Channel expansion theory
Channel expansion theory (CET) is a theory of communication media perceptions that incorporates experiential factors to explain and predict user perceptions of a new communication media. The theory suggests that the more knowledge and experience users gain from using a channel, the richer they perceive the medium to be. In order to understand different users' perceptions of any medium, the theory suggests that it is important to consider the users' prior knowledge-building experiences relating to use of the same medium. Carlson and Zmud, who developed the theory in 1999, used the example of the email and identified the following four experiences as important in shaping individuals' perception of media richness: experience with the channel, experience with the message topic, experience with the organizational context, and experience with a communication partner.
This theory attempts to explain how various forms of electronic communication influence the perception of a user.
Social presence theorists have argued that users' experience interacting via a particular channel depends on how co-present media allows communicators to feel. Media richness theorists, Daft and Lengel, suggest face-to-face communication is the best medium for equivocal, or complex, communication between two people. And, that less-rich mediums can be effective so long as the complexity of the information being transferred from one party to the other does not exceed the channel's capacity. Channel expansion theory moves away from Daft and Lengel's fixed labeling of rich and lean media, and instead suggests that user’s perceptions of media richness are dependent on users' prior experience with the channel/medium. In this sense, the more knowledge-building experiences users acquire with a given channel (context, partner, and topic) their perceptions of the medium will be richer, and they will be more likely to use it effectively.
To expand on this position, the technology acceptance model (TAM), a theory of the Information system provides a detailed explanation of users' choice in adopting a Technology. Venkatesh, Davis argue that users adopt technology when they perceive it as useful and within their range of acceptance, which can be voluntary or mandated depending on context.
Channel expansion theory builds from a variety of theoretical perspectives that address perceptions of media channels. It combines elements from media richness theory with the social influence model which suggests that group member’s media perceptions and use align with those of the rest of the group members.
Additionally, the media naturalness theory by Ned Kock attempts to apply Darwinian evolutionary principles to suggest which types of computer-mediated communication will best fit innate human communication capabilities. Media naturalness theory argues that natural selection has resulted in face-to-face communication becoming the most effective way for two people to exchange information. According to media naturalness theory, for example, students learning about school subjects online should perform more poorly in tests covering those subjects than students learning about the same subjects face-to-face. However, Carlson and Zmud, predicted that users of unnatural media will adapt to those media in a compensatory way, and thus developed a theory of channel expansion. Essentially, channel expansion theory suggests that perceptions of communication channel are likely to vary across users and explains the variation by incorporating one particularly important factor that has not been considered prior – media use experience. By acquiring knowledge-building experiences in four domains (channel, topic, partner, organizational context) identified in the theory, users will have increased ability to communicate effectively in various situational contexts and will thus perceive the channel as being richer. Carlson and Zmud conceptualized relevant experience in channel expansion is not just the length of time of channel use, but also the nature of that use and the bases of knowledge developed through it.
In 2011, Kock and Garza attempt to reconcile Kock's media naturalness theory with Carlson and Zmud's channel expansion theory when they research whether taking a college course on-line, as opposed to in-person, will negatively impact students’ actual and perceived learning experiences due to differences in the respective media richness and media naturalness afforded by the two different approaches studied. Kock and Garza's findings show that an online cohort performed statistically as well as an in-person portion of their study sample, and in turn, the authors suggest that the study’s findings support Carlson and Zmud’s channel expansion theory. The authors also argue that a portion of the findings support Kock’s earlier media naturalness claims that people are not evolutionarily equipped to communicate through computer mediated communication (CMC) as well as when they are communicating through richer media such as face-to-face communication.
Consistent with the channel expansion theory, Lisiecka et al. conclude in a 2016 study that people will inherently adjust their messages to better fit with a selected communication medium. Their study was directed toward task-related communication between dyads (couples) who interacted through one of face-to-face conversations, via voice calls, or textually. The authors point out that, although it has been generally accepted that “media other than face-to-face are considered an obstacle rather than an equally effective means of information transfer” (2016, p. 13), their results suggest that computer-mediated communication “has become similarly natural and intuitive as face-to-face contacts” (2016, p. 13).
Channel expansion theory has proved to be useful in the field of organizational communication. Early conceptual use of organizational media focused on media characteristics as primary determinants of 'users’ communication experience. For organizational managers, the theory demonstrates that communication effectiveness and choice of communication media is bounded by user’s communication experiences, thus in order for the organizational employees to become proficient on a given communication channel and in a given organizational context, they must go through learning process to maximize the media communication richness potential. Additionally, the theory is associated with the level of the communicator’s ability to appropriate the medium to achieve shared understanding with communication partner; as perception of media richness improves with the acquired experience it has a positive effect on use richness – how much users employ various features of a communication channel. Individual's perception of channel richness kept vary over time. As individual users vary in how they utilize different features of media channels in their communication processes there is also a need for some form of training to continuously support users as technical features and communication capabilities of the channel expand (channel becomes richer). The most profound implication the theory has for individual media users is that it places great emphasis upon building knowledge rather than just simple experiences with media channels; if users wish to enhance effectiveness of a media tool they should acquire knowledge about its characteristics and capabilities rather than just use it repeatedly.
Cloud-based virtual learning
Besides organizational communication, research have also been done in the field of education or school communication. A study looked into the behaviour intention in the cloud-based virtual learning environment and expanded the theory with variables of educational level and teaching experiences. In a case study conducted by Malaysian based scholars, results showed a positive correlation of media richness and 'intention' to use C-VLE, as an effective behavioural motivator for success. Also, in the findings, prior experience in traditional teaching tool had no significant effect on the positive perception of the technology. This finding violated the premise of CET that implies former user experience mostly leads to the positive adoption of a communication channel. However, CET application played a role in influencing the content design and interactivity balance, both of which boosted media richness and behavioral intention to use C-VLE.
Channel expansion theory has been criticized for being originally applied to a single medium - email - and not having tested whether it operates similarly for more traditional media (like telephone) or advanced technologies (like videoconferencing). Another shortcoming of the theory noted in literature is that the developers of the theory (Carlson and Zmud) did not examine whether different forms of knowledge obtained through relevant experiences they identified may be impacting different richness dimensions. Finally, the theory overlooks the constraints that channels' inherent technological features may pose on the ability and degree to which media richness can "expand", even if knowledge-building experiences might enhance media perceived richness, the media can still be objectively perceived as richer because of its capability constraints (like lack of video/audio, sensory etc.).
- Communication theory
- Media naturalness theory
- Media richness theory
- Social influence
- Critical mass (sociodynamics)
- Technology acceptance model
- Organizational information theory
- Social information processing (theory)
- Social presence theory
- Call to action (marketing)
- Communicative action
- Grounded theory
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