-In 2013, I was observed teaching a class about genetics by using one of the original social VR programs, Second Life. Second Life has an entire world created by users and that world is built on virtual replicas of real places, learning experiences, and recreation like events. People live an entire "second life" there and in moments like now, during the COVID19 pandemic, it never made more sense. Every day since the emergency pause order, Governor Cuomo has held press conferences guided by data and logic. He so accurately expressed how we shouldn't be merely trying to reopen the schools, but we should be reimagining education. We shouldn't be trying to go back, we should be imagining a better future.
When I reimagine education, it is adaptive, personalized, immersive, and, perhaps more importantly, social. In an information-based society, our importance as teachers is more reliant on our ability to make a connection with the students than on the distribution of information which can be difficult in the spatially constrained video conference communication model currently used in software like Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype. Social VR rooms are surprisingly more analogous to real-life even when avatars are the only representation of the individual present, since we can move around, talk with specific individuals in the room without interrupting the room and talk without having to make full-blown eye contact for long periods.
As we're being asked to reimagine education, why not recreate what we can in a virtual space to instill a sense of "normalcy", recognition and comfort? We can also use the power of VR to teach things that would otherwise be too dangerous (ie. Chernobyl and nuclear radiation), expensive (ie. how to use Crispr), or impossible (ie. deep-sea hydrothermal vents).
A quick Google search for VR classroom or virtual reality classroom will reveal how many teachers are thinking along the same lines as I am. Humans are social, spatial thinkers and although our cognitive talents have enabled us to develop a technological society capable of seemingly unlimited streaming multimedia services to binge on and witty Zoom virtual backgrounds, we are restless and inquisitive by nature; constrained by squares on a computer monitor and forcing eye contact with a camera lens.
Although Second Life is still around, it can only be used by Windows and Macbook laptops, no Chromebooks. This is a challenge since the district gives out Chromebooks to students without sufficient technology in the home. AltspaceVR is also available for Windows and Macbook but there are talks of it coming to Chromebooks soon. Luckily, Mozilla has developed a perfect solution; Mozilla Hubs. These private VR spaces can be made for up to 30 individuals, and various permissions can be selected for those individuals (including the ability to draw in the space and fly). It is open-source (yes, it's fully free), can be embedded in a website or LMS and I have not found a limit to the number of rooms you can create or resources that can be uploaded to each room. This makes Mozilla Hubs perfect as the backbone to my "Virtual School".
As with every adventure into VR, it all starts with an appropriate looking avatar.
Loom.ai has recently released a virtual camera so that instead of a video of my face being stuck in that box on the screen, it's a 3D avatar that looks exactly like me, animated by my voice and can provide a sense of fun, immersion, and consistency among video conference and Mozilla hubs avatar. LoomieLive is exceptionally easy to use. After making an avatar of yourself using the mobile app for Android or iPhone and installing LoomieLive on your computer, you can login to your account on the computer and choose a background for your avatar. Once you open up the video conferencing software (such as Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype), and open up the settings of that program, you'll see a new camera in the webcam selection dropdown called LoomieLive Camera.
Selecting that camera will replace your video with one of your avatars.
Eventually, it would be great to use a LoomieLive animated avatar as my Mozilla Hubs avatar but it's understandable to think that it may not come with the capacity to be animated. Since LoomieLive is a virtual webcam, it can be used in all video conferencing software and that includes Mozilla Hubs webcam share feature! So luckily, my LoomieLive avatar can still guide students in the virtual class by sharing the webcam, a perfect solution!
Tomorrow I will try out my "virtual classroom" made from Mozilla Hubs and LoomieLive, and I will report back before delving more into ways to use both resources in remote instruction in future blog posts.