Can online students become socialized?

July 30, 2013, 8:11 am

3770483632_6b6a8e83e6_mJennifer Morton writes in the Chronicle this morning about the social and behavioral competencies that students in online classes develop – or rather, 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 the proverbial leg up into higher education at a drastically reduced price, and (again, quite rightly) notes that to the extent that traditional education sticks to outmoded lecture-based pedagogy, there’s no reason for disadvantaged students not to turn to MOOCs.  Well, no reason except this:

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.

The whole article is well worth reading (try to catch it before the Chronicle puts it behind a paywall) for an insightful discussion about the importance of social norming in the university classroom, especially for those students not coming from the middle class. However, I do have a few disagreements with the author and at least one question. (Most of what follows comes from a comment I left at the original article.)

First, I think 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. 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 extent to which that set overlaps the traditional set is yet to be determined but there’s no reason to expect that intersection to be empty – and quite possibly online students will have social and behavioral competencies that traditional students lack and which would be just as marketable as the traditional set.

Second, the argument here sounds like a similar one often leveled at students in another kind of alternative educational setting, namely homeschooled students. The usual knock on homeschooled students is that they don’t develop social skills they need later in life because they are, well, schooled at home and not around other kids (or at least, the set of kids they are around is too small and homogeneous to offer real socialization). And yet that meme doesn’t really survive serious reality testing – not only do many homeschooled students go on to excel in college and the workforce, conversely many traditionally schooled students are manifestly not socially competent despite the amount of face-to-face schooling they receive.

I can say from having taught a lot of students who are/were both first-generation college students and homeschooled that there is a lot of variation in terms of readiness for college among this group. But the educational platform itself isn’t really enough to explain the variation – and it’s probably the same with online education.

Third, the entire category of “online education” is bigger than MOOCs alone and is a moving target. Many universities are moving to a hybrid model that mixes face-to-face and online experiences, and the inverted classroom is to some extent an arm of that movement. So it seems a little premature to write off online education in this way, because what exactly are we writing off?

Finally, a question – If online students aren’t developing social and behavioral competencies, to what extent is this a problem with technology rather than the educational platform? I’ve taken half a dozen MOOCs of varying degrees of quality, and the “social interaction” one gets in them is done through threaded, text-based discussion boards – a technology that really hasn’t progressed much since the days of BBS’s back in the late 1980’s. If MOOCs and other online platforms had a richer set of tools to work with that let students socially interact in a more natural way, would it improve online students’ chances of social development?


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