Computers and the Internet are really good at copying information and sending it to lots of people at low cost. That's why many of the recent innovations in online learning focus on packaging knowledge in the form of short video lectures, and sharing them online. Khan Academy and the recent spate of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are successful examples. They take the traditional model of instruction (sage on the stage) and scale it to vast audiences.
But there is another approach to learning, that turns around the top-down model of instruction, and places the learner at the center. It encourages students to explore their passions, and band together with others to tackle problems they care about. In my work at P2PU and the MIT Media Lab, I am interested in these social aspects of learning. And how technology supports new ways of learning with others.
With support from the MacArthur Foundation, Drew Harry, Srishti Sethi and I have been working on something we call Unhangouts during the last few months. The original idea was to replicate the magic that happens at physical unconferences, where the agenda is not fixed, but participants can add sessions or float between different rooms. We built an open source platform that leverages Google Hangouts to host similar events online. Another way to think about it is as a classroom with an infinite number of breakout sessions. You can create all the rooms ahead of time, or let participants add more rooms on the fly.