How to make online-education gazillion times more social, interactive and live than off-line-education ever can be

The typical situation for learning is not thousands of participants – MOOC´s. It is smaller groups, 30-100. Still, imagine you cannot meet physically, Corona-times could be one reason. Then here is what you can do. And please note; it can become way better in doing exactly everything that off-line-education is claimed to be great at.

I have been busy experimenting, hard, with myself, others, and digital tools. Corona-times has been a great time to do it.

Here is what I already knew before I started…

Firstly: People, being on-line, get bored, leave, or fall asleep, even faster, than they do offline. Off-line, fast. Online, faster.

Mute your own voice. Hide your face. Use an Avatar. No-one will notice. If also no-one is asking you anything during a session, you might start wondering why you even attended. Yes, why should you actually attend somewhere live, if you are not needed?

Secondly: There is absolutely no point asking someone to go online for something that can be done better offline. In the world of education everything comes down to: what is the best way to achieve learning?

Thirdly: Every technology has its own characteristic, that should be used, otherwise try a different technology. What ever tech we use: we got to find our own reasons for it, more here.

Suggestion: we have to find a way to make digital education even better than when off-line, otherwise nothing will make us feel it being worthwhile. Praying will just not help.

Now, during my road of experimentation, I have done things online, live, but without recording me. I do not like recording live-sessions. To me, live is live and should not be repeated. Why else have it?

I do really love music, live and recorded. But I seldom listen to recorded live concerts. I feel that I just get half of it, when I listen to a recorded concert. Neither the same feeling as during a concert, nor the same sound-quality as from a studio-recording. Recorded live-concerts: only relevant for the hardcore fans?

But I also know; if I record digital live sessions, number of participants, will go down. If they know live sessions can be watched afterwards, why be there when it is recorded? I end up alone. And then I get sad and lonely, and nervous and; just bad. Then I start wondering: If they are not there live, why should I? Why should actually anyone of us be live?

Adding to that: if people prefer just consuming me “as a video”, why not make them beforehand? I already have recorded videos based on the MOOCs I run, click pict.

These videos could be used instead of me recording live-sessions. Quality is rather good. Not perfect, could have been made far better. But I am neither that perfect live. Who is?

Recording a live session, maybe, makes sense to people that might want it, but it does not make sense to me. And If I wanted to create recordings, I already know that I can do it far better than during live-sessions. I know how to record and I know how to do post-production. I have the equipment and software I need.

And if this was the road forward…there do actually already exist avatars. I can just “type” my own videos – me as an avatar, of myself.

Why do things that just doesn´t make any sense?

Or in other words: Since I already have decided to try to find a decent reason for live online-education, I also have to find a solution.

Here is what I have found out…

If I start an online-session with a question, and students answer, which they do, I have a good start for a live conversation. I use Zoom and the poll-function. The nice thing with the poll-function in Zoom is that students get it right in their face, when they log in. It is literately the first thing they meet, and that´s the point.

What do we normally want to happen when we enter a room with other people? We want them to say “Hi”, and ask: “How are you?” If they don´t, we become insecure, feel left out, start thinking about leaving.

Who said deeply rooted social norms change just because we became digital?

I put this poll out before I even start. Students arriving early get something to chew on. A way to chat with them. It is actually a unpolite not chatting with people that comes to meetings a bit early.

The first Q in this poll is often something like “How are you today?”. They get answering-options like “I´m ok” or “This is actually my worst day ever, but thank you for asking” or “I do not really know yet, will find out later”. It gives them a smile, a good start for a meeting. It also gives me a feeling on how they actually are, I care about how they are.

If a teacher is not interested in a student, why should a student be interested in a teacher?

The second, often last, Q, in this starting-poll is more related to the topic at hand. Last week it was “When do you think we will have self-driving-cars out on the public streets?” Answering-options was “1, 3, 5, 10, 20 years”, or “never”.

In the pict there is a self-driving Volvo, driven by Uber in USA, just some years back. Among the first tests ever out on open streets. Big change is on the horizon, but we still do not know when.

This is actually an interesting question. Peoples opinion will effect when we will have these cars. So, I ask because I want to hear their opinion. I do not ask something randomly. If I did, they would get bored, fall asleep, leave – for a good reason.

Only ask people questions that you want to hear the answer on.

Then, when I share the result, which is the next thing I do, students get to know something interesting: how others participating are thinking about this issue.

This start make sense. Me asking them questions. Q´s that I actually care about.

A nice feature in Zoom is that I also can share the result with the students. I then can respond and reflect on their answers, talking about “why should we expect self-driving cars to enter soon, or the opposite”.

But if I start by skipping these starting Q´s and instead just speak to the students for, lets say 10 minutes, maybe showing them slides, they have already left – physically or just mentally. In the digital space people leave fast, really fast, more in this book. We all know it.

During the first three minutes the agenda, how things will be done, is set. It goes for a meeting, when entering a party, in education and elsewhere. Is it going to be worth attending, or not? Is it going to be interesting, or not? Will anyone care if I attend, or not? Am I needed here, or not? That´s why I care so much about these minutes.

After that (not before that)…

If I then talk three short minutes, then send them to a break out room, a feature in Zoom useful for creating digital groups, with an assignment for like 10 minutes, they actually work on it. They start talking to each other. Knowledge is shared, and developed. Of course; these assignments are related to the first Qs, in this case self-driving-cars.

I guess you already knew that you as a host can jump in on all break-out-rooms on Zoom, to check out everything works fine, not to interrupt. It is a way to help them in their group-assignment, maybe answer further questions.

Yes; I know it also is an implicit way telling them “I am expecting you all to participate here”. I do not have to tell them, they feel it when I pop up.

Then, after this short break-out-room-session, and everyone is back in the same digital space again, I easily can ask them to post their conclusions in the chat-room. And…they respond. I get a flow of different ideas in the chat. Great ideas also, at least often. But we actually do not need “great” ideas in order to learn. Sometimes “bad ideas” can be really great for learning. I can use them and make something interesting out of it.

So, I can just scroll the chat, that everyone can see at the same time, and reflect on their result openly. Taking the issue one step further so to speak.

If I do the above, they start interrupting me after a while, which I want – in the chatroom, or maybe by speaking openly. Then, the whole conversation is on.

The big problem is not if all of them interrupt me at the same time. That I/we can handle. The big problem is if no-one is interrupting. That I/we cannot handle. And this, Break-out-rooms, I can do several times in a row…still works. And hopefully, at least I think so, they learn and get something out of this live-session.

Questions, break-out-rooms, questions, reflections, new questions, new break-out-rooms: gamification

In general: if students come back, it is fairly good sign. My students seem to come back. But I don’t check if they do. I do not have obligatory moments. Students should come back because they want to, not because somebody force them to.

Would you enjoy social media, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, whatever, if I forced you to use it? Would it be useful, from your point of view?

But then, gradually, which is even more interesting, the longer a session goes on, I can start “lecturing”…and still keep their attention. I can add me just talking and showing slides for 15, 20 or even 30 minutes, if needed, and still keep their attention – if I have something relevant to say that is.

Everyone that have tried Zoom knows the challenge. Funny movies on YouTube are just a thumb-press away.

Why do we think there are so many faces and voices muted during digital meetings?

Lets take some steps further…

In between all this I also can have as many coffee-breaks as I like, breaks that are about five minutes long. I do it if I personally need it, like getting more coffee for myself. Or if they suggest it. They don’t mind. I don’t mind. And after these five minutes of a break, all of us still seem to be there. They do not seem to drop out. I don’t seem to drop out. I don´t have 15 minutes long breaks anymore.

Why does this seem to work?

My guess: it is because it is simply the way it has to be done, if running live education on-line in groups of people that are like 30-100.

If you go for thousands, you have to use a different way, like the technologies MOOC´s provide – already recorded videos, peer-review-assignments etc. And if you go for smaller groups than this, 3-10 people, you already know how to do this with a digital tool: it is called a “conference call”? But in groups of 30-100, this is the way.

Notice: This would never work without the poll-function, the breakout-rooms and the chat-channel embedded in Zoom, three reasons why I happen to like Zoom a bit better than other tools. But better solutions than Zoom is already on its way.

Imagine that you are a student taking an online class with 30-100 study friends. Imagine if the teacher just talks. Why should you be there? You could receive the message in a different way. Or; you could even take a MOOC instead. Somebody could also record that live-session so you can watch it later – my guess is that lot of digital live lectures today are recorded, by the students themselves, but without teachers knowing it…called bootleg in the music industry.

We got to have a reason for each technology we use. And from a student’s point of view, the only reason to be on-line, live, jointly with a group of this size, is to interact. It is the social component that does it.

Yes, you can interact with people in a physical room. But notice this: If you want to create group-work with 30-100 people in a room, it would take lot of unnecessary time to arrange the groups – 10 minutes just gone. In Zoom you can have group-work up and running in 3 seconds. That is why you can have them this often, and so many of them. You just cannot do that with off-line education.

Adding to that: How are groups normally organized when you do it with 30 – 100 people in a physical room? You end up with the same people in the same groups, every time. In Zoom you can help the participants get into a new group every single time – you control how break-out-rooms are created. And this is interesting socially.

Meeting new people is often nice, and good from a learning-point of view – hearing other perspectives than the ones we always hear. Though, it is difficult for a single person to achieve in a physical room, even if that person wants to, simply because of implicit social norms and us all getting stuck in our first group. But on Zoom, I can help out. Constantly new people to meet and discuss with. Possible to achieve digitally but impossible to do at a physical meeting.

This is actually a better way for social interaction compared to what you can achieve in a physical room.

What with the breaks? If you try to arrange a five-minute break in a room with 30-100 people, what happens? It is going to take more than five minutes just to get everyone out of the room. But digitally, stretching your legs, for five minutes, is easy. So, you can suddenly have breaks often. Possible to achieve digitally but impossible to do at a physical meeting.

Why did we actually have 15 minutes breaks before? Well, at my university it was needed simply in order to give students time to walk to where the next session would be. Campuses are large areas. But that is no problem when we are digital. And why professional education keeps having 15 minute breaks at conference centers is a pure mystery – a bad copy they ones stole from the universities, ages ago, why?

So, the reason for making things in such a short and quick way is: because it is a far better way. And; because we now actually also can do it, thanks to digital tools. We should have done this long ago actually. But it was not possible to do it before. Now it is.

But we can actually do more than that…

While having these small breaks, or during break-out-rooms, I easily can change my own slides, if I use any that is, but without students even noticing that I do. When they have a break-out-room I am left alone, if I want to that is. So, if I run this in real time and time seem to be running out, or the discussion we are having leads us to being jointly interested in focusing more on something, I can change my “lecturing” while still being live. That is something you rarely can do when you do physical teaching – you are stuck with your pre-prepared format so to speak. You can only do that during your 15 minutes break. Few teachers are able to adapt fully, even change their own slides, in relationship to what is happening during an off-line-lecture.

Here, by the way, is also the reason why I don´t share any slides beforehand, but afterwards…I just can not know myself how the slides finally will look, until after the session (I constantly seem to come to the conclusion after my sessions that I always start off with more slides than needed. Good: it is never the opposite).

And then…teaching becomes…live.

Your slides are just a starting-point, if you even should have any that is. Not something you have to follow as a dogma. If you miss something out, add that to the next session instead. Why interrupt an important learning-discussion?

All this, in total, seem to head for this conclusion: why do we actually still struggle with the old way of doing education? It is just costly and bad quality.

Here is a suggested summary: What I am just trying to say is this…on-line education can, if done “correctly” that is, outperform the old way of doing education on exactly all things we so often tend to claim to be the major reason for keeping the old way of teaching: being social, interactive, and running things live.

Could I perhaps have a point?

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