MOOCs, participation, and the Long Tail

long tailStudent engagement is not only a key goal of teaching, in higher ed it can often be damned hard to achieve. Especially when it comes to large classes. I’ve done work on how to increase engagement in large classes (and personally attempted some of the strategies), and I know that engagement is a big driver behind problem based learning and also clicker use in large classes.

MOOCs, as the best example of the classroom “super-size me”, were not motivated by the goal of increasing student participation. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t taken on this challenge. In fact, for folks interested in connectivist learning, MOOCs may offer a unique opportunity for  supporting autonomous social-networked learning. Rechristened cMOOCs, these are learning communities that are learner centric rather than professor centric, full of the buzzing and blooming of self-directed, personal learning.

One important question, then, is what does this look like? And here is where I have some concerns about mistaking activity for community. In a presentation at the Education 2014 Conference, folks from Ohio State presented their experience with a MOOC on english writing. They related the ways in which they saw students “hacking” the course, creating their own learning objectives and their own content. They invoked the trope of the “cathedral and the bazaar” to draw attention to the bottom-up (rather than top-down) nature of the course.

I appreciated the enthusiasm of the presenters, and their endorsement and encouragement of student-centered learning. Yet the evidence was not compelling to me for one reason: the long tail.  Let’s assume that student engagement is a variable and that every student begins at a certain default level of engagement (i.e., some students might be typically unengaged, others moderately so, and others highly engaged).  We can assume  that the distribution for this characteristics across a population of students is normal, or even that it is skewed so that most students tend toward disengagement.  If we have a large sample–for example, the 18,000 people enrolled in this MOOC–there will be some number who will have high engagement, regardless of how we structure the course.  This is the long tail.

These instructors certainly validated and supported engaged activity, but without data about the distribution of student engagement, it is difficult to support any claims that the pedagogy was a key factor in creating this engagement. In a course of 18,000 students, if only 1% were engaged, that is a very robust community of 180 people.  Indeed, 1/3 of 1% would still be 60 people, certainly enough to present a culture of engagement.  This hides the massive number of students at other points in the distribution. In the worst case scenario, the instruction can create a more severe skew, with more “moderately” engaged students moving to be less engaged (through anonymity and social loafing effects).

In response, I think it is critical that MOOCs be studied from a social perspective. In other words, to see them as communities that evolve over time.  A top-down organizational approach is nearly impossible at this scale (although many MOOCs have taken this approach and end up facing significant challenges).  Researchers should investigate questions such as:  What are the norms and rules for social behavior and how do they develop?  Where and how do the social networks form? What is the culture of the community and how is it enforced?  What are the diversity of roles available for members of the community and how are they formed and negotiated? Answers to these questions can help inform how to develop, nurture, and sustain a more participatory large-scale course environment.

When Cathedrals Become Bazaars: Notions of Community in an Open Course, Kaitlin Clinnin, Thomas Evans, Evonne Kay Halasek, Ben McCorkle. Educause 2014 Annual Conference.

Jumping into video tutorials, exploring animation tools

I’m sold on the value of short (2-5 minute) videos and their ability to make information accessible.  Internet wandering learners are more likely to stay for the lesson when it engages them without them having to settle in and get comfortable.

So, I’m going to try my hand at some over the next few weeks. As I’m preparing topics and content (some foundational concepts in group communication and some commentary in comm & tech), I’m exploring different options for presentation and delivery.  Voice over PowerPoint is an obvious option, but I’d like to make it the fallback if all else fails.  Instead, I’m investigating several tools for video and animation, some of which my students have used in great ways.  I thought I’d share the list here.  Right now, it’s in alphabetical order.  I’ll come back in a while and re-order to show more of a ranking:






Teaching students how to think about and write about research

I teach at all levels of higher education — from first year college students to PhD students. No matter the level, one of the challenges is teaching students how to think about research differently. Many are used to thinking about research–published research, especially–just as something to understand and remember. Maybe to criticize or disagree with. But this misses one of the core elements that makes research exciting for those of us who do it for a living — which is that research is a conversation held among people who care about a subject, want to develop an argument or position that will help us understand it better, and want to discuss those positions with others. [Read more…]

Assign this to get your students talking

A great book for an undergraduate class in interpersonal communication or new technologies is The Breakup 2.0 by Ilana Gershon. The book is accessible in many ways. First, the use of theory is kept to a minimum. This is one of the few new media books that isn’t looking to develop new theory. Even so, there is enough theory here to show students that, yes, there is nothing so practical as a good theory. Gershon emphasizes one theory per chapter — media ideologies, remediation, second-order information, and considerations of public v. private identity.

But the real reason this book is accessible is the mountain of personal stories included. All of the anecdotes your students have either heard from friends or (heaven forbid) experienced firsthand are included here, and then a few more. I can only imagine how many people Gershon must have talk to get the incredible range of stories. Most of them are from college students, and are sure to elicit some personal sharing among your own students.

The relevance of the book also, unfortunately, gives the book a limited shelf life. Discussions of the technology are quite specific, and some aspects of technology have changed even since the publication date of 2010. So, while it is a quick read, best also to read it quick.

Gershon, Ilana. 2010. The breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over new media. Cornell University Press: Ithaca.

Case Study: Internet and Political Activism

The internet and mobile communication is reshaping political activism and revitalizing research into social change and social movements. Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner really helped usher this into the discipline in 2004 with their accessible article on the “Battle in Seattle” against the WTO in 1999. Since that time, a number of publications have documented the tremendous importance of these new communication possibilities for political movements across the world.  I’ve provided just a few of those at the bottom of this post. This past few weeks brought the latest example of recent political demonstrations in Egypt, and recently we’ve seen similar events in Tunisia and Iran.

From a communication perspective, I suggest that each of these events pushes us to recognize the force of urgency and how the processes of communication reshape so as to become as efficient as possible in the moment.  Digital mobile technologies allow information and events to be captured in real time, and disseminated on global cloud-based applications such as Twitter and facebook.  A similar point is made by Matthew Ingram on GigaOm and by the BBC. The phenomenon is by no means settled – unlike a few years ago, governments are recognizing the power of these technologies and are developing and deploying capabilities to block them.

It would be easy enough to believe that the key here is the rapid dissemination of information. I think more is happening. Unlike the forethought and strategic planning characteristic of the WTO riots, the use of technologies in currents events increasingly is emergent and unplanned. Yet even though the individual might be disparate, the uses seemingly cohere in the cloud, where they become meaningful and powerful. Thus, it is this process of emergent coherence — what I call the configuration function of communication–that is newly and distinctly important. The accounts not only share with us what is happening, they give us the raw material to make collective sense of it, and therefore to act.

Questions to consider:

  • How much credit should we give to communication technologies in influencing political events?
  • How do these new capabilities change how we conceptualize communication and social movements?
  • Does the use of these technologies escalate violence by spreading information (and probably also misinformation) too quickly?
  • What is the best balance between openness and security?


  • Twitter blocked in Egypt as thousands of protesters call for government reform, Los Angeles Times, Jan 25, 2011.
  • Atkinson, J. D. (2009). Networked Activists in Search of Resistance: Exploring an Alternative Media Pilgrimage Across the Boundaries and Borderlands of Globalization. Communication, Culture & Critique, 2(2), 137-159. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-9137.2009.01032.x.
  • Gillan, K. (2009). THE UK ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT ONLINE: Uses and limitations of Internet technologies for contemporary activism. Information, Communication & Society, 12(1), 25-43. doi: 10.1080/13691180802158532.
  • Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2004). New Media and Internet Activism: From the “Battle of Seattle” to Blogging. New Media & Society, 6(1), 87-95. doi: 10.1177/1461444804039908.
  • Pickerill, J. (2009). SYMBOLIC PRODUCTION, REPRESENTATION, AND CONTESTED IDENTITIES: Anti-war activism online. Information, Communication & Society, 12(7), 969-993. doi: 10.1080/13691180802524469.

Discussion Topic: Should Students and Teachers Text Each Other?

Teens communicate more through texting than through email or voice calls. Should schools have policies regulating what medium teachers can use to communicate with their students? That’s the question being considered in Virginia. In a recent Colorado case, a wrestling coach inappropriately texted students.

Case Study: Weight Loss and Online Social Support

A new study by Amy Aldredge Sanford (Northeastern University) highlights the role that that internet sites can have for social support for the morbidly obese working to lose weight. Weight  loss is a particularly interesting example for the study of communication and social support because of the stigma that can be attached to appearing overweight, and because obesity may be linked to other issues such as addiction or depression.

Possible questions to explore:

  • How do communication processes of online support and offline support compare?
  • Does using the internet for social support raise any new possibilities or new concerns compared to offline support?
  • What are the patterns or qualities of online communication for social support?


  • Sanford, A. A. (2010). “I Can Air My Feelings Instead of Eating Them”: Blogging as Social Support for the Morbidly Obese. Communication Studies, 61(5), 567-584. Routledge. doi: 10.1080/10510974.2010.514676.
  • Black, L. W., Bute, J. J., & Russell, L. D. (2010). “The secret is out!”: Supporting weight loss through online interaction. In L. Shedletsky & J. Aiken (Eds.), Cases on online discussion and interaction: Experiences and outcomes (pp. 351-368). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
  • Suggs, L. S. (2006). A 10-year retrospective of research in new technologies for health communication. Journal of Health Communication, 11(1), 61-74. doi: 10.1080/10810730500461083.
  • Tanis, M. (2008). Health-related on-line forums: what’s the big attraction?. Journal of Health Communication, 13(7), 698-714. doi: 10.1080/10810730802415316.