Media Richness and Communication in Online Education

Communicating in an online environment, especially within the confines of an institution’s learning management system (LMS) and an academic budget, often poses a challenge to even the most well-intentioned instructors. Many times we find ourselves constrained not by our imaginations or abilities but by the technological tools we have at our disposal. Given the systems in which we work, how do we select the best technological tool—the best medium—to communicate a message? One framework for answering these questions is through the lens of Media Richness Theory (MRT).

Media Richness Theory describes how and why particular media are selected to deliver a message.1 In MRT, richness is operationalized in terms of a medium’s ability to accomplish four goals: sending multiple cues, supporting language variety, providing immediate feedback, and allowing personal nature to be communicated.

A rich medium, then, would allow for a variety of cues, both verbal and nonverbal, to be sent and received. It would also allow for the transmission of multiple language types, including the spoken and written word, and visual symbols and images. Rich communication media also permit feedback to be sent and received instantaneously and a high degree of personalization. Using these descriptions, a purely text-only, asynchronous element in an online course would be the least rich medium, whereas a synchronous videoconference or webinar would be the richest.

Studies show that a richer distance education environment, in terms of media-rich communication technologies available for instructor and student use, yields higher rates of student satisfaction and instructor-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-student communication.2 However, we do not always need a rich medium to accomplish a communication goal. A common predictor of media performance is one’s ability to select the proper medium for the task at hand. Typically a message or task that is high in ambiguity or uncertainty needs a richer medium in order to be successfully communicated. The opposite, then, is also true: a simple task or message, with little chance for confusion or misinterpretation, can be delivered via a less-rich medium.

Before selecting a medium to convey a message in your online class, it is helpful to do an evaluation of the tools that you have at your disposal. Depending on your personal technological efficacy, these tools may be limited to those that your institution licenses and supports or you may be able to venture out and use some freeware applications that are available online but often do not include user support. Use this sample chart (prefilled with a sampling of tools) to help you develop a media richness continuum of tools at your institution.

media richness scale

Once you’re aware of the media you may utilize in your online classes, you can start to select the proper medium based on the message you want to send. Note that you are not limited to one channel—you may select multiple media to communicate your message.

For example, in my introductory communication course, one of the competencies is public speaking. Of course, in an online environment this can pose a challenge. One way I address this learning objective is through having the students produce micro lectures via mediated speeches. Although I believe I write clear instructions, I realize that producing a mediated speech is probably a relatively new assignment for the students in my class, so the complicated nature of the task warrants more than just text-based instructions. For this task I chose two media to communicate my message: an assignment sheet and a mediated speech video.

In your online course, you may find it helpful to expand the media richness tools chart with an additional column, stating the purposes you intend to use specific media for. For example, if you have an assignment involving a complicated task or tasks, you might want to have a traditional text-based assignment sheet and supplement that sheet with an audio, audiovisual, or video message. Documenting these media decisions is a great way to begin a style guide for your class so you can readily identify which media are best to communicate any given piece of information, making interaction and delivering instruction in an online course environment a little less challenging and a richer and more rewarding experience.

1 See Daft, R.L. and Lengel, R.H. (1984). Information richness: A new approach to managerial behavior and organization design. Research in Organizational Behavior, 6, pp 191-223.

2 See Shepherd, M.M. and Martz, W.B. (2006). Media richness theory and the distance education environment. The Journal of Computer Information Systems, 47, pp 114-122.

Jill Schiefelbein has taught and developed online courses at Arizona State University for the past six years. For more information on this topic, see Five Ways to Improve Interaction in Your Online Courses, an online seminar presented by Schiefelbein.

Reprinted from Online Classroom (March 2011): 1,2.