Sunday, April 23, 2017

Expanding digital learning spaces

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
In my last post I wrote about how physical learning spaces are being redesigned so that the boundaries between formal and informal spaces becomes increasingly blurred. Spaces can quickly be transformed from social areas to a seminar venue and previously unexploited spaces such as corridors and entrance halls are now used for group work, private study or events. I love the idea of designing spaces to enable serendipitous learning; you're sitting drinking coffee when you hear that a short lecture is beginning a few metres away and you simply can't help listening and being drawn in. Similarly you may strike up a conversation with another coffee drinker and suddenly you find common interests. Admittedly spontaneous discussions between strangers are pretty rare but maybe if the environment is right.

If we can transform the physical spaces to foster socialising or learning then maybe we should examine the digital space. Can we offer a greater flexibility in digital spaces allowing people to mingle or set up discussion groups on the fly? There are lots of tools that already do this to some extent but each tool or platform is a silo relying on all your contacts being members. I often have problems arranging video meetings where some people lack an account with the tool being used or work for an organisation that blocks that particular tool. Do we really have a digital equivalent of the informal learning spaces now appearing on many campuses? Digital cafes, commons areas, squares and parks. I don't think we're there yet but in the last couple of weeks I've found a couple of interesting new digital spaces that promise some new dimensions.

The first is a new webinar tool called Shindig. This seems to raise the bar for more interactive and flexible webinars and I'm very curious to try it out. In a typical session you have 2-3 presenters who lead the webinar and they are seen in larger video windows at the top of the screen. The participants are represented by smaller video windows to form a visible audience in the bottom half of the screen. Each participants can quickly set up their audio and video and there are no downloads or add-ins to complicate things; everything works in your browser. Every participant can ask to speak and can then be invited on "stage" with their video window joining the speaker(s) at the top of the screen. This is possible in existing webinar tools but this seems so much simpler.

The point that excites me about Shindig is that the participants can gather in small groups and "mingle". If you see someone you know you can "sit" next to them and even start your own private video or audio session. Before a session starts this feature can allow for the sort of mingle that is often so interesting at conferences. Group work can easily be organised  by simply asking participants to discuss with their neighbours rather than the complicated procedures needed for breakout groups in existing webinar platforms. Add in features like the capacity to accommodate over 1000 participants, social media integration (live streaming on Facebook or YouTube), recording and the ability to open private chats with any participant and you can see why I am so enthusiastic (full list of features here). At present you can apply to arrange an event but the platform isn't yet available for purchase (I assume this will costs a bit). Have a look at the publicity film here.

Virtual worlds had a hype peak with the Second Life boom about 10 years ago but it never really became mainstream as many of us had hoped. However with the advance of virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) there are now plenty of new virtual worlds to build and explore, often superimposed on "real reality" like Pokemon Go and so on. One thing that has been lacking in VR applications is the opportunity to invite your friends to meet you in the virtual space and that's where Facebook's new VR application Facebook Spaces hopes to create a niche.

The idea is that when you're in your VR environment, maybe exploring a rain forest or the sights of a major city, you can invite some of your Facebook contacts to join you for a discussion. In the VR environment you should already have created an avatar but if your contact doesn't have an avatar they can appear as a video window instead. The key to this, as in Second Life, was that you could meet people in a particular environment and give a spatial and experiential aspect to the online meeting that is otherwise generally just a meeting of talking heads. You create a shared experience; "remember that time we met beside that amazing waterfall". read more on this in a review of Facebook Spaces on WiredFacebook’s Bizarre VR App Is Exactly Why Zuck Bought Oculus.

Facebook Spaces could be the next big thing or it could sink without a trace but the main point is that there is an increasing focus on making digital spaces more interactive. This can facilitate, say, socialisation and group work between campus and online students, two groups that up till now seldom interact. Many more tools will come and go but the trend towards integrating formal and informal digital learning spaces is clear. Watch this space.

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