Online Communities and Crowds

Learning Objectives, requirements, & assignments

Online Communities & Crowds
Northwestern University
Comm Studies 378
Fall, 2016

Learning Objectives

My primary objectives for all students taking this course are that you:

In order to accomplish these objectives, the course has a syllabus with different kinds of assignments and exercises requiring you to approach online communities and crowds from multiple perspectives.


I will use the course material to advance an overarching argument: the participants, architecture, culture, and environment of online communities and crowds determine their character and impact.

To support this argument, the course covers four overlapping dimensions of online communities and crowds:

We start with a heavier emphasis on foundations and dynamics then move towards the discussion of more cases and challenges. I try to weave my central arugment throughout and expect that you will develop the knowledge and skills necessary to understand, challenge, extend, and improve upon my claims.

Format and materials

The course sessions will follow a mixed format, including some lectures, discussions, group projects, and visits from guest speakers.

Up-to-date information about readings, scheduling, assignments and more can be found on the schedule page of the course website.

Most of the readings are or will be available online. In general, all assignments will be finalized and posted to the course website at least one week before they are due. In other words, make sure to check the course website consistently as things may change. I will plan to communicate changes to you in class and (when appropriate) via email. If you want to complete assignments more than a week in advance, please discuss your plans with me so that I can confirm the assignments with you.

Please note: We have multiple readings from one book. Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design by Robert Kraut and Paul Resnick. You may want to purchase a copy. It is available in a variety of formats (hardcover, paperback, epub, etc.) from a variety of fine booksellers. Pre-publication versions of all the chapters are also available from one author's website.


There are no prerequisites for the class. You are expected to perform all the usual activities: prepare for, attend, and participate actively in all class sessions; complete assignments in a timely manner; and abide by all applicable norms and policies. If you have questions about any of this, please get in touch.

Assignments and evaluation

You will be asked to submit the following, all of which will be evaluated as part of your grade for the course (percentage in parentheses):

Brief descriptions of these assignments are provided in the following section. Additional details including evaluation rubrics and deadlines will be provided via the course website and in class.

An additional 30% of your final grade will evaluate your participation and overall engagement with the course material. As part of this, you are required to meet with Jeremy Foote, the Teaching Assistant for the course, at least once before the final project proposal is due. My strong recommendation is that you meet with Jeremy sooner rather than later -- both because he'll have helpful feedback and because his schedule will undoubtedly fill up closer to the deadline (when it will be too late for you to take full advantage of his advice anyway). Jeremy's office hours will be Wednesdays 12-2pm (or by appoitment) in Frances Searle 2-419. You can contact him at

In general, you should plan to submit all your assignments via Canvas. You can always also email your assignments to the teaching team if you encounter technical difficulties or other surprises.

Several of these assignments (and especially the Wikipedia project) either obligate or allow you to work in teams. Whenever you collaborate with one or more of your peers on an assignment, you are required to include the names of your collaborators on the assignment at the time you hand it in. In some cases, all individuals will be asked to submit their own copy of the assignment even when they have collaborators.

Teaching team email protocol

When emailing either member of the teaching team about anything related to the course, please put "[occ]" in the subject line. We both get a lot of email and this will help us stay on top of it.

Friday Labs

Additional details will be provided about the Friday lab sessions in class. Please note that several of the activities in the lab sessions will require (or at least be much easier with) a networked computing device with a decent size keyboard (e.g., laptop or tablet). If you would like our help securing access to such a device during the lab session, please contact the teaching team.

Brief descriptions of assignments

Wikipedia project and labs includes the output of all the lab assignments (several to-be completed in groups) as well as (individually) written responses to reflection questions about your experiences.

Critical community analysis #1 takes the form of a short (about 1000 words) written analysis of a particular dynamic or problem in a particular community (to-be-assigned by the teaching team) in which you describe the community, how the dynamic/problem works, and propose improvements or solutions based on material discussed in class. You will have about 72 hours (3 days) to complete this assignment.

Peer assessments contains several different peer assessment assignments that you will complete throughout the quarter. In general, these involve providing written assessments of and feedback on the work of your peers.

Final Project, a.k.a. Critical Community Analysis #2 consists of an original research paper of no more than 2000 words that also includes relevant citations and sources (which do not need to be counted in the word total). The objective is for you to analyze a particular puzzle or dynamic in the context of a specific community that you observe, participate in, and/or care about. You should aim to (a) describe the community; (b) explain how and why the community illustrates or engages with the puzzle or dynamic; and (c) explain how you would apply insights from the class to improve the community's approach to the puzzle or dynamic. You will have several opportunities throughout the quarter to develop your project ideas, discuss them, and receive feedback on them. This includes the Final Project Proposal, which will consist of a short (about 500 words) written description of the community you plan to analyze, some discussion of why you care about it, as well as the reasons you believe it would present an important site for critical analysis and engagement with the themes of the course. Final projects are due via Canvas by 5pm Central Time on Wednesday, December 7, 2016.