Meetups and Online Students: Online Doesn’t Mean Alone

For every person praising online education as the future of learning, there’s a critic pointing out the flaws affecting how well these courses actually work. Participants are isolated. Struggling students go unnoticed. The large class sizes mean people can’t get the individual help they need. But these statements don’t necessarily have to be true of online learning. Many students are actually choosing a more hybrid, and potentially more helpful, version of classes by initiating and participating in face-to-face meetups wherever they are.

Meetup.com

Meetups aren’t strictly for online learning. The popular organizing site for meeting people with similar interests, Meetup.com, was founded in 2002 and covers every type of group you can imagine. Singles, hiking enthusiasts, pug lovers, entrepreneurs, ex-pats — it’s got a meetup for them all. Meetups are organized by location and area of interest; Meetup.com has 340,000 monthly meetups in 117,000 different topics across 45,000 cities.

Coursera, Udacity, and edX all have meetup groups through Meetup.com. Coursera is currently leading the way with meetups, or at least its students are. There are more than 2,000 meetup communities for Coursera participants in 1,800+ cities. Udacity has 523 communities in almost 500 cities, and edX has 35 communities around the world.

MOOC-Sponsored Meetups

Coursera founders even hosted their own in-person meeting in July 2012, a “massive open cookout.” Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller spoke to more than 600 attendees – definitely more than your traditional meetup – to find out the motivation that made people sign up for Coursera classes. The attendees came for more varied reasons, such as meeting an online professor or looking to hire from Coursera’s pool of students. Udacity organized Global Meetup Day, encouraging students to find meetups in their areas and use USTREAM to “meet” one of the company’s founders, including Sebastian Thrun. While typical meetups organized online are more focused on discussing specific courses or subjects, these online course providers are setting a trend that seems to indicate that adding an in-person element is worth exploring.

Course Pod Tutorial Groups

One Stanford Ph.D. student is doing just that: exploring the possibilities. He came up with the idea for supplementary in-person tutorial groups for MOOC students, called Course Pods. Ideally, these groups of about seven students and a leader will meet once a week to discuss lessons, issues, and go through extra examples. They’re currently testing the prototype on Udacity’s Introduction to Computer Science course and are hoping to add more courses in coming semesters.

Meetups can Improve Online Education

Paul Glader, managing editor and co-founder of WiredAcademic.com, discussed the draw of meetups in an article that has been passed around the online edu community. After unenrolling from a MOOC himself, Glader found a tech meetup that he thinks might help him stay motivated and combat the isolation that the online course bubble can cause. Meetups offer motivation, accountability, networking, and the chance to discuss ideas, something life-long learners may find the most appealing.

In the article, Glader offers coffee-house meetings as a comparison. Starbucks made the coffee shop a popular place to gather, even encouraging local shops to open. Instead of just having the home and work as gathering places, coffee shops offered a “third place” in the American life. Meetups can provide that place for discourse and gatherings in the online education world.

“That’s the kind of long-term impact MOOCs could have if they begin to be connected and blended with in-person groups – meetups, libraries, community center learning centers, school study halls,” Glader writes in the article. “Adding a ‘third place’ for MOOCs goes beyond beating the isolation of online learning. Such a practice could also provide natural places for monitoring and proctoring of MOOC courses and exams, meaning MOOC-participating institutions could go a step closer to granting college credit for the courses.”

What Makes a Great Meetup?

Bright minds of all walks of life are attracted to the chance to discuss ideas in an open setting and gain new perspectives, something that’s not always so easy to do outside the walls of a university. Judy Chang is an organizer of the HOUSTONxSHAKERs meetup, which meets monthly to discuss TED talks and relevant ideas. The group allows her and others in her area to meet together, all with different backgrounds but one mission.

“From college students to surgeons to astrophysics (professionals) to coffee baristas — they all share a common goal of learning,” she says.

Challenging Questions

Chang says the best meetups happen when members ask challenging questions and others aren’t afraid to jump in with their own thoughts. Those wanting to learn the most, she says, should “do a lot of research and seek not-like-minded people, but people with all types of thought and beliefs. There have been many published articles that prove that our brains grow in intelligence when we encounter thought-provoking elements.”

Diversity

Angela Smith, an editor at ProfNet, a site that links journalists to expert sources, attends events to learn about the writing and freelancing industry; she says a mix of skill levels is important, too. “A great meetup should consist of people in all levels of knowledge — from the novices to the professionals,” she says. “It’s a great way to get different perspectives, advice, and insight into whatever you’re interested in.”

Valuable Skills

Industry-specific events may not coincide with a course, but they offer the chance to brush up on career skills while networking at the same time. In Smith’s experience, events have covered topics ranging from pitching food media to learning how to format photos in articles and everything in between. While these kinds of skills can be read about online or picked up through a YouTube video, discussing them in person can be more effective in understanding them.

Face-to-Face Interaction

“Sometimes actually hearing the information straight from the source is important. It also gives you an opportunity to ask questions and share advice with others,” Smith says. “These resources are out there for a reason, so why not utilize them (especially if they’re free!)? Plus, you may leave there with a new friend or a new business contact.”

More Advantages of Blended Learning

Research has found that blended learning may develop a stronger sense of community in students than online learning and hold advantages in sense of community in students than online learning and hold advantages in learning outcomes over strictly traditional or online learning. And some of the online techniques that seem the most similar to a face-to-face class, like videos, online quizzes, and guiding groups of student learners, don’t seem to have much effect on learning. The combination of online and in-person methods appears to have the most effect.

In both the corporate training world and in higher education, blended learning models allow teachers to use face time more effectively while allowing students to get the interaction with instructors that they need. The online component of the class allows students to learn necessary skills and background information at their own pace so they can then come to class more prepared; the in-person meetings can be used for application of learned skills, questions, and more interactive lessons.

With the continued development of online learning formats like MOOCs and the increased use of blended learning in higher education and corporate classrooms, it’s likely that the two will merge in the near future. Whether this will mean MOOC providers sponsoring in-person meetings, requiring them for credit or badges, or something else entirely is yet to be seen.

How to Organize a Meetup

If you’re interested in joining a meetup, first search Meetup.com for groups that already exist that would fit your location and subject needs. Consider more general education groups if you’d like to meet longer than the length of a single class. If nothing comes up and you’re interested in starting a meetup in your area for a certain class or subject, follow these steps for the most success.

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