MOOC experiment with Google Hangouts
The physiology MOOC I’m taking right now (Introductory Human Physiology. Duke University. Professors Emma Jakoi, Jennifer Carbrey. Coursera.) ran an interesting experiment with Google Hangouts the other day.
The harsh truth is that it was a disaster with way too many tech problems, maddening to sit through if you were hoping to get much of real value out of it. But from the perspective of an experiment, it was quite intriguing and points to opportunities to make MOOCs even more like a traditional college classroom than they already are.
This Hangout was an adjunct to the announced design of the course. Its purpose seemed to be a kind of mid-course “touch base” meeting to make sure there were no serious problems and to build the community.
Interested students were invited in advance to commit to participating at the agreed time. It was 2.5 hours long, with the two professors and their tech aide hosting, and up to six handpicked students at a time being brought in. Around a dozen students came and went during the period.
In the spirit of hanging out, there wasn’t much of an agenda. The professors generally asked students to introduce themselves and explain their motivation for taking the course. (And there were a lot of interesting stories there. My favorite aspect of MOOCs is the intersection of global participation and self-motived students. In this case you also get an interesting glimpse into the messy bedrooms of the world.) Next the professors typically asked if the student had any concerns about the format of the course. There was often some joking about how hard the problem sets were, but students seem satisfied with the structure.
Then things sometimes got more interesting, with students posing questions to the professors about the content of the course. In those exchanges I got a glimpse of what it must be like to sit further back in a giant lecture hall, afraid to raise my hand, and watching more outgoing students mix it up with the professor. (I was always the outgoing one with his hand raised.) During those exchanges, I was learning. I was engaged in a different way than while watching the videotaped lectures or doing my homework. The teachers, of course, when they hear the questions, get to take a different approach to explaining the material, hitting some things for emphasis, expanding on the concepts in the videotaped lectures.
I would even go so far as to say that if a student in a traditional classroom is the kind of person to observe and not participate anyway — and if they’re in a classroom where the professor will let them get away with that — then this experience could be just as valuable when it’s clicking. Of course, if you’re a student like I actually am and want to get into the mix, too bad. No room at the inn. But observing classmates and teachers interact in a direct way in the Hangout is still a big advantage over the one-way communication of the lectures.
I’m sympathetic to the case that there is something special about a traditional classroom that can never be reproduced online. Traditionalists resistant to MOOCs may always feel this will always be a case of “the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning,” as Mark Twain put it. Maybe that distance will never be completely closed, but I don’t think it can be denied the distance is closing.
When it’s clicking, as I say. Which wasn’t much of time during this experiment. The value I’m describing above only comes from cherry picking a few minutes out of 2.5 hours of dropped connections, frozen screens and the anxious grimacing of the professors asking “Are you there? Oh, now I can see you. No wait. Can you hear me?” It’s probably too much to ask that there not be any hiccups, but as we’ve argued elsewhere, Coursera’s experiments are using an awful lot of students as lab rats.