MOOC Mania

MOOC Mania

Online Training, E-learning ConceptPassing fad or educational revolution, MOOCs are on the minds of educators of every stripe. Massive Open Online courses, taught by star professors to thousands of students at once, are supposedly going to revolutionize the higher education world. I’ve not taken a MOOC nor do I imagine I ever will. I just don’t think anything that I want to learn more about at this point could best be taught via a MOOC. For example, although my technological skills are in need of some updating, if I’m not in front of a computer approaching learning something like Excel in a hands on manner, there’s no way I’ll retain anything.

That got me to asking, What if my undergraduate education occurred in the age of MOOC madness? I received my B.A. in Telecommunications from the Department of Speech Communication (now Communication Arts and Sciences) at Penn State in 1985. I chose that program because of the interpersonal interaction with my professors – in a MOOC world, I’m just not sure I’d have majored in Communication, let alone eventually obtain a doctorate in the discipline.

But could any of my undergraduate courses succeed in a MOOC format? I’m thinking about many of my general education courses. Let’s take Introduction to Film as an example. It fulfilled a humanities requirement and was simply a fun course. All 700 of us met once a week for a 50-minute lecture on film history and once a week to sit in the dark in Schwab Auditorium to watch film. I saw Birth of Nation, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Bicycle Thief, all the classics. It was certainly an impersonal course on some level. I took three exams, all multiple guess and upon turning in my paper, I had to show ID to prove that it was actually me taking the test. Could this course be offered in a MOOC format? Of course – as soon as the problem of verifying identity of the student is solved. But will it be the same experience? Doubtful. Nothing can replace seeing Psycho for the first time in that auditorium and hearing half the crowd scream as Norman Bates murders Marion Crane in the shower of her room at the Bates Motel.

One of my science electives was taught by a professor who had an experiment on the Space Shuttle. Being a total space program geek as a child (I never missed an Apollo launch) I was mesmerized. The entire course was organized around the experiment, which helped illustrate countless scientific concepts. There were over 500 students in my class. Could it have been a MOOC? Most definitely, but like viewing Psycho with my classmates, I don’t think the excitement of being there to actually listen and watch the obvious joy the professor exhibited while discussing his experiment could ever come across on video. In a student learning outcomes world though, I have no doubt that the goals of both of these courses could be accomplished in a MOOC format.

Turn to my Communication courses, though, and the story is different. I took Public Speaking from NCA’s current 2nd Vice President, Carole Blair, back in the fall of 1981 while she was working on her doctorate at Penn State. That class hooked me on the discipline and I followed it with courses in rhetorical theory with Gerry Hauser, small group communication with Randy Hirokowa, and politics and film with Tom Benson. Lectures, discussions, interaction and yes, actual face time via office hours (Benson’s office hour lines were historic!) could never be replaced by a MOOC. The critical thinking, communication skills (both written and oral), ability to work in groups and the like, all the things that employers are saying they want (see AAC&U’s recent employer survey) couldn’t be taught in a MOOC.

No one can watch 1000 speeches and give the kind of feedback Carole gave to me in public speaking, which greatly improved my oral communication skills. No one can grade 1000 papers and give the kind of feedback Tom Benson used to give me on my writing. I suspect MOOCs are here to stay in some form but they won’t replace the classroom completely. My hunch though is that MOOCs have the potential to go the way of the elocutionists before too long. The deep learning that one is supposed to engage in at a college or university level simply can’t be accomplished in a MOOC format. Further, I suspect somewhere along the line, reading a book or watching a good history channel documentary will be preferable to star professors lecturing at us via our home computer.

Embracing Wikipedia – without the question mark!

On April 29, I bMary_Grace_Antonylogged about NCA’s Wikipedia project, titling the post Embracing Wikipedia? It’s time for brief update. Professor Mary Grace Antony recently was featured on the Wikimedia Foundation’s blog and it’s clear she has no question mark behind her embrace of NCA’s Wikimedia Initiative. Professor Antony incorporated a wiki project into her New Media and Technology course at Schreiner University. Read more about her Wikiefforts at Wikimedia blog.

What’s a COMM Major Worth?

What do Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, Henry Ford, and Harry Truman have in common?

The answer might not be obvious at first glance–they are all highly successful individuals who did not earn a college degree. And they are the bane of college and university educators as the examples always used by legislators, students, parents, and anyone else trying to argue for the declining value of a college education.

Dollars fly conceptAs tuition and other college costs rise for students and parents nationwide in all sectors of higher education, and with all the renewed public attention to the pressing issues of rising student debt and the dynamics of America’s student loan system, it makes sense to ask seriously about the value of a college education. And it also makes sense to drill down on that question to really explore which majors or college plans of study are better than others.

For those of us who study and teach in the communication arts and sciences, then, an operative question of the moment is What’s a COMM major worth?

Some answers to this question are found in a new report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute. Entitled Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings, the report draws on data from the American Community Survey and from the Census Bureau to offer a comparative snapshot about unemployment and earning power based on specific college majors. For Communication (identified in the report as Communications & Journalism), the findings are quite interesting.

  • COMM is not among the majors with either the lowest or the highest levels of unemployment. The major with the lowest unemployment rates is Nursing, at 4.8%. while students majoring in Information Systems face the highest level of unemployment at 14.7%.
  • For COMM, the unemployment rates are 7.8% for recent college graduates, 6.0% for experienJob Graduateced college graduates, and 4.2% for graduate degree holders. Recent college graduates in the Humanities and Liberal Arts face a 9.0% unemployment rate while those in Psychology & Social Work are looking at an 8.8% rate, and those in Social Science are facing a 10.3% unemployment rate.
  • COMM majors who are recent college graduates command median earnings of about $33,000. This is higher than Humanities and Liberal Arts majors ($30K) and equal to Law and Public Policy majors ($33K), but lower than Engineering majors ($54K) and Business majors ($39K). Graduate degree holders in COMM have median earnings of $64,000, ahead of majors in the Arts, Education, Recreation, and Psychology & Social Work.
  • Among the COMM sub-fields identified in the report, Mass Media majors face the dimmest prospects, with an employment rate for recent college graduates at 8.9% and median earnings of just $31,000. The report counts Family & Consumer Sciences majors in the COMM group, and these graduates fare best in unemployment rates (6.4%), but less successfully in terms of median earnings ($30K)

PathwaysFor years, NCA and Communication educators have worked to convince students and parents that a COMM major is worth it–that the degree will be beneficial for students both in terms of liberal arts learning and in practical preparation for the challenging job market. Whether it’s via Pathways, the NCA guide to careers in Communication, or the ubiquitous poster in COMM departments nationwide that asks students “What Can You Do with a Communication Degree?,” we’ve spent considerable time and effort as educators convincing students, administrators, legislators, and parents that our degree matters, that it sufficiently prepares young people to pursue successful careers and to build fruitful lives.

Georgetown’s report on college majors and earning potential is good news for COMM educators and COMM majors. It demonstrates, with compelling data, that a COMM major is worth much, and is good preparation for young people who confront a difficult and daunting employment marketplace.

NCA’s First Undergraduate Honors Conference

It probably sounds trite to say that I am more hopeful than ever about the future of our discipline after spending a weekend with 17 rising seniors in communication this past weekend, but it’s true.  NCA hosted its first undergraduate honors conference here in Washington, DC on the campus of American University.  And as the future of our discipline, these students represent a bright path forward.

The weekend bUndergraduate Honors Conference 002egan on Thursday evening with an orientation and dinner followed by an opening talk by speechwriter Lindsay Hayes.  Lindsay, just two days post successfully defending her dissertation, regaled her audience with many stories of her speechwriting career and left with one simple message: success wasn’t about luck, it was about thorough preparation meeting opportunity.

Friday included a tour of the Library of Congress and the Newseum.  Although time was short and participants could not Undergraduate Honors Conference 019conduct any research in the library, many obtained readers cards and pledged to return to devote more time to researching their interests.  The Newseum, more than anything a museum of modern communication, demonstrated the power of mass communication.  From exhibits on award winning political cartoons to the collection of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs, participants encountered journalistic accounts of our nation’s history.

Undergraduate Honors Conference 037Saturday’sUndergraduate Honors Conference 054 activities included traditional scholarly sessions.  Two paper panels produced lively conversation, both from respondents (Professor Mark Mormon and Professor Trevor Parry-Giles) as well as from the participants who engaged their colleagues with questions.  A poster session followed the panels and 7 students visually depicted their work and held many conversations about their projects.  From critical cultural studies of place and space, to rhetorical criticism of political speeches, to quantitative social scientific inquiry on how veterans use communication to adjust to college life, these students represented a broad array of communication scholarship.  The afternoon concluded with group discussions about their plans for their senior thesis or capstone project.

The conference concluded Sunday morning with Dr. Mormon, Dr. Parry-Giles and myself leading discussions about Undergraduate Honors Conference 079selecting the right graduate program and preparing an outstanding graduate school application.  Résumé preparation and interviewing for entry-level positions entered the discussion also.  Most all of the participants planned to continue their education after receiving their B.A. and a few had clear plans to be academics.  We will continue to grow as a discipline with these talented young scholars in the pipeline.

It is hard to convey the excitement of this conference.  As a novice event planner (they never taught contract negotiation with housing services in grad school), I was quite nervous throughout the weekend.  But there were very few snafu’s and by Sunday afternoon as we all enjoyed a lunch out of the dorm at Panera before everyone headed home, it was clear new friendships were forged that will stay with these budding scholars for a long time to come.

NCA On the Hill

NCA On the HillApril and May in Washington bring several things–cherry blossoms, intensified talk of budgets, tourists on the National Mall, and an endless stream of Congressional briefings and presentations.

In this time of shrinking budgets for research funding, researchers and funding agencies and the organizations that represent them are headed to Capitol Hill. All of these briefings and presentations occur in the context of renewed efforts by some in Congress to restrict, limit, or eliminate outright funding for research by the federal government. In particular, Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has questioned the value of NSF’s peer review process, proposing new criteria for the awarding of NSF research funding.

Joining these Capitol Hill briefings and presentations are scholars from NCA, demonstrating the importance and value of communication research and disseminating that scholarship to larger and broader audiences.

Congressional Briefing 4_25_2013 021On April 25, 2013, the Coalition for National Science Funding, working with the House Research & Development Caucus, sponsored a Capitol Hill briefing on “Social Science Research on Disasters.” The event specifically focused on communication, resilience, and consequences of disaster preparedness and the research that studies disaster related issues. One of the three featured researchers at this briefing was H. Dan O’Hair, Dean of the College of Communication at the University of Kentucky and NCA’s 92nd president, who discussed “Message Strategy Research and Extreme Events.” O’Hair discussed the findings of his NSF supported research project that addressed the question “How do extreme events, media, and message strategies interact to affect human decision making?,” considering specifically the role of messages and media in the context of hurricane forecasting and warning systems. O’Hair’s presentation slides are posted and available here.

CNSF Exhibit 5_7_13 025On May 7, 2013, the Coalition for National Science Funding hosted a Capitol Hill Exhibition for scores of researchers to display the results of their NSF funded research projects. NCA member Brian Spitzberg from San Diego State University journeyed to Washington to present a poster of his research project examining the question “Can cyberspace map onto human activities occurring in (geographic) real space?” (see below-click on the image to enlarge). Spitzberg discussed his research with congressional staffers, researchers from across the nation, as well as Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL, 11), Cora Marrett, the acting director of NSF (with Spitzberg, right), and Philip Rubin from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

NSF-NCA-A Poster 1

Embracing Wikipedia?

Professors hate it, students are warned to steer clear of it, but put to a lie detector test both groups would fail if they claimed to never use Wikipedia.  It’s impossible to avoid and hard to ignore that Wikipedia is a convenient place to START a research process on a topic you know little about.  Use almost any Internet search engine on almost any topic, Wikipedia is the first or among the first hits when conducting a search.

WikiAccording to Wikipedia, the site receives over 470 million unique visitors each month, with over 77,000 contributors working on over 22 million articles.  For a complete picture of how vast the site has become visit their statistics page at  It’s a sure bet that by the time this blog post is live the numbers cited above will have increased .  Among those 22 million articles are many entries on communication topics.  Perusing them can be painful as they are often incomplete, based on outdated citations or just plain wrong.  That’s where NCA’s Wikipedia initiative comes in to play.

NCA in partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation decided that if that many people were obtaining information from Wikipedia about communication related topics and the discipline as a whole, it was best to ensure that the information is as accurate as possible.  NCA launched a wiki project last year at the annual convention in Orlando.  Panelists, led by Wikimedia foundation education program communications manager, LiAnna Davis discussed how they incorporated wiki research projects into their classes.  Assignments served multiple purposes.  First, students had to learn to work with Wikipedia’s editing system.  Second, students had to do traditional archival research on a topic and third, students had to write.

As a discipline, Communication embraces (or critiques) new technologies as they emerge.  I remember that while working on my MA at Penn State, I was “forced” to request my first email account for a seminar in the Rhetoric of Film taught by Tom Benson.  In addition to completing all the reading for each class, I needed to email fellow seminar participants a post reacting to those readings.  It seems impossible to think that it was actually difficult to navigate my first email account considering I now receive hundreds of emails a day.  Learning to edit a Wikipedia page certainly was more complicated for me but my tech skills are all the better for taking the time to learn and I’m sure my student’s tech skills will improve upon completing the Wikipedia assignment I have planned.

Once each year I teach a section of Public Communication at George Washington University.  Next time, I plan on turning a portion of the required written speech criticism assignment into a Wikipedia assignment.   The original critical evaluation of a speech by the students wouldn’t be appropriate to post on Wikipedia, but all the background research such as the biography of the orator being evaluated, when the speech occurred, what exigencies the speech was meant to address and what others said about the speech would all be useful additions to Wikipedia.

I’ll be sure to post how the assignment goes once complete.  For more information and ideas for incorporating a Wikipedia research project into a course visit NCA’s Wikipedia initiative page at  You can also consult the following article for additional information:  Rush (Eger), E. K., & Tracy, S. J. (2010). Wikipedia as Public Scholarship: Communicating Our Impact Online. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 38(3), 309-315.

Budget Season in DC–Why Budgets Matter for NCA

President Bill Clinton used to say that budgets are important because they’re moral documents–they express communal values and articulate common ideals. That’s why everyone in Washington these days is busy examining all of the various federal budget proposals coming from the House, the Senate, and the White House. That…and the politics. Nothing gets Washington more worked up these days than the politics of budgeting–from deficits to Medicare to Social Security to tax hikes, it’s all the stuff of great political copy.

Obama BudgetFor learned societies like NCA, the billions and billions of dollars at stake in the various versions of the federal budget don’t mean a whole lot–weapons systems at DOD and foreign aid monies for the State Department and public housing funds at HUD all have little to no direct effect on NCA and its members beyond our role as citizens. While we might care about such budget lines, they generally will not influence how NCA members do their jobs and fulfill their professional responsibilities as scholar/teachers.

Instead, what we look for in the various budget proposals are changes in federal outlays for research funding and shifts in other education funding streams that may have some effect on higher education. We notice, for example, when President Obama asks for a 10.6% increase in funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in his 2014 budget proposal. Along with all of their programs in biomedical research and STEM disciplines, NSF provides significant research funding for the behavioral and social sciences. Some communication scholars have received meaningful support from the NSF for their research, so the funding requests and struggles over NSF funding matter to NCA.

Though of a much smaller scale than NSF or the National Institutes of Health, at NCA we also notice funding shifts and changes in the humanities. The president’s budget requested a modest $8.6 million increase for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to $154.4 million. Compared to the $7.626 billion (with a “b”) request for NSF, the NEH budget seems paltry–but those few million dollars can make a big difference for the researchers who receive that funding. The president’s request is particularly gratifying for the communication scholars and National Office staff members who journeyed to Capitol Hill in March to lobby for humanities funding as part of the 2013 National Humanities Advocacy Day (NHAD).

NHPRC-logoAnd we also notice the really small changes in budget requests and priorities that can have a real, even devastating impact. For instance, the Obama administration’s budget request proposed a 40% slashing reduction in funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), from $5 million to $3 million in just one year. The rationale for this request is unclear, but the consequences would be severe, threatening the very ability of the program to maintain operations. For humanities scholars in communication who examine rhetorical history, the projects pursued by the NHPRC are invaluable–so we watch carefully to see what Congress does to this tiny budget line in the months ahead.

As the budget process proceeds on Capitol Hill, NCA monitors carefully all of the potentially relevant changes and maneuvers for how they might affect our members. It’s often not enough, though, to simply watch what happens–sometimes, direct action is called for. Along with our efforts at NHAD, NCA also works alongside our advocacy partners at the Consortium for Social Science Associations (COSSA) and the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) to directly lobby for continued and increased federal funding for research and educational initiatives. Recently, NCA members were alerted to directly petition their members of Congress about humanities funding and over 300 letters were sent to Capitol Hill to champion funding for the humanities. On another front, the Coalition for National Science Funding is hosting a Capitol Hill exhibition, and NCA is sponsoring a booth featuring communication scholar Brian Spitzberg talking about his NSF funded research on cyberspace.Capitol Hill

From changes to student loans to funding requests for research, from significant declines in state budget outlays for higher education to targeted hits on funding streams that benefit communication scholars–there’s much to scrutinize and study during this contentious budget season in DC. The politics of it all may seem intractable and obscure, but the effects and consequences of all of this budget wrangling may be quite meaningful for NCA and its members. Stay tuned…

Humanities or Social Science?

Woolbert“For three years,” Charles Woolbert wrote in 1916, “I have been facing the question: Should speech matters be taught in the department of English or in a separate department?” (Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking, Vol. 2, 1916). Woolbert was responding to a question from University of Illinois president Edmund James who sought Woolbert’s counsel regarding the formation of a separate department of “speech studies and arts.” Like so many of the founders of what is now NCA, Woolbert struggled to define and delimit the very nature of the new discipline that they created: How would this discipline carry out its research? Where would this discipline fit within the higher education structures of the time?

Woolbert concluded that “speech studies and arts” drew its methods and objects of study and teaching from so many disciplines that it really should occupy its own space in the university structure, that it merited its separate departmental home. Despite the good work of Woolbert and the thousands of teacher/scholars in communication who followed him in establishing, growing, and operating departments of speech (then speech communication, then communication) across the nation and around the world, we still wrestle with the same questions one hundred years later: How should communication scholars carry out their research? Where does the discipline of communication “fit” within college and university structures and in the larger systems of higher education?

HumanitiesNCA is defined as the association that “advances communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry.” Consistent with our history, NCA participates in and encourages all of the many ways that our members practice, study, and teach the communication arts and sciences. NCA members and staff participate in programs sponsored by the National Humanities Alliance and the American Council of Learned Societies as well as the Consortium of Social Science Associations and the NSF. NCA members receive external funding from the NEH and the NIH. Indeed, in many ways NCA and its members constantly negotiate the duality of communication as both a social science and a humanities discipline.

One initiative that NCA has participated in recently is the Humanities Indicators project–an effort sponsored by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to collect and disseminate “reliable, comprehensive, and consistently updated statistical data necessary to chart trends and draw conclusions” about the humanities. A key part of the data collection for the Humanities Indicators is a departmental survey, and NCA worked hard to assure that Communication departments were included in the second round of surveys. We’ve recently received an interim report on response rates for the survey and that report isolates Communication as among the disciplines with the lowest response rates–the report notes that “Most of the communications departments who wrote declining to participate indicated that their department focused more on the social science facet of communication and did not believe they should be included in a humanities study.”

Social Science This report speaks to a disturbing tendency to classify and categorize in limited rather than expansive ways the teaching and research underway in the discipline. Even the most casual glance at communication departments reveals that virtually every program includes courses in the humanities and the social sciences, faculty members that conduct research both critically and social scientifically, and students that want to study communication as both a humanities and a social science. Perhaps it is university structures or hierarchies, or maybe it’s simply a process of finding the most pristine mode of self-definition, but some (many?) communication departments, like the ones that refused to complete the Humanities Indicators survey, still choose to define themselves as either a humanities or a social science rather than both/and.

Charles Woolbert and his colleagues almost a century ago spent considerable time and energy figuring out how “speech” fit–where did “speech” belong in the higher education landscape of the early twentieth century. We continue those discussions today. How does communication fit in the ever-changing higher education landscape of the early twenty-first century? Is communication a humanities? A social science? Both? Neither?

A New Ranking?

It’s been a week now since President Obama promised, in his State of the Union address, to release a “College Scorecard,” that would “compare schools based on a simple criteria — where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” And, as promised, the scorecard is now available on the White House website.

Obama SOTU

President Obama working on the State of the Union address with speechwriters. Photo courtesy of

This new device is really very simple–it includes a measurement of what the typical student will pay at a selected college or university after grants and scholarships. It also offers the college or university’s graduation rate, loan default rate, and median borrowing per month for an undergraduate degree. So when I looked up my B.A. alma mater (Ripon College), I discovered that it now costs $19,475/year, that 70.1% of students graduate from Ripon (ranking it in the “high” category), that the loan default rate for Ripon graduates is 3.1% (compared to 13.4% nationally), and that the average per month borrowing rate to attend Ripon is $260.37.

The “College Scorecard” also lets parents and students search for particular majors, locations, sizes…just about any relevant criteria that they might use in selecting the right college or university.

What is the consequence of this new development in higher education? Is this just another feeble attempt to keep college costs down? Or the beginning of a new effort to nationalize higher education? Also of interest are new metrics emerging all the time about the success or failure of particular majors and career trajectories for today’s young people. Yahoo’s education section recently ran an article about “Degrees Employers Hate and Love,” and the second most “loved” degree among employers was Communication.

In short, rankings are changing–U.S. News and World Report is dropping schools out of their ranking scheme for faking data and new ratings systems are emerging daily. And the criteria for why and how college and universities are ranked as they are continue to fluctuate–affordability, default rates, quality of faculty, graduation rates, GPAs for entering first-year students.

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