Online learning platform uses ‘Hollywood Squares’ model to boost engagement

Most MBA@UNC class sections have a dozen students.

The ever-present temptations of Facebook, Twitter, eMail, instant messaging, text messages, and online shopping are no match for face-to-face-to-face-to-face interaction.

The cure for the perpetual web-based distractions of class time in the online classroom might be webcams that put every face of every student on screen for everyone to see. Accountability might be the key to holding students’ attention.

Officials from the University of North Carolina’s online MBA program, known as MBA@UNC, said an online learning platform designed and operated by a Maryland-based company called 2tor has created a web-based classroom more engaged than any they have seen.

In 2tor’s online classroom, streaming video brings students—usually in small class sections—to each other in boxes posted across the computer screen. The instructor also appears in a box, speaking to each student face to face.

“Around here, we like to call it Hollywood Squares,” said Doug Shackelford, associate dean of UNC’s business school, referring to the old TV show featuring celebrities lined up in a cross section of windows. “The way we’re doing things, it’s much more intense than what happens in the traditional classroom. There’s no back row. Everyone sits in the front row.”

2tor, an education technology company founded in 2008, counts among its customers Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies and the University of Southern California’s School of Education and social work program.

Jeremy Johnson, cofounder of 2tor, said removing the option of hiding in a large online class—rarely participating in group discussions, for instance—ensures students will get their money’s worth.

“If you don’t have the ability to interact with professors and fellow students, then you’re taking away a large part of what matters about going to a great school,” he said. “We knew we had to find a way to leverage streaming video … to make sure that if someone isn’t paying attention, it’s obvious. That really encourages interaction that professors really appreciate.”

In May, 2tor was listed among Forbes’ “10 Startups Changing The World,” after making inroads at prestigious schools like UNC, USC, Georgetown, and Washington University in St. Louis. The company has raised almost $100 million in venture capital.

MBS@UNC’s business program has an asynchronous component in which, like in most online learning platforms, students watch recorded lectures posted to course websites in preparation for the live webcast with peers and instructors.

Shackelford said so far, faculty members teaching in the online MBA@UNC program have praised the live web-based classroom setup.

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