Learning Sociology in a Massively Multi-Student Online Learning Environment

Learning Sociology in a Massively Multi-Student Online Learning Environment

Joel Foreman (George Mason University, USA) and Thomasina Borkman (George Mason University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5071-8.ch013
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Is it possible to enhance the learning of sociology students by staging simulated field studies in a MMOLE (massively multi-student online learning environment) modeled after successful massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) such as Eve and Lineage? Lacking such a test option, the authors adapted an existing MMOG—“The Sims Online”—and conducted student exercises in that virtual environment during two successive semesters. Guided by questions keyed to course objectives, the sociology students spent 10 hours observing online interactions in TSO and produced essays revealing different levels of analytical and interpretive ability. The students in an advanced course on deviance performed better than those in an introductory course, with the most detailed reports focusing on scamming, trashing, and tagging. Although there are no technical obstacles to the formation and deployment of a sociology MMOLE able to serve hundreds of thousands of students, such a venture would have to solve major financial and political problems.
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Why Sociology?

For those who believe a college education should have demonstrable utilitarian benefits (rather than the vague “intellectual enrichment” of late adolescents), the study of sociology is a promising competitor for continuation in the general education requirements. Sociology studies how and why people behave as they do. It deconstructs naïve beliefs about the organization of human relations and replaces them with the ability to “see” the systematic ways that social systems distribute power and wealth and enable individual actions. Students endowed with such a vision and having to interact every day with other humans in small groups and complex bureaucracies are better able to make their social systems work for, rather than against, them. A student who is able to describe the relationship, say, between values, social status, and the reward system in a college fraternity, takes from a course on sociology benefits unavailable to a student who can define these abstract terms but not recognize them embodied in action.

Despite these formidable benefits and our high regard for them, we would not cede a permanent general education requirement to sociology. These valuable slots should be earned—through consistently excellent instruction. That is, the potential of the sociological perspective flows from what students have learned, retained, and are able to apply in their lives outside the classroom. And we have no reason today to believe that most (or even many) Sociology 101 students leave the course with its lessons secured in long-term memory.

As such, Sociology 101 is a perfect candidate for reformation as an MMOLE modeled after successful massively multiplayer online games. Immersed in such an MMOLE (one that predictably and consistently achieves a set of appropriate learning goals), students would develop their understanding of sociological principles as the result of their structured interactions within a set of simulated social scenarios. Rather than read in a textbook (or hear from a lecturer) about social mobility or the effect of gender on employment or the relation between caste and success, the student would experience, study, and have to negotiate controlled simulations of these social issues.

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