tl;dr: Learning happens inside and outside the classroom.  As institutions become virtual, online games offer a framework instructors can use to preserve the unstructured learning that often occurs in office hours, dining halls, and other campus spaces.

Each semester, more students are enrolling in online courses.  As this process accelerates, instructors have done a commendable job keeping up.  Yet one persistently challenging issue is the loss of campus spaces when instruction moves online.  From office hours to study halls, the less heralded forums that make campuses special are amongst the hardest to digitize.  Since we believe learning happens inside and outside the classroom, we wanted to contribute some of the useful insights we’ve gathered from our experience with video games and educational exercises.

Understandably, as instructors transition to virtual most of the initial focus is on bringing lectures and assessments online.  Often, the next step in the process is leveraging the power of teaching online to introduce digital activities that bridge the virtual distance, like oursThe good news is that as instructors and institutions get a better handle on the digital classroom, attention begins to shift to ensuring that the other learning spaces are not lost in translation.

At that point, we begin to hear instructors repeatedly mention the challenge of capturing the ‘magic’ of campus that often reinforces learning now that the campus is entirely online.  Thankfully, our experience benchmarking the video game industry has helped us develop a framework that can be used to ideate around potential solutions.  That industry successfully transitioned online years ago and it now offers various tools that can be easily repurposed to address the challenges posed by the virtual campus.  

The Matchmaking Problem

For decades, video game console and content developers have been innovating around how to gather people together to play online, a challenge they helped coin as the ‘matchmaking’ problem.  We face this challenge in a few of our multiplayer experiences, so we studied on how online games added users, created groups, and facilitated interactions – realtime or asynchronously.  Interestingly, these are some of the same underlying hurdles that make recreating informal learning forums particularly difficult.  

For ‘matchmaking’ to work in video games you need enough people online at the same time.  On a campus, this is simple since the space exists to gather learners and create the critical mass important in nurturing learning outside the classroom.  Once students transition online the ‘matchmaking’ problem becomes tangible.  Making matters more difficult is the value online students place on schedule flexibility.  That means that simply making the entire experience synchronous and structured stands in direct contrast with the primary benefit attributed to online education. 

As a result, the key to creating informal educational interactions online is to find a way to shepherd enough people (who want to learn on their own time) online at the same time.  Luckily, video game developers that been wrestling with that issue for decades and some of the solutions they popularized may be helpful in framing and creating solutions that work for your particular organization.

Video Games Offer A Framework

To structure the matchmaking solutions we found we built a two-by-two matrix that captured the most relevant criteria.  On the y-axis we mapped how much time flexibility a solution provides and the x-axis maps player population. As you can see, the more flexibility you want (which most e-learners want lots of), the more players you need to make matchmaking work effectively.

We will go through each approach one-by-one below so you can reflect on which one might be right for you:

Time Assignment

At the bottom left of the framework is an  approach that harkens back to the early days of online gaming.  Users who wanted to participate in multiplayer sessions of games like Doom had share their IP address before connecting at a predetermined time and date.  This approach offered limited flexibility but was effective in connecting small populations of users.  The same is true in a campus context, and this is fundamentally the approach utilized to create synchronous classroom sessions.  In addition, for non-classroom forums like office hours, it actually parallels the in-person approach and increases the likelihood that at least a few students connect. 

However, this approach is tougher to apply to more organic interactions that make campus-life special.  Online game developers also sensed the limitations of this approach and so continued to improve the experience for users playing together online.  What they came up with is a newer, more versatile solution that we believe is worth exploring.  

The Lobby

On the top right of this framework is the lobby solution popularized in the early 1990’s by games like Quake and Diablo.  In this scenario, players login whenever they want and enter a digital lobby where they are quickly matched with other players who logged in at roughly the same time.  It has worked so well that it remains an integral part of Fortnite, one of the most successful online-only games ever.  Thankfully, the company behind that game has compartmentalized the lobby and made it available as a standalone tool called Houseparty.  Depending on the user experience you are seeking, alternatives like Gather, Discord, and Virbela can also help create the kind of non-classroom forum that is right for you.

The beauty of this approach is that it retains the flexibility online students value while allowing for the serendipitous interactions that instructors and institutions are increasingly seeking.  However, while the lobby works seamlessly with large player or student populations, it is less effective when there are fewer users.  By enabling ‘someone has arrived’ notifications and emails, this approach can be extended to courses and institutions with medium size enrollments but that still leaves small enrollment groups with limited options.  To craft a few alternatives that fall between lobbies and time assignments we have looked beyond games to uncover a few approaches that might help.

Time Slots & Smart Slots

Taking a page from online draft parties in fantasy football and event-driven casual games, you can limit the number of time slots available and force students to choose between a narrower set of options using a tool like google appointment slots.  This allows students to retain some matchmaking flexibility without having to bounce emails back and forth just to coordinate schedules. 

Similarly, free technology exists to automatically group users based on availability in their existing shared schedules – an approach we call Smart Slots.  If my calendar shows that I am available between 9-11AM and other students schedules show free time between 10-1PM then a smart slot technology like doodle can alert us about our shared availability at 10AM-11AM.  In smaller user populations, smart slots can help create a critical mass of learners through an approach that is slightly less rigid.

How To Pick An Approach

In the end, the best approach to creating informal student forums online depends on the goals of the instructor or institution.  Those goals need to be superimposed upon this framework, and only then can it help craft an informal learning opportunities that students will value and participate in.  We look forward to seeing the learning ecosystem grow outside the classroom and we hope to continue contributing to those discussions. Good luck!