Space Matters: The Value of 3D Virtual Reality Classrooms

Steven King
Apr 3, 2020 · 3 min read
Reese Innovation Lab in Virtual Space

Editors Note: This is the first of a four-part series on Education in Virtual Reality

VR Classroom Series: Part 1: Space Matters | Part 2: The Best Platform for VR | Part 3: How to Build a Classroom in Altspace VR | Part 4: Teaching and Presenting in a VR Class

After my Virtual Reality class ended yesterday, eight to ten of the 28 students in the class hung around to catch up with each other. They were standing in groups of two or three well within the 6-foot social distance rule we now expect. Then I noticed two of the students started sharing genuinely about the crisis we are all in and how it was impacting their education and school work.

In another grouping, one of my undergraduate juniors mentioned she had lost the promise of an internship because of this virus. A graduate student and classmate comforted her by sharing her own story in a natural, close way while other “real” conversations carried on around them.

Students have personal conversations after class in AltspaceVR.

Just like in a traditional classroom, another student approached me with a question they did not feel comfortable asking in front of the entire class.

These moments happen daily in the in-person classroom, but I have rarely seen them occur in video conference-based classes. Typically, the professor ends the course, and all the students sign off.

Space matters. Space enables people to gather, group, break apart, and communicate and collaborate. There is a reason our Innovation Lab is on Franklin St in Chapel Hill. There is a reason we have elevated ceilings, hardwood floors, moveable standing tables, and whiteboards all around. Space matters in virtual learning and collaboration too.

UNC Reese Innovation Lab in the real-world.

Over the past two weeks, I have been building and experimenting with how best to create an educational and collaborative space virtually. I have tried numerous social Virtual Reality experiences and spent hours in chats, meetups, and classes in VR. In the end, I built a room that resembles our lab but is designed for virtual collaboration, not in-person collaboration.

The technology platform for this type of virtual educational experience is also important, but I will discuss the various platforms in a later post that digs into Mozilla Hubs and Microsoft’s AltspaceVR for classroom and collaboration experiences.

For students to have those impromptu discussions and to feel comfortable in small groups, the space needs to feel real. Not that it had to be photo-realistic, but it had to feel like a real place. It had to have spacial audio with reverb and sound like the room looked. It had to have distance and separation with different nooks and places to group and separate. It had to have surfaces like tables and chairs so people felt comfortable. And it had to become our own. I added personal touches like the same signage we have in my real-world lab and I put artwork in the room that was from our campus.

Week 1 of class in Mozilla Hubs.

Space matters for creating truly collaborative and educational experiences. I hope over the next four weeks, we will see significant innovations and discoveries in our new virtual 3D world.

VR Classroom Series: Part 1: Space Matters | Part 2: The Best Platform for VR | Part 3: How to Build a Classroom in Altspace VR | Part 4: Teaching and Presenting in a VR Class

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