MH370 Tragedy: A Social Media Buzz and Fuzz

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This article originally appeared in St. Cloud Times on Monday, April 14, 2014.

“What really happened? Where is the plane? What is your government doing about it?”

As a native of Malaysia, these are the questions I get bombarded with almost anywhere I go since the MH370 tragedy broke March 8.

Because I am not residing in Malaysia and have received only secondhand news, I avoid the topic each time someone asks about the tragic incident, my opinions on conspiracy theories, and our government’s responses to the event.

Whenever necessary, I choose not to speak about the missing plane conundrum. Instead, I criticize how this incident has become a global sensation, especially through social media, by attracting international attention and sparkling lots of superfluous — and rather inaccurate — “expert” knowledge on the subject matter.

Those who have been in the loop should be quite familiar with the narrative about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370: The plane took off March 8 from Kuala Lumpur International Airport heading for Beijing. At about 1:22 a.m., Vietnamese air traffic control noticed they had lost contact with MH370. The Boeing 777 carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew has not been seen or heard from since.

During the past month, international support was expanded from the U.S. to Australia, rallying to gather facts and hints that will help search missions. Along with that came thousands of armchair critics and self-proclaimed experts of aviation, many firing gibberish and offering ridiculous explainations.

Social media commentator Ren Yi told The Associated Press social media has been augmenting a general sense of negativity toward Malaysia by giving voice to rumors, doubts, speculations and paranoia, while seeming to offer family members false hope.

Some claimed aliens were involved while others believed the Bermuda Triangle had a twin sister in the Gulf of Thailand. As for conspiracy theorists, most point to the possibilities of hijacking, terrorist attack and theft.

According to AP reports, accounts forwarded on Chinese social media have it that the plane is being held hostage in Central Asia, that Malaysia shot it down because of possible hijackers wanted to crash into the capital city’s twin towers, or that the U.S. diverted it to a remote island to prevent secret information from reaching China.

Even within the Malaysian circle — my friends and families in my social networks — social commentaries seemed to focus only on the incompetence of our leaders. Some of them took the opportunity to frame the incident as a politically motivated catastrophe.

Regardless of what we believe to be true, many social media users have yet to learn to distinguish facts from fiction. Many people simply take quick looks at news stories from unknown sources and distribute them obnoxiously within their own networks. Anything marked with “#MH370” was deemed newsworthy by them and shared and re-shared virally.

Of course, it doesn’t help when a major news channel such as CNN keeps sensationalizing the story with all kinds of specialist perspectives and postulations. Most of my friends won’t question the accuracy of information if it comes from a U.S. network like CNN. And with the seductive headlines and savvy presentations about the flight disaster put together by these major networks, they make the information even more believable and encourage audience to disseminate them.

The result for uninformed users is they are deceived by misinformation. Families were given false hope. Most Malaysians were misrepresented as incapable individuals. Cynicism and distrust are filling airwaves, and they are not helpful to the collaborative search.

Although it’s understandable for people to get emotional when a disaster happens, we should be cautious about what we do or say, online and offline. Words are powerful. Given the MH370 tragedy, we don’t need further nuisances. Instead, we should remain concerned and act with empathy. Don’t spread any more hearsay. Focus on proven facts.

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Students Talk Technology: Tech Tools for College Education

Many studies have revealed that college students today arrive on their campuses with high literacy in the latest technology and mobile devices. It is not uncommon to see students walking around with their beat earphones, texting while waiting in the hallway, and snapchatting with their friends in the dining hall. Yet, in the sea of options, what educational technologies are students using to help them with their studies? In the video above, I interviewed a trio of undergraduate students at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) to quiz them on their favorite tech tools and innovations they hope to see in the future.

All that tech has caused something of a dependency, too. The following infographic reviews responses from SCSU students about their technology-using habits — ultimately showing a trend that leads to a techno-reliant generation.

Infographic

Ideas/comments? Add your two cents to the comment section below!

Prepping for NCA Convention

This summer, I was notified that my proposal to present at the coming National Communication Association annual convention has been accepted. It was a paper I developed for a mass communication research methods course last year. I must confess that I am really excited for this is my first (national) conference in the communication discipline. In the past, I have been attending local and national conferences pertaining to rhetoric, computers and composition studies; this will be a rather different context as I suppose the audience has shifted from humanists to social scientists. I am spending these couple of nights leading to the conference prepping for my presentation delivery.

Since the presentation format is an interactive scholar-to-scholar configuration, I have remediated my paper into a poster. See below:

NCA Scholar to Scholar

Please let me know if you have any suggestions to make this presentation better. Thanks!

Vine: Redefining Racial Stereotyping in Six Seconds

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Vine debuted earlier this year and has become the most popular video-sharing mobile app today. Unfortunately, the technology has been misused to reinforce racial stereotyping, causing ethical issues that need to be considered and addressed by media practitioners.

Check out the video clip below.

Here is a work-in-progress ethics paper I am developing for a media ethics course this semester. This essay seeks to explore and examine the racist aesthetic in one of the most popular social media today, Vine. By identifying the likeness between Vine and early minstrelsy, and by scrutinizing the identification process in racial stereotyping, this article considers the ethical dimensions in the video-sharing app as a new stage from racial comedy. I also seek to establish strategies for confronting stereotyping on social networking platforms based on three major ethical theories in moral reasoning, namely deontological, teleological, and virtue theories. Following are some excerpts from my paper:

… when Viners are forced to strip off the less necessary scenes of their video, they eliminate some important elements that are essential to telling a complete story. This becomes problematic in ethnic humor, as racist or stereotypical jokes may be perceived out of context.

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In many ways, these Vine videos with racial overtones and negative stereotypes are simply technologically refined minstrels, which mock Black culture as uncivilized. The “Black vs. White” dichotomy further reinforces tension between the oppressed and its dominator.

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Cultural studies scholars believe meanings are always constructed within the range made possible by institutional frameworks. They then are reconstructed as people use them in their particular social situations. “The meaning that any object has at any given time is a contingent, historical achievement” (du Gay, 1996). Hence, a critical look at any demeaning behaviors, either by the members of the marginalized culture or by others, is crucial to developing strategies for intervention.

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A deontological perspective would object any act of prejudice or discrimination, including racial stereotyping. As the universal moral standard according to a Kantian maxim of “do not deceive,” Viners’ stereotypes would be deemed demeaning and thus shall be avoided.

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A teleologist would concur that racist jokes on Vine help marginalized cultures to gain popularity and normalize themselves among White supremacy.

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… an Aristotelian approach to confronting racial stereotypes on Vine may be to allow Viners to continue sharing racial sensitive content while requiring Vine to provide a warning for mature content and an option for Viners to report inappropriate content.

Read the full paper below.

PS: The document will be updated as the semester goes. Check back by late December if you’re interested in reading the final draft.

Image by insidemobileapps.com

Virtual Cocktail Party: Can Online Education Teach Social Skills?

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Those of you who have been around me probably know that my research interests revolve around digital rhetoric and online pedagogy, especially the development of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. This summer, I took a composition MOOC offered on Coursera, delivered by Georgia Tech, as part of my research in digital rhetoric. Following a phenomenological approach, my study takes into account the experience and self-consciousness of the MOOC user as a central research method to draw inferences of a writer-scholar’s engagement with MOOC interfaces.

A Confession

Towards the end of the 8-week long course, I came across an interesting incident whereby I saw the connected learning theory in practice. Several students on the Georgia Tech MOOC found it difficult to keep up with the assignments and announced their withdrawals from the MOOC via the course discussion forum. What happened next was other MOOC students started encouraging these students to endure the challenges. While some students insisted that they were not apt enough to using the technology needed to produce the assignment, there were other students in the course who offered help to these quitting students to help solve their technological challenges.

For one student, the help she received meant so much to her that she made that a part of her final assignment as a way to thank her peers for offering help to her. See video below:

As hype around MOOCs and other online open-access educational platforms becomes stronger and louder, we as writing instructors may want to pay attention not just to administrative and political concerns about online education, but to also consider how students navigate themselves in these online learning environments, including their interactions with the interface and, more importantly, with their online peers.

Before I proceed further, it is important for me to make a distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

xMOOCs: While they include discussion forums, and allow users to interact and discuss ideas, the center of learning is instructor-guided.

cMOOCs: They are simply discursive communities creating knowledge together. C stands for connectivist.

Now, xMOOCs are not better or worse than cMOOCs; they are just different. This entry focuses mainly on xMOOCs, which are offered via providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity, etc.

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Anti-Social MOOCs

Jennifer Morton, a philosophy professor at City College of CUNY, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past July about the social and behavioral competencies that students in online classes develop and don’t develop – as compared to their peers in traditional face-to-face courses. She (quite rightly) points out that MOOCs and the like present an opportunity for disadvantaged students to get a taste of higher education at a drastically reduced price, or in most cases, for free. Though the offer seems appealing, Prof. Morton identifies several reasons why students should not turn to MOOCs for serious education, and this quote sums up her argument.

A college education bestows not just cognitive skills—mathematical, historical, and scientific knowledge—but practical skills—social, emotional, and behavioral competencies. Tenacious, confident, and socially competent employees have an edge over equally cognitively talented employees who lack those practical skills. What students cannot learn online are precisely those social skills.

Prof. Morton thinks that taking a MOOC is like sitting in a large lecture hall being lectured by a professor who doesn’t know her student’s name. She argues that since higher education is supposed to be a place where students from lower-income families to learn to socialize and engage with middle-class social norms, the adoption of online education by large public university will threaten to harm the very students for whom higher education is an essential leg up into the middle class.

Because MOOC students are believed to not be able to socialize with other peers online, Prof. Morton argues that children from impoverished communities will not be able to pick up the desired social skills in the online education context. She also believes that such social skills are key competencies that would make students a “good fit” for their future workplace.

The Counter-Arguments

As a response, Prof. Robert Talbert, a mathematician at Grand Valley State University, offers a few disagreements to Prof. Morton’s arguments. What I would like to do here is to highlight some of these disagreements, pairing them with my personal observations as a MOOC student, and validate his points by providing some examples from my experience.

First, Prof. Talbert thinks that it’s a stretch to say that students “cannot” learn the types of social and behavioral competencies that Prof. Morton is talking about in an online setting. And I too agree that it’s probably more true that students who study primarily or entirely online will learn a set of social skills, but which are very different than the set traditionally developed in face-to-face education.

The video we’ve just watched serves as an example of how socialization happens within a MOOC environment. While it does not necessarily speaks for everyone who took or is taking a MOOC, the experience of the lady testifies to the notion that online socialization is key to successful learning experience. She also said in her video description that, “the kindness of strangers and a strong community in the forum” was what helped her to “muster the strength to continue on and finish the task (assignment).”

Second, Prof. Talbert compares online education to homeschooling as a kind of alternative educational setting. We, of course, cannot say that online learning students don’t develop social skills they need later in life because there are certainly many homeschooled students go on to excel in college and the workforce. Conversely, there are many traditionally schooled students who are not socially competent despite the amount of face-to-face schooling they receive.

Next, it is imperative to note that the entire category of “online education” is bigger than MOOCs alone and is a moving target. Prof .Talbert posits that it seems a little too premature to write off online education because there other models that universities are adopting to remix the online and face-to-face experiences. An example would be a flipped classroom model, where students are expected to acquire basic familiarity with new concepts before coming to class through a variety of means.

Without shifting too much of a gear, I would like to draw another disagreement against Prof. Morton’s argument, based on the notion of electronic contact zones. As we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Cynthia and Richard Selfe’s landmark article, “Politics of the Interface,” we are reminded that contact zones can take place within online learning communities. Going back to the video example I provided at the beginning of this presentation, it is apparent that MOOC students can be socialized into different norms, but ones that are different from the kinds of norms we expect to happen in a traditional classroom. Such socialization in the online community can be just as rigorous, if not more, than what is expected of a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Implications and Strategies

What does it mean for higher education institutions and teachers? Theoretically speaking, we should not count out online educational settings as dysfunctional when it comes to student’s socialization with one another in their networks.

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Instead, we should focus on some practical steps to suggest ways students and users can make more out of their MOOC experience. This may include asking question such as this: If we cannot achieve online what a traditional, face-to-face education would call as socialization, to what extent is this a problem with technology rather than the pedagogical platform? Echoing Selfe and Selfe’s call, we should re-evaluate the kinds of borders established by the platform and the interface of computers.

In conclusion, I feel there’s no need to specify what kinds of social skills students should or shouldn’t learn in both traditional and online learning environments. In a massive learning network such as MOOCs, one can only experience what it means to socialize online once he/she has completed one or more courses. And since the standards for online education is a moving target, we cannot really devise a model for success. Rather, we should constantly seek out ways to enhance the learning experience, and challenge to erase borders that divide communities.

This entry is a digital reiteration of a presentation delivered by the author at the 2013 Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.