WHY REINVENT THE WHEEL: INSIGHTS FROM THE FIELD OF LISTENING TO EXTEND THE E-LISTENING RESEARCH AGENDA

1.      INTRODUCTION

1.1    Listening Research

The current body of listening research constitutes studies that represent disciplines such as psychology, communication, linguistics, anthropology and management. (Bodie, Worthington, Imhof & Cooper, 2008). As a consequence, the field includes many definitions that describe listening from multiple lenses. Thus, there is no consensus among scholars in defining listening;   the field of communications is no exception. (Janusik, 2004).  The following are two definitions from the field of communications that will characterize listening.

… the complete process by which oral language communicated by some source is received, critically and purposefully attended to, recognized and interpreted (or comprehended) in terms of past experiences and future expectations (Petrie, 1961 in Janusik, 2004, p.7)

Listening is hearing, understanding, remembering, interpreting, evaluating and responding (Brownell, 2002 p.18)

The above definitions constitute actions that allow individuals to internalize information from hearing to understanding a message. Listening is not just one action but a series of them coming together. Through a content analysis of 50 definitions on listening, related to the field of communications, Glen (1989) found words such as “perception, attention, interpretation, remembering and response” (Janusik, 2004, p.6) commonly recurring in these definitions.  Janusik (2006) identifies these terms with cognitive functions and highlights the strong cognitive roots underlying listening research.  Alternative definitions representing the behaviorist and the constructionist traditions also present listening through their own lens.

Beall, Rosier, Tate and Matten (2008) in their state of listening in education review, trace research on listening in the classroom as far back as 1929. They present evidence to claim that effective listeners in classrooms tend to be more successful in their academic performance. In this essay, the author attempts to view listening from an educational perspective, drawing on findings from the field in general.

1.2    Online Listening (E-listening)

“Online Listening”, a term coined by Wise (2008), refers to how students read and review asynchronous threaded discussions in relation to online learning. Wise (2008) draws parallels to speaking and listening in a face to face conversation with those actions carried out in asynchronous discussions. Headed by Wise, the E-listening Research Group at Simon Fraser University is currently carrying out studies to further extend this research agenda. Findings on E-listening research in this review are based on the work that is carried out by this group since 2007 which has defined a new field of listening research. Further details characterising online listening will be provided in section two.

1.3    Purpose

This essay intends to provide insights to E-listening researchers who study listening behaviour among students who engage in online conversations (discussions) using asynchronous computer mediated communications (CMC).  Current research on E-listening mainly hinges on the work carried out in asynchronous based CMC environments making comparisons with online interaction patterns in general. The author is calling E-listening researchers’ to extend their research agenda building on some of the key ideas, methods revealed by the general field of listening research during the last few decades. The author will attempt to answer the following research questions in this process.

a)      What are the similarities and differences between listening in a face to face context (general) and in an online asynchronous learning environment? (E-listening)

b)      What are the key areas of research (state of the field) undertaken in the general field of listening?

c)      What insights could E-listening researchers’ gain by understanding the key areas, methods and findings in the general field of listening?

2.      SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES

This section will attempt to answer the first research question that intends to identify similarities and differences between listening that takes place typically in a face to face environment and within an online asynchronous discussion based environment. The following provides some additional insights in understanding and narrowing the discussion.

The field of communication is extensive. This essay will limit its analysis to conversations that relate to educational contexts. A conversation is an exchange of information between several parties where more than one person responding to each other (Olson, 1972 in Janusik, 2004). It takes place at least between two individuals where each takes turns, one listens while the other speaks (Sacks, 1992) making connected remarks (Grice, 1975 in Janusik, 2004). Conversations typically take place in a face to face environment. Today, technologies such as the telephone, online platforms such as Skype, computer mediated communication platforms etc. has provided opportunities to engage in conversations in a non-face to face environment breaking time and space barriers. If we focus on CMC environments, a conversation could take place synchronously in real-time, or asynchronously, where each party involved in the communication process can respond to comments made by others at their own pace. In the case of the latter, conversations are communicated primarily through text-based mediums to convey and respond to each other. Typically, actions such as posting comments in a forum as one attempt to externalize their ideas are referred to as “writing”. However, Wise (2008) refers to these actions as “speaking” drawing a parallel with conversations that takes place in a face to face environment. Similarly, actions such as reading other student posts, rereading them, editing and reviewing own posts, the order and their threading structure in internalizing ideas leading up to making a post are coined as “listening” in an online context (Wise, 2008). She further asserts that current studies on asynchronous discussions do not make the distinction between speaking and listening. Majority of the current research mainly focus on the speaking aspect of conversations and less on how students interact with existing messages leading up to making their own posts. Further, she highlights the importance of focusing on this area stating “listening behaviours appear to be a rich and unexplored phenomenon that helps explain the success or failure of an online conversation” (Wise, 2008, p.4).

The following table presents similarities between listening that takes place in face to face environment and E-listening as conceptualized by Wise (2008).

Table 01 – Similarities and Differences

  Similarities   Differences
Both situations of listening include cognitive   functions such as retrieval, interpretation, assimilation of ideas. An asynchronous listening environment allows   students to generate more ideas due to the self-pace (Morse, 2003) nature. Jaffee   (1997) affirms that it allows students more time to reflect on their thoughts   that would eventually lead to more in-depth comments. However, Thomas (2002)   found that some students engaged with previously posted messages in a   superficial manner. But the opportunity to reflect is an important difference   that students are privy to in an online context.
Listening actions in both situations are affected   by varying student characteristics.
Both situations require students to engage in a   series of composite actions (hearing, comprehending, interpretation, reading,   reviewing) for listening to take place. Listening is not just one act.
Prior experiences, perceptions of students will   determine what they will hear. Although a single message is communicated,   different students will perceive the message in different ways. Asynchronous listening provides opportunities for   shy students to participate in discussions interacting with the instructor   and other students, encouraging collaboration (Hewitt, 2003).
Researchers in both fields attempt to profile   varying listening typologies of students as they engage in discussions. Asynchronous discussions fundamentally change the   communication structures. (Morse, 2003). The “one to one” (conversation   between two people), “one to many” (instruction) communication format changes   to “many to many”, allowing many participants to engage in a conversation. (Morse,   2003). It increases peer-to-peer listening to a degree that traditional   channels may not allow. Although it lacks the tactile sense, students could   soon build relationships faster than in a face to face conversation since it   allows wider access.
Listening in both fields could accommodate   different traditions in learning. In both situations, students could simply   acquire information (objectivist paradigm) or engage in a conversation to   negotiate meaning (social constructivism). It could also elicit specific   behavioural outputs (behavioural traditions).
Digitization allows both mediums to store and   retrieve information although in a face to face conversation, it takes additional effort to do this. Students are free from temporal constraints   (Morse, 2003), and provides the freedom to choose what to contribute and what   not to. They are also free from geographic and time bound constraints making   participation a more willing act.

Each of the listening situations explained above has their own unique differences. However, each present similarities in the way they use cognitive functions, the impact of student characteristics on listening, the composite actions required for listening, the effect of prior experiences on listening, profiling attempts, accompanying different learning traditions. Both fields therefore have a lot to gain by cross-fertilizing on each other’s findings and methods.  Given the fact that the field of E-listening is in its infant stage, it has a lot to gain from the findings and the methods used in the field of listening research in general, advancing its research agenda. This will save time and costs that would otherwise lead to reinventing the wheel as the field of E-listening attempts to find its way forward. The next section highlights insights that E-listening researchers can gain from the field of listening in general.

 3.      STATE OF THE FIELD AND FUTURE INSIGHTS

Having understood how the two fields converge on a number of points, this section will attempt to answer the balance two research questions. That is to identify key areas of research initiated in the field of listening in general and eliciting insights in taking the research agenda of E-listening forward.  Bodie et. al., (2008) characterizes the state of the field of listening, attempting to identify some of the key trends associated with listening research scholarship. Berne (2004) carried out a detailed literature review related to listening comprehension and identified several student characteristics associated with listening. Beall, et.al, (2008) identifies four themes of research in areas representing listening elicitation, listening benefits, listening education in the classroom and listening education in the K-12 classrooms in their state of the context of listening in education paper.

Considering themes identified in these reviews and other key literature, the author would like to provide a brief synopsis of the state of the field of listening and some of its key ideas around three themes. They are

  1.  Research that characterize traditions and approaches conceptualizing listening
  2. Research that provide measurement solutions to profile listing styles
  3. Research that focus on individual differences of students in understanding listening.

3.1 Traditions and approaches conceptualizing listening

Scholars complain the lack of theory driven research in the field of listening (Brownell, 2002; Janusik, 2004; Bodie, 2008). These authors do not claim the nonexistence of theory based research in the field. They highlight many scholars do not base their research on theories/frameworks related to listening. They attribute this to reasons such as scholars in the field having difficulty agreeing on common frameworks due to differences of their epistemological stances. The general perception of listening being associated with cognitive activities further complicates these differences. The lack of collaboration among researchers within traditions in the field sharing their work is cited as another reason for this (Janusik, 2004). Even with these disagreements, researchers have looked at listening from different traditions and approaches.

The traditional transmission model of communication is one of the most commonly cited frameworks to characterize listening in the communication process. Reddy’s (1979 in Craig & Muller, 2007) study on conduits of metaphors for communication, characterise listening as how “recipients unpacking the message and receive the intended meanings” (p.1). The transmission model provides impetus to explain how conversations that take place complete the communications loop between a sender and a receiver.

Models that represent cognitive traditions on listening are widely seen in literature. Janusik, (2004) quotes many studies that use this tradition. Bodie et. al., (2008) identifies this as a whole sub field that dominate listening research. These studies present listening as an information processing function, highlighting the cognitive functions that make up listening. They define listening as a process that relates to the “the acquisition of information”. (Bostrom, 1990 in Bodie et.al., 2008). This notion seems to lean more towards an objectivist paradigm.

There are also a number of studies that views listening from the behavioural tradition. Januisk (2004) refers to these as cognitive models with additional components with a response mechanism.  Bodie et. al., (2008) identifies this as an important tradition that deviated from the cognitive tradition measuring competent listening behaviour.

Burleson (2011) formulated a model that characterizes the constructivist tradition to listening and highlights a series of steps that individuals follow transforming hearing to understanding. He provides evidence on how individuals make meaning through listening and differentiates surface and depth process level based listening.

The above analysis will suggest that current researchers approach the field of listening from different traditions and epistemologies signifying the breadth and depth of the field.  Current research on E-listening is purely dominated through the constructivist tradition. The fact that asynchronous discussions provides better opportunities for students to negotiate meaning as they engage in a discussion emitting sense in carrying out research in this tradition. Taking cues from the listening research in general, the field of E-listening can expand further if researchers from different traditions start viewing E-listening from different lenses. These multiple perspectives will lead to debates that will enrich the field over time. Researchers embracing the cognitive tradition, for example can research how students listen as they engage in online instructional material. Currently there are opportunities to track the browsing patterns as students interact with web-based resources. Actions such as the search process, the pages students clink, the amount of time students spend in different pages, behaviour on reading verses scanning, will help researchers to determine how students listen (using the same terminology used by Wise) and interact with learning materials. This will provide valuable clues to improve instructional material. Further, these same principles could be applied as to how students listen literally to podcasts and other media based formats for learning purposes. These findings will yield valuable insights to expand our understanding and develop effective instructional designs and material.

3.2 Measurement tools to profile listening styles

There are many studies that document different listening patterns found in the listening research. The following table will indicate a few models (out of many) that characterize some of these different listening profiles.

Table 02 – Listening Profiles

Listener   Style Preference (LSP16)

Watson-Barker   Listening Test

Conversational   Listening Span

Listening   Styles Inventory [LSI]

Watson,   Barker, & Weaver (1995) Watson   & Barker, (2000) Janusik,   (2004) Pearce,   Johnson, , Barker (2003)
Four schemas on listening preferences

1. People

2. Action

3. Content

4. Time-oriented

Five dimensions of listening

  1. Evaluating message content
  2. Understanding meaning
  3. Understanding and remembering
  4. Evaluating emotional meaning
  5. Following   instructions
Measures

  1. Reading span
  2. Speaking span
  3. Listening span
  4. Perceived  interpersonal competence
  5. Communicative competence
  6. Conversational listening span
Categorizes four types of listening   styles:

  1.   Active
  2.   Involved
  3.   Passive
  4.  Detached

In a similar fashion, studies that profile E-listening behaviour patterns in asynchronous online environments are listed in table three below.

Table 03 – Online Listening Profiles

Profiling Online Listening Behaviour

Theoretical model that can be related to online listening

Wise, Speer,    Marbouti & Hsiao, (2011).

Wise, Perera, Hsiao, Speer,  & Marbouti,  (in press)

Knowlton (2005)

Meta   Cognitive Participation

Broad   Listeners

Thorough   Student

Dialogical   Participation

Concentrated   Listeners

Self-Monitoring   Student

Developmental   Participation

Superficial   Listeners

Independent   Student

Generative   Participation

Passive   Participation

Studies that profile listening patterns, has advanced a step beyond current studies that profile E-listening patterns. Listening research while profiling student’s listening patterns also provide measurement tools to categorize students in terms of their preferences, manner in which they listen. They are tested for validity, reliability and come in the form of a questionnaire that can be administered on individuals in a mass scale. These measures can swiftly profile listening patterns of students in a less cumbersome way. They could be carried out repeatedly without too much effort. The listening style preference (LSP16) measurement tool developed by Watson, Barker, & Weaver (1995) gained wider attention in literature. Profiles of listening identified through this tool has been subjected to measure variations in personality, culture, gender based differences in many studies (Brown, Boyle,Williams,McKenna, Palermo, Lewis & Molly, 2010, Kiemitz, Weaver III, Brosius & Weiman, 1997). Some of these will be reviewed in the next section.

One may argue that in a general listening study, the only way to profile listening is by administering a questionnaire since there is no other way to observe listening. The down side of this is that student responses to the questions will be subjected to their perceptions, which at times can be different from reality. However, repeated measures will provide a general sense of listening patterns between individuals. In profiling E-listening patterns Wise et. al., (in press) uses micro analytic methods based on system information that record student’s actions. This method reconstructs student actions based on how the system recorded them. These methods may not be able to tell whether students were distracted while carrying out these actions, but it usually portrays a reasonable picture of online listening behavioural patterns. A careful cross comparison between different listening patterns (see table 03) identified across many studies can help researchers see emerging patterns. However carrying out such micro analytic work is time-consuming and requires a bigger effort on the part of the researcher.

E-listening researchers could also take that next step, taking cues from listening researchers in developing measurements that characterize patterns. Questionnaire based tools that are tested and validated can be administered on students after they engage in an online discussion. The advantage of using such a measurement tool would be that it could be administered in large numbers and results could be tabulated less laboriously than current micro analytic methods. Currently this may not be possible due to the limited number of E-listening profiling studies depriving the identification of recurring patterns and their characteristics. As the body of research increases, frequently occurring common characteristics that define E-listening patterns could be identified eventually leading up to the development of such measurement tools. Further, as the technology on online asynchronous discussion improves, software could be used to elicit E-listening patterns in real time. Current technologies on analytics (For example, Google analytics) should be able to make this a reality in the foreseeable future. This type of formative information will be very useful for instructors and instructional designers to take corrective action that will benefit students to improve their online listening abilities. Another advantage that a measurement tool could provide would be to understand how these E-listening patterns are influenced by individual, personality, cultural based differences of students. Further, recurring E-listening profiles can be used to develop taxonomy of E-listening profiles grounded on a theoretical framework.  Building theoretical frameworks will allow researchers to eventually build a theory of E-listening and carrying out theory based research.

3.3 Individual differences in listening

Listening is a very personalize experience. Individual differences of students can have a profound impact on how they listen. Listening literature has focused a lot of attention to this area. The state of the field listening review presented by Bodie et. al., (2008) allocates an entire theme to this area of research. Within this theme, studies representing personality differences, cultural differences, and differences in personal characteristics such as gender, skills in listening comprehension are widely reported.

As to how personality differences influence different listening profiles, Worthington (In press) subjects personality dimensions identified by Myers-Briggs Personality Type test (Extraversion, Introversion, Sensing, Intuiting, Thinking, Feeling, judgment and Perception) to the four listening preference typologies in LSP16. (People, Action, Content & Time Listening patterns). Similarly Bodie et. al., (2008) presents studies that reported other personality characteristics such as empathy, conversational sensitivity, communication receiver apprehension related to different listening profiles.

Listening differences among students from varying cultural backgrounds are also reported. Kiemitz et, al, (1997) using the LSP16 listening style preferences report how students in Germany, Israel and USA differ significantly in the way they listen. Similarly Fitch-Hauser, Worthington, Powers, & Cook (2008) finds listening style differences among ethnic groups (Caucasians and Hispanics) living in Texas, USA.  Vallaume & Bodie (2007) reports listening preference differences among students with high masculine and high feminine cultural values based on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions inventory. Understanding cultural variations of students will be an important factor since differences in values; attitudes may lead to different listening behaviours. When students representing different cultural groups interact with each other, these differences will have an impact in the way they understand each other. All these will help tailor different interventions. Berne (2004) reports a plethora of studies that suggest listening strategies for students who do not speak English as a first language.

In terms of personal characteristics, Bodie et. al. (2008) presents studies that differentiate listening profile differences between individuals with high versus low cognitive complexities. These studies report that individuals who are high in their cognitive complexity tend be more sophisticated listeners.  Brown et. al., (2010) reports listening differences between males and females using the LSP16 dimensions. Berne (2004) presents studies that highlight individual differences in listening as to how students use cues, sequences for listening and differences between proficient and not so proficient listeners.

There are many other individual differences that are reported in listening research literature. The importance the field gives on individual differences in listening should provide valuable insights to E-listening researchers to replicate these in their own research. Wise et. al., (2011) in a study, identifies factors contributing to listening behaviours in online and blended learning courses. They identify how the past experience of students with discussion forums, their interest, and ability in material, value placed on discussion forums and goal orientations impact on varying online listening behaviours. While this is a very small step, E-listening researchers should pay more attention to this area of research. Currently there are no studies that attempt to describe the characteristics of students who are behind those computers when interacting with each other. Current E-listening researchers only report what students do when they engage in online discussions. Having identified this gap, the author intends to research the impact cultural facets may have on online listening behaviours as a part of doctorial research work. There are many other areas that E-listening researchers could investigate in attempting to explain how individual differences may impact E-listening patterns.

Identifying individual differences could help develop statistically valid predictive models in inferring how a given set of student characteristic may affect online listening behaviour. Faculty and instructional designers can use this knowledge to develop interventions to facilitate effective learning experiences of students who interact in asynchronous learning environments.

Table four below provides a snap short of the current trends identified in the field of listening and some insights presented above.

Table 04 – Snap shot of the current state of the field and future insights for E-listening

Themes State of the    Field of Listening Research Insights for    E-listening Researchers
Traditions and approaches conceptualizing   listening The field includes studies that represent the   cognitive, behavioural and constructivist traditions. Expand current research agenda beyond the   constructivist tradition to others such as the cognitive tradition  to understand how student acquire   information from instructional material, pod casts, online media etc.
Measurement tools to profile listening styles Includes studies that profile listening patterns,   questionnaire based tools to measure listening patterns. These measurement   tools are in turn used to identify personality, cultural differences related   to listening styles. Currently profiles E-listening behavioural   patterns using micro analytic methods. In future as the body of profiling   characteristics grow, E-listening researchers could take cues to further   expand building measurement tools (paper based or inbuilt to forums using Google   analytical style methods). These tools to be used to identify personality,   cultural differences related to E-listening styles. Use profiles to create a   taxonomy leading up to theory development on E-listening.
Individual differences in listening Studies identify how personality differences,   cultural differences (ethnicity, national origin), personal characteristics, and   gender differences influence listening patterns. A study in E-listening has identified a few   factors that affect online listening. They could further carry out studies to   identify how personality of the student, cultural differences, and gender   based differences may impact E-listening patterns among students. Predictive   models could be developed to infer how individual differences could affect   listening. Interventions could be designed to support effective online   learning strategies.

 

4.      CONCLUSIONS

The field of listening research spanning over 80 years (Beall, et.al, 2008) has provided a rich set of studies that characterize listening in traditional face to face conversation based environments. It presents listening from different traditions, provides numerous methods to profile different listening behaviour, measurement techniques to profile listening in many ways. Further it reports many individual differences and their impact on listening. The field also has a rich history in reporting listening differences in an educational context. Though not reported in this review, it also documents many studies that investigate effective forms of listening instruction, listening related issues, problems of students who learn English as a second language.

In comparison, the field of E-listening based on asynchronous discussion environments is a newer field with a history less than four years. Researchers in this newly emerged field has initiated a series of research studies dedicated to understanding how students listen online as they engage in educational conversations. Similarities and differences presented between listening in a face to face context and E-listening provides us a basis to understand how these two fields converge and diverge. Although the two fields are different in terms of how listening is characterized, similarities in research areas, methods followed could provide opportunities to cross fertilize ideas between them. The author reviewed three main themes that highlighted some of the current trends that define the state of the field of listening in general. Through this process, a series of new insights were presented for the E-listening researchers’ to consider in expanding their research agenda forward. It is the view of the author that building on the current body of work will allow the field of E-listening to progress much faster delineating its research agenda   saving time, money and effort otherwise spent reinventing the wheel and starting from scratch.

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