Guest Post by Sankalp Garud - a 16-year-old problem solver, math whiz, online learning evangelist and entrepreneur. You can watch his educational videos on http://YouTube.com/tapthetech
I’m glad I can write this post at a time when the education system seems to be in a transition phase. With the development of great free online tools like Coursera and the Khann Academy, the Internet is fast penetrating into our learning routine. However these courses are still in need of video chat collaboration tools that can make online group study sessions effective and social.
How Online Education Changed My Learning
There are many reasons why the Internet is proving to be great for education, but access, irrespective of caste, gender, time zone etc., is the number one factor that makes it an ideal platform for learning. A few years ago (slightly more than 2, to be precise), I started watching Khan Academy videos. Beginning with Trigonometry, I watched almost all the videos that taught topics in my school curriculum. After that, I moved on to Pre-Calculus and then Calculus. I was about two years ahead of my peers in math. The videos not only made me ‘feel good’ about myself, but they also gave me confidence in Math. I became much more comfortable with the easier material in school. It seemed like a piece of cake!
The need for Video Chat + Collaboration in MOOCs
Last year we saw significant development of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses. These were world class universities giving their lectures for free. The best thing about MOOCs is you can pause videos whenever you are struggling, rewind and relearn — without any embarrassment. (I think that the pause button is the single most revolutionary command when it comes to MOOCs). Unfortunately the videos alone won’t do the trick. The “social collaboration/ interaction” part was missing. How could we make online courses more interactive? How could we humanize the cloud classroom? How can students collaborate with the instructor and his peers? These are questions we still are trying to solve.
Among popular MOOCs such as edX , Udacity and others, Coursera is by far the most successful mainly due to two reasons: 1. It’s free 2. It has more courses. I have successfully completed one MOOC on Coursera with distinction, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking (IMT), by Dr. Keith Devlin of Stanford. An interesting fact came to light after I took the course. I realized that the most effective learning that took place in the course happened in the discussion forums. I entered other MOOCs, and it was the same thing. So, collaboration matters!
But discussion forums can be a pain, especially when you want to type something like x^2+1 = phi. This is annoying to read as well as to interpret. Most of the web forums are still developing support for math. Coursera has already developed them, yet it still feels inorganic. Human beings are used to seeing people and talking to them, and eye contact is key. Video Chat could be a potential solution!
The failure of Skype and Google Hangouts for online collaboration
While I was taking IMT, I joined a Skype study group. That was my very first attempt to collaborate through video chat. Needless to say, it failed. We couldn’t do anything, just a few small video chats here and there and that was it. So even though IMT was successful due to the discussion forums, the video collaboration just didn’t work out. Perhaps you could blame the math for that – how do you ‘discuss’ Number Theory without having any screen sharing or something similar? There was also a tool called StudyRoom, basically a whiteboard sharing software. It showed some positive signs, just like the discussion forums.
After IMT was over, there was a long time before my next course would start. I decided to take random MOOC’s at that time, just for fun, not totally committing all my resources to them. I started taking Duke’s “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” This course was the first one to incorporate Google+ Hangouts as an official study collaboration tool. The day Hangouts was introduced, the video chat rooms were totally full of students. I struggled to even get into one due to the 10 person Hangout restriction. The first time I got chance, I was welcomed by some of my coursemates there, in subsequent days we also talked about studies. Sadly, in about a week, you could hear a pin drop in the chat rooms. Did Hangouts also fail as a study tool? Yes, but not as badly as the previous time I tried video collaboration with Skype. At least we attempted to study. In fact, there were positive signs for video chat collaboration.
What were these tools lacking? First of all, both Skype and Google Hangouts are not meant for studying full time. If there is an ideal tool, then that tool has to be dedicated to studying. StudyRoom looks good, but it restricts you to whiteboard only.
What the perfect study tool needs to have
1. For the purpose at hand, it needs to be geared towards full time studying
2. Intuitive. In the sense of not very geeky or hard to use, because a history major, for instance, won’t care about the ping rate.
3. Should know to handle time zones! (boy, isn’t this a major problem, especially when there are due dates and stuff)
4. Quantitatively speaking, screen sharing, annotations, group discussion facilities (With and without a host) are the things to be included. I don’t think it should take long for such an ultimate tool to exist! But wait, the list isn’t over,
5. Should provide motivation for people to use them in some way. Now this last point, perhaps is an idiot’s point. But for some strange reason, people don’t want to go to Skype, especially when the intention is to study. Compare this to studying in a park with green trees around to studying in a dark closet with some mice and cockroaches around (I needed to get that contrast, sorry). This motivation can be anything: an elegant UI, ability to buzz each other, ability to explore with new people on the same concept and get help from them or something entirely different. The tool which achieves this last point, I’m sure, will be the future of online video collaboration.