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Aurora Institute

Socialization in K-12 online learning – a brief lit review by Sharon Paster, iNACOL research intern

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Sharon Paster

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Today’s guest blogger is one of the iNACOL research interns, Sharon Paster, who does a brief literature review of socialization in K-12 online learning. Feel free to comment below. 

Literature Review

After a search of articles on socialization and online learning, it is clear that researchers have investigated the fusion of technology and learning from many angles. Among the perspectives, there is dialogue about (1) the depth and breadth of influence that technology will have on learners’ social trajectories, (2) the myriad of ways that technologically-assisted education can add a social ingredient, (3) the relative value of online to offline learning.

Making a Difference

            Online programs, both commercial and academic, were credited for being aligned with social development. In one commercial scenario, however, Club Penguin, (Marsh, 2010) ties duty to animals to frequent online attendance – requiring children to log on in order to take care of their “pets”. In the academic vein, Bers (2010) describes employing a virtual environment, Zora, at Tufts University, where freshman students collaborated on designing a virtual campus, concurrent with participation in face-to-face activities. In addition, Bers (2010) predicts that “serious” games, similarly to simulations and virtual worlds, will embark on linking online activity with “real” community work.

The Social Ingredient

            Embedded in the discussion at hand is the question of how to coordinate online with face-to-face interaction. This is a complicated matter, as any given producer of an online curriculum may define collaboration differently. The number of actors may be one or two, or it may be in the thousands. Furthermore, hierarchies may exist among the participants, (expert, teacher, student) as Doering (2006) discusses relative to adventure learning.  Nicol, et al. (2003) cites research that warns that face-to-face orientation may result in less online participation, so it may not be beneficial.  In sum, the social variable appears to be significant but its where, how and why is either yet to be discovered or it is going to be defined on a case-by-case basis.

Qualification is necessary: the term “social” takes on a wealth of identities in online learning. For one, it could be the process of learning. Or, it could be that the subject at hand is of a social nature. The online travel adventures in GoNorth!, an  adventure learning curriculum, are rooted in social studies, (Doerin & Veletsianos, 2008). The Rembrandt Project (Schneiderman, 2008) is similarly “social” in that its focus is on art history and culture. Alternately, research revealed that much of what is online, (but not in the social studies vein), appears social because it is interactive. There are online cafés, blogs, collaborations, emails, synchronous and asynchronous communications, and face-to-face encounters. In the research, some of the online courses that relied substantially on social dynamics, (but were not “social studies”), included English language acquisition, graduate level business courses, and secondary mathematics.

Pluses and Minuses

            Authors did not state that online learners outperformed their counterparts, although they may have performed as well. In one case, Suh, et al, (2010) concluded that MMORPG-based instruction (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) may be useful in English language acquisition. Noting pluses and minuses, Marsh (2010) acknowledges that commercial virtual worlds are inspiring young children to use their imaginations, and to role-play, but some virtual content could be considered racist or sexist. With a singular emphasis on adventure learning, Doering and Veletsianos (2008) shared a favorable impression expressed by a teacher: “As you have seen, my students think this is the most amazing learning experience they have ever had. From the lesson activities to the online chats, collaboration areas, and things such as the dog zone, it is truly inspiring for me as a teacher,” (Doering, 2008, p. 29). Lastly, researchers (Cho, M., et al., 2010, Rice, 2006, & Tunison & Noonan, 2001) have noted that successful online learners are especially self-motivated.

            To conclude, the research seems to have had a dual emphasis: (1) it acknowledges the wealth of social features that are intertwined into online learning, and (2) it notes that online education, as yet, is not outperforming the traditional face-to-face context of education.


Archambault, L., Crippen, K. (2009). K–12 distance educators at work: Who’s teaching online across the United States. Journal on Research in      Technology in Education, 41(4), 363-391.

Bers, M. U. (2010). Let the games begin: Civic playing on high-tech consoles. Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 147-153.

Bers, M. U. (2010). Beyond computer literacy: Support in youth’s positive development through technology. New Directions for Youth Development, 128, 13-23.

Cho, M., Demai, S., & Laffey, J., (2010).  Relationships between self-regulation and social experiences in asynchronous online learning environments. Journal of Interactive Learning Research 21(3), 297-316.

Doering, A., (2006). Adventure learning: Transformative hybrid online education. Distance Education, 27(2), 197-215.

Doering, A., Veletsianos, G. (2008). Online education: Identifying integration models using adventure learning. Journal on Research in Technology in Education, 41(1), 23-41.

Hamlen, K. R. (2011). Children’s choices and strategies in video games. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 532-539.

Ke, F., Chávez, A.F., & Causarano, P-N.L., & Causarano, A. (2011). Identity presence and knowledge building: Joint emergence in online learning environments? Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 6, 349–370.

Marsh, J. (2010) Young children’s play in online worlds. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 8 (1), 23-39.

Nicol, D. J, Minty, I., & Sinclair, C., (2003), The social dimensions of online learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 40 (3). 270-280.

Rice, K., (2006). A comprehensive look at distance education in the K–12 context. Journal on Research in Technology in Education, 38(4), 425-447.

Schneiderman, B., E. (2008) Creating a learning space that is virtual and experiential. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 42(2), 38-50.

Suh, S, Kim S.W., & Kim, N.J. (2010). Effectiveness of MMORPG-based instruction in elementary English education in Korea. Blackwell Publishing. 370-378.

Tee, M. T.,  & Karney, D., (2010). Sharing and cultivating tacit knowledge in an online learning environment, Computer-Supported collaborative learning, 5, 385-413.

Tunison, S., Noonan, B., (2001). On-Line learning: Secondary students first experience. Canadian Journal of Education, 26 (4), 495-511.