Synchronous Online Active Classes

I have run RStudio’s instructor training class three times in the last three weeks, which has prompted me to think again about the future of teaching and learning. As I wrote last month, I do almost all of my teaching these days online in real time:

  1. Half a dozen to two dozen learners join me on a video conference.

  2. Everyone is muted by default to cut down on background noise. Learners raise a flag in the video conference chat when they want to speak, or (more often) put a question or comment into the chat so that their peers can respond.

  3. Learners use the chat to answer formative assessment questions as well. Anything bigger goes into a shared Google Doc where they post long-form answers or upload drawings. (I’m really looking forward to the day when I can assume most people have touch-screen devices so that they can draw directly in the Google Doc rather than doing the photo-and-upload dance.)

  4. We use breakout rooms for think-pair-share and small-group discussions. When I teach programming, I also get learners to take turns sharing their screen so that everyone can see, comment on, and learn from their work.

I have tried to come up with a catchy acronym to describe this model. Garrett Grolemund coined the phrase active teaching a while back to describe models in which the teacher adapts content and direction in real time based on feedback from the learners. I think it’s essential to making this model work, so the best acronym I have so far is SOAC, for “synchronous online active class”. “Online” and “class” explain themselves; it’s “synchronous” because everyone is learning at the same time and “active” because the teacher and the students are using what they learn as they learn in.

I think SOACs are going to be much more interesting over the next few years than MOOCs. A decade of research tells us that MOOCs don’t really work very well, and the margins in the MOOC business are razor-thin and getting thinner. Emeritus, conference workshops, and your local music teacher are proof that people will pay for personalized instruction, and video gaming is proof that people will line up their schedules for something they enjoy doing. I therefore think that instead of putting more effort into platforms for delivering videos and robo-grading exercises, we should design something for real-time collaborative teaching and learning. Brookfield and Preskill’s The Discussion Book is packed with good ideas that have never been implemented online, and a lot of the practices that in-person workshops have developed (like using sticky notes as “need help” flags and to ensure fair air time for everyone) could also serve as inspirations.

The best summary of MOOCs I ever heard is that if you use robots to teach, you’re teaching people to be robots. There are a lot of good teachers in the world who love to teach; if we build a platform to help them do that in a more humane way, we will also help people be more humane. And yes, there’s a risk that vulture capitalists will encourage people to build something that only serves the affluent, but if the platform itself is open, I hope that people who are marginalized or disenfranchised by today’s obsession with scalability will be able to use it to share their knowledge with their peers much more accessibly than today’s MOOCs allow.

Update: as several people have pointed out, a lot of people don’t have or can’t afford the bandwidth needed for interactive video, and even those who do or can may prefer written material. I would therefore also like next-generation platforms to partner with companies like Lumen Learning to ensure that lesson materials work as open access textbooks as well as online.

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