As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape collegiate life, at HMA2, we remain committed to collating information about the kinds of tooling that universities have at their disposal to create robust blended learning spaces.
The pandemic has brought about an avalanche of changes, forcing schools and universities to reconceptualize how they plan for and design learning ecosystems by melding the relationship between the physical and virtual campus. This has breathed new life, for instance, into an outdoor learning movement, inspiring schools to recalibrate their relationships with the landscapes around them, and reinvigorating their classes with the creative promise of the great outdoors.
Concurrently, the dramatic surge in remote learning has demanded that the virtual university experience also be redesigned to foster intellectual stimulation and a sense of community. While commercial web conferencing platforms like zoom have been readily adapted to facilitate lectures for many disciplines, there have been greater challenges associated with designing virtual formats that can cater to practice-based courses (such as science labs and art studio courses, for instance). One response that has been tailored to meet the needs of such courses has been the incorporation of virtually simulated models of academic environments that allow students to perform procedural tasks remotely.
Virtual Science Labs by Labster
For instance, as lockdowns upended onsite learning in March and pushed instruction online, the California community college system, partnered with the Danish company, Labster, to give their 2.1 million students access to VR simulated lab environments - democratizing access to high end equipment and allegedly improving rates of recall amongst students. Elsewhere, initiatives to offer students a 3D immersive virtual seminar space to collaborate in led to the adoption of simulated VR auditoriums/conference rooms that students could inhabit collectively via avatars. At another institution, an online ‘office hours’ scenario was created to enable both the student and the professor to meet virtually (via avatars) inside a digital room where the student’s project was present and could be studied 3 dimensionally. At various other institutions, initiatives are underway to create fully digital versions of the campus, using 360 video cameras for AR/VR applications that have the potential to create a new charge for the way that space can be experienced in concert with virtual phenomena. These kinds of developments underscore some of the tooling being employed to generate experiential virtual university environments where people can feel physiologically present in a space with their peers.
Education and training platform by Doghead Simulations
While the long terms pros and cons of immersive media like educational VR/AR have yet to be fully understood, proponents of VR argue that it can help tackle the challenge of high dropout rates for online courses by making remote learners feel more connected and less isolated. Advocates contend that students do not build powerful memories of traditional online classes which offer a comparatively flat experience, often feeding data to students in lackluster ways. They are hopeful that immersive digital platforms may help to bridge the experiential gap between online and onsite learning as they situate students together in virtual labs, for instance, where students learn by doing, and can move and converse organically. A recent study by Stanford researchers found that participants who explored more of the virtual space they were immersed in (during an educational VR field trip) formed deeper cognitive associations with the science content being presented therein. Studies conducted at Stanford also demonstrated that in a virtual classroom, the subtle movement patterns of avatars could be studied to analyze and predict students’ grades and engagement with the subject matter.
Avatars collaborating in a virtual room designed by Theia
Notably, education technology initiatives that are creating virtual spaces for students to congregate in are tacitly nodding at the notion that space matters and that it plays a pivotal role in shaping creativity. As architects, we believe that space always carries a charge: people decode it in terms of what they think is achievable in the space and participate accordingly. Consequently, we are curious to unpack what it means to build better virtual spaces that foster a sense of community online. How and which disciplines these simulated learning landscapes can be most successfully deployed in will ultimately be debated amongst educators, but if they are to become one facet of the virtual university experience, this development begs the questions of who the key collaborators should be in shaping them. As these platforms are attempting to recreate the kind of pedagogical design that architects traditionally work on in the real world, strategic team building frameworks should be developed to create sustainable relationships that can enhance the digital spatial experience for all.
"Light Board" technology being used in Harvard Extension School virtual classes
While it is exciting to see that an underlying acknowledgement of the power and promise of space are playing an important role in the generation of these virtual classes, they are, nevertheless, being simulated in somewhat rudimentary ways spatially. If they are, indeed, to serve as technological surrogates for their real life inspirations, we feel that they could benefit from the participation of designers who have expertise in pedagogical design to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, for instance. Technological products often benefit from cross-disciplinary approaches: for instance, wearable technologies (like smart watches, glasses etc) often need to be designed by technologists working in tandem with designers from other sectors that understand what consumers are likely and willing to wear in order to make these products truly viable. As architects, we are, of course, principally immersed in place making in the real world - but as the world is shifting, we foresee that we may also have a role to play in the curating of virtual ecosystems to form a holistic blended campus that supports the learning community. While the physical campus cannot be directly substituted online by a purely mimetic facsimile, a multiplicity of 2D and 3D virtual formats can be put into service to assist and democratize learning.