Virtual Cocktail Party: Can Online Education Teach Social Skills?


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.


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.


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. 

Ten Apps to Leverage Your College Experience

Goodbye traditional college, hello College 2.0!

Welcome to a whole new learning experience where mobile devices are prevalent, and where hundreds of thousands of apps are now available to help you ace – or, okay, at least pass – every exam college life throws your way.

From taking notes in classes to uploading large volume journals onto cloud-based server to virtual conferencing, there is every app that you can possibly imagine that could help do away the stress in most of your college tasks. Regardless of you major, here are the top ten smartphone and tablet apps that are most recommendable to college students.

Rated no.1 most valuable app for note taking in almost every apps review sites, Evernote is a cloud-based service that allows you to make notes, take photos, and even record audio notes, and categorize them into folders. Even more thrilling is that the app syncs across all your iOS and Android devices so you don’t have to worry about losing your notes at all.

Price: Free
Developer: Evernote Corp (
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone, WebOS

If you have a red color personality, i.e. you can’t live a day without planning your routine ahead of time, this is your salvation. iStudiezPro is a calendar, homework diary, and planner in one ultimate tap. This app allows you to layout your class schedules along with the room and the teacher, track assignment due dates and appointments, and to monitor your grades for each module right from the app. This app is also built with the function to sync all information with all your other iOS devices (Mac, iPad). No more feeble excuses for forgetting to write your papers!

Price: Free (Lite version); $2.99 (Full version)
Developer: iStudiez Team (
Compatibility: iOS, MacOS

Dropbox is one of the most widely used educational apps among college students. All you need is Internet connection – you can upload photos, videos, and other forms of document straight from your mobile devices onto a cloud-based server, for which you are able to access from almost any other devices. Dropbox is commonly used for uploading large volumes of academic journals and lecture notes. A free account gives you 2 GB of storage. When you refer your friend to sign up for the app, you both will get another 500 MB of free storage (up to 18 GB) when they sign up.

Price: Free (with 2 GB storage)
Developer: Dropbox (
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Kindle Fire

Probably one of the best apps offered free by Apple is iTunesU. This app collects lecturers, course materials, presentations, and other contents released by top universities around the world. You can download courses that you are interested in for free and learn pretty much anything between meteorology and French. For most courses, you may also attempt to take the exams the lecturers have set for their actual classes!

Price: Free
Developer: Apple Inc. (
Compatibility: iOS 5 or later
This app seems to be highly demanded among international students and graduate level students, and some native speakers! Dictionary for iOS is your portable dictionary and thesaurus, with more than 2 millions word definitions, synonyms, antonyms, and sample sentences. You can use this app off-line, so you may still access the built-in functions to find fancier words for your term papers. The free version of this app is ad-supported.

Price: Free; $2.99 (ad-free premium version)
Developer: LLC (
Compatibility: iOS 4.3 or later

Chegg is among the less popular app but it is a great app that comes in handy especially during the beginning of the semester. This little app allows you to rent textbooks for the semester or the entire year. Less the hassle – you can compare rental prices on the app with actual bookstores. You do not have to pay for the return shipping via UPS (some sites say the app will even help you locate the nearest UPS store!).

Price: Free (requires Chegg account)
Developer: Chegg (
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire

Twitter & LinkedIn
Embark on a new level of engagement with Twitter and LinkedIn. These two platforms are more than just social networks – Twitter is becoming a cool network to post crowd-source questions (such as ‘What’s the best operating system for college use?’), and as for LinkedIn, think of it as a Facebook with a professional edge, whereby potential employers can search for your profile and check out your proficiency in your field.

Twitter Price:   Free
Developer: Twitter (
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone

LinkedIn Price: Free
Developer: LinkedIn (
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone

Look up inspirational talks from some of the most interesting thought leaders from all around the world. This app collects over a thousand videos in its library with more being added each week. You can either watch the videos online or offline, and bookmark your favorite speeches for later use.

Price: Free
Developer: TED Conferences LLC (
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone, WebOS

They say all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Your breaks between classes will never feel the same with Spotify. This app lets you listen to its entire library directly from your iPhone for free (up to 10 hours a month). One catch is that streaming music does take up a lot of your data. So if you haven’t got unlimited data plan, make sure to connect to the college’s Wi-Fi network!

Price: Free (May upgrade to premium subscription)
Developer: Spotify (
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Symbian

Study Buddy
This may sound a little tedious, but having the Study Buddy by your side when you’re working on your homework keeps you focused on the task. Every time you take a break from your work – whether answering the phone or opening up Angry Bird – the apps records it as a distraction and logs a “Graph of Study Efficiency” to remind you how focused you really are. The app is best used when you are trying to get an assignment done or when cramming for exams. This is also mom’s favorite app.

Price: $0.99
Developer: Ezogo LLC (
Compatibility: iOS 3 or later

More resources:

This article is published in College Students Welcome Guide 2012 by Times Media.
Reposted from MajorFind (a startup web assignment in Fall 2012).

Image courtesy: (top)

(Re)Introducing MOOCs: The Worst Idea at the Best Time


I co-presented this paper with my colleague, Jack Hannes, at the 11th International Symposium for Communication in the Millennium held May 22-24 at St. Cloud State University. The following is my portion of the roundtable presentation. (I apologize for the fragmented notes… Jack and I went back and forth during the presentation.)

Definitions & Background

MOOCs, or massive online open courses, are large cohort online classes started around 2010/11 when a few Stanford professors designed a tuition-free course system which is open to virtually anyone on the web.

Prior to what is perceived as the new MOOCs today, some old open-source platforms were available since 2008, where a handful of universities made their course materials available on the web. According to George Roberts (2012), these old, MOOC-like models:

  • Have explicit pedagogical perspectives (social constructivist)
  • Are distributed; have open-source platforms components (Websites, wikis)
  • Cultivate intentional social media conversations (Blogs, Twitter, etc.)
  • Open challenge to institutions (Access, environments, assessments)

Examples: Opencourseware like Open Yale Courses, or courses/podcast on iTunes U.

We see a lot of these traits remain in the new MOOCs, where courses are offered via MOOC providers — startup companies set up to give “everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Among these providers are Coursera, edX, Canvas, Udemy, etc.

Major funders: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Harvard-MIT collaboration, etc.

MOOCs for composition & communication (from writing to speech to mass comm to film studies):

Debates & Positions

MOOCs and the Connectivist Theory: The evolving MOOC knits together education, entertainment, and social networking. Originated about 2008 within the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, MOOCs are developed based on connectivist theory, emphasizing that learning and knowledge acquisition happen from the interactions within a network of connections. Connectivism was a new educational framework developed at the dawn of the 21st Century, explaining how people learn in a networked and digital world (George Siemens, 2005). According to Stephen Downes, connectivism is essentially the idea that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Students participating in MOOCs are often required to play an active role in contributing to discussions through the course forums or third-party social networks, such as Facebook groups, Twitter, or Google Plus/Hangout. Capitalizing on the opportunity of the existing wealth of interconnectivity and social networking among its students, MOOCs encourage peer-to-peer learning, reviews, and even grading, which is another hot debate in the MOOC mania.

“Peer” Evaluation in MOOCs:

  • Blind leading the blind: are these students ready to evaluate others’ work?
  • Assigned vs. Free choices: Issues with diversity and experience
  • Picky students: A series of unfortunate evaluations
  • Ground rules/guide to evaluation

MOOCs aren’t serious pedagogy (?):

While the medium of learning still relies largely on lectures, MOOC certainly presents challenges in terms of the quality of the learning experience. Can learning be scaled up this much (think about a course taken by 400,000 students, taught by a team of five professors)? Other questions include:

  • Are MOOCs appropriate for the humanities?
  • Do students really know how to take MOOCs?
  • Power and ideologies within the platforms (Selfe & Selfe)
  • What are the targeted success rates in students taking MOOCs (passing)?
  • Medium is the message (McLuhan)
  • Banking model detected? (Freire)

For online writing instruction, check out: NCTE OWI Guidelines.

Image courtesy of David Kernohan @dkernohan, illustrating the massive destruction of MOOCs on higher education. 

The Future is Now.

News goes viral within minutes after a story’s gone public. For instance, some blame the David Brooks column and a handful of WSJ articles for firing abruptly University of Virginia’s (ex-)president, Teresa Sullivan, last June. But the university’s rectors said it was Sullivan’s slow reaction to online education that caused her the job. According to a recent post by Aaron Bady, a UC Berkeley PhD student, The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform, this case can be reconstructed by looking at how the resignation was engineered by the university’s rector and vice rector from emails that are “FOIA-ed via the student’s paper at UVA.” From reading these emails, Aaron Bady in his blog said that one would feel a sense of speed generated by the overwhelming citations and repetitions of articles sent and forwarded to one another. Articles by WSJ and NYT, and recently the New Yorker, are brought to the subject line of faculty listservs to push forward an agenda of change. In a meeting of UVA deans and vice presidents, UVA’s rector said:

“The board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation…We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.”

In a world “moving too fast” in terms of technological development and the society’s reaction to new innovations, universities and higher education institutions are “called” to react faster to change, as if change is always necessary. Questions, concerns, complaints, frustrations, anger, and even hatred are being thrown around the departments in universities where the legislation is pushing for reform. The fear for changing education models to the emerging MOOC-like structure is constant regardless of the disciplines.

Just about two weeks before finals week here at St. Cloud State, the university’s online education and distant learning taskforce requested to conduct a roundtable discussion with a student organization I was chairing at that time with hopes to gather students’ comments and concerns with the existing online learning structure (at SCSU). Among some questions that have been regularly brought up is the worry that online education may not deliver the kind of rigor a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom could offer. Students and faculty alike are somehow both for and against MOOC-like delivery method — they like the idea of open-access education, but are concerned about the quality of the learning experience.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 11.52.18 PM

Haven’t heard it? Let’s say it once more.

But according to the Berkeley PhD candidate this struggle is not new. The MOOC model has been around since 2008, when Stephen Downes and Georgia Siemens delivered their first massive open course from University of Manitoba to thousands of students worldwide. By the Internet’s terms, four years is a long time. Perhaps Bady was right, the MOOC moment was already too late. Despite the hype on MOOCs today, online education is already changing the way higher education does its business. Knock, knock, has anyone forgetten about the pioneer of online degrees, the University of Phoenix?

On May 3rd of last year, David Brooks began his column “The Campus Tsunami” with this:

“Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007. But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.”

And Bady wrote:

“There’s almost nothing new about the kind of online education that the word MOOC now describes. It’s been given a great deal of hype and publicity, but that aura of ‘innovation’ poorly describes a technology—or set of technological practices, to be more precise—that is not that distinct from the longer story of online education, and which is designed to reinforce and re-establish the status quo, to make tenable a structure that is falling apart.”

What we are worrying now seems to be yesterday’s problem. While we are worrying about the future, the future is now! As academics and education leaders, we need to come together to figure out ways to cope with the change rather than arguing over the necessity of the change. The solutions may become clear as soon as we see MOOCs as opportunities instead of problems. Like it or not, huge fundings have gone into developing and improving MOOCs and students from all over the world are quickly becoming citizens of the MOOC mansion. This, however, doesn’t mean that we are giving in to new technology. No, we are not forced to change. We adapt to what our students need because this is simply the mission of higher education.

No matter how universities and colleges look like in 10-20 years, if they are still around, the purpose of higher learning should remain interested in putting students first. How things look like in the near future can be very different. But as long as we keep our eyes on the wheel, we will arrive at the same destination as intended.