Ideas for a Fluid Fall: Readers Respond

To the extent colleges offer virtual learning this fall, should professors take their students into virtual worlds? That and other ideas and questions from readers.

July 15, 2020
A screenshot of Davenport University's VirBELA platform

The outlook for the fall remains a bit fat mess -- that's the technical term. Almost every college or university has laid out a plan (for now), in most cases involving a mix of in-person, online and hybrid instruction. Even if a changing COVID-19 landscape doesn't force a pivot in those best-laid plans, many questions remain about how teaching and learning will unfold this fall.

Some of those questions have come my way from readers, and in today's column I'm going to try to answer one of them, with help from thoughtful experts who actually know something. I'll also share a new question from a reader and see if any of you have help to provide.


In response to my column a few weeks back called "Trying to Make Sense of a Fluid Fall," in which I asked readers to share ideas and suggest questions to explore, a law professor wrote to ask if "any faculty are discussing teaching in a virtual classroom?"

By "virtual classroom," he didn't mean the ever-present Zoom rooms that now dominate our lives -- he meant the kind of virtual space that video gamers (i.e., most of today's students?) know all too well. Inside Higher Ed has written a good bit over the years about virtual worlds like Second Life and, more recently, platforms like VirBELA. But my layman's sense is that, despite intense interest and advocacy from a small group of passionate believers, virtual worlds have remained a fringe teaching and learning activity.

The reader's question, though, seems a logical one: If colleges and professors are, whether they like it or not, going to be forced to find non-face-to-face ways to teach and learn (and do all the other things colleges and universities like to say that they do), might virtual worlds finally deliver on their purported educational promise?

Stanislav (George) Djorgovski thinks so. As the head of California Institute of Technology's Center for Data Driven Discovery and Virtual Reality Laboratory, Djorgovski recognizes that despite evidence that people comprehend and remember better in three-dimensional virtual environments than in "flat screen" technological tools like videoconferencing, virtual reality has been slow to catch on in education.

Institutional (and faculty) inertia, mediocre technical platforms, insufficient technology horsepower and internet speed for users, and a steep learning curve have all contributed.

But in this particular moment, Djorgovski says, colleges and universities are "facing a different problem now," which is how to ensure that students can connect meaningfully with instructors, and with each other, if they can't be in the same place physically, or must keep physical distance from peers even if they are on campus.

"Right now we see many more people catching on to it because of the pandemic," says Djorgovski. "I do think this will be something that will play an ever larger role for the next several years at least."

Survey after survey about what students (and instructors) missed in this spring's emergency shift to remote learning was interaction, engagement, the human connection that most of us crave. Brian Miller, dean of the global campus at Davenport University, in Michigan, calls it "social presence," and it's among the things, along with "a sense of space and permanence, that videoconferencing don't provide very well."

Of course, the need to bring people together who are physically distanced "existed in lots of places in our society last year and the year before that," and yet virtual worlds haven't taken off in education or in many of those other realms, says Rohan Freeman, CEO of Sine Wave Entertainment, whose Sinespace platform is built on the Unity virtual game technology engine.

What has prevented educational institutions from embracing virtual worlds, despite the "countless number of prototype projects that have been built" in Second Life and OpenSim over the years, says Freeman, is a lack of sufficient technology -- both in terms of computing power and internet speed. Those have been particularly major impediments in an enterprise like higher education, where "an absolute prerequisite is needing to make sure something is fully accessible," he says. "The technology just hasn't been up to it."

The ubiquity of broadband internet (and the emergence of 5G networks) are slowly leveling the playing field on that front, though we saw clearly this spring that access to quality internet remains a problem for some of higher education's most vulnerable students. Freeman expects that his company and others should soon be able to solve the other problem by delivering the immersive experience of virtual worlds in a "scalable, network platform" on the computer hardware the typical non-high-tech user has. "That rubicon should be crossed on the shortest possible timeline," he says.

Those who've lived through previous predictions that virtual worlds will have a significant educational impact have every right to be skeptical about any suggestion that this is the time, says Caltech's Djorgovski. But especially if college and university physical campuses remain largely or entirely closed to students, institutions may want to find new, better ways to allow students to interact with each other, and virtual worlds may help.

Some institutions are expanding existing experiments or launching new ones.

Greg Perrier, an emeritus professor of biology, manages Northern Virginia Community College's Second Life program, which has historically existed to help students make up biology lab sessions they miss because of snow. (It doesn't take much snow to shut down the suburbs of Washington, D.C. -- that's when the city's southern roots reveal themselves.)

At its peak, Northern Virginia's Second Life portal could have hundreds of students using it, but in recent years usage by instructors (who typically refer their students to it) has atrophied, says Perrier.

Having written a manual on teaching in Second Life, Perrier is frequently approached by professors who want to work within it, and he says he saw an uptick in such requests this spring.

Similarly, Freeman, of Sinespace, says roughly 15 percent of the inbound inquiries his company has received recently expressing interest in using the virtual platform are from postsecondary institutions, roughly double the usual proportion. "They all want pretty much the same thing -- ways to capture the social aspect of what they do for students, in terms of group meetings and spaces for students to connect," Freeman says.

Caltech's Djorgovski has similar goals, hoping to use a virtual world to provide "a safe, appealing virtual venue for [students] to connect and interact, and then start introducing actual lectures, seminars."

Davenport is focusing its use of VirBELA, an immersive virtual platform that works with Stanford University among others, as a supplement to its online classes and, this summer, as the primary way to conduct its training for faculty members to teach online.

The university's Health 230 class is for students who want a career in health services but aren't sure which field. The course exposes students to a wide range of fields and has embedded within it a "career guidance" element that allows them to speak to experts in different disciplines.

In a virtual space in VirBELA, a student can speak in one "room" with an expert in obstetrics and then pop out to talk to an adviser who specializes in pediatrics. And whatever a student does in the platform gets saved for the next time he or she returns to it, so there's a "sense of permanence that you don't get from a videoconference discussion."

"We all get this almost innate feeling of emptiness on a Zoom call," says Miller. "Virtual worlds can deliver some of those missing pieces."


As if on cue, another professor emailed me this question Tuesday morning:

"I'm hoping someone will cover best practices for teaching studio classes online. I teach six-hour studio courses in graphic design and advertising. When we went into the emergency remote mode in March, I had to rethink my pedagogy. I had to figure out how to get my university seniors to continue creative collaborations, how to continue active learning modes for studio courses, and how to find ways to allow serendipity to play its usual role during studio hours. Additionally, I had to utilize whatever materials and tools (analog and digital) my students had at home."

If you have insights to share to help this instructor, please email me at [email protected]. I'll try to share your insights in a future column. In the meantime, please stay well, all.



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