A Harvard University student with a tech startup is trying to bring a little social life back to campuses as they continue remote operations in the fall. (Hey, it worked for Zuckerberg.)
Bryan Lee, a rising senior at Harvard, has spent the last five months building a videoconferencing system called Congregate. Its main selling point is that it can recreate the moment of walking into a room and choosing which group of people to sit with—in this case, on a group video call rather than in a physical dining room or classroom.
“We wanted to make a platform where people could still gather in a dynamic way—to easily jump from conversations just like you could in person,” said Lee, in an interview with EdSurge.
For instance, the engineering department could use it to create an online common room where users would see a series of icons of tables, and pictures of faces showing who is sitting at each table. Clicking on the icon of an empty chair would take the student to a Zoom-like video call with the other people at that table. “You can see who’s here and sit down with some friends, or sit with people you don’t know,” says Lee. “It’s basically an always open space.”
Harvard plans to experiment with the technology in the fall, and Lee says a beta version is available for other colleges and K-12 schools to try.
The tool is one of several that colleges are experimenting with as they prepare for a fall term when many classes and campus activities will be held online rather than on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The approach aims to solve a major downside of remote learning—a sense of social isolation as students and professors sit alone at laptops. But any high-tech solution brings challenges as well—such as whether all students will have the devices or bandwidth necessary to access them. And even when students have the right gear, there can be a learning curve to new tools.
Educators have been trying some of these new tools during their own professional conferences this summer.
For instance, Frank Noschese, a physics teacher at John Jay High School in New York City, used the Congregate system at a workshop for physics teachers last month. “The workshop was mainly conducted over Zoom, but during lunch breaks we had the option of going to Congregate to set up discussion tables and chat with others,” he said in an email interview. “We also used it to conduct a virtual poster session where each table had a presenter who gave a short presentation. People could move about from table to table to hear the presentations and ask questions.”
Would it be a good fit for his classroom? Maybe, he says, if it passed the vetting by districts and state education departments to show it protects student privacy and meets other requirements.
Arizona State University experimented with a different online social platform during its Learning (Hu)Man conference for educators last month. Organizers invited attendees to a 3-D video game-like campus where they could have audio conversations or text chats with people standing near their avatars. The system, made by VirBELA, is built on the video game engine Unity.
The effort was part of a series of experiments by ASU’s Learning Futures Collaboratory to find ways to make online campus experiences more engaging, especially during the pandemic.
“How do you teach the whole human at a time when everything is focused on the screen?” asked Daniel Munnerley, a co-executive director of the collaboratory. “We’re trying to get to that vision where learning is more immersive and it’s more engaging and it’s more experiential.”
During the weekly virtual conference, more than 1,000 attendees tried the virtual social space, ASU says. They gathered around virtual bonfires to chat about conference sessions (or whatever else) and some participated in a scavenger hunt in the 3D virtual space.
Heather Haseley, the other co-director of the collaboratory, said that some attendees told her it was easier for them to socialize in the virtual conference than at an in-person event because they are normally shy. “They felt they could be more themselves,” she added.
Second Life, Second Try
The VirBELA virtual space looks a lot like Second Life, a pioneering online social environment that once sparked widespread interest among colleges until interest gradually fizzled.
Alex Howland, cofounder and president of VirBELA, says a challenge for Second Life in education was that it was built as a general purpose social space, with a mix of activities from the serious to the salacious. “We’re building VirBELA specifically for business and education purposes,” says Howland. “You’re not going to mistakenly take your avatar’s clothes off or become a dragon in VirBELA,” he adds. “You’re not going to suddenly get lost in a casino as you could with Second LIfe.”
Even before the pandemic, Stanford University’s business school had adopted the platform for icebreaker events like a trust-building experience called the “Invisible Path,” says Howland. Participants are grouped in teams of four, and three have to help guide a chosen user down a path that he or she can’t see but the others can. “They’re laughing, they’re yelling because the time’s running out,” he says. “That starts to help build community.”
Other colleges, including the University of Texas at Austin, have started experimenting with the tool since COVID-19 hit.
Not every student has the technology to get to these virtual spaces, however. I was unable to visit the VirBELA demo during the recent ASU conference because my Mac’s operating system is too old to use the system. The company says it is building a web-based alternative that will work on mobile devices and on older computers, though that will not allow as many users at a time as the full version does.
Stanford is among the colleges that are still looking for new ways to make online campus experiences more social in the fall. Karin Forssell, director of the university’s Learning, Design and Technology master’s program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, is part of a new university initiative to “recreate the powerful experiences of being at a residential university, remotely,” in her words.
That group hasn’t yet made its recommendations, she said. But she recently organized a virtual gathering for her students—a demo day where master’s students presented their final projects. For that, she used a tool from a new startup called Gather to let participants virtually move from booth to booth to join different conversations about the student projects.
“What I’m trying to do is figure out exactly how to provide an opportunity for students to try to meet each other now that they don’t have the opportunity to meet in the living room of their dorm,” she told EdSurge. “I am worried about the kids who don’t choose to engage with these things. It’s harder to notice if someone is not showing up to some of these community building events.”