The avatar-based approach also makes it easier for schools to replicate the teaching patterns typical of a design program, where students tend to work in teams and group sessions are limited. By simply moving their avatars to different rooms or breakout areas, students can gather in groups, in small pods, or elect to be on their own.
“What’s compelling is the ability to transition from single discussion to group work and then come back into a single session, much as you might in a real-world classroom,” said Gino Brancatelli, product manager for AvayaLive Engage. “There really aren’t any other technologies that provide this effectively, whether it be web-conferencing or video collaboration.”
Although each avatar can be personalized, students can also elect to talk with one another directly via webcam. “Having the webcam is really helpful,” said Foster. “You move your cursor over the avatar, and the image of the person appears if they have their webcam turned on.” She cautions that the system can become unwieldy, though, if more than 10 students have their webcams turned on at the same time.
A variety of additional tools are built into the virtual environment to encourage collaboration. Presentation surfaces, which hang on the walls of the virtual rooms, allow students to post drawings, ideas, videos, and images—and even share their desktop screens. In fact, any browser-based application—be it a website or a social media app—can be displayed.
Another key to a successful virtual environment is what Brancatelli calls “persistence.” Unlike web-conferencing tools, the virtual environment allows for both a synchronous and asynchronous experience: Work that is posted by students or faculty members remains on display in the virtual studio until it is deliberately deleted.
“It’s just like a studio space in an actual campus building—open 24/7,” explained Foster. “People can pop in at any time and work on something, leave a drawing, or post something for a colleague to see.”
(Next page: 3D just part of an array of communication tools)