Online Education: A Unique Opportunity to Develop Online Communication Skills while Controlling Your Personal Brand

Online Education: A Unique Opportunity to Develop Online Communication Skills while Controlling Your Personal Brand

Nicolas G. Lorgnier (Canisius College, USA), Shawn M. O’Rourke (Canisius College, USA) and Patricia A. Coward (Canisius College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1963-0.ch016


Young people will have to change their names in order to escape their “cyber past,” prophesized Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) in August 2010. This provocative thought from the principal opponent of Facebook may be considered a strategic maneuver, but it also highlights the deep societal changes coming with the continuing development of social media. From the instructors’ perspective, people may wonder if online education could help students develop their communication skills in the era of web 2.0. But others may contend that a priority has to be given to the class content, not to another use of the media, which simply provides a new channel to enhance the learning experience. This chapter proposes a first step to reconcile the two perspectives and shows that improving students’ communication skills and awareness when teaching in an online environment can enhance student learning and help personal branding, i.e. developing the ability to package their skills and to showcase their distinctive attributes. To help demonstrate this, results from the authors’ courses are provided.
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Developing Online Communication Skills, A “Must Do” in Education

In a society which has broadly been described as an Information Society (Beniger, 1986; Garnham, 2004; Webster, 2002) since the 80’s, or more recently as a Network Society (Barney, 2003), it should not be a stretch to posit that online communication is not only for geeky teachers or students, but addresses society at large. Moreover, with the dramatic growth of research engine capabilities and the emerging social media phenomenon, online communication skills are at stake. The necessity to educate this skill should not be underestimated, as we were reminded by Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) during the summer of 2010:

I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time. (…) we [Google] know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are.” He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites (Google and the Search for the Future, 2010).

So the internet – and especially social media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, blogs, etc.) – can be seen as a threat to privacy as it may expose the “cyber past” of young adults, endangering their reputation and their future (Fernando, 2004). This statement should be extended to what one may call the “cyber present” of a person. In fact, many companies from various industries look at prospective employees’ pages on social media in order to assess potential candidates, and they can also sanction posts from current employees that involve the company.

Social media can be considered as a threat (the “dark side” of social media), but it is also a fantastic way to market one’s experience and skills, in other words, to develop a personal branding strategy (the “bright side” of social media). A personal brand is sometimes described as one’s most valuable asset (Alsop, 2004), and has been defined as the process by which individuals and entrepreneurs differentiate themselves and stand out from the crowd by identifying and articulating their unique value proposition (Schawbel, 2009). Needless to say, the exposure provided by the internet has been quickly identified as a determining promotion tool, notably because of its low cost and far reaching possibilities. In August 2009, LinkedIn declared that 40% of Fortune 100 companies use LinkedIn for recruiting solutions. But the phenomenon is not limited to LinkedIn, as the Social Media in Recruitment Conferences (, 2009, 2010, 2011) have recently shown. Thus, in the health industry, Cain, Scott & Smith (2010) show that American residency program directors from different generations use social media to aid future decisions for resident selection and hiring.

In the sport industry, one can observe similar phenomenon: social media is used for scouting promising athletes. It is also used by professional athletes to connect with their fans. For example, LeBron James was capable of getting more than 150,000 followers in less than 7 hours when opening his twitter account (becoming the most popular user of all times) and his Facebook page counts more than 4.7 million fans (results as of January 4, 2011). Nike, his sponsor, surely enjoys this type of exposure. But social media isn’t only used for recruitment purposes or for professional sport players’ popularity contests. Outside of the sport industry, Naslund (2010) shows that social media can be used within companies to improve creativity through discussion and to develop a sense of community. It can be used for internal branding purposes by both the company (empowerment of the employees, reinforcement of the culture) and employees (promotion of their ideas and vision inside and outside the departments). Personal branding strategies can also be used to create a “cross-cultural training of and knowledge transfer by expatriate(s)” (Kameau, 2009, p. 60).

The concept of personal branding is relatively new, as it usually is attributed to Peters’ (1997). However, contemporary impression management research was initiated by Goffman’s (1959) seminal book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which describes how one’s conscious or unconscious motives and strategies impact self-presentation. The theory claims that any individual must establish and maintain impressions that are consistent with the perceptions they want to convey to their public. Such a goal is constructed and measured through constant social interactions. This framework largely contributes to a reflection to measure self-conscious identity performance in social media, such as social network sites (Boyd, 2006; Livingstone, 2005), blogs (Boyd, 2006; Hodkinson and Lincoln, 2008; Reed, 2005), micro-blogs (Marwick and Boyd, 2010), dating sites (Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs, 2006), and personal homepages (Papacharissi, 2002; Schau and Gilly, 2003).

However, little has been written about teaching students to create their personal brands. In fact, only a few researchers have studied the educational potential of social media at school (Ito, M., et al., 2009; Thomas, D. & Brown, J., 2011; McLoughlin & Lee, 2007), for college students (Petrides, 2002; Rutherford, 2010) and adult learners (LeNoue, Hall, & Eighmy, 2011). However, to our knowledge, nobody has identified the necessity to teach personal branding skills at school and/or online education as an environment to favor this experience. This paper investigates the opportunity to develop such skills online, a teaching and learning environment which shares many characteristics with social media. In other words, learning about personal branding should be considered as a learning outcome and a means to enhance learning of the class content.

In order to support this idea, the authors (A) question relationships among online communication, personal branding skills and online education, then (B) present a qualitative study conducted in the Online Masters program in Sport Administration at Canisius College (NY). This research aims at discussing the first implementations of content related to personal branding in the online Masters courses and to provide a first body of evidence supporting the following hypotheses:

  • A.

    Teaching personal branding skills online enhances students’ awareness of online communication issues, notably as they relate to the notion of cyber-past;

  • B.

    Teaching personal branding skills online has a positive effect on students’ technological skills, as well as metacognitive, creative and critical thinking skills.

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