Classes in 8-bit
Gather takes over the UG
Martijn Wieling missed his colleagues. He missed chatting in the hallway. He missed being able to ask his PhD candidates how they were doing without having to make an appointment first.
Then, one of his candidates told him about Gather, or Gather.town, as the website is called. It’s a program by a new tech company, and it provides an online environment in which you can make video calls while simultaneously attending in a virtual world. If you walk your avatar over to someone, you can talk to them. If you walk to the other side of the room, the sound cuts out. The whole thing looks like a video game from the nineties and takes two minutes to figure out.
Wieling thought it sounded like fun. Perhaps it would solve the lack of interaction he was feeling?
‘I spent a weekend building stuff’, Wieling says. ‘I got pictures off Google Earth and input the Harmonie building. I added pictures of my office and my colleagues’ offices. People were into it!’
Suddenly, he was able to quickly pop into people’s offices for little things, something he couldn’t do from behind his computer. His PhD candidates now log on to Gather almost every day. This has improved contact between them, and Wieling can once again make his daily rounds to see how everyone’s doing. Other colleagues have logged on to the virtual world as well.
It’s taken the university by storm. Wieling’s enthusiasm was infectious, and the Young Academy Groningen caught the bug. He showed the board of directors around the virtual environment, and they were enthusiastic as well. He made contact with the project group that provides support to educational innovations. All this led to a UG license, albeit a limited one for now, as well as a pilot where Gather supports educational activities at the university. ‘It’s been around four weeks now’, says Wieling. ‘Lecturers at every single faculty are working with it.’
Only the people at the same table can hear each other talk
Louwarnoud van der Duim, head of the Educational Support and Innovation department, is in charge of lecturer support. He acknowledges the advantages of Gather. ‘Normally, students slowly trickle into a classroom together’, he says. ‘They’ll have some coffee, have a chat, and realise that they all have the same question about something.’
But now? ‘We can tell from the log files in the programs we’re using that people do come in at the same time, but afterwards, they all leave immediately. Something valuable is lost.’
He hopes that class in a virtual world will restore some of that informality. Lecturers can create virtual classrooms and even include teaching materials. Students who walk into the ‘room’ and see other students, they can have a chat, just like they would in a real room.
When students are doing group work, the lecturers can ‘walk’ from group to group. ‘You can make it so only the people at the same table can hear each other talk’, says Van der Duim. When the lecturer walks their avatar over to a different table, the students at that table can hear him.
People are meeting up spontaneously again
With the help of Young Academy Groningen, all faculties now teach some courses either partially or entirely through Gather. ‘We want to look at how that works’, says Van der Duim.
‘Several groups have also built their own environment’, he says. ‘I made myself one, too. People can walk into my office and talk to me. They can easily see whether I’m in or not. So they can just come right over.’
People are also organising events within the program, like secretary day or conferences, and they are becoming increasingly popular. ‘People have figured out that these things are fun to do in this environment. It’s a little more informal and casual. People are meeting up spontaneously again.’
Marie José van der Tol, assistant professor at medical sciences and a member of the Young Academy, is one of the lecturers who’s currently using Gather. One of the things she organises is debate gatherings in the recreated Academy building auditorium. ‘The pro group sits at table one, the contra group at table two. They each form a private space so they can talk to each other. But you still have a good overview of who is present.’ When a lecturer stands on a ‘spotlight tile’, they can address the entire room.
Van der Tol also organised the Winter Meeting for trainees and master students of behavioural and cognitive neurosciences in the program. She created a reception, a poster hall, a classroom, and a bar. ‘That was a big hit. 150 people attended’, she says. Sometimes students would walk by and you could hear them giggle because they were having a good time. It felt so good to hear that again!’
Wieling is especially happy to have students ask him questions during his statistics classes, since they barely did so since the start of online education. ‘But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have any questions. Things were just a mess.’ Now that he’s ‘walking’ around from table to table during the practical classes and talking to the students, they’ve loosened up again.
What’s great about the program is that people don’t need a lot of technical know-how to work it. Users quickly pick up the basics and organising events is a fairly intuitive process.
The Honours College wanted us to create the square in front of the Academy building
Any UG employees who do still have trouble can ask a small army of student assistants for help. They not only build spaces to look like the real rooms at the UG where classes are taught, but they also fill these rooms with everything lecturers might need. ‘The Honours College really wanted us to create the square in front of the Academy building’, says student assistant Rutger de Koster. ‘Where they always take pictures when someone graduates.’
It’s remarkable how smoothly Gather runs, says De Koster. There are hardly ever any issues: the program doesn’t crash and runs on practically every operating system.
Here to stay
The student assistants log on daily to Gather, drop by each other’s offices and occasionally play Pictionary, one of the program’s standard features. If you have a question, you can just pop into someone’s workspace. ‘That makes everything a little less impersonal’, says De Koster.
Is Gather here to stay? It’s entirely possible. But, says Van der Duim, it depends on what happens with the coronavirus. If working from home, and online classes with it, are still the norm after the summer, so might Gather be. First, we have to wait for the results of the pilot, which runs until the end of this academic year.
Until then, the UG licence will remain limited, says Van der Duim. ‘We can’t just let people do everything they want straight away’, he says. ‘Hosting office hours in Gather is fine. But if someone wants to organise an event, they have to discuss it with us first.’