On a clear and sunny day, the perfect temperature, a few students and administrators from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business run into each other on campus. After a brief discussion -- what room they’re headed to, why they came in today -- the crowd disperses. Each individual teleports away.
If that last phrase didn't give it away, this scene does not take place on Stanford’s campus in Northern California, but on a virtual campus Stanford built with the virtual reality company VirBELA. The campus is a hallmark of the graduate school’s LEAD program, an online certificate in business taught by Stanford faculty members. Because every student who participates in the certificate program does so remotely, the administration decided, in addition to using videoconferencing to run courses, to create an interactive virtual environment in cyberspace where people can meet.
“It’s really important to us that not only do our participants get the content from our faculty,” said Marineh Lalikian, director of the LEAD online business program, “but also develop a sense of community with their peers and maintain that high-touch relationship building and connections with other people they would otherwise benefit from if they were here on campus.”
The program may, if you’re the right age, be reminiscent of massive multiplayer online games, like Second Life or Club Penguin. Participants are invited to create an avatar, pick out some clothes, head to lecture and then mingle at the beach. Buttons or commands can make your avatar cry, wave, nod or do a backflip.
Participants use their arrow keys to walk or run around campus and their microphones to talk with people in their vicinity. Because the campus can take a little while to traverse, avatars can also teleport from one room to the next.
Though VirBELA describes itself as a virtual reality company, Stanford's virtual campus doesn’t call for any specialized equipment like a headset or glasses. Any computer with a microphone, keyboard and internet access can access the environment.
A student attending class might pop in to the campus entrance, teleport to the auditorium for a lecture, take a seat and zoom in to the slides while an instructor’s avatar stands on the virtual stage. Instructors have the option to adjust the lighting, room size and sometimes seating arrangements. They can also put students in the auditorium into private groups, where they can only hear each other. Other rooms for instruction can be arranged in tables for partners or small discussion groups. Avatars can head into virtual breakout rooms, load up their own slides and have a private conversation.
“A common initial reaction is just, ‘Whoa, this is very different,’” said Lalikian. “For some people it’s just too strange, not really their thing. But for most people we’ve gotten really positive responses from them.”
The virtual campus was designed to be in some ways reminiscent of the university’s California grounds.
“It’s really important to us that people develop a connection with the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the culture here,” Lalikian said.
Several pieces of art on display at the physical campus have replicas scattered around the virtual landscape. A virtual version of the university’s Hoover Tower allows avatars to climb the stairs and enjoy the view. The beach, which is not a part of Stanford’s physical campus, comes with ambient bird noise, sometimes making it an unideal place for conversation.
While Lalikian says that the feedback from LEAD participants and instructors has been mostly positive, the administration has made some changes, including providing more onboarding information. The LEAD program now has a three-week orientation, which touches on using the technology.
From what Inside Higher Ed observed, some norms of communication in the physical world move easily into the virtual space. Participants angle their avatars facing each other and making some form of “eye contact.” Entering a lecture hall, Lalikian said, you might hear participants asking to sit next to each other or asking others to sit down so they can see the screen.
“What we found is that this virtual platform provides a sense of presence among the cohort and among your peers,” said Lalikian. “It just creates a really interesting way of engaging with other people.”
A Second Coming for Virtual Worlds?
Jacqueline Layng, a professor of communication at the University of Toledo who studies virtual communication and teamwork, says that these virtual worlds can hold some advantages over other technology, because utilizing a greater number of senses increases engagement.
"There are different types of learners. Some are more text based, others are more auditory and still others are more visual, so the Stanford program does address several of these learners," she said via email. "However, there are also learners who require the spatial relationship with a mentor/teacher in a physical classroom, and they can get lost in a virtual learning environment."
Bryan Alexander, a higher education consultant and futurist, said that the platform seems remarkably similar to Second Life, which was hailed as the future by some in higher ed before its flop around 2007. Colleges jumped into the virtual world, Alexander said, building out campuses and teaching classes on the platform, but they bailed as the program declined.
Some of the reasons for the failure of Second Life, Alexander said, included its specific rollout, onboarding processes, quality and governance. By using VirBELA on a closed campus, Alexander said that Stanford may be able to avoid a few of those problems, but not all of them.
Because Second Life was open to anyone, some people chose to use it for gambling or sexual activity, which made others uncomfortable. Second Life campuses and courses were also at the mercy of Linden Lab, the company that owned the program. One institution was kicked off the platform. Neither issue is likely to be a problem for Stanford in VirBELA.
But VirBELA, Alexander said, is unlikely to catch on at scale in higher education unless it shows remarkable benefits over current technology. “One of the reasons that virtual worlds didn’t take off is that we had alternatives that we chose instead,” Alexander said. Those alternatives let people experience visualization, creativity and virtual teamwork that was similar or better than what Second Life provided.
“One of them was computer gaming. Another one was videoconferencing, and still another was what some call ‘mirror world.’ We have digital reproductions of the world. We have Google Maps, for example, or Apple Maps. And those -- it turns out -- we preferred.”
Alex Howland, founder and president of VirBELA, said the program has real advantages over Second Life, namely an expressed focus on education and corporate communications, what the platform was built for.
VirBELA is also easier to use than Second Life was, Howland said, and is better suited for professionals. Participants must pick a human avatar, so showing up for class as a dragon or inanimate object is not a possibility, as it was in Second Life.
Other American universities using VirBELA in some way include University of California, San Diego, Extension; Davenport University; the Army War College and the University of Puerto Rico. In addition to the “enterprise campus” product that Stanford purchased, the company also rents out private team suites for a lesser rate and allows access to its open campus for free.
Alexander said that because current tools used for distance education, like videoconferencing or instant messaging, work well enough and are cheap enough for most college administrations, he can’t see many choosing to switch to a VirBELA enterprise campus.
“Thinking of campuses that have budget issues,” he said, “it would be a hard ask for them to give up what they’re doing and do this new thing.”