I wrote about synchronous learning in a recent post where I suggested that technological applications have advanced to a point where real-time exchanges between students and instructor, students and students can be facilitated seamlessly, leading to improved quality and better outcomes in online learning. Real time interactions can fill the void frequently mentioned by students and educators—the absence of a personal connection, the human touch in online learning environments. My position is that synchronous, real-time exchanges will bring what we now call ‘distance learning’, or ‘online learning’ to a new level, where distance is no longer a barrier, and online learning becomes ‘learning’. Distance and the barriers associated with it will disappear.
In this post I review the Google Helpouts platform, launched by Google in late 2013 that provides a method for face-to-face learning via a video call, and is one that institutions and online providers could model. Such a platform can bring significant benefits to students and their respective institutions. Benefits that include increased student performance, higher levels of student engagement, and reduced attrition. There is also potential for value-added services that include life skills development, career advice, networking skills, and coaching for students transitioning from school to the work world. Before getting to my proposal for institutions that models the idea of Google Helpouts—first a brief overview of the platform.
Google Helpouts Overview
Google has a long history of launching new tools and platforms, many of which don’t catch on, fade into obscurity, essentially fail, but whether Google Helpouts becomes a success is not the point of the this post, it’s the concept that has great potential for online learning, specifically for institutions and providers of online education that serve high school or undergraduate students. It’s the concept that is worth examining—how can the idea of real-time student interaction help institutions improve learning outcomes.
What’s a Google Helpout?
‘Real help from real people in real time’ is Helpouts tag line. It’s essentially an online service where one can find an expert in a given field, and pay by the minute to receive realtime help and guidance from the expert using a web cam. I see it as an extension of YouTube, but you get to interact with the expert, get feedback and ask questions.
“Live interactive video. Helpouts are conducted through live video calls with the provider. During the session, you can point your camera to show what you need help with, or take a photo, or even allow the provider to remotely access your computer to fix a problem. For example, you can point your camera at a broken appliance. If you don’t want the provider to see you, you can always turn off your camera. If both you and the provider agree ahead of time, you also can record the Helpout, and it’ll automatically be saved in your Google Drive” Introduction to Helpouts by Google
Google Helpouts features eight categories that include Art & Music, Computers & Electronics, Education & Careers, and more. Not surprisingly, there are several Helpout options within the Education & Careers category, many related to math, writing and SAT prep support. But here is where it gets interesting, there are also Helpouts featuring support in Test-Taking Strategies, Giving a Speech: Coaching support for students, Finding a job using Social Media, and Learn more Effectively by Taking Better Notes!. This last Helpout appears to be one of the most sought-after, with over 45 reviews by users giving five stars (out of five). In fact after reviewing several categories, it appears the Education category has the most reviews by users, which may be an indication it’s generating the most interest. It appears there is a great demand for not only subject specific support, but study skills, communication and job searching skills.
How Does Apply the ‘Real Time Helpout’ Concept to Education?
Given the apparent demand for personalized support related to education, it’s worth examining in light of the problems and opportunities that exist within online education—could there be a fit? I believe so. Let’s look at some of the biggest barriers to online learning cited by students (Muilenburg & Berge, 2005).
- Lack of social interaction
- Administrative / Instructor issues
- Time and support for Studies
- Learner motivation
Institutions also face challenges of poor student performance and low completion rates for-credit courses for students enrolled in the online or blended courses. A recent example is the San Jose pilot project with Udacity, where three courses were offered online for students, including a remedial math course. Results were poor, with the pass rate far lower than in the face-to-face class. Student motivation, time and lack of academic skills were factors influencing the poor results.
Low completion rates, another challenge—yet when looking at successful programs we find that one-on-one coaching and mentoring is key component to success. This is a method Western Governors University has relied upon since its inception. And the City University of New York (CUNY), gives us an example of a public institution addressing problems of low graduation rates and low performance with its Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP) that increased graduation rates significantly from 23% to an incredible 56%. Though financial support was part of the program, another was the academic advising and support “[the] ASAP website [provided] the personal touch — biweekly seminars and one-on-one advising.” (Kirp, 2014).
Proposal for ‘Student Helpouts’
I suggest institutions seeking to increase the quality of online programs and success of their students, adopt a platform that closely follows the Google Helpouts format. A platform that features a similar interface (how the platform looks and its ease of use) and infrastructure (how it works) that upon implementation supports seamless communication including online scheduling, ability for students to provide feedback, and a selection of services and educators to choose from for support. The platform would be a landing-place for students that require:
- Academic advising, what courses to take, drop, and planning for graduation
- Help with course work that is subject specific
- Support with the writing of academic papers, essays, etc.
- Life Skills coaching: time management, stress management
- Career Building Skills: Resume advice, how to interview, how to look for a job, using social media
How it Might Work
Of course, the question is how would it work, for instance who would be providing the services? I suggest a combination of students and employees of the institution as the tutors, mentors and advisors. Senior students could be hired to provide tutoring support, even mentoring support for new or struggling students. Employees working in the institutions academic advising, career services, student aid departments would provide support specific to their department’s services.
Another question, how would transactions be funded? Students could be assigned a certain number credits each semester that they can use towards the Student Helpout platform, which is included in students’ tuition. Once the credits run out, students can buy additional credits, or apply for ‘free’ credits depending on certain criteria. At-risk students, or those identified as requiring remedial support, may be awarded an additional block of credits.
I see great potential with a platform such as Student Helpouts. It’s a platform that could address the barriers students associate with online learning—the lack of social connection and personalized interaction, poor motivation, and absence of needed academic skills for college level work. I acknowledge that this vision is simplistic, lacks depth, as it is only an idea where the details have not been fleshed out. Yet my goal here is to provide ideas and perspectives for institutions and educators about technology and its role as a tool for providing personalized support and guidance of high school and undergraduate students. And to meet the challenges of online learning, while at the same time helping educators and institutions remain relevant, effective and prepare students for thinking, living and learning in 2015 and beyond. Now that would be brilliant.
- Google Helpouts
- Jaschik, S. An Hour Makes a Difference, Inside Higher Ed, February 17, 2014
- Kirp, D. How to Help College Students Graduation, The New York Times, January 8, 2014
- Mulienburg, L.Y. & Berg, Z. (2005). Student Barriers to Online Learning, Distance Education, 26 (1), 29–48.
- Zhang, Z., & Kenny, R. (2010). Learning in an online distance education course: Experiences of three international students. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 11(1), 17-36.
Image credit: ‘Help Out Sign’ by brizzle, born & bred, Flickr