Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Telephone? Promoting Peer Connection in Online Courses through Student-to-Student Voice-Based Assignments

Concurrent Session 5

Brief Abstract

This discovery session shares findings from a study testing the effectiveness of a student-to-student voice-based assignment. The importance of voice-based tasks in fostering social connection in online learning environments is discussed. Attendees will also have the chance to share insights and form collaborations for future research endeavors.


Amanda Denes (Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut. Her primary area of specialization is interpersonal communication, with an emphasis on communication processes related to maintaining successful relationships. She teaches online courses on Interpersonal Communication and Gender and Communication. She extends her passion for studying interpersonal communication processes by studying ways to promote social connection in online learning environments. Her research has been published in top Communication and interdisciplinary journals. She is also co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of the Physiology of Interpersonal Communication and Associate Editor for the journal, Personal Relationships.
Rory McGloin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut. Professor McGloin’s research is focused on media effects. Of particular interest to Professor McGloin is the process by which individuals interact with a mediated environment and the subsequent effect of these interactions on their perceptions of certain variables such as perceived realism and immersion. In addition to this, Professor McGloin’s research has recently focused on how various control devices may be changing the way users interact with virtual environments and in turn how these devices may be impacting the users overall feelings of enjoyment and aggression. Dr. McGloin has also explored the nature of online interactions in a variety of contexts (social support, product reviews, health and social support) with a focus on perceived source credibility and he continues to do work in this area. Dr. McGloin’s work has recently been published in such journals as: Journal of Communication, Media Psychology, and Computers in Human Behavior.

Extended Abstract

The goal of the session is to discuss the utility of online learning assignments that focus on building connections between students through voice-based modalities. One repercussion of the increased use of text-based communication (e.g., texting, emailing), which is asynchronous and provides time for the receiver to craft a response, is that it has increased anxieties surrounding synchronous forms of communication, such as face-to-face interactions and phone calls. However, voice-based modalities offer unique opportunities for individuals to connect with one another and build relationships by promoting immediacy behaviors, which can foster support and friendship [1]. Therefore, assignments that require student interaction via voice-to-voice connection may help promote social connectivity among online learners.

This discovery session will share findings from a study conducted during September and October 2019 testing the effectiveness of a student-to-student voice-based assignment. The topic of this session is important and relevant to those who teach and design online courses, as it discusses new and innovative ways to promote interaction among online learners, which may help improve both personal well-being and learning outcomes. Establishing connection and a sense of trust and belonging are pivotal to successful group collaboration [2]. Indeed, “social connections between distance students matter because they foster social psychological processes that contribute to positive social and educational outcomes” (p. 52) [3]. A pitfall of attempts to promote social interaction online is a focus solely on interaction through learning-focused tasks and a failure to recognize the importance of social interaction, notably in contexts that promote informal conversations [2]. Thus, despite the many benefits of online learning, one obstacle involves the extent to which students are able to connect with one another, practice interpersonal communication in real time, and build friendships through their classroom experiences. The present study entails testing a new online learning tool focused on social connection between students via vocal channels.

Learning as a Social Process

Learning experiences in higher education have been described as social processes [4], and as such, tools aimed at promoting social interaction may be beneficial in both reinforcing course concepts and fostering student connection. Recent research revealed that online learning students who participated in a text-based “fast friendship task” reported more liking for their assigned interaction partner than those in the control group [3]. Students who participated in the task also perceived greater social integration, which increased their likelihood of participating in the end-of-the-semester exam. These findings reinforce the importance of exercises focused on relationship-building in online environments, yet the task involved solely text-based communication, ignoring the importance of other nonverbal channels, such as vocalics. Vocalics entails the nonverbal cues associated with the voice (e.g., tone, rate, pitch). Vocalic cues can provide important socio-emotional information [2] missing from purely text-based modalities, and a lack of nonverbal communication channels reduces interpersonal interaction cues, which can impede social presence online [5].

One approach to fostering connection beyond text-based modalities online involves assignments that require vocal connection, such as through the use of Skype or Facebook calling, or traditional landline or cell phone calling. Connecting students using vocal channels may help foster immediacy behaviors, which “signal availability, increase sensory stimulation, and decrease both the physical and psychological distance” between individuals [1, p. 502]. Immediacy behaviors are positively associated with efficacy to achieve one’s goals [6]; thus, promoting immediacy and connection via vocal channels may help improve learning outcomes. Indeed, online learning is most satisfying and successful in environments that promote engagement and collaboration, thereby fostering a social presence online [4]. Though previous research reinforces the benefits of synchronous text-based communication in online learning environments [7], and some best practices suggest that online instructors connect with students on the telephone, no known studies have investigated the use of synchronous voice calling between students.

To address this gap in the literature, this presentation will share the results from an experiment testing the effectiveness of assignments focused on fostering connection via vocal modalities (e.g., telephone, Skype/Facebook calls) in online courses. The assignment is rooted in research on self-disclosure, which involves “any information exchange that refers to the self, including personal states, dispositions, events in the past, and plans for the future” [8, p. 152]. Self-disclosure is positively associated with liking [9] and theories such as social penetration theory [10] posit that self-disclosure promotes closeness and connection by moving from superficial to intimate communication. The present study also addresses personality characteristics or dispositions that have been associated with disclosure behavior, such as approach and avoidance tendencies. Approach-oriented individuals generally enter situations with greater hope and see possibilities for intimacy and affiliation [11]. Conversely, avoidance-oriented individuals fear rejection and worry that interactions may lead to negative social outcomes. Individuals’ perceptions of their own ability to aptly communicate information, which has been revealed as an important predictor of self-disclosure [12], is also assessed.

A Voice-Based Online Learning Experiment

To test the effectiveness of voice-based student-to-student assignments, an experiment is conducted across two online courses. Students in one online learning course are assigned to participate in the same text-based friendship task implemented by Stürmer and colleagues [3], which entailed students asynchronously engaging in a series of pre-structured escalating and reciprocal self-disclosure tasks. The second course involves students participating in the same friendship task, but doing so by calling one another. A survey is administered at the beginning and conclusion of the assignment (about 2 months into the course) assessing perceptions of connectivity with other students in the course, friendship development, perceived learning, and the personality characteristics detailed earlier.

The proposed discovery session will prioritize interactivity with conference participants. First, a handout will be provided detailing the relevant research that informed the study, the specifics of the assignments provided to students in the experimental condition, and a summary of the results. It will also provide suggestions for implementing assignments using this modality into current online courses. The handout will be briefly reviewed alongside a PowerPoint presented via laptop or iPad to the attendees at the table. Next, we will discuss the findings. What was surprising? How can others use these findings in their classrooms? Why might unexpected findings have arisen? Finally, we will discuss future directions for promoting student connection in online courses, including next steps for this line of research. Attendees who are interested in conducting related research will be encouraged to discuss opportunities for future studies, in the hopes that fruitful scholarly collaborations arise from the session. Taken together, attendees of this discovery session will learn about the importance of voice-based tasks in fostering social connection in online learning environments and the communication theories that help inform these new tools. Attendees will also have the chance to share insights and form collaborations for future research endeavors stemming from this pilot study.


1. Andersen, P. A., Guerrero, L. K., Buller, D. B., & Jorgensen, P. F. (1998). An empirical comparison of three theories of nonverbal immediacy exchange. Human Communication Research, 24, 501-535. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.1998.tb00429.x

2. Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A., & Jochems, W. (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research. Computers in Human Behavior, 19, 335-353. doi:10.1016/S0747-5632(02)00057-2

3. Stürmer, S., Ihme, T. A., Fisseler, B., Sonnenberg, K., & Barbarino, M. L. (2018). Promises of structured relationship building for higher distance education: Evaluating the effects of a virtual fast-friendship procedure. Computers & Education, 124, 51-61. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2018.05.015

4. Thoms, B., & Eryilmaz, E. (2014). How media choice affects learner interactions in distance learning classes. Computers & Education, 75, 112-126. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.02.002

5. Walther, J. B., Anderson, J. F., & Park, D. (1994). Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: a meta-analysis of social and anti-social communication. Communication Research, 19, 460–487. doi: 10.1177/009365094021004002

6. Creasey, G., Jarvis, P., & Gadke, D. (2009). Student attachment stances, instructor immediacy, and student–instructor relationships as predictors of achievement expectancies in college students. Journal of College Student Development, 50, 353-372. doi:10.1353/csd.0.0082

7. Park, Y. J., & Bonk, C. J. (2007). Is online life a breeze? A case study for promoting synchronous learning in a blended graduate course. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3, 307-323.

8. Derlega, V.J., & Grzelak, J. (1979). Appropriateness of self-disclosure. In G.J. Chelune (Ed.), Self-disclosure: Origins, patterns, and implications of openness in interpersonal relationships (pp. 151-176). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

9. Jourard, S.M. (1971). Self-disclosure: An experimental analysis of the transparent self. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

10. Altman, I., & Taylor, D.A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

11. Gable, S.L. (2006). Approach and avoidance social motives and goals. Journal of Personality, 74, 175-222. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00373.x

12. Afifi, T.D., & Steuber, K. (2009). The risk revelation model (RRM) and strategies used to reveal secrets.  Communication Monographs, 76, 144-176. doi:10.1080/03637750902828412