Communication in the Digital Age

COMM 1255 SEC01
Office hours Content
TU/FR 9:50 - 11:30 am
119 Hastings
Joseph Reagle, Ph.D., <j.reagle>
TU appointments starting at 15:30
Comm Studies, 215 Holmes Hall
Tip: Enter at 41A Leon St.


Course objectives

Digital communication is central to contemporary life and yet (or consequently) we take it for granted. Communication in the Digital Age will remedy this; at its successful completion you will be able to explain the technical basis, communicative effects, and commercial aspects of digital communication. For instance, you will learn about attention and multi-tasking, the shape and strengths of one’s relationships; you’ll learn about online ads, content, and privacy; and we’ll discuss race and gender in online communication.

Successful completion of this course enables one to:

  1. recall, compare, and give examples of key issues and theories of online communication;
  2. explain how the Internet & Web work;
  3. ask complex questions and have a sense of how one might address those questions;
  4. exercise practical digital competencies such as filtering email, writing markup, and assessing your digital footprint;
  5. compellingly write in both a short-form online venue and longer-form academic format;
  6. collaborate with one’s peers to improve academic performance.


Active learning and the Web

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

This is an active learning course meaning that you will be engaged with activities such as class and group discussion, participating in and designing class exercises, collaborative note-taking, and peer assessment. An implication of this, for example, is if you do not volunteer at least one good discussion contribution during a class, I might “cold call” you myself.

I also make much use of the Web. For instance, this syllabus is a Web page that I update; I expect you to bookmark it and to follow links. (If you find a broken link or typo, let me know!) You can easily find things on this page with control-f. You can open links in new tabs with control-click. We will also make use of Google Docs. I recommend you use something like Zim, FoldingText, or Evernote to “make information your own.” By the way, in emails I often use markdown conventions and respond below your quoted (‘>’) text.

This is a 4 credit course, which is a 12 hour per week workload. Subtracting ~4 hours for class time, that’s 4 hours per class to be spent in preparation or on assignments.

Academic policies

In short, come to class on time and with the readings and assignments completed; be respectful and willing to collaborate. There are no provisions for missed exams or late assignments.

We sometimes use devices in class as part of an activity, but the default policy is for gadgets to be silenced and put away. (Interestingly, as noted in my tips for note-taking, handwritten notes can lead to better learning.) If you want to use a device throughout classes, email me a device proposal with your intended usage. Note, device users might also be called upon you to perform tasks such as looking things up or taking collaborative notes. I can also rescind device privileges. Deviations from classroom professionalism and respect may result in dismissal from class and demerits against your grade. See full course policies for more detail.

In general, if you have an issue, such as needing an accommodation for a religious obligation or learning disability, speak with me before it affects your performance; afterward it is too late. Do not ask for favors; instead, offer proposals that show initiative and a willingness to work.

Academic Integrity: “The promotion of independent and original scholarship ensures that students derive the most from their educational experience and their pursuit of knowledge.” Violations include cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and participating in or encouraging dishonesty. I will and have reported violators to the Office of Student Conduct.


There are 1000 points at stake over the course of the term. This is converted to letter grades on the basis of thresholds; they are not rounded.

Writing requirements

Printed assignments must be double-spaced, 12 point font, 1-inch margins. (One page contains approximately 250 words.) Pages must be numbered and stapled together. Citations must be in the APA style.

No APA cover page is required. In fact, so as to avoid bias, I read assignments “blind” without knowing the author until the last page. Hence, your name (and final word count absent bibliography) should appear only on the back side of the final page. That is, I should know only your name by turning the assignment over and seeing the assignment appendix.

All assignments must be reviewed by two peers and assessed according to the writing rubric. Make use of Hacker’s Pocket Manual and my writing tips handout. If you fail to give a peer a draft in time for review; or if they fail to give you a review, document it on the assignment appendix.

On the due date, print copies must be submitted in class and the electronic version must be submitted to BlackBoard’s Turnitin. The Turnitin version need not include the assignment appendix.

If you have permission to revise a written assignment for re-assessment, please see these revision instructions.

Grading Rubric

Communication Studies courses are expected, on average, to have a GPA of no more than a 3.3 (B+); this means those receiving an A or A- are in the minority. The course rubric notes that “A” students have all of the following attributes.

  1. show mastery in assignments. Their work demonstrates impressive understanding of readings, discussions, themes and ideas. It is fluid, clear, analytical, well-organized and grammatically polished. Reasoning and logic are well-grounded and examples precise.
  2. have virtually perfect attendance. Their commitment to the class resembles that of the teacher.
  3. are prepared for class. They always read assignments and participate fully. Their attention to detail is such that they occasionally catch the teacher in a mistake.
  4. show interest in the class. They look up or dig out what they don’t understand. They often ask interesting questions or make thoughtful comments.
  5. have retentive minds. They are able to connect past learning with the present.
  6. have a winning attitude. They have the determination, initiative and self-discipline to succeed.


Many links to my public wiki are found through-out this syllabus (remember, control-f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below. As I explain in this video about tracking assignment requirements, I have high expectations and send a lot of information your way, I recommend you use something like Zim, FoldingText, or Evernote to “make information your own.”

Tip: temporarily place requirements and rubrics into your work (e.g., at the top of the response page).


Most readings are linked to from this page, if not check this password protected zip file (the password is my dog’s name in lowercase). However, you must acquire the following:

Like other skills, bibliography is something you learn to do well. Technology can make it easier. NU makes RefWorks and EndNote available to students; you can also use the freely available browser-based Zotero.

Note that for selections, I specify the chapter (ch=) or pages (pp=) to read.


Sep 09 Fri - Introduction & Are You Tech-Savvy?

Welcome! We introduce ourselves, cover class logistics, and consider if your generation is tech-savvy.

  1. Bring a mnemonic linking your name with something novel about yourself. For instance, I am geeky and like science fiction: “Joseph the Jedi”.
  2. Use the reading to generate a higher-order question (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) from Bloom’s taxonomy. Do you have a sense of how you would go about answering your question?

Sep 13 Tue - Markdown

REQUIRED: As your response, review the Markdown and wiki tutorial and create Scribble page (using headings, links, images, and videos) prior to class related to the short reading. That is, write a “rich media” response and in addition to emailing me your markdown, send me the link to your page. Bring your device if you’d like help with markdown in class.

Sep 16 Fri - Attention

Response: Read the chapter below; as part of your reflection, conduct the “online intention” exercise from the Attention Probes. Email me your response following the directions above.

Sep 20 Tue - How the Web works

Response: Identify something about digital communication that you would like to learn more about, or something from the reading you found confusing. Don’t get too hung up on technical details (especially about cryptography), we’ll cover everything in class.

Sep 23 Fri - Crap detection

REQUIRED: See the practical wiki assignment section above and answer the questions in the Web search and evaluation assignment. Use the power of the Web (headings, links, embedded images, etc.) to show me your searches and results as appropriate while engaging with the reading.

Sep 27 Tue - Learning

We will discuss the science of learning. Bring your computer and some concepts you’d like to remember to class. In class we will be installing and using software so you can complete the SRL Deck exercise. You may write a response.

Sep 30 Fri - Filtering

REQUIRED: See the practical wiki assignment section above and integrate your thoughts on the readings below with screenshots from the Filter and label your email assignment into your wiki response.

Oct 04 Tue - Participation power

If you choose to do a response for this chapter, provide three good multiple choice questions; at the end of your page, provide an answer key. (There’s no need to write a normal response.)

Oct 07 Fri - Know how

(When’s there no prompt, summarize and engage.)

Oct 11 Tue - Gender

How does gender figure into digital communication, participation, and contribution?

Oct 14 Fri - Social shape

REQUIRED: You must turn in the SRL Deck assignment via email to the instructor 90 minutes before class. (You may, optionally, also write a reading response.)

Oct 18 Tue - Exam Review

In your response, craft two multiple choice questions and two short/essay questions that could appear on the exam. For each question, provide an answer/explanation, or even a mnemonic, in a section below all the questions. You may count this toward your reading responses, but please still send it in a separate email as well.

Due: Turn in your reading responses, emailed to me (with <url> and markdown), following template structure.

Oct 21 Fri - Exam

Oct 25 Tue - Manipulated

In what ways are online reviews, ratings, rankings, and comments manipulated? What can you trust and how would you know?

Due: Essay proposal

Oct 28 Fri - Ads and social graph background

What are the main types of advertisements available online? This is relevant to our discussions of algorithmic discrimination, online manipulation, and privacy.

(Please bring Hacker’s Pocket Style Manual to class.)

Nov 01 Tue - Online ads and blockers

Knowing what we know about online advertising, should users be able to easily block ads? If so, who then pays for the free content and services we consume?

REQUIRED: See the practical wiki assignment section above and integrate your thoughts on the readings below with screenshots from the Adblocking assignment into your wiki response. Note: if Northeastern rejects your email as spam, you may send your email to me at my personal address.

Nov 04 Fri - Algorithmic discrimination

Guest: Christo Wilson

Do algorithms exhibit biases (intentional or otherwise) in online commerce?

Nov 08 Tue - Dating

How has digital communication changed the dating landscape? Can we trust what we see? What sort of biases emerge in people’s messaging behaviors?

Nov 11 Fri - NO CLASS

Nov 15 Tue - Breakup

On the flip-side of dating, how to people breakup in the digital age?

Nov 18 Fri - Privacy

How concerned should we be about our privacy online? Is there anything we can do to protect it?

REQUIRED: See the practical wiki assignment section above and integrate your thoughts on the readings below with a few screenshots from the Privacy footprint assignment into your wiki response. (Don’t use screenshots that reveal your personal information such as name and phone number!)

Nov 22 Tue - Haters

Why does digital communication give rise to such toxic behavior, including that of haters and that seen in “bully battles”?

Nov 25 Fri - NO CLASS

Nov 29 Tue - Shaped

How does digital communication affect our ability to be mindful? How does it affect self-esteem; is it making us narcissistic?

Dec 02 Fri - Collapsed context

What does it mean to be authentic online? Is it possible anymore to have more than one persona online?

Bring your device for a class class activity.

Dec 06 Tue - Pushback

Is it possible to opt-out of digital communication?

Due: Turn in your reading responses for the latter half of the semester, emailed to me (with <url> and markdown), following template structure.

Due: Essay.

© 2013-2016 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License