MIT Media Lab Virtual Visit

Using the Unhangout platform to open up the Media Lab (and make new friends).

In March 2014, we hosted the first virtual visit to the MIT Media Lab using our Unhangout platform to allow students from all over the world to talk with current researchers at the Lab, learn about their work and share ideas. Our chummy team here at the Lab, which includes Philipp, Drew, Charlie and me, has been working on the Unhangout platform with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Unhangout enables us (and you!) to run large scale unconferences on the web. Over the past one year, we have run events, mainly targeting educators and worked with organizations, such as Edcamp, NWP, TedXBeaconStreet, GovLab 3.0 and many more, to scale online conversations and to promote community-based and peer learning.

We decided to look at ways we could use the platform ourselves, in order to open up the Media Lab. Every year, hundreds of people apply to study here, but only very few end up being accepted and an even smaller number visits the Lab in person. We brainstormed new ways to connect with people outside the Lab and decided to test how Unhangout could allow more people get a sense of who we are and what we do, and give us an opportunity to meet new students or potential collaborators.

For our first experiment, we invited ten Media Lab researchers each representing a different group, to host individual breakout sessions. During the day of the event, 50 participants, including students, entrepreneurs, designers and researchers from all over the world, joined us live. After a short welcome and introduction of the speakers, we encouraged participants to join a breakout group of their choice. During the event, people jumped back and forth between the breakout rooms, showing curiosity about the diverse range of research groups. I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm about seeing people enjoy this behind-the-scenes tour of the Lab in the breakout groups. They took a strong interest in the work being done here and asked a lot of questions joining the Lab. Though we don’t want these virtual visits to the Lab to devolve into informational sessions about how to become a student here, it was nevertheless encouraging to hear about people’s enthusiasm to collaborate.

We were interested in how the participants experienced the event and ran a short survey afterwards. In most online learning communities, participants typically take on a passive role, watching and listening to recorded lectures. They are not only shy about initiating conversations, but also hesitant to actively mingle with new people. Surprisingly, during this event, 80% of survey respondents reported that they both listened and spoke up in the breakout sessions. This shows that people were actively engaged in their small group conversations.

Comments ranged from “Fantastic visit today. Thanks much, ML!” to “Wanted to thank you for organizing the Unhangout today. Very inspiring breakout sessions. I hope to stay in touch and be part of upcoming Unhangouts.” Post event, we received an email from a New York designer, thanking us and giving us constructive feedback: “Visiting Boston is relatively easy, but it’s a big commitment — first you can only really go on a weekend if you’re working, which kills the weekend and limits the events you can attend. Also, if there’s only a single talk going on that weekend, it’s hard to justify traveling for 10 hours and being exhausted to be present for a 1–2-hour talk which you can’t really predict how good it’s going to be.

It is these kinds of responses that motivate me to continue hosting more events like this in the future to open up the Media Lab to possible collaborations. Thus, we are delighted to announce the official launch of a quarterly series of “Media Lab Virtual Visit,” with the next event happening this summer in July. (If you wish to participate, sign up for our next event here.)

A huge shout out to Abdulrahman, Champika, Chelsea, Daniel, David, Erhardt, Jie, Philippa, Taylor and others for making this happen!

Originally published at