the hands-on part. To me hands-on means ALL students are required to demonstrate they can open the kit and put the device on properly because if they can't they will die. Our local training procedure doesn't have defintion for hands-on training.

    1. Hi Becca:

      Thanks for sharing your experience. A good example of the challenges in using buzz words. One could justify passing one respirator around for examination to all students as meeting the intent of "hands-on" An analysis of the task might have yielded the need for direct practical experience with inspecting, donning, wearing the unit for some appropriate amount of time, doffing, proper storage, and disposal of the respirator all under instruction with feedback. (You know...hands-on :-))