Virtual Training Environments

One of the programs I participate in has for decades been a fully in-person program. Everything had been structured and designed assuming that the majority of the interactions were face to face. However, the pandemic has obviously thrown a wrench into the status-quo and here we are – not face to face.

Since 2020, the program has switched to using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. But there’s a bit of a hidden problem embedded within the following properties:

  • Everyone has the same volume; and
  • Everyone is either in the room, or not in the room.

This results in a few issues for programs that try and promote interactions among their members.

When you’re in a room, only one person is allowed to speak at a time. If anyone else is talking or making noise, it really drowns out the person that is speaking. This is fine for classroom settings – just have all the students mute themselves. But at what point do the students interact with each other to develop their social skills and make friends? I find that if students aren’t in the classrooms learning / listening to someone speak, they’re not online at all and not interacting with their peers.

The other issue is that its hard to facilitate so many organic conversations and interactions among students. Between classes or during breaks, they would usually interact with their peers. However, in order to setup a private conversation among them, a breakout room would need to be setup and have them invited in – way too much time and effort for the large number of possible combinations.

For a class of 30, with groups of 3, there would be 4060 possible combinations (30 choose 3). Plus, how would staff even figure out who wants to hangout with who? We would have to preplan it, but imagine a staff member going up to each student and asking “Hey Timmy, who do you want to hang out with next week?” and then finding out Jimmy doesn’t actually want to hang out with Timmy. Awkward…

Over the past few weeks though, I’ve been working with a few individuals on solving this exact issue. Our goal was to find a platform that would be a new and interesting way to teach lectures, enable instructors to design and build teaching environments catered to their specific lesson, and facilitate those organic interactions we were now missing.

Because we’ve been in the pandemic for over a year now, and everything has gone virtual, we’re making the assumption that everyone has some kind of computer at home that is capable of at least running google meet and some content in a browser.

Through our fairly limited research, we’ve decided on a platform called Gather Town. I wont go into too much detail, but its basically an environment that ticks most boxes.