Creating an Identity
To use UniVirtual, all students and instructors must create a personalized avatar to interact with each other. They use their avatar to navigate the virtual space, teach, operate equipment, and communicate.
An instructor is present and available to their students the way they would be in a real classroom. They can see what students are doing in real time and interact with them, either via text or voice chat. Instructors are there to offer help and encouragement, answer questions, and to keep students on track during their guided learning hours.
Communication is Key
We value the dialogic component of learning. Without it, learning can become just an exercise in information transfer. We also believe learning is social, and that social and emotional learning takes place on different levels. But is dialogic and social learning achievable in a virtual environment?
Students are motivated to go further in the presence of others, whether it be an instructor or fellow student. They are working with someone they might wish to emulate, assist, or even receive a simple compliment from. Human interaction is a key part of the learning process, even in a virtual space.
Caption: Students working together to solve a problem in our Mars habitat environment
Do you remember an instructor who was special to you? Perhaps they went out of their way to help you understand a topic you were struggling with. Maybe they encouraged you to pursue something or introduced you to a topic you’re still passionate about. That lasting connection is an example of the kind of social and emotional learning that makes an impact.
I asked Michele Yeargain, an Instructor within the Department of Biology at the University of Central Florida (UCF) what she values about teaching in a virtual environment. Michele worked with us to create our first virtual Biology course, and around 4,000 students now take it each year at UCF.
Caption: Michele’s avatar in one of our social environments
Michele told me that, for her, communication is integral for fostering those “Aha!” moments in learning: the moment where, following helpful hints or redirection from their instructor, a student finally understands the material.
When our department was first debating the shift to virtual labs, that was one concern I heard over again from faculty members: they thought those “Aha!” moments would be lost.
However, in an environment where the instructor is logged in and those students can work together, those moments are still present. You can lead them towards that moment the way you would in a classroom.
Being able to look over a student’s shoulder and interact with them in real time, helps instructors like Michele to guide students the way they would in the classroom. Our virtual environments offer tools that provide alternate approaches should a student struggle with their virtual activity, such as a live whiteboard and the ability to share other media.
Caption: An instructor’s view over a student’s shoulder in our virtual bench lab
Michele went on to explain how our environments offer an unbiased, neutral space, allowing teacher-student collaboration to flourish while minimizing any anxiety students might otherwise feel in a real classroom. She believes that having an avatar-based identity makes learning more inclusive and accessible for all students.
One of the things I like the most is the judgement-free zone that virtual environments offer.
Sometimes, in face-to-face instruction, when I ask a student if they understand and I can see that they don’t, they’ll often say they’re still working on it to avoid the confrontation of admitting that they’re still trying to grasp it.
When I ask them in a virtual environment, I often get a different response. Students are more open to stating that they are confused about something and to ask me to explain, and that relates to the lack of anxiety present in a virtual space.
This increase in interaction is not only between students and instructors, it’s also noticeable amongst the student community itself. As Michele pointed out,
One great thing is the student’s willingness to help each other, and they do this altruistically, as they’re not obligated to.
In a face-to-face lab, if you’re working in a group, you’re obligated to help your partners because you’re not going to finish unless everyone understands and is working towards the same goal. In a virtual environment, you don’t have to do that as you’re being graded independently. There’s no obligation to stick around once you’ve finished your work or to help others. But students do stick around. They stay logged in and help other students that are struggling, and that is very interesting to me.
Caption: Students offering encouragement during a virtual game
Michele isn’t the only instructor who has taught in our virtual biology course. A community of teaching assistants look to Michele for guidance on how to best work collaboratively online.
I asked Michele what advice she gives teaching assistants when they first work in a virtual space.
I stress that their most important job is to promote and initiate contact and conversation with students. Standing there as an avatar and not paying attention makes the space no different from a non-networked online lab. Instructors should be walking around and talking to students, even if it’s just to say hello or to ask if they have any questions.
It’s the same in face-to-face labs; you have to be present to promote and initiate contact, because often students won’t want to. They fear asking a “stupid question”, and that’s an amazing benefit of a virtual environment: the avatar removes any face-to-face recognition and students feel more confident about asking questions.
To maintain the Socratic dialogue that we believe is at the heart of education, an instructor must be present and promote social interaction in a virtual environment. To that end, Michele makes some great points about the importance of having a community of users working together, and this collaboration is something we are passionate about.
When we started building virtual learning environments, we had to learn what would work and what wouldn’t in a virtual space. We have worked closely with teaching and student communities, who have helped us understand how to create the best possible experience for both instructors and students.
UniVirtual remains a learning experience for us too, as we continue to engage with instructors and students. It will change and adapt, be updated and refined, and it is the expertise of instructors working in the industry whom we look to for guidance. We want UniVirtual to be something that enhances an instructor’s capability to teach, and to be a space where students can continue to flourish under the guidance of their instructor.