The Communications Revolution and What Schools Need To Do About It


In 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler stated that we are in a communications revolution and that the "link between communications and character is complex, but unbreakable. We cannot transform all our media of communications and expect to remain unchanged as a people" (p. 389). "It speeds the very process by which we "try on" different images of self, and, in fact, accelerates our movement through successive images. It makes it possible for us to project our image electronically to the world. And nobody fully understands what all this will to do our personalities" (p. 390). How true those words are today, as we engage in communication and collaboration globally using Web 2.0 tools.

These tools offer students an ability to take charge (e.g., via blogs, wikis, tagging and social bookmarking, podcasts, video logs), speak their minds in almost any way they desire, on almost any topic, at any time of day, and without any go-between to filter what is said. When some of those commentaries are brought to the attention of parents and educators, school systems face the challenge of what to do about those that potentially have a negative, sometimes dangerous, impact on individuals about whom the commentaries were directed. In the words of Steven Corman, Angela Trethewey, and Bud Goodall (2007), the situation becomes one of those "disruptive moves" calling for a transformation in the system to address the issue. The solution is not just creating a new policy or taking legal actions.

On a larger scale, the perception of how the United States and its people are viewed globally is a function of how well we communicate on multiple levels, such as political, economic, business, and personal. The process itself operates at two levels, according to Adrian Chan (2006), "as a binding exchange between individuals, and as a reproduction of social norms, values, and other cultural "stock." "(Sec: Project Overview, para. 7). How are we preparing our youth for successful involvement in that process on these global levels? How well are we preparing them to communicate via multiple communication channels? What 21st century models of communication are we developing to guide us? Or, are we basing instruction on outdated 20th century models? In this commentary, I examine Corman, Trethewey, and Goodall's communications model for the 21st century and its curriculum implications for K-12 schools.

A 20th Century Model
The typical 20th century model of communication is viewed as a linear, one-way process that can be compared to the model for the telephone and broadcasting industry, which was developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver in the 1950s. It has such components as an information source, transmitter, signal, and receiver. During the transmission process, as the signal moves through some channel, the presence of noise might degrade the message, preventing it from being received as intended. The audience is well defined. Translated into human communication terms, Corman et al. (2007) call this a message influence model. The source has ideas, information, needs, and purpose for communicating. The source creates the message using a device to encode the message, which is sent via some channel (communications medium) to the receiver who decodes it or retranslates it into his own usable form. "The purpose of the message is to influence the receiver to understand the information in the same way as the source, if not persuade him or her to change attitudes or act in a particular way." The problem of the message influence model is that it assumes success. However, distortions might occur when "communicators lack sufficient skill to faithfully translate the information to or from symbols, or their culture or individual attitudes corrupt the translation process in some way" (p. 4).

According to Chan (2006), a consultant on Web 2.0 and specialist on social software and practices that make it work, "Technologies of communication by definition distort human communication. They amplify some senses over others, and in many cases limit us to using written language.... The issue then becomes what are the consequences of these distortions? How does communication survive it, adapt with it, and even anticipate it?" (sec: Technology Distorts Communication). In this 20th century model, to avoid misunderstanding a message can be kept simple and concise, repeated in the same way several times so that it is received as intended, and we can compose it considering our understanding of the culture and attitudes of those on the receiving end. How much do our students actually know about those on that receiving end?

Corman et al. (2007) say the model is no longer effective in the complex global war of ideas, yet it is still used. For example, the United States uses it in strategic communication. The message influence model "pervades post-9/11 thinking about public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations, and media strategy in the United States government" (p. 6). However, by relying on this model, we've been unable to draw the world into a consensus on key issues. In spite of our good intentions, using the model has diminished our status among world opinion leaders.

The implications for school curriculum in the 21st century and how we teach communication skills becomes clearer as you look at this bigger picture. While the model just described still works in many situations, the audience for communication is no longer well defined when using new technologies and Web 2.0 tools for communication and collaboration. Communication becomes many-to-many, thus increasing its complexity and requiring a different model of communication.

A 21st Century Communication Model
Corman et al. (2007) proposed a pragmatic complexity model as a new meaning-making framework for strategic communication in the 21st century. While it was meant in connection with improving U.S. government communication, there are implications from it that could be applied to teaching communication skills in school settings. Their model is based on four principles of effective communication in the global war of ideas: "(1) Deemphasize control and embrace complexity, (2) replace repetition with variation, (3) consider disruptive moves, and (4) expect and plan for failure" (p. 2). In clarifying, Chan (2006) states that a pragmatics model emphasizes not just what we say, but how we say it.

Control v. embracing complexity: Messages sent via the message influence model might be perceived as controlling (i.e., this viewpoint will be yours), and thus have a negative affect on the receiver. By embracing complexity, we understand that it's not the message sent that counts, but the one that is received and how its meaning is interpreted. At the receiving end, Corman et al. (2007) say that factors like autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, immediate personal needs, and the larger social reality of the receiver play a role in interpreting meaning. Hence, we should assume there will be differences in how both sender and receiver interpret meanings from any message. How much do our students know about these factors that lead to possible communication problems?

Repetition v. variation: The same message repeated over and over in the same way, which might only be clear and straightforward to the sender, damages the sender's credibility. Problems might increase, if both sender and receiver do not have the same message interpretative alignment, which relies on both parties being able to interpret each others' actions in relation to thoughts, motivations, intentions, and so on that might be behind them. The alternative to such repetition is an evolutionary approach using variation, entailing being able to create a message in multiple ways on the message theme, and observing the effect, perhaps varying again until a desired affect is achieved. I suspect that many are unable to do this, so it becomes a skill worth cultivating in our schools.

Disruptive moves: A major event, such as the 9/11 attacks on the United States, would be considered a disruptive move. It initiates large-scale transformation of a system because of a major disruption in its normal operation. In other examples, one might also think of transformative changes in security and notification systems in schools and on university campuses owing to widespread coverage of violence on campuses. In terms of using Web 2.0 tools for communication, schools are faced with major transformation of their communication policies because of disruptive moves such as students posting threats to classmates on social networking sites, even if those threats are made during non-school hours. Then consider the ethical ramifications, such as those expressed by the "old fashioned teacher" who voiced concerns on the changing dynamics in a classroom when archiving Webcasts in instruction. All involved might not want the whole world to know everything said during class time, particularly in regard to sensitive issues where "anybody can snip a few choice sentences out of context and post them on YouTube" (Inside Higher Ed, 2008). How well does our curriculum address ethics?

Expect and plan for failure: Rather than assuming successful communication, we need to plan for failure, as we cannot know for sure the effects of any message nor the environment in which it is received. We should anticipate what might go wrong, anticipate the consequences, and have contingencies in mind. These latter include the variations that can be used to present the message in alternative ways. It's also a matter of developing critical thinking, problem solving, and leadership skills within the curriculum, as Tony Wagner (2008) also advocates.

A Curriculum Focus
Certainly students can now easily participate in this global war of ideas, not meant in the militaristic terms. They can influence change, promote their self-image, and express any ideas. But what many cannot do is to put themselves in the shoes of the other guy when communicating. To do this most effectively in light of the complex model just described, we need students exposed to a curriculum with an international flair, such as that being advocated by the New Jersey Department of Education, which is among several states now working to revise curriculum to address 21st century skills (Route 21, 2007, sec: 21st Century States). This also would better fit the growing diversity among students in our U.S. classrooms. Rather than narrowing curriculum to meet No Child Left Behind requirements, our curriculum for bringing students out of the 20th century should offer a balance of content in core subjects (e.g., English, reading, or language arts; mathematics, science, economics, the arts, etc.) along with studies in ethics, a foreign language, and diversity. This last would ensure students know about other world cultures, their histories and geographies, their languages, their religions, and perspectives on world issues--to whatever extent possible.

To be comprehensive, any transformation in curriculum should consider key emerging technologies and likely time frames for their entrance into mainstream use for teaching, learning, and creative applications. In its annual Horizon Report, the New Media Consortium (2008) indicates grassroots video and collaboration webs are already in use on many campuses. We should look for the rise in academia of mobile broadband use and data mashups within two to three years, and then social operating systems and collective intelligence within four to five years. Social operating systems will be an essential ingredient of next generation social networking systems and will base the organization of the network around people rather than around content.

Questions for a Literacy/Communications Curriculum
Beyond teaching students to communicate effectively in face-to-face settings, our literacy/communications curriculum should include specific strategies for both oral and written communications in one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many environments when using technology as the channel. Each new technology offers different opportunities for distortions of messages, and students need to know what those might be and how and when to deal with those. Adrian Chan (2006) poses numerous questions within themes in his Social Media Research project about which such a curriculum might be designed. Several of those, some modified for this essay, follow to tweak thinking on this issue.

  • The mode of communication matters. Technologies enable synchronous (at the same time) or asynchronous communications. In what ways does the technology's modality inform, constrain, and enable different kinds of communication (e.g., conversation, messaging, and information)?
  • There is an effectiveness and risk/success ratio of communicating through technology. If you don't know where your message will end up (e.g., consider e-mail, blind copies, and forwarding issues), do we self-censor our communication, not knowing our audience with total certainty? How sensitive are we to a medium's intrinsic "coldness"--its inability to provide visual and physical recognition, agreement, acceptance, and so on?
  • Technology can assist in producing audience relations. In any communication, what defines success for each participant, considering that technology can make us invisible and often conceals our relations with each other?
  • Silence also communicates. How much silence is required for the time between message sending and message response to actually be considered silence? How do silences become personal and what is their range of meaning? How can we use silence to our advantage? How much quiet can an online community take before it withers?
  • Frequency of interaction counts. Are there cultural and social norms around the amount of contact one might have with others? And is this dependent on the medium or application used? What sense for frequency and traffic do users develop about online communities? And how can online community hosts build participation?
  • Chan indicates that technologies must interface somehow with the human mode of displaying attention. What kinds of techniques have users developed as a means of giving or getting attention in different media and applications? In what kinds of media and applications does the screening of physical or visual participation offer benefits and advantages to users? How well can we multitask among competing applications and still interact and communicate with others successfully?
  • Web 2.0 has enabled any number of online communities to be formed. Are the numerous examples of deception, manipulation, insincerity, and dishonesty that run rampant online an indication that the medium itself serves our communication needs only poorly? What are the roles of trust, authority, identity, truth, ethics, and privacy in online and other technology mediated communications?

The Future Is Now
I agree with Terry Flew (2008), who stated, "We are moving from the 20th century one-to-many, top-down mass communications model towards something that is more open, interactive, multidimensional and participatory. How organisations in business, government and the community sector respond to it is something that is already being formed. For communications professionals, now is very much the time to look at not just the new technologies, but at the different forms of communication practice that are arising through them" (p. 12). In keeping with the complex nature of the 21st century model for communication examined here, Wagner (2008) would agree that it is also time to transform school curriculum to better prepare our youth for citizenship and careers in which they will engage in global communications and collaborations. We know that several state departments of education are beginning to do something about this, but it is time for all to follow their lead.




Chan, A. (2006). Communication technology and theory: Research into the interpersonal and social interface [web site]. Available:

Corman, S., Trethewey, A., & Goodall, B. (2007, April 3). A 21st century model for communication in the global war of ideas: From simplistic influence to pragmatic complexity. Consortium for Strategic Communication: Report #0701. Available:

Flew, T. (2008). Communication for the 21st century or, How to have your blog and read it too! Brisbane, Australia: Presentation to Society of Business Communicators (Queensland), March 13, 2008. Available:

Inside Higher Ed (2008, September 23). I'll take my lecture to go, please. Comment by old fashioned teacher, September 23, 2008. Available:

New Media Consortium (2008). The 2008 Horizon Report. Available:

Route 21 (2007). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills [web site]. Available:

Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave. New York: Bantam Books.

Wagner, T. (2008). Rigor redefined. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 20-24.

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.