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Professional Opinion

Synchronous video chat and the real definition of MOOCs

How can a MOOC really become participatory, and how can MOOC instructors really create engagement? The short answer: video chat.
University Business, November 2013

I grew up in a small Italian neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, NY. So, when the word “MOOC” raged into the education lexicon, I had to laugh. My young friends and I used to call some of our undesirable neighborhood cohorts “MOOKs”- pronounced the same but spelled with a K instead of a C. Of course, the MOOC of today is an entirely different animal.

The modern education definition of MOOC was recently added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online version as “a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.”

David Cormier is the educator who actually invented the term Massive Open Online Courses, which, as many online educators will explain, has quickly become an over-used, over-hyped, and now under-defined term. MOOC came from an online course Cormier co-taught in 2008, called "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge." In attendance were 25 tuition fee-paying students in an Extended Education program offered by the University of Manitoba. In addition, 2,300 other students from the general public took the online course free of charge. All course content was available through RSS feeds, and learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life, and synchronous online meetings.

In a recent interview as well as in a YouTube video, Cormier explains in much more depth his originally intended and much more interesting definition of the word MOOC. “A MOOC, he says, “is open, in the sense that the work done in the course is shared between all the people taking it... The course is participatory. You really become part of the course by engaging with other people's work.”

But how can a MOOC really become” participatory,” and how can course instructors in a MOOC really create “engagement?” Steve Gottlieb, CEO of a New York City-based company called Shindig, claims to have the solution. The short answer: video chat, and, in particular, his Shindig video chat application, which has proven itself an effective rich media video and audio application for large-scale synchronous online events in the publishing and music sectors. TEDx, Bill Gates and Guy Kawasaki, are among the hundreds of prominent organizations and individuals who have already harnessed the Shindig platform for specific projects.

Shindig’s patented technology enables faculty members to host large-scale video chat interactions in their online courses. An instructor can give a lecture, be asked questions from the students in attendance, and share multimedia and PowerPoint presentations. Selected students can be “spotlighted” to ask questions "face-to face" through their webcams in front of the entire class. Everyone in the course can see each other and self-aggregate with a simple click into private video chats of their choice - all without disturbing other students in attendance. In short, Shindig enables the real-life dynamics of a face-to-face course with all its interaction and participatory features at Internet scale.

“Shindig addresses what are widely held to be the critical deficiencies of current MOOC platforms,” Gottlieb says, “namely; the lack of teacher- student interactivity optimally necessary for learning and the lack of student-to- student interaction for peer-to-peer learning and/or student body cohesion, which yields maximum student retention.”

Cormier adds that as synchronous tools such as video chat become more commonplace, students (especially Generation C) will expect and demand such tools be utilized effectively in their fully online or blended courses. “People increasingly are saying I want to see people, 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 that we are going to see the need for that more and more as we go on with this,” Cormier explains.

Thomas B. Cavanagh, associate vice president of distributed learning, and Chuck Dziuban, director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida (UCF), recently co-authored an article in ELearning Landscape, a blog sponsored by the Sloan Consortium, which is one of the oldest organizations in higher education that provides support to educators in their production of online teaching and learning environments. Headlined “MOOC Fatigue or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the MOOC,” Cavanagh and Dziuban noted that “a MOOC does not define online learning. It is simply a particular type of online learning, a subset of the larger whole. Online learning contains many different types of delivery strategies and the MOOC is but one flower in the garden.”

They go on to say how MOOCs have “an abysmal completion record,” but on the positive side, MOOCs give students from around the world and all walks of life a free opportunity to learn if they are only self-directed, passionate learners, and, of course, have a decent Internet connection. “The press is filled with anecdotes of global students from disadvantaged circumstances who are immensely grateful for the opportunity to simply learn,” write Cavanagh and Dziuban.

So now imagine all these learners being able to see and talk with each other. Gottlieb claims 20 to 2,000 learners can be actively using the Shindig platform in an online course (see their YouTube presentation). Another growing-in-popularity video chat tool, notably Google Hangouts, caps out at somewhere under 15 students in attendance.

Now I can imagine taking a MOOC myself, and, under highly unlikely circumstances, but somehow conceivable, being co-enrolled with one of my old neighborhood buddies, Vinnie. “Hey you stupid Mook,” I say. “Did you get that physics concept?” Vinnie responds, looking me in the eye and vice versa through our webcams: “Don’t call me a Mook; you’re the Mook. Now Pay attention to the real MOOC.”

—George Lorenzo is writer, editor and publisher of The SOURCE on Community College Issues, Trends & Strategies.