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How MOOCs are Similar to Virtual Events (and Quite Different, Too)

October 19, 2013

Can you say MOOC?
Photo credit: Flickr user audreywatters via photopin cc

Introduction

In Boston this past week, I attended one marketing conference and walked past another. I scanned the schedule of the other conference and saw a recognizable set of popular topics: mobile, big data, social media.

And then I noticed a session on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their role in the future of education. That evening, I met a college buddy for dinner and we talked about MOOCs. He was experimenting with them and even received a few certifications from completing an online course.

So this got me thinking about MOOCs and their growing popularity. In doing so, I was drawn to the many similarities they have with virtual events. Let’s consider a few.

How MOOCs are Similar to Virtual Events

Extended Reach to a Global Audience

Extended reach across the globe
Photo credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

MOOCs, like virtual events, can reach anyone with an Internet connection. Whether you’re in Paris, France or Paris, Texas, it doesn’t matter.

The New York Times ran a piece about a boy who attended several courses via MIT’s MOOC from his home in Mongolia. And that’s the power of an online platform. Traditionally, your event or your college course required your physical presence. Today, anyone can attend from anywhere.

Disrupting Business Models and Conventions

The emergence of MOOCs and virtual events disrupted venues and formats with hundreds (or thousands) of years of history (e.g. education and events).

When disruption hits an industry, some seek out the change, while others combat it. We’ve seen these dynamics in both the education and events industries. The disruptive force, though, needs to seek and refine a sustainable business model. MOOCs are finding their way. Virtual events have not proven to be self-sustaining, financially.

The Power of Online Collaboration

MOOCs and virtual events help people find and discover new connections (online) and facilitate a degree of collaboration that wouldn’t have happened face-to-face.

In MOOCs, online students can answer each other’s questions (which would be rude to do in the middle of a lecture), while also grading each other’s assignments.

In a virtual event, 50 attendees can simultaneously chat and brainstorm a topic, in a way that just wouldn’t be possible (with that many people) in-person.

Ultimately, the power of online collaboration can lead to face-to-face connections and experiences. The boy from Mongolia (Battushig Myanganbayar) ended up attending MIT. And the girl in Paris, France will end up traveling to the conference that she first attended online.

How MOOCs are Quite Different from Virtual Events

There are important differences between MOOCs and virtual events – and these differences give MOOCs a higher likelihood of finding a sustainable and successful business model.

Education is a More Basic Need

The need for education is basic
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TED conferences are an exception. In B2B, the majority of conferences and events are for industry gatherings and professional associations. In other words, places you go once you’ve started your professional career.

Higher education, on the other hand, is what many seek in order to land their first job. And because of the high cost of higher education, some families have never sent a single person to college.

MOOCs can now provide a taste of that education to any family member.  They’re also relevant to those already in the workforce who want to stay current in their industry or branch out into others.

Conceived by Insiders

Let’s consider some well-known MOOCs: Coursera, edX and Udacity. They were founded by professors at Stanfard, MIT and Harvard. In other words: insiders identified the need, built the platform and formed companies to find sustainable business models.

It’s the insider angle that gives MOOCs their advantage: an insider appreciates the complexities of the system in a way no outsider can. And, the insider has valuable connections that would take outsiders a long time to assemble.

Virtual events platforms were built by entrepreneurs, who partnered with the insiders (event professionals) to find a sustainable business model. Advantage: MOOCs.

Technology Advancement

Virtual events emerged circa 2005-2006. At the time, Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook was just opening its service outside college campuses and the iPhone had yet to be created.

MOOCs emerged several years later, to an entirely different world: a world of social media, pervasive mobile device usage, lower bandwidth costs and more convenient video production/streaming capabilities.

Technologies like USTREAM and Google+ Hangouts have made it a cinch to broadcast live video from anywhere. As a result, they’ve raised the bar for vendors who provide similar services. If only virtual (and hybrid) events had it so easy back in 2006.

A Focus on the Core Unit (the Lecture)

The college lecture
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MOOCs found success by focusing on the core unit of their offering: the online course. Virtual events, on the other hand, charted a more complex route by attempting to re-create the conference experience in 3D or pseudo-3D.

Virtual events had elaborate lobbies and lounges, and an exhibit floor complete with virtual booths. MOOCs have not attempted to re-create the quad, the library steps and the dining hall (although online eating may be possible one day with 3D printers).

Over time, virtual events adapted to focus more on the content and less on the virtual furniture. MOOCs have focused on the core content from the start.

Conclusion

Massively Open Online Events. Would virtual events have evolved differently if we used an alternative name? Probably not. MOOCs, while similar to virtual events, have a number of advantages.

I’ll be watching to see how their business model evolves. And like my college buddy, I’ll have to spend a few evenings attending an online course myself.

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How 3D Virtual Worlds Can Be More Like Twitter And Facebook

February 8, 2010

3D Virtual Worlds Diagram

Facebook and Twitter have taught us that people of all ages love to utilize the web for self-expression, connecting and staying in touch.  3D virtual worlds have similar characteristics: the ability for self-expression via customized avatars and the creation of your own ‘island’; the ability to connect with friends (or meet people you’d never get a chance to meet in the real world); and the ability to be part of a vibrant community.

In addition, 3D virtual worlds offer a fully immersive environment, that allows you to escape from the real world – and, experience virtual representations of real-world locations. For virtual worlds experiencing declining usage, however, “community” becomes a challenge to maintain (i.e. imagine using Facebook when none of your friends or family are using it).

Mark Kingdon (in-world: “M Linden“), the CEO of Linden Lab, laid out his vision of Second Life’s evolution, tying it in with the recent acquisition of Avatars United.

M. Linden on Community:

“When we talk to the users who sign up but then decide not to stay, they say they left, in part, because they had a hard time finding people to hang out with. Either their friends weren’t there, or they have a hard time meeting new ones inworld, or sometimes both.  We need to fix this.”

M. Linden on Social Sharing:

“Another part of the “social glue” of any community is the concept of sharing.  Inworld, it’s easy to share and we’ll make it even easier.  But sharing between Second Life and the larger social Web is not as easy.  As an avid photographer (well, aspiring to be avid), I’d love to be able to easily share my snapshots from Second Life with my friends on other Web services, and be able to watch a feed of the people I’m interested in.”

Reaction

Kingdon’s blog posting generated a wealth of comments from the Second Life community – I’d characterize the comments as mixed to fairly positive.  My own reaction to the blog posting was very positive – my use of Second Life (and other virtual worlds) would increase based on my knowledge of in-world events/happenings attended by members of my social graph.

Here are my thoughts on how to increase community engagement and social sharing in a 3D virtual world.

Facebook and Twitter

Direct Integration with Twitter, Facebook

With Avatars United, according to Kingdon, “you’ll start to build an activity feed (similar to Facebook or Twitter) that keeps you in closer touch with the people you’re connected to in Second Life.” While I see value in a single feed that aggregates content from multiple social networks, I see equal (if not more) value in direct integration of Twitter, Facebook, etc., into the virtual world.

The Twitter API and Facebook Connect make doing so fairly straightforward.  A B2B company with an island in Second Life may want to integrate a Twitter stream that displays tweets related to the company.  Similarly, the company could prompt visitors to tweet about their visit and have that message be distributed to all of the visitor’s followers on Twitter.

By enabling this, the owner of the island generates “free” promotion to the social web – and, the underlying platform gains wider reach as well.  A relevant analogy is Ustream’s Social Stream, which allows viewers to “chat with your friends over Twitter” while they’re viewing a live video.

On the Facebook front, imagine if the virtual world platform enabled Facebook Connect, thus allowing residents to sign in to Facebook and find a list of their Facebook friends who are also residents.  Then, imagine showing users a real-time list of their Facebook friends who are in-world right now, with “links” to teleport to the friends’ locations.

Borrowing from another popular service (Foursquare or Gowalla), the virtual world platform could enable residents to “check in” at different locations (islands).  Broadcasting their whereabouts to their social graph may result in more “planned encounters” within the virtual world.  If my friends just checked in to “virtual island”, I may choose to teleport and join them there if I happen to be free.

“I Like It!”

Virtual worlds could create a stronger “shared experience” by allowing visitors to leave a trail of breadcrumbs reflecting their visited locations.  If I “friend” someone in-world – or, if an in-world resident is a Facebook friend of mine, then I might want to follow the path they took during their last session.  Additionally, the platform could support location endorsements, in the same way Facebook allows me to “like” a friend’s wall posting.

As I enter a location in the virtual world, I can see whether members of my social graph previously visited – and, what their comments were.  Alternatively, I could see a list of all past visitors – with a link to view their in-world avatar and profile.  If a past visitor panned a location, but I enjoyed it, allow me to send an offline message to that user, who can read my message the next time she logs in.  This allows me to connect with other users even when they’re not online (a form of virtual world email).

Source: flickr (User: Indiewench)

Virtual World Closed-Circuit TV

Business owners leverage closed-circuit TV technology to perform surveillance of their store front or office.  Wouldn’t a similar service be useful for virtual world residents, especially those who “own” an island?  While we tend to be online during our waking hours, it may not be practical to be in-world all the time.  How about a virtual world thin client – it provides a read-only “view” of a given location, similar to closed-circuit TV.

Since it doesn’t allow you to navigate, teleport, interact with others, etc. – the client is entirely lightweight and can sit in a corner of your desktop with only a portion of the CPU/RAM consumed by the full-blown client.  So if you’re interested in a given location, the closed-circuit TV can alert you to visitors – and with one click, the thin client can launch the full client and teleport you to the location.

Services (like this one) that can instantaneously connect users are a win-win – they generate more logins to the platform and enable more connections, upon which a stronger sense of community develops.  Alternatively, the virtual world platform can provide even more lightweight notification mechanisms: it can generate an email, Twitter direct message or Facebook email whenever a user enters a designated space.  The notification could contain a link that teleports the recipient into that space to connect with the current visitor(s).

Embed Web Content In-World

As Twitter and Facebook have demonstrated, users of social services are inclined to share interesting content, often in the form of web links.  Within a virtual world, “sharing” often results in the launching of a web browser to render the shared page.  Why not provide sharing capabilities that render the shared content on an in-world wall or projection screen?  This keeps users engaged, while retaining their attention in-world.  Building upon this, I may want to look up Facebook friends and be taken to all locations in which they shared content in-world (as I have an interest in what my friends are reading and sharing).

On Demand TV (for Virtual Worlds)

Facebook has a great utility that allows me to record a video on my laptop’s webcam, upload it to Facebook and share it on Facebook.  Virtual world platforms should enable users to press a “record” button and have their current session saved for later playback.  Perhaps I’m attending an in-world concert or watching a keynote presentation – capturing a recording of the session allows me to share it with members of my social graph who weren’t able to attend.  Treet TV provides similar services (with professional quality) – this capability empowers end users to create on-demand programming with the click of a mouse.

Conclusion

3D virtual worlds have a lot to offer already – by adopting useful social sharing services, they can tap into the phenomenon (social media) that’s the force behind many of today’s most popular web sites.

Related Links

  1. Wagner James Au in New World Notes, “How To Make Second Life Truly Mass Market, Part 1: Deep Integration With Facebook

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