Synchronous Online Sucks
Synchronous online — the twisted mess of chat-rooms, video-conferencing, and screen-sharing we use for real-time online education — has sucked for a while now. To be sure we have products: it’s rare for a university to not have *some* web video-conferencing solution in place. And from what I understand, these products, at the enterprise level, are not cheap. There is commitment to supporting *some* level of functionality here.
But almost all of these products are designed for “pass-the-mic” lecture style classrooms, or worse, are sales presentation software that has been “adapted” for the classroom. And hence, all the techniques to which professors normally have access in face-to-face discussion (see, for example, the excellent work of Stephen Brookfield on structured peer discussion) are not really possible with modern video conferencing software.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve talked before about ideas like Ed Roulette, which attempts to structure online video conferencing using a peer instruction paradigm. That’s the tip of the iceberg. In a conversation with Devlin Daley at Open Ed, we ran through the variety of structured discussion styles used in the modern classroom, from the “speed dating” peer-review exercises I have my students do to get reader feedback to the Circular Response-style discussions that remain a favorite way to stop students from talking past one another.
All of these techniques can revolutionize your classroom. None of them are available to you online.
…But This Will Change This Coming Year
Why don’t we have technical options that borrow from the structure of the above models? Options that not only provide an opportunity to talk to one another, but also help structure the discussion? Part of it is the lack of interest in the synchronous online environment as a market. As Amy Collier noted to me in a recent conversation, up until recently online has been seen as a low-quality solution for people who do not have the time flexibility for scheduled class meetings, and as such the synchronous element has lagged behind the asynchronous piece. Who chooses an online class based on the synchronous experience, right?
But perhaps an even greater barrier has been the cost of serving real-time video. It’s huge. It requires a large, stable infrastructure and a sizable investment to make it work. Got an idea you’d like to try with online video? Maybe you want integrate deliberative polling into a issues discussion? Maybe you want a product that sets up project groups and allows you as the teacher to drop into them, annotate them, or put them on a timer. Great! All you need to get started is a server farm and a
T1T3 line. Go to it!
Both these issues have changed in the past couple of years. On the culture side, we are increasingly seeing online as an option for students who are on-campus, and can commit to scheduled online meetings.
On the technology side, peer-to-peer web video is about to change the world. Following up a tip from both Devlin and Tim Owens, I recently looked into the new WebRTC technology/spec that is built into newer browsers. This technology allows programs to negotiate a peer-to-peer video connection, without having to serve up the actually video. You write the programming, and the individual participant computers (and browsers) handle the streaming. A great example of this is appear.in, a service that lets you set up a custom video chatroom in one step. Try it out — I’ve found the quality to be amazing, superior to what I get with Skype or Google Hangouts.
With the introduction of peer-to-peer video capabilities in newer browsers, much of the previous bandwidth barriers to innovation are disappearing — the “software-plus-infrastructure” problem of video-based synchronous online is quickly becoming a software-only problem. The market for synchronous online experiences is likely to grow. It’s hard to see this as anything but a perfect storm for rethinking the gun-metal-gray boredom of those Adobe Connect sessions we keep pushing on students. Hopefully we can replace it with something that allows us to mimic some of the fluid structures of the face-to-face class; at the very least we can get past the outdated assumptions still present in most of this software.