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Posted in: Learner News / Uncategorized

By Joshua Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning

This post originally ran on Inside Higher Ed blog on July 16.

A primary reason that we are dipping our toes into open online learning at my institution is to create opportunities for experimentation. There is something that is liberating about free. What we earn from providing zero cost educational opportunities for lifelong learners is the right to try new things, to take some educational risks, and to learn as we go.

An example of experimentation and learning that I’ve been watching at my institution is the use of Google Hangouts On Air for open online office hours. The edX course that is experimenting with open online office hours is Introduction to Environmental Science. You can  enroll in the course to check out a recording of the Live Office Hour, or watch a recording of one of these sessions directly on YouTube.

Check out this post if you are interested in the logistics of using Google Hangouts on Air to host your own open live office hours.

A few things that the team putting together these Live Office Hours are learning:

Live Interactions May Bridge Challenges of Scale:

Amongst the important challenges in our open online learning community is how to make our courses more intimate. Asynchronous learning methods such as teaching videos, participant led discussion forums, formative and summative assessments, and simulations lend themselves to scale. These methods work well for the acquisition of foundational knowledge amongst a highly skilled, disciplined, and motivated population of lifelong learners.  Teaching at scale has proven less effective for those learners who require one-on-one personalized coaching. Teaching at scale also sacrifices the development of a human relationship between the educator and the student that is so critical for higher order learning.

Offering personal, direct, and immediate access to educators through platforms like Google Hangouts On Air may be one way to address some of the challenges of teaching at scale. Questions can be asked and answered in real time.  Interactions with educators can be conversational, informal, and personal.

This is not to suggest that techniques such as Live Office Hours will ever solve the scale / relational challenge of open online learning. I think what these sorts of experiments do demonstrate is the value of personal interactions in education, and the challenges (and expense) involved as attempts are made to scale these interactions. The ENVX team is poking at the limits of open online learning in creating connections between educators and learners.  This will be good information to understand as we think about how to evolve our own teaching methods as we look to evolve our own core residential learning programs.

The Potential of Consumer Platforms Work for Education:

Using Google Hangouts On Air to offer open online office hours costs our school zero dollars.  More accurately, the use of the platform costs zero dollars. All of the costs are in the time of the teaching team that is planning and running the sessions and existing equipment and infrastructure..

I would love to see a future where higher education spends less on our education tools, and more on our educators. Every dollar that we can save from paying licensing costs is a dollar we can apply towards bending the higher ed cost curve and investing in educators.

It is impossible to learn the pros and cons of using consumer platforms for teaching and learning unless we experiment with their use. For lots of reasons, including privacy and quality, experimentation with consumer tools can be a challenge in our traditional courses. Participating in the open online learning movement carves out a safe space for research and development.  The use of consumer platforms is one important area that we need to research.

Experimentation Creates New Competencies and New Questions:

In experimenting with Live Office Hours, the ENVX team is also building local capacity and competencies across a range of skills. The team is learning what it takes to plan and run an effective live session. The team is learning what sort of pedagogical, media, and technical expertise goes into pulling off a professional and effective synchronous online learning session.

As with any good experiment, this effort is raising more questions than it answers.

Among these questions are:

Just how many learners can teaching with Google Hangouts On Air accommodate?

What sorts of resources and time investments amongst the teaching team are necessary to create an effective synchronous learning environment as the number of synchronous learners grows?

Could what is being learned in this edX course about open online office hours be applied to creating similar opportunities to connect online for our local students?

What opportunities has your school carved out to experiment, take risks, and try new things?