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Distance Education is a field of education that uses teaching methods and technology such as correspondence, printed materials, teaching and learning aids, radio, television, and computers to impart educational instructions indirectly to individuals or group of students who are not physically present in a traditional educational setting such as classroom (Rao, 2007).
Distance education is depersonalized for both the staff and the students since the source of teaching input and the learners are separated by distance and time. Due to its nature, the teaching behaviors and learning behaviors are separate, with the learners being guided by study materials prepared by an instructor who is at a different location.
Also, learners and instructors mainly communicate through one or more media. Distance education is sometimes improvised with different forms of face-to-face meetings such as seminars, workshops, and sitting for examination at a given location with the presence of instructions. Distance learning is based on two types of learning technologies: synchronous learning and asynchronous learning.
Synchronous learning technology requires the participants to be present at the same time, as it follows an organized timetable and resembles the traditional learning methods through the students are located in different location and is enhanced by facilities such as web conferencing, video conferencing, and educational television, live streaming and web-based VoIP (Rao, 2007).
In asynchronous learning technology, students access learning materials at their own time, thus it is more flexible since there is no requirement of students to be present at the same time and is enabled by facilities such as mail correspondence, emails, audio-visual recordings, voice mail, fax and message board forums (Rao, 2007).
The main advantage of distance education is that the course delivery mostly allows for accommodation of student’s time availability and removes hindrances caused by the distance a student is from the campus. A departure from the traditional learning methods in distance learning is the communication medium or online environment, which alters how the students and instructors interact.
Due to the communication medium, most of the nonverbal cues, such as facial expression and tone of voice, which the tutors use to gauge the student understanding, are lost, forcing participants to adapt to their communication style to the medium. This leads to the generation of new interaction pattern between the students and the tutors.
When using communication devices such as teleconferencing systems, there is some missing information due to lack of non-verbal cues (tone), which significantly affect the quality of communication and may affect the educational performances (Cumming, Okamoto, & Gomez, 1999, P. 862). Therefore, it is vital to address these issues in the development of communication devices for distance learning.
Verbal communication is shaped much by the interaction between the speaker and the listeners with the speaker’s behavior being affected by the audience responses, tone of voice, approval, nodding, facial expressions, and other nonverbal reactions, and the listeners may also alter the characteristics of minute wording, word selection, and the details of utterances, which in most incidences, the speakers might not be aware that their speaking behavior is changing (Cumming, Okamoto, & Gomez, 1999, P. 862).
In the context of distance education, tone refers to the attitude a speaker or a writer takes towards a subject or character: serious, humorous, sarcastic, ironic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, solemn, objective and it also refers to the quality, pitch, strength, source and other parameters of sound involved in the communication. Thus, in this paper, the tone will refer to the tone the instructor implies in the text material and the tone of conversations between the instructors and the students.
Tone influences not only the delivery mode of the distance education but also to some extent the results of the learning process. In education, learning is intended to enable the students to understand the concepts and retain knowledge.
The learning process is implemented mainly by four styles: concrete experience, abstract conceptualization, reflective observation and active experimentation (feeling, thinking, watching, and doing) all which are greatly influenced by tone and the content of the information presented during the learning process (Cumming, Okamoto, & Gomez, 1999, P. 3).
The tone of the information presented in distance learning matters a lot since, if the information is not presented in good tone (wording, sound, and text), students may not grasp the content or the intended point, and thus the whole learning process may not yield the desired results.
Hence, it is vital for the instructors to impart their educational instructions in a tone that motivates the students and engage them more in the subject matter by presenting the material interactively and encouraging productive communication between the instructor and the students.
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Studies have shown that tone influences the mode of presentation of the educational information in distance learning, mostly on whether to use text or audio material only or to incorporate both for the effective learning process, especially where different languages/cultures are concerned.
According to studies on the Western distance students and Chinese distance students, it was revealed that Western distance students read a text and at the same time receive the impression of its tone (hearing the author speak when they read) since it’s written in the phonetic language. In contrast, for Chinese distance students, this does not happen.
Thus the tone of the text is missing as the content remains as abstract definitions of the words used in the text (Peters, 2001, P.217). For Western distance students, this observation is more defined when they know the author. For the Chinese distance students to absorb the tone, audio means have to be made available so that the students can use the instructor’s language orally.
Thus, for Western distance learning, there is no such emphasis on dissemination of spoken language while in Chinese setup, the spoken language is essential to give the text a tone and hear how they are articulated phonetically (Peters, 2001, P.217). Studies have also shown that tone can negatively influence educational outcomes of distance education, especially in asynchronous online courses.
Due to the leanness of the medium that is used to offer these courses, there are little social interactions. Researchers argue that the absence of the characteristics of speech such as tone of voice, intensity and speed, and nonverbal cues that hold the relational information, the text-based interaction that dominates these courses are unemotional, under social and may leading to reduced personal engagement and decreased satisfaction from the interaction (Russo & Campbell, 2004).
Thus, some students find online classes impersonal, ending up abandoning them or not intellectually linking up with the course concepts. Due to this influence, the completion rate of most online courses is mostly 10-20 percentage points lower than in the traditional courses (Russo & Campbell, 2004).
The tone of the presentation is a key element in enhancing the perception that the other participants are real, available or salient, which creates a conducive atmosphere that makes the students feel at ease in airing their ideas, asking questions, and participating with others in the learning process.
Majority of online students have expectations that online courses can reflect the opportunities for interaction, idea generation, and confirmation associated with the traditional learning settings, thus, when they do not perceive other online students as real or salient they are less likely to participate in the class or respond to the other students (Brandt, 2007).
However, with the proper tone of presentation, the students are likely to be more active in their participation in the courses and in interacting with other online students. All these improve the sharing of ideas, asking and responding to questions related to the learning activities among the participants.
Tone can further be used to bridge the distance between the instructor and the students in distance learning. For example, in the correspondence model, the personal tone taken by communication (letters and notes) can be interpreted to be a means of compensating for lack of proximity in distance education.
Through this model, the writer directly and informally address the student, thereby presenting himself as a person who understands the student’s needs and interests and this personal tone mostly serves the purpose of winning the confidence of the student and making him/her feel as if the writer is near and their relationship is much closer (Peters, 2001, P.19).
Due to this factor, experts advise instructors of distance education to adopt a given set of behaviors (teacher immediacy) that reduces the psychological distance between the instructor and the students. In the distance learning system, the range creates a physical barrier. Thus, these behaviors can assist the instructor in reducing psychological separation.
The immediacy behaviors can be improved by sensory stimulation generated by the use of multiple channels of communication that enable a person to communicate through words, tone of voice, facial expressions, body movements and direct eye contact (Willis, 1994, P.183). Thus, through immediacy behaviors, the instructor can change the tone of information presentation, leading to positive learning attitudes and students perception of the educational instructions.
For instructors who can show friendly tone and relaxed composer, and actively engage distance learners in telephone conservation by using the right mood, they can impart the educational instructions more successfully. By involving aspects of tone, such as warmth, vocal variety, and sincerity, the relationship between the instructor and the student can be greatly enhanced; thus, the learner’s attention can be attracted and be held throughout the presentation.
By adopting this approach, which is mainly based on tone aspects, the instructors of distance education can effectively deliver their instructions with much uptake by the students leading eventually to improved educational outcomes.
The need for distance education globally will continue to grow due to the distance and availability of students at their desired time rather than at the specified time because of job schedule, family attachments, and individual preferences. To accommodate students’ issues of availability and remoteness, distance education serves as a better solution to accessing education, especially for post-secondary education.
Tone plays a significant role not in facilitating face-to-face classroom learning but also the distance-learning model. Thus, it is a challenge to all stakeholders in distance education to come up with methods and technologies that improve the quality of tone in the presentation of instructions. This is one of the key areas that can greatly improve the quality of distance education offered by any institution.
Brandt, S. D. (1997). Constructivism: Teaching for understanding of the Internet. Communications of the ACM, Vol. 40, pp112–118.
Cumming, G., Okamoto, T. & Gomez, L., (1999). Advanced research in computers and communications in education: new human abilities for the networked society: proceedings of ICCE ’99, 7th International Conference on Computers in Education, Chiba, Japan, Volume 1. NY: IOS Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=KdnJy5f1OFIC&pg=PA862&dq=influence+of+Tone+in+Distance+Education&hl=en&ei=ZzpCToHjA4Kw8QO12Z3JCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=influence%20of%20Tone%20in%20Distance%20Education&f=false.
Peters, O. (2001). Learning and teaching in distance education: pedagogical analyses and interpretations in an international perspective. London: Routledge. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=XwEBXHTDHMsC&pg=PA217&dq=Tone+in+Distance+Education&hl=en&ei=UTBCTvTrIciwhAfip5mrCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Tone%20in%20Distance%20Education&f=false
Russo, T.C. & Campbell, S.W. (2004). Perceptions of mediated presence in an asynchronous online course: interplay of communication behaviors and medium. Distance Education, Vol. 25 Issue 2, p215-232, 18p.
Rao, V.K. (2007). Distance Education. New Delhi: APH Publishing. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=GSVMX2BlTWcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=distance+education&hl=en&ei=9jZCToq9OpDD8QO3r6XTCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CEgQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Willis, B.D. (1994). Distance education: strategies and tools. New Jersey: Educational Technology. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=OGF062WH2MQC&pg=PA183&dq=influence+of+tone+in+distance+education&hl=en&ei=c5NCTu_uE5C1hAek2rDKCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CEcQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q&f=false.