2016 marked the completion of my Master’s through Georgia Tech’s OMSCS Program. One of the biggest reasons I chose to attend this program was that I wanted to see how well this “online education thing” could work. So with that I sent in my acceptance to GT and told Carnegie Melon I wasn’t coming.
After 2 years, I had just one class remaining “Educational Technology.” In a way, this course is both the culmination and anthesis of the program. Unlike other courses, there is no set curriculum. The course is completely open ended and asks that students make an attempt to contribute back to the educational community. To effectively address the challenge the first half is focused on reading the existing academic literature and the second half is dedicated completing a project (anything relating to educational technology).
While many of my classmates tackled interesting technical challenges, like using machine learning to detect duplicate questions on discussion boards, I thought that these (rightfully interesting) projects missed the mark when it came to addressing actual problems that users face in online education.
When we consider the value of an education it really falls into three categories:
The GT OMSCS proves that the first two elements can be delivered without compromise. The online versions of the courses are direct translations of what is available on campus. The delivery of the lectures is modified to include more interactivity and self-assessment, but the assignments are the same. Even the grade distribution is similar between the on campus and online students.
However, the third piece seemed lacking to me. I am very aware of the value of interaction with both students and professors since I did my undergraduate study at Whitman College. Whitman prides itself on small class sizes and intensive student interaction. These interactions added an additional dimension of value to my college experience by forcing me to think about viewpoints that I hadn’t considered when I went through the material on my own. But, in the OMSCS program, students mostly worked by themselves only coming together to get help for specific problems or to ask clarifying questions about assignments.
I set out to bridge this gap with my project. Hallway is a virtual water-cooler of sorts. It’s goal is to provide a space for more informal and nuanced conversation.
Communicating over video allows for much richer interaction. High bandwidth communication allows participants to use more subtle, non-verbal cues and modes of communication, like humor, that do not translate well to written mediums. Ultimately, this richer communication helps to build stronger relationships among students (and instructors). Many studies have shown that learning is enhanced when students develop deep social bonds with their classmates, since they feel more willing to take risks while exploring new knowledge. Moreover, seeing other students as people and not as screen names helps to decrease trolling and other anti-social behavior. This re-personification also enhances accountability since students are less apt to skip assignments when they see their instructor as a real human and fear disappointing them. For a more in depth discussion of the academic context of the application check out my paper on the the topic.
Hallway itself is a React + Django app designed to be hosted on AWS. The most interesting technical aspect of the application is the ability to do all video recording and playback natively in the browser. The WebRTC spec defines a new api for interacting with a user’s webcam and microphone, while the HTML5 Video element provides native video playback. Combining these advancements allows developers to stop relying Flash and associated plugins to deliver rich media experiences to their users. You can check out the code over at the github repo.
I view Hallway as a proof of concept of one of the few remaining pieces needed for a complete educational experience to be delivered online. As telepresence continues to advance with technologies like virtual and augmented reality, delivering seamless, natural interaction at a distance will become increasingly common. And ultimately these technologies will disrupt education’s connection to a physical location.