Yesterday I gave my first online class using an application developed internally at IE University, WoW Home. The result was far superior to the methodology I had been using systematically since the beginning of the pandemic. The WoW Room, which was opened in 2016 and about which I wrote at the time, has a 45 square meter screen made up of 48 smaller monitors mounted in a U-shaped configuration covering 230 degrees, along with cameras with automatic teacher tracking and 1,600 Watt of sound, which we have been using for several years now on several courses. I have used it on numerous occasions, typically to teach students working from different locations around the world, but for other uses as well.
But under the lockdown in Spain as part of the measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic, teachers are largely unable to use any of IE University’s facilities in the Spanish capital. Instead, the little sister of our WoW Room, the so-called WoW in a Box, has taken center stage: like its physical counterpart, it uses HTML5 and WebRTC to create, in a browser window, a virtual classroom that allows the professor to see all his or her students in video windows in real time, along with the presentation or other materials (videos, documents, etc.) that the teacher wishes to share, as well as tools such as real-time surveys, collaborative whiteboard, chat window, breakout rooms, etc.
The WoW in a Box has two versions: Studio, with a computer equipped with a very powerful graphic card and a lot of memory that can visualize a larger number of students and used on large monitors (some of them touch screens) within IE facilities; and Home, limited to a maximum of 37 students in simultaneous visualization, but which, as its name suggests, can be used from home. The layout I prepared yesterday can be seen in the image: on my laptop screen a part of the video wall appears, showing me in the upper left corner and my presentation. The video wall can be extended to see all 42 students in yesterday’s session, or the screen can be used for other resources, with the professor and the students who are speaking remaining visible on the left side of the screen. When a student speaks, his or her microphone is connected, which is muted when he or she is not speaking to prevent background noise.
I put the entire presentation on an additional monitor, so I know where I was at any given time and had some reference to the material as topics arise. One of the characteristics of my classes is that my presentations are not sequential: they are interactive, and I encourage students to interrupt and ask questions, which means that one session is never the same as another.
My students don’t usually take notes. Instead I pose a series of questions I expect them to internalize and understand by asking questions back. For this reason, the challenge of reconstructing this permanent interaction in a virtual environment is even greater, because it is based on a series of feedback cycles: when I ask a question, the students can “raise their hand” by clicking on a button, and I can enlarge the video wall and not only see their faces in real time, but also hear the ideas they want to put forward through the chat, along with a colored indicator of their participation rate during that session.
When the need arose to replace face to face classes with online teaching due to the coronavirus pandemic, IE University initially used Adobe Connect: a popular tool that most teachers know how to use, and which allows them to recreate, even if not completely, an interactive environment. This was to allow students who wanted to attend classes from home because they had been in contact with people with the virus or because they had visited areas at risk. But after we moved all teaching online, we used Adobe Connect to teach, first from empty classrooms, and then from home.
The idea now is to progressively extend the use of WoW in a Box to all courses, thus facilitating a level of interaction that is not simply a substitute for face-to-face classes, but a complete experience that also allows students to better understand virtual environments. Possibly, at some point in the near future, students will be able to attend these classes using virtual reality viewers.
Such a transition requires more than technology. The WoW Box is a clear example of maintaining the interaction that takes place in a classroom, ensuring that teachers and students are comfortable with the new format.
While there was room for improvement, Yesterday’s session showed that this kind of interaction can work. From my kitchen at home, so I could connect by cable to the router, I was able to launch some real-time surveys, see students raising (figuratively) their hands (and being able to remember the order much better than in a face-to-face class, but also deciding that we were going to move to another topic and “lower their hands” in a single click), and the students were able to raise doubts or ask for clarification. An environment, in short, that we could describe as even richer than the face-to-face class itself. After a certain number of uses, in fact, I can imagine myself in a face-to-face class missing some of the resources that I have in my virtual version: This must be the first time in many years of teaching I can say that.
The potential of this approach, as its use becomes more widespread, for example formats such as immersive videos or guest speakers in class, is immense. Even when the lockdown is lifted, I think this is an experience we will want to retain and develop further.
(En español, aquí)