Student collaboration turns to 3D, avatars

As compelling as this virtual universe may be, Foster notes that it is just part of a broader array of tools to help students communicate and faculty to administer the new degree program. “We’re not going to do one-size-fits-all,” said Foster. “There will be a suite of tools for people to communicate and coordinate with, all authenticated to our Penn State login.”

While web-based apps such as Yammer can be integrated into AvayaLive Engage, other tools, including discussion boards, will reside outside the virtual world. The same is true of Angel, a version of Blackboard used by the school. “That will always be a part of every course, as a way to distribute files and share information,” explained Foster.

Over time, noted Foster, the school would like to explore ways to integrate some of these tools more tightly into the virtual environment. In the meantime, the school continues to fine-tune the new platform. It has conducted a number of pilots since the Board of Trustees approved the new degree program in July, and a full course will be tested this spring.

If all goes well, the crop of students who enrolled this fall will commence their virtual studio courses next fall. Some best practices have already emerged from the pilots, such as a requirement that all students wear headsets to minimize external noise, but Foster has been impressed with the overall results.

“The technology is reasonably simple and seems to be fairly bullet-proof,” she reported. “We had one guy who was connected from his remote mountain cabin in northern California. His internet connection was not great, but he didn’t have a problem.”

In creating their virtual environments, schools can choose among 13 templates, each of which is configurable to different extents. Colors, branding, and the number of rooms, for example, can all be customized: According to Avaya, the whole environment can be set up in less than 15 minutes.

As an architecture school, Stuckeman not surprisingly elected to design its environment from scratch using AvayaLive Engage’s content developer toolkit.

For Foster, though, the real test is how effectively students learn and perform. While it’s too soon to say definitively, she believes that a 3D environment may actually promote better retention among students than more established online teaching methods.

“The spatial sense is unique, as if you’re really in a room,” she said. “After you come out of a meeting, for example, you can picture where a drawing was on the wall. It embeds itself in your experience and in your memory in a way that is richer than if you just use Google Hangout or something similar.”

Andrew Barbour is an editorial freelancer with eCampus News.