Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education-TOJDE January 2013 ISSN 1302-6488 Volume: 14 Number: 1 Article 31
BARRIERS TO COMMUNICATION IN DISTANCE EDUCATION
Zane L. BERGE, Ph.D.
Professor of Education
UMBC, 1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore MD 21250, USA
To a large extent education can be thought of as a communication process among the
participants. This article focuses on distance education, which has both the general
communication processes that in-person education venues possess, and also
communication specific to the technologies that mediate the teaching and learning
taking place at a distance. There are various opportunities and barriers to effective
communication. An exhaustive review of literature regarding communication barriers to
distance education summarizes the technical, psychological, social, cultural, and
contextual challenges leading to a significant conclusion: that as technology used for
distance education improves so does both the opportunities to overcome many of the
barriers to ineffective communication and the complexity of the barriers that are faced
by the participants. The hierarchy of this structure is described.
Keywords: Distance education; communiation barriers.
The literature is replete with discussion of the various barriers to distance education.
These can be categorized several ways such as psychological, pedagogical, technical,
social, cultural and so forth (Berge, 1998). Despite how they are categorized, to some
degree most of these barriers overlap and merge together (Dabaj, 2011). Ineffective
communication is at least a partial cause of most of these barriers to teaching and
learning at a distance (Ozelkan & Galambosi, 2012). Communication obstacles can arise
at all stages of the distance education process: in the design, development, delivery, or
implementation of distance education courses. This paper focuses on communication
barriers in the context of distance education.
HIERARCHY OF COMMUNICATION BARRIERS IN DISTANCE EDUCATION
Social media is changing the way we communicate.
Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Twitter
(among many others) and mobile devices are used in education and business in much the
same way as they are used in our daily lives as important, preferred ways to
communicate. As academic content moves to podcasts, videocasts, and blogs, and
discussions are conducted using smart phones and social media of all types, certainly
some communication among the participants becomes richer and some barriers to
communication are significantly reduced. This is true within the distance education
environment, too. As in the past, the future of distance education will be determined in
large part by the innovations made in communication, and the ability educators have to
overcome the communication barriers associated with language, culture, and different
contexts with regard to the various communities of learners that exist.
As communication moves through intrapersonal, interpersonal, small group, mass,
intercultural and contextual venues, there is greater opportunity to resolve challenges;
yet at the same time, there is more complexity in the need for overcoming a greater
diversity of barriers. During an exhaustive literature review of communication barriers in
distance education, I observed that as technologies improve, or expand in capabilities
and scope throughout the world, there is also an increased set of complex barriers that
emerge. With Internet-capable devices, communication methods have expanded and
with that expansion, so has the opportunities for collaboration, access to resources, and
context-aware problem solving (Donaldson, 2011).
The more communication rich the environment, the greater the potential is to overcome
all types of communication barriers to distance education; yet in some ways, too, greater
levels of communication anxiety arise (Feenberg, 1989). Paradoxically, as
communication capabilities increase within the distance education environment, the
more complex the communication barriers become. Said another way, if the
communication method for a distance education course is broadcast television with no
interaction among students, there is no opportunity for communication barriers involving
cultural attitudes to arise in discussion among student participants.
Figure 1 illustrates the hierarchical nature of communication capabilities and the
concomitant complex communication barriers within a distance education environment.
For instance, at the base level, if there is no access (i.e., no communication possible at
all), nothing else really matters as far as education is concerned until access is present.
Once access is possible, there needs to be acceptance of distance education by students
and teachers before meaningful educational experiences are possible. Likewise, as
increased communication allows for collaborative activities within the distance education
course, more complex communication barriers come into existence, too. This is true as
one move up the pyramid through cultural issues and contextual issues. The more
affordances allowed by the advances in technology, the greater the complexity is in the
communication barriers discussed in the literature.
Hierarchy of Communication Barriers in Distance Education
Note that the figure is not complete at the top, since advances in technology will
continue. It is not clear what these affordances will be, nor what they will mean with
regard to the complexity of communication challenges and how these will be addressed
in the distance education arena.
PERSPECTIVE ON DISTANCE EDUCATION
Distance education is defined by Moore and Kearsley (2012) as “teaching and planned
learning in which teaching normally occurs in a different place from learning, requiring
communication through technologies as well as special institutional organization” (p. 2).
The difference between
is the responsibility of the sponsoring educational institution or organization
and the instructor;
is what students do, and therefore mainly the
students’ responsibility. These two concepts are often confused.
are not the same and it does not help that many authors use these expressions
Add to this confusion the many terms that have emerged the past two decades such as
elearning, ubiquitous learning
that are really misnomers (most of the time when these terms are used, the speaker or
author is talking about both learning
); there is a significant conceptual
problem. So, while some shifting of the use of terms such as
distance education, online
is acknowledged in the sections that follow, it is done
because I tried to follow the terminology used by the authors of the literature cited.
Moving on, there are many ways to categorize and define barriers in distance education.
For the purposes of this paper, the following are some of the important types of barriers
and some characteristics of them that directly or indirectly affect communication:
(or epistemological or conceptual understanding)
refers to how homogeneous students are among themselves, or between
a student and teacher, with respect to conceptual understanding. The
more cognitive distance there is, the more difficult it is for concept
development through discussion (Carr, Gardner, Odell, Mumsch, &
Wilson, 2003, p. 12).
is defined here as the difference in learning or
problem solving between the abstract situation presented to the student
versus that found in an authentic situation.
(including differences in ethnicity, class, age, gender or
religion). Persons have patterns of thought, action, and values that are
distinctive and that characterize members of a social group (Winthrop,
1991, p. 50)
are personal feelings at the moment regarding the
learning experience such as fear, mistrust, and suspicion.
is expressed in the use of second or third languages
for teaching or learning, accent, and the use of dialect, slang, jargon,
colloquialisms, acronyms and abbreviation
involves teachers and students managing
transactional distance (Moore, 1993) during the educational experiences
(Pereira, Lisbon, & Lõhmus, 2005)
(i.e., geographical space)
referred to perceptions (subjective feelings)
about the closeness or presence of another person when interacting with
social distance (degree of affinity, closeness, or support) refers to
perceived differences in class and socio-economic status
refers to differences in access to technology or
technological capabilities across various people throughout the world. It
may also refer to different individual competency with technology.
(i.e., time) The greater the grown of globalization in
distance education, the more time zones that may and often are
represented across the participants within a classroom (Isman, Canan,
Isbulan, & Demir, 2008)
The difficulties that hinder effective communication may begin with technical issues, but
as telecommunication systems improve, many other types of communication obstacles
are added (Isman & Altinay, 2005).
The remainder of this paper discusses the hierarchy of communication barriers
(breakdowns, challenges, drawbacks, impairments, impediments, obstacles, pitfalls,
problems) as found in the distance education literature, emphasizing the past three
IMPEDIMENTS TO DISTANCE EDUCATION OVER TIME
A concern for communication barriers can be found in the literature regarding distance
education for as long as scholars have written about the field. This concern has been
more prominent for the past quarter century.
Keegan (1986) stated that a critical link in communication in distance education was
missing, caused by the geographic separation between students and teachers. Keegan
believed it was a responsibility of the educational institution to compensate for the
communication barriers in order to reduce student dropout and help students to
integrate their academic and social experiences with their education. The discussion of
communication barriers to distance education that follows is mainly topical, but at the
same time it is chronological to a large degree, too.
This is no coincidence. One of the main points of this paper is to illustrate that as
technology advances, the opportunities to overcome communication barriers improves,
as does the naturally accompanying complexity and level of communication barriers that
occur within the distance education system.
Physical, Technical, and Temporal Barriers
In the era of correspondence courses, the main challenges to distance education
centered on lack of access to the instructor and lack of timely, two-way communication.
Broadcast communication, with television or radio, helped to ameliorate the lack of
access to instructors, but did nothing to increase two-way communication.
Eventually, some two-way communication problems occurring within correspondence
courses were ameliorated by using telephone service (McMahon, Gardner, Gray, &
Mulhern, 1999; Willis, 1996).
In general, problems that revolved around low levels of interaction led to a lack of
motivation and the lack of enthusiasm for learning, often causing students to drop out of
the distance education course or program (Isman, Dabaj, Altinay, & Altinay, 2003).
Belchair and Cucek (2001) summed up part of their research saying:
Differences in student behavior were found depending upon the delivery
method. Compared to others, students in internet courses were more likely
to ask for clarification when they didn’t understand something, apply what
they had learned to the “real world,” indicate they enjoyed the course and
also tell the instructor when they had complaints. Thus, communication
appeared to be the biggest issue, with internet students having greater
access to communication than students in other delivery methods.
Students also reported that the delivery of the course, particularly lack of
interaction with other students and the instructor, was the greatest barrier
to their success. Lack of time was the second greatest barrier, perhaps
because so many of these students were both working and caring for
families. Again, the lack of interaction was particularly acute for those in
TV and AV courses, while time was a larger factor for those in internet
courses. (p. 15)
The Internet resolved many of the challenges experienced by students in correspondence
and broadcast media based courses, albeit with the expected, large number of technical
issues early on. The early days of the Internet saw a lot of frustration from participants
due to such things as instability across the telecommunication systems, difficult user
interfaces or navigational issues, and disjointed online communication (Rohleder,
Bozalek, Carolissen, Leibowitz, & Swartz 2008), inability to access needed resources
(O’Hanlon, 2001) and the existence of a user base with few online skills, combined with a
lack of technical support.
Even as the Internet greatly reduced the issues in correspondence and broadcast
delivery systems for distance education, some fear existed that the worldwide
telecommunication network would be unable to accommodate the rapid expansion of the
Internet (Galusha, 1997). Still, the ease of accessibility, fast communication among
students and staff, and relative cost effectiveness of using the Internet for distance
education outweighed the perceived and potential drawbacks (Hansen, Shinkle, & Dupin,
Along with the access and technical problems with the delivery systems themselves,
there were perceptual issues that were especially acute due to the initial lack of skilled
online teachers and the background characteristics of students. Often students reported
feeling confused, anxious or frustrated and wanted quicker feedback from the teacher
regarding course content, assignments or management of the online class. Too
frequently these feelings were met with an instructor who did not perceive the intensity
of the students’ sense of frustration, or did not adequately resolve the problems if they
were perceived in the first place (Hara & King, 2000; Thorpe, 2002).The distance
education literature speaks of the degradation in interactions between students and
teachers and among students (compared to in-person classrooms), and even of abusive
behavior (i.e., flaming) that could become a problem as the perceived anonymity of
online interaction became more widespread (e.g., Galusha, 1997; Perreault, Waldman,
Alexander, & Zhao, 2002). Much of the literature in the early 1990s was concerned with
the ambiguity in interactions, and how resolution of those ambiguities was exacerbated
when the primary communication medium is written text in asynchronous mode. This is
especially the case when the communicators are not practiced in such communication. As
Hara and King (2000) pointed out, “much of human communication is inherently
ambiguous. But people can often adequately resolve key ambiguities when they are face
to face” (p. 569). In many cases, distance education participants still believed they
needed to observe the body language of the person they were communicating with, in
order to understand and be understood.
Another significant communication challenge addressed in the distance education
literature involves the feelings of isolation felt by students (Freedman, Tello, & Lewis
2003; Isman, Dabaj, Altinay, & Altinay, 2003; Sharma & Maleyeff 2003). It took many
designers and instructors quite a while to understand how to reduce these feelings
through areas in the distance classroom where all students and instructors could share
their opinions, ask questions, and generally create the sense of belonging to a group. As
students became more practiced in online learning and communication, and instructors
learned ways to promote a sense of community within the distance education
environment, feelings of isolation among many students began to diminish, being
replaced by feelings of closeness and kinship (Dabaj, & Isman, 2004). Instructors and
designers still need to focus attention on designing an online/distance learning
environment for student engagement, and to promote communication strategies that
support online students learning (Tinguely, 2010).
Social, Interaction, and Collaboration Barriers
The change from an in-person, classroom venue to online communication is perceived by
many students and instructors as a significant loss (of dedicated uninterrupted learning
space), and the differences in how social interactions occur online versus in-person is of
For instance, difficulties communicating with others in online classes can happened
because of time zone variations, the absence of a sense of emotional connection with
each other, or the lack of the kind of real-time feedback that happens in an in-person
classroom (Kim, Liu, & Bonk, 2005, p. 340).
Still, many participants in online distance education find social interaction can be
enhanced through technology-mediation. Rittschof and Griffin (2003b) reported
“positive on-line social interaction characteristics can include;
more thoughtful interaction,
greater honesty, (d) a sense of community,
inclusion of everyone, and
greater sharing” (pp: 288-289) if the online environment is created to
facilitate and reward such interaction.
For most participants, in most cases, it is more difficult to create a similar sense of social
presence and to avoid communication problems regarding social interactions online
compared with doing so with the same participants in-person (So & Brush 2008), usually
because technologically-mediated delivery systems do not allow the same amount of
social-context cues (de Bruyn, 2004).
So, even though it may be challenging, any pedagogical or technological methods that
can be used to facilitate the support needed to overcome communication barriers
(Slagter van Tryon & Bishop, 2009), and to facilitate learners in establishing community,
especially with online group work, becomes important to their success (Koh & Hill,
As technologies used for distance education have advanced, often the participants’
feelings of isolation and physical distance have decreased. At the same time, students
from different locales and different cultures have increased, making communication and
language barriers more of a problem (Bash, 2009; Betts, 2009; Hallberg & Wafula, 2010).
Russell, Gregory, Care, and Hultin (2007) pointed out that, according to Vygotsky (1978)
learning “focuses on the importance of culture and context in the formation of
knowledge. In this paradigm, learning is a dynamic process mediated by language via
social discourse” (p. 353). Learners define content and handle learning events differently
depending upon such things as their beliefs, religion, ideas, local customs, and language
(Ali, 2006, Sarrafzadeh, & Williamson, 2012). To most people collaboration, discussion,
and communication generally becomes more difficult with persons perceived as
strangers, or instructors from one culture teaching learners from a different culture
Additionally, further cultural barriers are possible because of the environment known as
cyberculture. Russell, Gregory, Care, and Hultin (2007) described cyberculture as
“constantly evolving and rapidly mutating . . . characterized by an official language of
English, hyperspecialized vocabulary, newbie snobbery, Anglo-American norms, and
qualities of aggressiveness, competitiveness, as well as Western-style efficiency” (p.
As online classrooms become more diverse, sometimes with courses being developed in
one country or culture for delivery in another (Shen, 2004), so too do the language and
other cultural barriers to effective communication. Many participants become concerned
about miscommunication, being misinterpreted through their online posts, or
inadvertently offending someone (Valaitis, Sword, Jones, & Hodges
2005).Communication on the Internet (the “Internet” is nothing but computers, routers,
wires and other assorted technologies) is far from neutral or value-free. In fact, use of
the Internet often highlights different cultures (Russell, Gregory, Care, & Hultin, 2007).
In diverse groups, language is probably the most recognizable cultural characteristic.
Students express concern about lack of proficiency in English; for instance, fearing they
will be misunderstood or misinterpreted, especially during collaborative work and
discussion (Kim & Bonk, 2002). Yet, what learners of a second language need most are
opportunities to actively use language as a communication tool (Borau, Ullrich, Feng, &
Shen, 2009).One of the greatest divisions or contrasts involving cultural communication
is Eastern versus Western.
Zaltsman (2009) summarizes this as, “Eastern communication is based on conflict
avoidance, whereas Western is characterized by the ability to criticize or communicate
the point of disagreement” (p. 325). In diverse online groups of learners, the instructor
still takes a leading position. This is especially the case in conflict resolution and the
facilitation of communication barriers caused by cultural division.
Contextual issues affect problem solving in important ways. Increasing students’
authentic problem-solving abilities has been, and will continue to be a critical goal for
many instructional applications. While it is often important to simplify the contextual
situation to reduce distractions and aid learning, this can lead to transfer problems when
the situation becomes more authentic. Therefore, the “difference in context between the
learning situation and the application situation can result to poor students’ performance
either because of their inability to efficiently recall and use relevant knowledge (lack of
appropriate memory trails) or even because of lack of any knowledge at all which could
be of use in the different application context” (Demetriadis, Papadopoulos, & Tsoukalas,
2005, p. 526). Performance support systems attempt to bridge this contextual distance
when they provide immediate support for specific tasks in the workplace. Recently,
mobile devices have exploded onto the scene for social networking, entertainment, but
also for education and training.
Many see mobile technology as a means to extend the reach of distance learning.
Mobile learning does not always seek to replace classroom learning . . . or laptops
in distance learning. . . . Rather, mobile learning provides students with additional
and unique learning support, flexibility of access, a broader channel of
communication, and fewer temporal and spatial limitations. . . (Donaldson, 2011,
One of the characteristics of mobile learning is that learning is more contextual than ever
before. Context-aware learning environments are mobile-based learning environments
that use contextual resources such as global positioning system (GPS) (Brown & Metcalf,
2008) or Quick Response (QR) codes (Ramsden & Jordan, 2009).
A major goal of this paper has been to point out that along with increased affordances
from technology come added and more complex challenges to the distance education
learning environment. While most students find using their mobile devices a benefit for
communication with classmates and faculty, a few would rather such communication be
limited to faculty only, or even consider the lack of control regarding how, when and
where communication occurs with instructors and classmates as a disadvantage.
Students express “a desire to control and maintain a boundary between academic and
personal life by limiting cell phone communication to things like texting” (Donaldson,
2011, p. 15).
IMPROVING COMMUNICATION IN DISTANCE EDUCATION
In some significant ways, communication in distance education is different from in-
person, classroom-based communication. In the face-to-face classroom, there are
multiple and instantaneous ways that communication between students and teacher,
and among students can occur. In school or out, participants are practiced throughout
their lifetime with in-person communication. There are several design elements that are
critical to any course, and moreso in distance education courses where communication
opportunities are limited, including:
providing clear statements about the goals of the course and the purpose
of online activities and assignments
providing navigation assistance so students know where course activities
and resources are located and calenders so students know when, where,
and how assignments are to be submitted
clearly linking content, activities, and assignments to assessment and the
using clear, concise, unambiguous language in assignments, syllabus and
using communication channels that students prefer when possible, to
reduce cultural and communication barriers
provide summaries, additional resources, and feedbck to help students
evaluate their learning
provide guidance on suitable group processes and appropriate division of
Design some elements of the online classroom that promote students
gaining some familiarity with one another, and having the opportunity to
build trust, especially before assignment groupwork or with multicultural
groups (Berge, 2002; Kukulska-Hulme, 2005; Sarrafzadeh, & Williamson,
2012; Wang & Kang, 2006)
For most students and teachers, anxiety levels are increased when they are involved in
distance education, if for no other reason than the unfamiliarity of the delivery systems
and changes in communication methods and patterns. It takes extra communication
efforts, especially by the teacher, to reduce the students’ concerns that they are missing
important information, assignment due dates, or generally misunderstanding
expectations of the course. Additionally, 24/7 technical support is critical to distance
Many times, what is needed are ways for students to contact the instructor and to
receive a response in a timely manner. or opportunities for discussion or collaboration
among participants that increases clarification and common understanding (Koh,
Barbour, & Hill, 2010; Perreault, Waldman, Alexander, & Zhao, 2002; Rittschof & Griffin
2003a). In more diverse classroom, it may take additional efforts (King, Taylor,
Satzinger, Carbonaro, & Greidanus, 2008) to minimize communication anxiety:
. . . making students aware of and comfortable with
patterns, learning about students’ backgrounds and
experiences, being sensitive to different communication
styles and varying cultures are the options of enhancing
[the] distance education system by eliminating
In addition to this, remembering that students must take an
active role in distance education, assisting students in
becoming familiar and comfortable with delivery, preparing
students to resolve the technical problems, being aware of
students’ needs and using effective interactions and feedback
strategies, integrating variety of delivery system for
interaction and feedback, contacting each side, making
detailed comments and developing strategies for students
reinforcement, reviews, repetition and personalizing
instructor involvement are the statements to enhance the
quality of distance education on behalf of eliminating any kind
of barriers. (Isman, Dabaj, Altinay, & Altinay, 2003, pp. 13-14)
The relationships among participants are critical for successful online discussion and
collaboration (Anderson, 2006). At the same time, as with any educational setting
whether online or in-person, each student has his or her own background, culture, and
characteristics that affects their behavior and perceptions during the learning process
(Rye & Støkken, 2012).
The instructor and designers of online education can do all they can to design courses to
remove as many potential cultural and communication barriers (Liu, Liu, Lee, & Magiuka,
2010, p. 177), but ultimately students will need to realize they too need to take
responsibility for multicultural content and classmates so they can work on reducing
barriers to their own full participation and performance.
From a communication perspective, simultaneously distance education offers many
affordances and challenges. Paradoxically as technologies used for distance delivery of
education becomes easier, cheaper, globalized and more user-friendly, the more the
challenges faced by the participants increase in complexity. These obstacles to education
at a distance affect both actual communication and also disrupt how participants
perform and feel about their learning experience (Jones, 2010).As summarized above,
there is a hierarchy to the communication impediments in distance education that have
been categorized as technical, psychological, social, cultural, and contextual in nature.
Without a doubt, these challenges often overlap one another, and the list promises to
grow. Still, researching and diagnosing communication barriers (Kurubacak, 2007) can
lead to significant clues to how to design and implement courses that reduce potential
BIODATA and CONTACT ADDRESSES of the AUTHOR
Zane BERGE is Professor and former Director of the Training Systems
graduate programs at the UMBC Campus, University of Maryland System,
USA. He teaches graduate courses involving training in the workplace and
distance education. Prior to UMBC, Dr. Berge was founder and director of
the Center for Teaching and Technology, Academic Computer Center,
Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA. It was there that he first
combined his background in business with educational technology to work
in the areas of online journals, moderated online discussion lists, and
online education and training. Berge's publications include work as a primary author,
editor, or presenter of 10 books and over 200 book chapters, articles, conference
presentations and invited speeches worldwide.
Zane L. BERGE, Ph.D. Professor of Education,
UMBC, 1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore MD 21250, USA
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