Student collaboration turns to 3D, avatars

Wanting to create a collaborative studio experience online, an architecture school has turned to a virtual 3D environment populated by avatars.

avatar-3D-onlineWhen Cheap Trick first belted out “Are you lonely tonight,” it’s safe to say the band didn’t have distance learning in mind. Yet the line accurately sums up the most persistent problem plaguing online education since its inception: a sense of isolation among students.

While sophisticated analytics, webcams, chat tools, and discussion forums have gone a long way toward resolving the issue, the online experience is still not optimal for disciplines that rely heavily on collaboration. Programs in design, healthcare, and executive business management, for example, all utilize approaches that place tremendous emphasis on teamwork.

In an effort to address this need, the Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Penn State decided to build a major component of its new Master of Professional Studies degree in Geodesign around an innovative 3D virtual studio populated by avatars.

“The first half of the degree is more traditional online delivery of the courses—community chat rooms and all the different ways of connecting with people,” explained Kelleann Foster, the school’s director. “For the second half, though, we wanted to offer actual studio courses in a studio setting, giving students a chance to interact in a way that would mimic—and hopefully enhance—what they would experience in a traditional design studio.”

To help deliver this experience, the school selected AvayaLive Engage (formerly web.alive), a cloud-based virtual environment that requires participants to download only a browser plug-in. Students and faculty—each represented by a customizable avatar—move through the space using the same commands typically used in gaming.

“We looked at a lot of different approaches,” recalled Foster. “We decided that this avatar-based environment—not gaming but professional avatars—provided a lot of advantages. One of the clearest advantages is that you feel as if you’re meeting in a space. You can tell someone, ‘I like the idea that’s on the wall behind you,’ and she knows to turn her avatar around. It allows for interaction in a way that we couldn’t find in another online avenue.”

(Next page: How to use the avatar-based approach effectively and painlessly)

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)

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.

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