COM3371 Communication Systems
McDaniel College Department of Communication
Richard W. Dillman (

Contents . Calendar . Discussion Board . Additional Sources . Assignments and Grading


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A communication system is a collection of individuals who relate to one another by means of shared messages and media networks. This course investigates the fundamental methods of thinking about such systems by intermixing a basic theoretical description of system theory with case studies of its practical application. Topics include interaction in connected systems, the role of the environment, networks, complexity and self-reference.


This course introduces a collection of ideas that can be used as tools for the investigation of complicated or complex problems. It provides access to a method of learning how different kinds of knowledge work together in the real world. These ideas are especially useful for people who:

  1. will become managers or executives. Systems thinking is the preferred method of managing large, complex projects and organizations.
  2. will work in any field that involves facts and theories. The systems approach is particularly effective in organizing facts and theories so that they can be used to describe real situations and solve real world problems.
  3. will have to deal with complex problems on a regular basis. "Systems" is a way of organizing knowledge in order to make useful models of situations that are too complicated to understand "in the raw." The systems approach has been used successfully in advertising, government, education and many other fields of endeavor.

Systems thinking has a long history. Its major practitioners include people like:

Aristotle: who noted that "The whole is more than the sum of its parts," and initiated the idea of analysis.

Von Bertallanfy: who saw biology in terms of networks of organic systems.

Ashby, Beer, Weinberg, Ackoff, Boulding and others: who described organizations as complex interconnections of people and relationships.

Maturana and Varela: who introduced the concept of self-reproduction and self-organization.

Luhmann: who defined society as a self-referential system.

These people come from a variety of professions, including philosophy, biology, economics, sociology and medicine. What they have in common is a point of view: they all see the world as being composed of networks of objects connected by means of communications. This approach fits so well with the study of communication that systems theory is sometimes looked at as a theory of communication.

You can find a much more detailed description of "systems" at my website.



This course mixes a basic description of systems thinking with problems and exercises of its practical application.

See the Course Calendar for assignment due dates. Additional details will be posted to the Class Discussion Board as they evolve.

1. The Problem: Complexity

School is divided into subjects. Each subject tends to believe that it is unique ... that it can be studied by itself without reference to any of the other subjects. A curriculum is a collection of classes, each a deep study of a specific topic ... few of these connect to one another. The result of this approach is that it all seems pretty simple ... deep, but simple.

But life is far from simple. Math majors study perfect circles ... art majors learn that "there are no perfect circles in nature" ... after graduation the art majors work with graphics programs designed by math majors. Economics majors study supply and demand curves ... yet today's economy seems determined as much by politics as by resources. Communication majors study speech ... in a world increasingly connected by electronic text messaging systems created by people who never took a speech class.

Many graduates discover that they either have to forget what they learned in college or they have to expand and merge their knowledge in some meaningful way in order to survive.

The latter is the better way. School subjects are simple ... but when these subjects overlap with one another in the real world, the results are complex, and in the real world, complexity is often the problem.

2. The Three-Way Solution: Observation, Analysis, Communication

Real world complexity cannot be dealt with in a direct way ... that is what "complexity" means. To cope with this, we need to break complex situations down into more simple, though less accurate descriptions. One approach is to divide the world into objects, connections between the objects, and relationships among connected objects. A piece of the world that we have modeled in this manner is called a system.

"A system is a collection of objects connected so that they all relate to one another."

It is one thing to say this ... it is another to truly understand what it means, and yet another to be able to use it as a method for dealing with problems.

The method is called "systems thinking". The ideas that underlie the method are called "Systems Theory." The Shannon-Weaver model of communication is a systems theory ... as are most of the models and theories that you have met in your studies of mass and interpersonal communication. These theories and methods attempt to deal with complex situations by selecting out what seem to be the key facts and focusing on understanding how those fit together.

In short, systems thinking requires that we observe reality so that we know as much as we can know, that we analyze what we know and use our knowledge to construct useful models, and that we communicate to others our results. Communication in and of itself does not solve problems, but the connected communications of many people who are studying a problem from different points of view is essential to finding a general solution.

3. Practical Examples

Many books have been written on systems theory and thinking. They all say that the best way to study systems thinking is to use it. So this course will present you with an explanation of systems thinking and give you ample opportunity to discuss those ideas with the professor and other students, and to apply the ideas to problems and exercises.


This online course operates very differently from the way a "regular" classroom class operates. Please read all of the pages at this web site. Be sure to read the emails that I send you -- they contain important information about the class. And be sure to keep very close track of the messages that are being posted to the Class Discussion Board.

IMPORTANT: What You Should Know About ONLINE Courses

See the Course Calendar for the list of class assignments and their due dates. Additional details about assignments will be posted to the Discussion Board as the class proceeds.


The class Discussion Board is provided for the use of class members. The board is closed to outsiders, and you will have to give your class ID code and password to be able to use it. IDs and passwords will be distributed at the beginning of the course. Each week you will log on to the discussion board and post your observations and questions about the ideas that we are considering at the time. I participate in this discussion, too, and it serves as the main venue for the course.


Online Discussion: 80 points
Homework Problems ... 2 at 10 each: 20
Semester Final Problem Report: 20

(Yes, this adds up to 120. The extra points are "extra credit." This allows you to miss an assignment and still complete the course. There are no "make-ups" available.)


See the Assignments and Grading page for a detailed description of the course assignments.


Statement of the Honor Code for this course.