Empathy In Synchronous Multimedia Conferencing (Special Contribution to D-E.c)

June 21, 2012

Dr. Wayne Duncan

Dr. Wayne Duncan, Deputy Principal of Northern Southland College, New Zealand

Source Thesis URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10179/3068

The following paper summarises a doctoral thesis by Duncan (2011) that explored empathy, or the interpretation of the internal frame of another, within a relatively new online collaboration tool, synchronous multimedia conferencing (SMC). Using case study methodology from within the lens of a hermeneutic perspective, it investigated conferencing participants’ heuristic understandings of empathy. The findings indicated that participants’ experiences and understandings appeared to be influenced by a number of factors including respondents’ degree of engagement and the richness of their multimedia conferencing experiences. Themes identified in the research led to the development of an exploratory model of empathy in SMC that facilitated the development of a range of additional participant models. These models suggested that multifaceted relationships existed between the participant, the physical environment, and the social environment, bound together through empathic interaction.

With the advent of the internet, teachers and learners are reshaping how interaction in distance education occurs. These changes are being further stimulated through the integration of relatively new online collaboration tools such as synchronous multimedia conferencing (SMC). SMC has increasingly come into prominence with the availability of new ICTs and higher bandwidth connectivity. These specific computer assisted communication tools consist of multi-channel communication: voice, video, text chat, application sharing, document sharing, and shared manipulation of digital objects. These provide participants the opportunity to interact online synchronously (in real time) using these conferencing tools. A central and, as yet, not fully explored component of social interaction within this context is the ability to empathise, or interpret the internal frame of another. The importance of the ability to empathise is that it is an essential relational mechanism for effective social interaction and learning.

Within the literature review empathy was explored in terms of its manifestations and functions. After a review from a wider perspective, work previously undertaken on empathy within distance education was presented, including: transactional distance, social presence, and cognitive distance. The literature revealed converging ideas that highlighted the significance of undertaking exploratory research into empathy within SMC. Reasons for undertaking this research included empathy playing a significant role in social interaction and learning and that SMC is an area of technology-enhanced distance education of growing importance and prevalence. The literature also suggested the results of this research had the potential to enhance educational outcomes for SMC participants. The intent of this research was, therefore, to promote understanding of the nature and function of empathy in synchronous multimedia conferencing (SMC).

Methodological Considerations
Guided by the hermeneutic circle, a qualitative interpretive research design was applied to this research through an iterative dialogical research strategy. The exploratory research undertaken was embedded within a hermeneutic perspective and guided by the hermeneutic lens of Gadamer. It explored conferencing participants’ heuristic understandings of how they experienced empathy within SMC. Case study methodology using literal replication was applied in a purposeful selection process consisting of two separate distance education classes which became the foci of the investigation. One on one and focus group interview methods were used to enable participants to construct and reconstruct understandings which occurred over a six-month period. The strategy enabled participants to reengage with their own and others’ understandings as these developed within a hermeneutic circle approach. A data coding strategy using NVivo® software was also aligned to this iterative approach so that data coding supported the on-going dialogic re-engagement of participants with these understandings.
Numerous themes were identified, analysed and reorganised into three branch node categories that were, in turn, used to re-engage participants in deeper dialogic engagement. These branch node categories were developed into an exploratory model of empathy within SMC to reengage participants in deeper discussion from their own and others understandings. A series of one on one and focus group interviews enabled participants to build understandings over time. Participants were then engaged in a final one on one respondent validation interview. Within this final interview, respondents’ shared oral metaphors of their experiences of empathy, along with a pictorial representation of their models of these experiences of empathy within SMC. These metaphors acted as an opportunity for respondents to share their final understandings of empathy formed through the iterative dialogical research strategy. These metaphors and participant models were used by the researcher to gather final multiple understandings of the nature and function of empathy within SMC.

Research Findings
The findings indicated that the participants believed they had experienced empathy within SMC and that the salience of those experiences appeared to be related to a number of factors. These included respondents’ degree of engagement and the richness of their multimedia conferencing experiences. A wide range of findings related to how participants experienced empathy was shared by participants, representing a range of empathic experiences.
Research Question 1 focused on the participant experiences of the manifestations of empathy including; compassion, encouragement, helping behaviours, and emotional contagion. These manifestations were experienced through a range of verbal and non-verbal forms including tonal inflections and the actions of others. Research Question 2 focused on participant experiences of the functions of empathy and included; the creation of a supportive environment, a strengthening bond, a sense of belonging, and cues to support language modulation. Findings from this research question suggested that empathy may fulfil a significant and necessary role as a social relational mechanism in online social interaction.
At the end of Phase 1 themes were analysed and integrated into three overarching categories developed by the researcher and included: i) the participant, ii) the social environment, and iii) the physical environment. These categories, in turn, were developed into an exploratory model. Within Phase 2, participants re-engaged with these themes, categories and exploratory model and were able to further develop their understandings. The final one on one respondent validation interview served as a final exploration of participants’ understandings in a continuing part to a whole hermeneutic approach. Participants’ own models of empathy suggested multifaceted relationship exist between the participant, the physical environment, and the social environment, bound together through empathic interaction.

Several implications of the research were identified. With respect to specific conferencing strategies it appears that empathy can be facilitated through the integration of a range of specific strategies. With respect to the development and support of empathy, it appears that through the development and support of the manifestations of empathy, empathy itself can be supported and developed. For policy makers and software developers, the responses hold a number of implications. The most important of these appears to be the limitations currently to the empathic experiences of participants due to technical problems. This, in turn, appears to limit the full functionality and pedagogical utilisation of the SMC environment. Increasing quality of experience for SMC participants, therefore, appears a major challenge in overcoming these issues. A significant implication of these findings may be the importance of considering empathy within the context of multifaceted relationships between the participant, the physical environment and the social environment. The participants SMC empathy models may provide a framework for conferencing participants, software developers and policy makers to more fully understand the nature and function of empathy within SMC.

The research intent of this study was to promote understanding of the nature and function of empathy in synchronous multimedia conferencing (SMC). It is believed that this intent has been achieved through a research strategy that was aligned within a hermeneutic perspective. The alignment of a hermeneutic phenomenology within an iterative dialogical research strategy enabled the development and interpretation of understandings over iterative cycles of participant engagement. The respondents and the researcher have built understandings over time and through dialogue. The findings have produced a number of contributions to knowledge in the field of empathy, within distance learning generally, and synchronous multimedia conferencing in particular. A significant contribution has been the emergence of participants’ models of empathy within SMC. It is believed that these models may guide conferencing participants, software developers and policy makers in the support and development of empathy in SMC. The research has also contributed to research practice using synchronous conferencing tools as a research medium.

Dr. Wayne Duncan is currently the Deputy Principal of Northern Southland College, located near Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand.  He has held a range of positions in both primary and secondary schools including appointments as a principal and advisory work. Dr Duncan also worked as an education/innovation projects manager for Venture Southland, a regional economic and social development agency for several years. Withiin this role he managed enterprise in education programmes along with a range of distance education projects.  He is also a trained educational psychologist and previously worked for the Ministry of Defence as a education officer. Currently he is on the National Education Policy Advisory Group assisting in the development of government policy. Dr Duncan’s speciality area in is the field of social relational mechanisms, such as empathy, with distance education. A resident of Southland in New Zealand, he spends most of his spare time with his family supporting their interests in sport and highland dancing, being a piper this is by necessity. He can be reached at wduncan@nsc.school.nz