'Yay, toasters!'

Building a learning community through live broadcast

Catherine Chambers

Senior Producer, The Open University

Email Catherine

With the advent of ‘on demand’ TV, the notion of what is known in broadcasting as an ‘appointment to view’ – sitting down to watch telly at a scheduled time – was at risk of becoming extinct.

Instead, thanks to social media – and the hunger, quite literally in the case of ‘Great British Bake Off’ – to discover the result before someone tweets about it, the appointment to view has become fashionable again.

Now imagine a live learning ‘event’ that generates an ‘appointment to view’, with students from around the world coming together online to be part of it. An experience that goes beyond the traditional lecture/tutorial/webinar and becomes an event in its own right.

An event that informs, educates and entertains.

If that sounds similar to the values of a certain broadcasting institution that’s because they are: the BBC and The Open University have been bringing learning to life for over 40 years. And now we’ve applied the principles of broadcast programming and audience interactivity to create stimulating, fast-paced live online learning experiences, featuring topical discussion, lively debate and importantly user comments.

The traditional formal lecture theatre format can struggle to break down the barriers between the teacher and student, whereas an informal setting can pave the way for a participation where students feel a sense of belonging – Google Hangouts offers one such environment.  Scheduled live broadcasts such as Google Hangouts can be used to build a sense of anticipation days and hours in advance of the broadcast, generating the excitement of being part of a large learning community. As they are open-facing it’s easier to create the conditions for a large audience – a learning community that is inclusive far beyond student-teacher, to include alumni and international experts to build an international learning community

In 2014, we ran a series of live Google Hangouts for the Open University Moons MOOC with a ‘presenting’ team consisting of a lead academic and a post doc student and experts from the Lunar Planetary Institute joining live from Houston. Each Hangout was scheduled at 7pm GMT to account for the time difference between the US and the UK. The hangout was trailed two weeks before broadcast on the FutureLearn platform and via social media; those who signed up to watch via Google + received email alerts prior to broadcast.

An hour before broadcast, participants began posting comments as they waited for the hangout to begin: ‘Ready with a cuppa for a new adventure,’ said Maureen Gaunt, while Luana B wasn’t going to let mealtimes get in the way: ‘Ready with dinner at my desk.’ David P commented how despite a bad internet connection he’d ‘pulled out all the stops to watch’. It was Colin Davies though who summed up the sense of belonging to a community: ‘Looking forward to the input from everyone taking part tonight!’

The format consisted of Q&A (based on the topics covered on the MOOC in the previous two weeks with questions posted in advance on the forum – as well as live – to the team), discussion of the latest planetary science news (new moons around Saturn) to keep the ‘event’ topical, and props and/or experiments to make learning fun.

In the first Hangout we brought along some toasters in reference to a question posted on the forum asking: ‘Can a moon be the size of a toaster?’

The second hangout featured Moon rocks, and the third featured a live experiment – but the audience just couldn’t get enough of the toasters…so we brought them along again for the second hangout to the resounding response on G+: ‘Yay Toasters’! Presentation style and interactivity can count as much as the content under discussion when it comes to keeping the audience involved.

The Hangouts provided the technology to enable a large webcast to take place, putting a face to the names of academics with whom the learners had been interacting on the forums but hadn’t engaged with in a live environment. It enabled the sharing of the latest research footage from Houston, an exciting moment for the learners as LPI expert Paul Schenk shared video of and talked about the craters of Ganymede.

This structured approach but informal presenting style kept the pace flowing but allowed the educators’ personalities to emerge; learners were excited not only to have their questions answered but to be name-checked; all of which created a sense of intimacy and personalisation that increased learner interactivity, while the live questions on topical issues created a sense of spontaneity.

Combining broadcast thinking with a social media approach is more akin to real world learning, where bite-sized learning can be contextualised through wider discussion.  With a broadcast ‘magazine format’ which could include short features, course trailers, video clips from course/MOOC materials, guest interviews or live links from academics on location, students are given the opportunity to engage with course materials in a real time while social media forms the basis for interaction. This style of presentation is about enhancing the learning experience – an audience who are inspired to participate, rather than having an ‘appointment to view’ out of necessity for the next assignment.