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. I imagined Corona-times was a great time to do it, and it was (still is, though the bar has been raised a bit). At the beginning of the Corona-shut-down; no students seemed upset, whatever one did, as long as there was an honest intention behind, trying to create something good.

Let´s start off with what I already knew before I started to experiment.

Firstly: People (for instance students, or just us), when being on-line, get bored, leave, or fall asleep, even faster, than they do offline. We were fast in this when doing things off-line. Online, we are even faster.

Could it be because it is easier to do, when we are on-line, compared to being off-line? Mute your own voice. Hide your own face. Or 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 should attend.

Yes, why should you actually attend somewhere live, if you are not needed?

By the way; Isn´t this also an obvious conclusion applicable in other situations than education? How about; digital office-meetings for instance?

Secondly: There is absolutely no point in asking someone to go online for something that can be done better offline. Corona-times might have forced us to go digital, but still: We have to find a decent reason, for ourselves, for doing what we are doing.

In the world of education that comes down to: what is the best way to achieve learning?

As long as one do one-way-broadcasting, a better way than doing things live digitally, is to give students already prepared videos, that they can take anytime they like. And a lot of students have already come to that conclusion by themselves.

Could this be the reason why some people ask us to record a digital live-session?

Thirdly: Every technology has its own characteristic, that should be used, otherwise try a different technology. If you use a certain technology: you got to find your own reason for doing it.

Don’t blame Corona that you cannot meet people physically. Find instead your own reason for “not wanting” to meet them. And since you probably loved off-line education, your reason better be good, right?

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

Now, during this road of experimenting, I have done things online, and live, but without recording me.

I do not really like the idea of recording a live-session you see. To me, live is live and should not be repeated. That is the whole point by live as I see it. It is “here and then and never again”.

Why else have “live”?

I do really love music, live and recorded. But I seldom like to listen to recorded live concerts. I feel that I step in at a place where I do not really belong. I never paid to be there when it happened and I never participated and made the concert that good.

But I also often feel that I just get “half of it”, nothing fully, when I listen to a recorded concert. I neither get the same feeling as if I would have been to the concert, nor get the same sound-quality as if it would have been recorded in a studio.

Why do actually some people appreciate recorded live-concerts? Is it only relevant for the hardcore fans?

But I also know, that if start recording my digital live sessions, the number of students participating when I run live, will go down. If they already know that my live session can be watched afterwards, just like a video, why be there when it is recorded? And then I end up being alone while doing it. And then I get sad and lonely, and nervous and, you know, just; bad. And then I start wondering myself: Why did I not just give them an already recorded video? If they are not there live, why should I be there live?

Why should anyone of us even be live?

Adding to that: if my students prefer just consuming me on a video, why don’t I just make that video beforehand, and skip recording it during a live session? I have lot of already recorded videos based on the MOOCs I run at this moment, so they could be used instead of me recording live-sessions. Their quality is actually rather good. I have spent time on making them pretty good.

Me, recording a live session, maybe, makes sense to some of the students that might want it, but it does not make sense to me as a teacher. And, just so you know: If I wanted to create a recording, I already know that I can do it far better than just recording a live-session. I know how to record and I know how to use post-production, software that can help me create nice videos.

Well, post-production can also be done on a live recording, but what is then the point by it? Why start off live, recording it, then changing it afterwards, with post-production, then finally trying to fool people by calling it “live”, again (while it is not live, anymore)?

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

In other words: Since I already have decided to try to find a good and decent reason for running online-education live, I also have to find that reason.

And here is what I have found out…

If I start off an online-session directly with a question, and students answer, which they do (people tend to answer questions, if you ask them something of importance), I have a good start for a live conversation. I use Zoom and the poll-function.

The nice thing with the poll-function is that the students get the poll right in their face already when they log in at Zoom for a session. It is in their way for getting to the session. In some sense you can nearly say that they have to answer. It is literately the first thing they meet, and that is the point.

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

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

I put this poll out before I even start. Students arriving a bit early get something to chew on. There are always students arriving a bit early on Zoom. This is a way to chat with them. It is unpolite not talking to people that come to a meeting a bit early you know.

The first Q in this poll is often something like “How are you today?”, and then 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, which is a good start for a meeting. But it also gives me a feeling on how they actually are, and I do tend to care about how they are.

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

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

This is actually a very interesting question to ask people. Peoples opinion does effect when we really will have these cars. So I do really ask because I want to hear their opinion. I do not just ask something randomly. If I did, they would understand that I did. And then they would get bored on me, and probably leave.

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

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

This start seems to make sense. Me just asking them questions that I, actually, care about.

A nice feature in Zoom is also that I can share the result with the students. So, of course, I also can respond and reflect on their answers, like talking about “why should we expect self-driving cars to enter soon, or the opposite”. I normally do that, so we can talk jointly about it.

But if I start by skipping this starting Qs and instead just speak to the students (lets call it “lecturing”) for just like 10 short minutes, like the way we often did during classical physical lecturing, and then ask them something later, no one is there – they already have left, either physically or just mentally.

The first three minutes, matter a lot. It is when the agenda, how things will be done, is set. And we all actually already knew this. It goes for a meeting, when entering a party, in education and elsewhere.

These minutes decide. Is it going to be worth attending, or not? Is it going to be fun, or not? Is it going to be interesting, or not? Will anyone care if I attend, or not? Am I needed here, or not?

After that…

If I then talk for, just like five 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 do work on it (of course, these assignments are related to the first Qs, in this case self-driving-cars). They start talking to each other. It becomes an important discussion and knowledge is shared, and developed.

I guess you then already know that you as a host can jump in on all different break-out-rooms on Zoom, just to check out that everything works fine, not to interrupt the discussions. It is a way to help participants in their group-assignment (yes; I do know it also is an implicit way telling them “I am expecting you all to participate here”, but that I do not have to tell them, they just feel it when I pop up).

And then, after that short break-out-room-session, and everyone is back in the same digital space again, I easily can ask them to just post their conclusions in the chat-room. And they respond. I get a big flow of different ideas in the chat-channel. Great ideas also.

Then, I can just scroll the chatroom, that everyone can see at the same time, and reflect on their result openly. Taking the issue one step further.

Then, if I do the above, they start interrupting me after a while, which I want – in the chatroom, or maybe just by speaking openly. Because I want them to participate. And then, the whole conversation is on.

The big problem is not if all of them try to interrupt me at the same time. That I can handle. The big problem is if no-one is interrupting me. That I cannot handle. It just makes me insecure – and also: it is a sign of something being wrong here. And this, Break-out-rooms, I can do several times in a row, and it still works.

Questions, break-out-rooms, short questions, reflections, new break-out-rooms, new questions, reflections.

Participants are engagement, they talk, interact. And hopefully, at least I think so, they learn and get something out of this digital live-session.

In general: if students come back, it is fairly often a good sign of something working. 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 they still keep their attention.

If I instead would have started off with pure “classical lecturing”, I would have lost their attention directly. Everyone that have tried a tool like Zoom knows this.

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

If we could, and it was socially accepted, wouldn´t we all just prefer muting our own face, and voice, when participating at a physical meeting, if that meeting just felt like one-way-broadcasting to us?

Lets take some more steps further…

In between all this I also can have as many short 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 I hear them suggesting it. They don’t mind if I need a break. I don’t mind if they need a break. And after these five minutes of a break, all of us are still there. They do not seem to drop out.

I don’t drop out.

I do not have breaks that are like the 15 minutes anymore. I previously had that in the physical classroom – sessions of 45 minutes with breaks of 15 minutes in between.

And to me, I hope also for my students, this seem to work very well. I tend to keep them coming back.

Everyone that has done live Zoom-lecturing knows that you easily lose them the longer you do it, the difference between your first Zoom-session and your last Zoom-session.

Why does this seem to work?

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

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

Imagine that you are a student taking an online class with 30-100 study friends. Imagine if the teacher just talks, and no-one else is interacting. Why should you then be there? You could receive the message in a different way. Or; you could even take a MOOC instead. Somebody could also record that session for you so you can watch it later (my guess is that lot of digital live lectures today are recorded by the students themselves, but without the teacher knowing it…it would be like making a “bootleg”, and tech wise that is very easy to do). Or, you could just listen to it, as a radio-program, consuming it, not participating – muting your face, muting your voice.

There must be a reason for each technology we use, and from a student’s point of view, the only reason to be on-line, live, is to interact.

It is the social component that does it. For a good reason.

Yes, you can also interact with people in a physical room of course. But notice this: If you want to create group-work with like 30-100 people in a room, it would take lot of unnecessary time just to arrange the groups. And a “classroom” is seldom well structured, physically, for group work. In Zoom you can have groups-work up and running in 10 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 rather nice, and often good from a learning-point of view (hearing other perspectives than the ones we always here). But it is difficult for a single person to achieve it, even if one wants to, simply because of implicit social norms and us all getting stuck in our first group. But in Zoom, this is something I can help them out with. Constantly new people to meet and discuss with. It is impossible to do in a physical meeting. But possible to achieve digitally. So, this is actually a better way to create social interaction compared to what you can achieve in a physical room.

Then how about 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 takes that time. But in Zoom, stretching your arms, or legs, for five minutes is an easy thing. So, you can suddenly have breaks often.

And by the way: we all have known, for long, that if you try to listen to a person speaking longer than 15 minutes, you lose their attention. So, the old idea of having longer sessions and longer breaks in between, is just wrong, and not needed in the digital space.

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, getting to the next room (Campuses are often large areas). That is not needed now when we are digital.

And why professional education keeps having 15 minute breaks at conference centers is a mystery – just a bad copy they ones stole from the universites, ages ago, but stick to without knowing themselves 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. Now we can do this because the technology needed for it is here.

But we can actually do even more than that…

While having these small breaks, or during break-out-rooms, I easily can change my own slides, 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 only can do that during your 15 minutes break. But in the digital space, and during all these small breaks, you can do it far more often than that (here, by the way, is also the reason why I do not 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 seem start off with more slides than needed. Good: it is never the opposite).

And then your teaching really becomes…live.

Few teachers are able to adapt fully, and even change their own slides, depending on what is happening during an off-line-lecture. It is just too difficult, and you have no time for it. Now, you can.

Your slides are just a starting-point for something. Not something you have to follow as a dogma, if you work in this way. If you miss something out, add that to the next session instead.

Then also notice: this format does not only give room for students that prefer talking. If a student prefers writing instead and be silent, and not talking, it also works. It gives room for a higher degree of differentiation among students, than the old way of doing it in a physical classroom did.

It is difficult to feedback a teacher with text in a physical class-room.

And if you raise your hand in a classroom everyone else might see you and expect you to be smart, and therefore you avoid asking something that might me on your mind. In a digital session you can ask, and do not have to be shown while you do. Some people are shy you know, and this might help them.

All this, in total, seem to head for this conclusion: It is actually possible to make online education far more social, interactive and live, than off-line education, even in groups of 30-100 students. We just need to find the way to do it.

Could then maybe this case show, in detail, which actually was one of my points here, that we gradually will see far more changes of the world of education than what we have seen so far? Zoom, and Corona, and all that which you already know about, saving money and time from traveling, no need to pay for a physical room etc, was just a “small thing” compared to something far bigger that is gradually happening to education (and hopefully to office-meetings also).

Yes, why do we actually still struggle with the old way of doing education? It is just costly and bad quality.

What I am trying to say is this: on-line education can, if done correctly that is, outperform the old way of doing education on exactly all these 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 here?

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