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Reclaiming the Original Vision of MOOCs

Massive open online courses were never meant to be dull and lonely. But how can the courses encourage more student-to-student and student-to-faculty interaction?

In a New York Times feature article headlined "Two Cheers for Web U," A. J. Jacobs wrote about his experience taking part in some massive open online courses (MOOCs). Among a good number of critical statements about MOOCS in general, Jacobs explained how the lack of teacher-to-student and student-to-student interaction in such online courses was probably the most disappointing aspect of his experience. He wanted to be engaged in what he said looked like, at first glance, a dynamic and exiting online learning experience. Instead, he said he was disappointed, finding that professors and students were out of reach and conversations were one-sided, faculty-only affairs.

MOOCs, however, were never meant to be dull and lonely. "A MOOC is not just an online course," said Professor David Cormier, manager of Web communication and innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island. Cormier first coined the phrase "massive open online courses" in 2008, when  he was teaching an online course called "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge" at the University of Manitoba along with colleagues Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education; George Siemens, associate director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University; and Stephen Downes, senior researcher at The National Research Council Canada.

The Original Purpose of MOOCs: Connections are Critical
A MOOC is participatory, Cormier explained in a 2010 YouTube video titled "What is a MOOC?" "It is a way to connect and collaborate while developing digital skills. MOOCs are, maybe most importantly, an event around which people who care about a topic can get together and work and talk about it in a structured way." In a MOOC, part of the goal is to "become part of the course by engaging with other people's work," Cormier said.

The challenge is that there really is not a synchronous application available today to online educators that can easily and intuitively bring together all the students in a MOOC — or any online course for that matter — in a truly interactive, highly social, and basically more human manner. This notion, however, is starting to be challenged by the newest video chat application to enter the online education space — Shindig, where the potential for creating live, well-attended face-to-face interactions in the student-to-student and student-to-faculty virtual world looks very possible.

"Those connections we make with other people are critical to learning," Cormier explained in a recent interview. "The more of the human part of our interactions we are able to do [in an online course], the better off we are."

"Basically the incorporation of rich media collaboration has arrived, and the big question is what are the best methods and tools for creating a rich media, asynchronous or synchronous teaching and learning environment," added California State University Professor Emeritus John Ittelson, a long-time expert on such educational technologies. "The answer, in short, is video, both in synchronous and asynchronous modalities because, as we have learned, mimicking the face-to-face, interactive teaching and learning environment as close as reasonably possible over an Internet connection is the Holy Grail of online education.  And that is, quite simply, what video does."

Most Synchronous Video Systems Not There Yet
However, broadly speaking, the video systems on the market today do not enable a large number of participants in an online course to see and talk to each other. Plus, for the most part, faculty typically use these systems in a one-to-all lecture modality in which student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions are fairly limited. "What faculty members do is record a video and accept that the students are sitting there," Cormier said. "Students do not end up making any connections or interactions. There are secret chat rooms in the back, and a lot of faculty members get mad at students for interacting with each other [in the back-end chat rooms] and not paying attention to the teacher."

According to Alexander, who writes an academic blog titled "Future Trends in Technology and Education," the typical use of videoconferencing in an online course is "not so much multipoint as one-presentation video. You can bring in other voices, but it really depends on the chat box for interaction." He added, however, that he is seeing the chat box starting to get downplayed.  "We may be moving to video primarily."

That seems to be a given when you start to think about today's traditional age college students, as well as students in K-12, who are very accustomed to online video and audio, not only for education purposes, but in their day-to-day lives. Take Khan Academy, for instance, where millions of young students are learning math primarily through interactive video lessons. Think about YouTube, where, as noted on its Web site, "billions of people discover, watch and share originally-created videos," in a "forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others across the globe." Think of the relatively new term, "Generation C," meaning "connected." First coined by Nielsen, these are the 18 to 24-year olds who make up 23 percent of the population of the United States and represent an outsized portion of consumers watching online video at 27 percent.

Based in New York City, Shindig is a video chat application that is out to change the way online courses are taught through its commitment to what it calls "the unrealized potential of video chat."  Already being utilized extensively and quite successfully by best-selling authors and musicians, Shindig's proprietary technology may enable online faculty members to facilitate rich media interactive video and audio with large numbers of students in an online course. If those students have their video cameras on, the faculty member can see each student sitting at his or her workstation. These students can also see each other, and they can, with only a click, self aggregate into their own collaborative groups and speak with each other in real time during the course. Basically, with Shindig, in addition to seeing each other in a shared space, students can move freely in and out of conversation with whomever they choose, and address questions to the faculty member or the entire group.

CEO Steve Gottlieb bills Shindig as "the new state-of-the art of online engagement."  In a recent article published in Kirkus, a popular book review magazine and publishing media company, Jacobs talked about his experience, along with 50 other best-selling authors at this summer's BookExpo America, digitally connecting to thousands of individuals in a wide variety of Shindig video chats.  In the Kirkus article, headlined "One Voice But Thousands Participate," it was explained how these authors were stationed at laptops with interviewers. People on webcams who were in the virtual audience located anywhere, who combined ranged from 50 to 1,000,  asked these authors questions and connected with each in private video chats.

In a meet-and-greet event hosted by Shindig, best-selling author of the popular "Wool Series," Hugh Howey, said that  "as an author who loves to connect with his readers across the globe, my one wish is that I could be everywhere at once. Shindig makes that happen."

These are the kind of experiences that Gottlieb said he wants to move into the education sector. "People need to get real about how to recreate teaching," he said.  "For that we need to overcome two fundamental obstacles. One is how do we engage the student dynamically through interaction so they are into the experience committed and involved and not just watching it. Secondly, how do we create a cohort, a peer group, a sense of other people who aspire to learn, who are providing inspiration, encouragement, who are creating a social group, all trying to achieve the same thing — an outcome.

"The technologies have been incredibly flat and uninspiring and have been devoid of this kind of interaction," Gottlieb continued. "If by some miracle you can teach people by video, it will sort itself out whether the class size will be 200 or 2,000. Before we get to that, you have to be able to educate with whatever the class size is, and to do that, you need interaction. It's all about interaction, and our technology is focused on that."

See Me, Hear Me
Cormier would likely agree. "People are increasingly saying, 'I want to see people,'" he said. "'I want to see who they are. I want to see what they look like. I want to know if they are smiling. I want to know if they are being sarcastic. I want to know a little bit more about them. I want a more human experience.' I think we are going to see the need for that more and more as we go on with this."

Cormier added that in a hybrid course that he currently teaches, his students miss the face-to-face interaction they have when they meet online. "When I use these online platforms, we meet face-to-face on Monday and then we meet online on Wednesday, and they complain about not being able to see each other."

That may not be the case much longer.

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