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Can Online Socializing Replace In-Person Interaction?

December 13, 2011, 9:38 AM

One of the fastest growing verticals amongst edtech startups these days is definitely the social layer added on top of existing educational content. 

One of the first startups in that space was OpenStudy. The startup teamed up with MIT OpenCourseWare back in September 2010 to enable students who work with the free courses to interact and learn together in a discussion forum-like environment with real-time chat functionalities. The aim is that OpenStudy members answer each otherrs questions, work collaboratively on problem sets and connect with other learners who share the same interests. 

Last week I wrote about the University of the People which has peer learning as the center piece of its model. Grockit Answers that adds discussion groups to YouTube videos goes into the same direction and Einztein, a startup I interviewed last week have built a complete microblogging platform for learners and teachers to gather around projects on the site. 

With all these great tools and the premise that they will get better and more feature-rich every month, do we still need to meet in physical places like classrooms or on campus? 

According to an interesting article by Kevin Pudry, in-person interaction is even a mandatory to do item. There are three main points in his argumentation. The first is that people need a third place besides their home and workplace, a concept by Ray Oldenburg. People need to meet new people, exchange ideas, learn about things and therefore enrich society as a whole as much as themselves. 

The second point is that we need to argue about our ideas and concepts in person and not only via email or teleconferencing. A lot of human interaction gets lost in this way to communicate and arguments are nothing negative when done respectfully. 

The last point then gets back to peer learning and review. A study of 35,000 peer reviewed papers by Harvard Medical School Researcher Isaac Kohane came to the conclusion that the best studies were done by authors who worked within 30 feet from each other. 

Another post by Jonah Lehrer for WSJ and Wired points out that all the commodities we thought would be replaced by social media and web conferencing like business travel, conferences or office space are still doing well, some are evening growing. At the end of his piece Lehrer writes 

“For years now, we’ve been searching for a technological cure for the inefficiencies of offline interaction. It would be so convenient, after all, if we didn’t have to travel to conferences or commute to the office or meet up with friends. But those inefficiencies are necessary. We can’t fix them because they aren’t broken.”

Therefore it seems that brick and mortar institutions in education won’t go away any time soon but more likely need to be filled with a new meaning. In general, people are more connected than ever which makes educational concepts like the flipped classroom possible, enabling teachers and students to have more in-person interaction.

Picture: Campus Life from Shutterstock


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