Socialization of Students in WEB-Based Courses

C. D. Hurt
School of Information Resources & Library Science
The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ


An aspect of WEB-based courses that differs from the traditional courses is the socialization factor. There are at least two aspects to this phenomenon. Two will be discussed here. The first relates to the professional socialization of students into a discipline or field of study. This has an impact predominantly in upper division undergraduate and graduate level courses. The argument is that students need some form of socialization into the mores and normalized behaviors of a profession. The learning on the part of the traditional student is more by passive observation and keying on tacit clues than on any classroom or text-based study. The second socialization factor involves the learning that occurs outside the classroom in dorm rooms and in non-organized activities. One aspect of this learning is peer-based learning—a very powerful tool.

Learning via the WEB is also a powerful tool but one that can lead to lack of socialization in the traditional sense. The University of Arizona began offering WEB-driven courses in 1994. One of the critical hurdles was determining socialization values for courses offered in this medium. An initial assumption was that socialization, in either of the forms noted above, could be different from that commonly accepted in the traditional environments. A powerful argument was made that, even in the traditional techniques, socialization was not consistent or even as exemplary as might be commonly thought. Two strategies were developed that seemed to offer some measure of socialization, although different from traditional socialization. The first was to utilize IRC and listserv techniques to break classes into small groups. The strategy that produced the highest level of satisfaction on the part of the students was to break the classes into randomized small groups without regard to individual interests or geographic proximity early in the course. Later in the course small groups were encouraged to develop that focused on mutual interests and, in some cases, geography. The second strategy employed was to offer a series of electronic "brown bags" led by a visible and respected member of the professional field. The most important component of this strategy was the ability of the student to ask questions in a "group" setting as well as ask questions in private email mode. Satisfaction with the socialization methods was measured by a sampling of students in an active master's degree program. The results of the survey indicate the general acceptance of the socialization techniques. There is a bifurcation in the survey results based on length of exposure the student has to WEB-based courses: The longer the exposure the higher the satisfaction level with the socialization techniques. It is unclear whether the increased acceptance (or the early lack of acceptance) is the result of learned behavior related to WEB-based courses or is the result of conditioned behavior related to expectations on the part of traditionally oriented students.

Keywords: Socialization, Evaluation, Methodologies


The extension of education by means of technology has significant positives and some identified negatives. In some cases the negatives are a function of traditional thinking, in other cases the negatives are a function of the modality. Socialization of students into an academic program is one of the frequently mentioned negatives (Henri, 1992 and Herrman, 1988). It is unclear whether this negative is a function of traditional patterning in education in general or if it is a systemic problem. This paper does not explore the issue of whether the socialization problem is a function of traditional education expectations. This is excellent grist for further study. This paper does take the position that socialization in distance education is different from more traditional modalities. As such, some care and investigation is necessary to be sure that good education (by whatever modality) is the result.


The argument here is that some form of socialization is necessary in any educational mode. If the student is to enter a profession, there is the necessity in the educational process of assisting the student with learning the mores and normalized behaviors of the profession. This is traditionally done by observation and "sitting at the feet of the mentor" rather than by any formalized coursework. There are variants to this process, but by and large, the process is not formalized.

A second form of socialization is critical to the learning process, regardless of modality. This process involves the learning that occurs outside the classroom often in non-organized settings. Peer learning is recognized as an extremely powerful tool for increasing the amount and the quality of learning that takes place.

Under the assumption that socialization was a positive factor and one that needed to be improved, the extension programs offered by the School were examined in light of socialization factors.

Two strategies were developed within the coursework offered by the School. (For a description of the coursework and to see actual coursework offered, see one example or a second example.) The initial assumption was that a different mode of education was in play so a different sort of socialization model should be used.

The first strategy was to utilize IRC and listserv techniques to break the class into small groups. The small group model is a carry-over from the traditional model. Since group interaction is the goal and this is addressed most easily via small groups, the plan was to emphasize the small group model. The School's coursework spans 16 states and 3 foreign countries (as of fall, 1996). The groupings that tended to work the best throughout the study were those that were totally random. That is, students were assigned to groups without regard to individual interests, geographic area, or prior experience in the program. Less successful was the assigning of students to specific groups based on mutual interests and, in some cases, geography. Students reported that they missed the interaction of students who presented alternative points of view from outside their interest field.

The second strategy was to offer a series of electronic brown bags. These were normally led by a visible and respected member of the professional field. Although there was variation in the methodology, the practice was for the leader to write a lecture or talk that was mounted on the WEB together with suggested readings. Within a week, normally, there was an IRC discussion together with the leader. The IRC session was logged and made available to the participants in the class who were physically or temporally unable to participate.

In an effort to determine whether the techniques worked and what aspects could be changed or modified, a sample of students in courses offered by the School was surveyed. The results of this satisfaction survey are included below.


Using a modified Scheffe (1953) process, a sample of 20 students was selected. The Scheffe process balances Type I and Type II statistical errors against a contrast of interest. The 20 students were asked a series of questions about socialization techniques. The results were tabulated and subjected to analysis. All students in the sample were asked if they had recently taken a traditional class to which they could compare socialization techniques. Students were given the definition of socialization developed in Regan and Tuchman (1990). Each student in the sample group indicated they could compare socialization techniques in traditional settings and socialization techniques in extension coursework. The students were asked to indicate their ranking of the success of the socialization variable on a 1 to 5 scale with 5 being the most effective.

To determine if there was a temporal correlation, students were also asked to indicate their experience with extension coursework in terms of semesters. The rankings of the students were then correlated with their experience in extension courses.


The descriptive results of the survey are below.

Name N Mean SD Std Err
IRC 20 3.2064 1.1955 0.2673
Listserv 20 3.4306 0.8166 0.1826
Random 20 3.7849 0.8889 0.1988
Self 20 3.3087 0.7295 0.1631
BrownBag 20 4.2782 0.6301 0.1409
Overall 20 3.0954 0.8942 0.1999
Trad 20 4.4606 0.7035 0.1573

The results of the Scheffe test to indicate if there are any systemic differences between the means of the variables are as follows:

Variables Mean Diff Crit Value Significant
IRC vs Listserv 0.2242 0.9743 NO
IRC vs Random 0.5785 0.9743 NO
IRC vs Self 0.1023 0.9743 NO
IRC vs BrownBag 1.0718 0.9743 YES
IRC vs Overall 0.1111 0.9743 NO
IRC vs Trad 1.2542 0.9743 YES
Listserv vs Random 0.3543 0.9743 NO
Listserv vs Self 0.1219 0.9743 NO
Listserv vs BrownBag 0.8476 0.9743 No
Listserv vs Overall 0.3353 0.9743 NO
Listserv vs Trad 1.0299 0.9743 YES
Random vs Self 0.4762 0.9743 NO
Random vs BrownBag 0.4933 0.9743 NO
Random vs Overall 0.6896 0.9743 NO
Random vs Trad 0.6757 0.9743 NO
Self vs BrownBag 0.9695 0.9743 NO
Self vs Overall 0.2134 0.9743 NO
Self vs Trad 1.1519 0.9743 YES
BrownBag vs Overall 1.1829 0.9743 YES
BrownBag vs Trad 0.1823 0.9743 NO
Overall vs Trad 1.3652 0.9743 YES

The time factor was determined by semester. For the following table, 0 equals a student who has 0 semesters of previous experience with extension coursework. The category, 5, equates to more than four semesters of experience with extension coursework.

0 2.2
1 2.4
2 2.9
3 3.4
4 3.5
5 3.4

The correlation coefficient for the data is 0.9005.


The results indicate there is a significant difference in several areas.

There is a difference in the rankings of IRC and the Brown Bag. There was some reluctance to use IRC channels among some of the students because of the variety of channels available. Some were simply put off by the titles of some IRC channels. There is a difference between the ranking of IRC versus the traditional approaches. Much of the difference can be attributed to the reluctance of some of our students to utilize IRC channels.

There is a difference between the rankings of the Listserv and the traditional, between the rankings of self selection on the listserv and the traditional and between the overall rating and the traditional. These are less easy to explain. Overall, the traditional methodology seemed to receive higher ratings than expected. While the results may well be valid, it is unclear whether the inclusion of the traditional socialization variable is comparing known to the less well-known, skewing the results. Additional work in this area is needed.

The final area of difference relates to the brown bag versus the overall rating. This difference appears to be related to the acceptance of the brown bag technique and may be confounded by some reluctance to give the overall rating as high a score as the traditional method. There is good evidence, however, that the brown bag is a successful means of socialization.

The results of the survey indicate there is a bifurcation in the results that is dependent on the exposure of the student to WEB-based courses. The longer the exposure, the higher the satisfaction level, regardless of the socialization technique used. Among those who were less satisfied, it is unclear whether the increased acceptance (or the early lack of acceptance) is the result of learned behavior related to expectations of traditionally-oriented students. This is a clear area for further study.

The correlation data must be used with caution however. The underlying pool of students was the 20 in the original study. There may be some difficulty in generalizing the good correlation found here to other areas. A significantly larger pool of students in each of the categories should be developed to protect the robustness and the final validity of the statistic. The correlation value should be used as a pointer to further study and not as a hard outcome of this particular study.


The literature dealing with socialization almost universally assumes either an adult learner or, more recently, a technologically astute student. The results of this study point to the use of several techniques that we feel are successful. Testing an assumption of this study, that there is an learned behavior bias toward traditional methods, needs to be explored.

This study points to some difficulties in developing hard data for extension coursework that clearly addresses the quality issue still underlying the use of extension coursework.


Henri, France (1992). Process d'apprentissage a distance et teleconference assistee par ordinateur: essai d'analyse. Canadian Journal of Educational Communication 21:3-18.

Hermann, Allan (1988). A conceptual framework for understanding the transitions in perceptions of external students. Distance Education 9:5-26.

Regan, Kate & Tuchman, Shendl (1990). The importance of authority and peer relations on the educational process of onsite and online students: an exploratory investigation. In Seventh International Conference on Technology and Education (Brussels, Belgium, March 20-22).

Scheffe, H. (1953). A method for judging all contrasts in the analysis of variance. Biometrika 40:87-104.

C. D. Hurt
Professor and Director
School of Information Resources & Library Science
The University of Arizona
1515 East First Street, Tucson, AZ 85719-4596 USA

Short Bio: Charlie Hurt is Professor and Director of the School of Information Resources and Library Science at the University of Arizona. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has held teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, McGill University, and Simmons College prior to his appointment at the University of Arizona.


Charles Hurt © 1996. The author assigns to the University of New Brunswick and other educational and non-profit institutions a non exclusive license to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author grants a non-exclusive license to the University of New Brunswick to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the conference papers, and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

N.A.WEB 96 - The Second International North America World Wide Web Conference University of New Brunswick.