How are We MOOCing?

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This winter break and holidays have been an ideal time for me to work on my MA research, which focuses on power and ideological borders within MOOC interfaces. Having already written about 40% of the anticipated 15,000-word thesis essay, I find my interest and desire to learn about MOOCs grow stronger each time I come across new findings that add to current discussions.

Although there has been a tone of work and scholarship about MOOCs circulating on the Internet, researchers and graduate students are still hungry for new, solid, up-to-date findings that could validate the debates on whether this phenomenon would transform higher education, or just turn out to be another damp squib.

After some long waiting, UPenn Graduate School of Education released on Dec. 5, 2013 their initial report on a study that analyzed the movement of a million users through 16 Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania from June 2012 to June 2013. These findings were presented by Laura Perna and Alan Ruby at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) in Texas.

Emerging findings (quoted from PennGSE Press Room; emphases added):

  • Course completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses and ranging from 2% to 14% depending on the course and measurement of completion.
  • Across the 16 courses, completion rates are somewhat higher, on average, for courses with lower workloads for students and fewer homework assignments (about 6% versus 2.5%).
  • Variations in completion rates based on other course characteristics (e.g., course length, availability of live chat) were not statistically significant.
  • The total number of individuals accessing a course varied considerably across courses, ranging from more than 110,000 for “Introduction to Operations Management” to about 13,000 for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources.”
  • Across all courses, about half of those who registered viewed at least one lecture within their selected course. The share of registrants viewing at least one lecture ranged from a low of 27% for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources” to a high of 68% for “Fundamentals of Pharmacology.”

Image by NYTimes.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. 

Getting a Foreign Education for Free*

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MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are not only a valuable platform for aspiring students to get a taste of ivy league education, they are also an alternative for professional development. As I continue to study the benefits of this 21st century pedagogical movement and its impact on global education, it is my hope to help introduce these learning opportunities to my fellow friends in Malaysia.

Thanks, @Junemoh and The Heat, for the feature. Read the story in full PDF here.

*Of course, there’s a distinction to make: saying MOOCs are free is only a puffery; nothing is truly free. To excel in MOOCs, one must devote him/herself to serious learning. This means spending an adequate amount of time in watching the video lectures and completing the assignments, while interacting meaningfully with a network of learners in the online community. The ticket to the ride is free, the rest is up to you.

Considering Audience, Message, and Action in Social Advertising

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Audience theory has been in existence since the emergence of mass communication/media studies. In fact, the best way to measure the success of any message is to gather audience feedback. However, in traditional advertising, the audience is simply the group of individuals that advertisers are interested in speaking to. They can be grouped or segmented by demographic and psychographic properties. However, in the social media world, audiences share connectedness and a sense of community among online users (Gangadharbatia, 2012). Audiences on social media usually organize themselves into clicks and groups, which can be an advantage for advertisers in segmenting and identifying potential target market.

Another distinction in social media audience, from their traditional counterparts, is the erasure of boundaries – both time and space. When considering communication strategies for the social media platforms, advertisers and marketers should pay attention to the limitation and opportunities for conversations in the open webspace.

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Similar to audience theory, several message theories exist that explain how information propagates in a traditional media context. The two-step flow model of communication and opinion leadership are examples of these. However, these concepts could be adapted to study online advertising. For social media “there are fewer or no gatekeepers, and the barriers to entry are relatively low” (Gangadharbatia, 2012). Hence, brands and organizations are forced to become more open and transparent. Even so, communication strategists should continue to explore ways to engage audience in their marketing plans. As technology makes it easier to create and share content, many creative strategies involve user-generated content and audience participation.

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Erik Qualman (2009), author of Socialnomics, said that individuals no longer look for information; rather, information finds individual on social media (Gangadharbatia, 2012). This changes our traditional perception of how the message propagates through the channel – social media users have more control than traditional media users, and information presents itself in individuals based on different social contexts. [Note to self:] While collecting user perception of online/social advertising, it is important to remember its differences from traditional media message propagation and the actions it may incur.

Image (top-bottom): Appitive, theconversationprism, buzzshift

Advertising Online: A MAIN Model Perspective

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“Build it and they will come” was an early assumption about how online marketing works. Today, most advertising agencies and marketing departments have their respective web teams devoted to creating and managing online advertising and marketing effort. The website, often seen as the home(page) to any product or service, tend to be overlooked as simply a medium that delivers the ad content, one that gives form to the ad or campaign. Marshall McLuhan in his pivotal theory – the medium is the message (and the massage) – urges advertisers to focus not just on the content but the medium of the content. “Media technology is not a mere vacant channel” but rater giving context to the message and shape people’s perception of the information presented (Sundar, Xu, and Dou, 2012).

In accounting the role of technology in online persuasion, Shyam Sundar (2008) theorizes the MAIN Model which classifies the affordances into four broad categories: Modality (M), Agency (A), Interactivity (I), and Navigability (N). The following figure illustrates the cognitive heuristics of each affordance, which would affect consumers’ attitudes as well as behavioral intentions toward a product or service.

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The MAIN Model offers a fertile theoretical framework to understand the role of technology in online advertising and marketing. Needless to say, the medium is not the only factor to consider when investigating the effectiveness of social advertising. Another aspect of advertising that should be given serious deliberation is the audience. (Forthcoming entry.)

Cover image courtesy of Dribbble.s3.amazonaws.com.