Let’s get together with Gather.Town – utilising socially responsive technology in teaching

Numerous things have changed in several realms of life during the past few years. Working from home and teaching in a remote setting has become the new normal for many teachers, and although many have acclimated to their home workspaces and Zoom sessions, the situation was getting monotonous for all parties involved. It serves as a virtual reminder of the internet’s failure to support the in-person interactions that people need. Traditional video meetings and conferences are being converted by new technology into something that more closely mimics in-person discussions. Ella Rakovac Bekes, a math teacher from Croatia, found a fantastic web-conferencing application for enhancing student participation and involvement during online synchronous math lessons. An example and strategy for improving student engagement and creating a more engaging atmosphere via the usage of a free virtual world application while strengthening the social components of an online event during an interdisciplinary STEM lesson is described.

Putting it in context

In the light of COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing war in Ukraine, national education ministries are adopting and will continue to develop ways to guarantee that students continue to receive education via other channels in the face of widespread school closures.  Educators were and will continue to be needed to construct and manage distant learning activities employing videoconferencing capabilities in addition to learning management systems. Popular video conferencing systems are extensively used to engage with colleagues, family, and friends, as well as for work and play, professional growth, and entertainment. Communication has greatly enhanced as a consequence of the current surge in videoconferencing. Numerous studies have been undertaken on the psychological implications of spending hours each day on these platforms. Just as “Googling” has become synonymous with any online search, the word “Zooming” has become widespread, functioning as a general verb to replace the term “videoconferencing.” While social distancing mechanisms have kept individuals physically apart, virtual meetings have grown in popularity. Every day, hundreds of millions of events occur. According to some findings, video conversations weary individuals for at least four major reasons, resulting in the experience known as “Zoom fatigue.” The objective of this post is not to disparage any videoconferencing platform — I admire and routinely use products like Zoom – but to highlight how existing implementations of videoconferencing technology are tiresome and to offer interface enhancements, many of which are simple.

Teaching in online environment

With the acceptance of the new normal situation and the way the pandemic has changed everything, we still sometimes teach online. The reasons are various, due to the lack of space because state exams or various competitions are held. Due to justified absences of subject teachers or due to frequent isolations of entire classes …The most commonly reported negative aspect of online teaching include a lack of social connection, a lack of self-motivation, frequent technical issues, a lack of resources, and non-adherence to planned lectures. Student satisfaction research is essential in both conventional and online education. Student satisfaction is a vital component in the process of determining success criteria in online education.

 Videoconference and synchronous learning environment

In synchronous remote education, videoconferencing may be a useful tool for teaching and communication. Furthermore, thanks to the multimodal capabilities of web-based videoconferencing technology, instructors and students may connect with one another through audio, visual, and spoken communication. This minimises the ambiguity inherent in text-only communication and promotes psychological involvement, which may result in collaborative work functioning at a level equivalent to face-to-face communication. As a result, using videoconferencing in distance education may assist in creating a learning environment that is more analogous to a traditional classroom.

From the viewpoint of social constructivism and sociocultural theory, videoconferencing technologies have the potential to enhance the online learning and teaching experience.

According to multiple research, online learning during the pandemic resulted with a lack of desire to study, a high level of stress, and a greater dropout rate. One explanation for this is because studying from home lowers social connection in the classroom. Social presence was associated to student pleasure in three constructs: social sharing, open-mindedness, and social identity.

Students’ participation in Zoom, on the other hand, was dismal, as we all know from personal experience. When students were summoned, they would occasionally switch off their webcams and not reply. The researchers concluded that the main factors contributing to a successful blended learning experience are effective communication between online students and the instructor, followed by communication between online students and classroom students, online student engagement, instructional activity redesign, and audio quality.

GATHER TOWN application

Gather Town is a web-conferencing application similar to others, but with the added benefit of visualising the virtual “room” the user and its colleagues are currently occupying, as well as the ability to move around and interact with other participants based on their physical locations in the room, just as it would be in real life.

Gather is fully spatial—you must be digitally “near” to someone in order to hear them, allowing for several discussions in one location and wonderful impromptu connections. This is similar to happy hours and conferences, when large groups of people break off to interact in smaller groups. It is a two-dimensional map platform in which users control an avatar that traverses across space.

When your avatar meets the avatar of another person, you are instantly invited to a voice or video discussion with that user. As one avatar approaches or leaves the “talking” distance of another, his camera rectangle becomes slightly translucent until the avatar walks away from the range, at which point the rectangle, and the option of chatting with the other, evaporates altogether.

Screenshot of Gather Town interface during the lesson

Gather’s fundamental goal is to build the finest Metaverse possible for mankind. Unaligned business models have a history of creating profit at the cost of the user’s well-being. A Metaverse that works on a free, open platform, akin to the Internet, benefits society the most.

Gather’s development team has included a few pre-configured games in their Object Picker. These games are set up to enable users to join private games hosted inside the Gather area, enabling them to play while video chatting with others. There is a commonly known game of Tetris from 1980’s. You may design your own environment, change an existing one, and even add interactive items like as white boards, video games, banners, and webpages.

A screenshot of fun element within the Gather Metaverse

Gather Town was picked because of its multiple advantages. It offers a free version to users, is self-contained, may be used in an educational context, integrates gamification components (it is, after all, a game), and, most crucially, nudges verbal dialogue.

The one downside at the time is that its full capability is only accessible on non-mobile devices such as laptops or desktop PCs.

Encouraging social skills with interdisciplinary STEM lesson

One of the criteria that contribute to student motivation is a sense of belonging and respect. Pupils who are normally introverted and are not the class’s loudest members will have a more difficult time acquiring social skills via video conferencing with other students. During online teaching, teachers utilise their approach and available opportunities to create and maintain a pleasant communication culture among students and with the instructor. However, facilitating and encouraging social skills in all students remains the most challenging component of online education.

Taking this into consideration and the fact that engagement and motivation in STEM subjects and lessons were a major issue prior to this “new normal,” it was vital to construct a lesson to address these issues.

The purpose of creating an interdisciplinary lesson was to practise vectors and associated mathematical concepts, get familiar with the region’s intangible cultural heritage, and learn about Croatian literacy. All of this, however, had to be accomplished in a distant educational context. While remote education as a discipline responds to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak and videoconferencing technology improve their usefulness, it is vital to recognise human agency during this transition. Humans act and make decisions in reaction to their experiences, reflections, self-determination, and motivation. According to social constructivism, learning comes as a result of interactions and experiences with others. Learning takes place within a complex social structure, and people’s learning and development are impacted by their involvement in cultural activities. Videoconferencing widens the boundaries of classrooms, blends the presence of virtual and real classrooms, and overcomes the physical limits of conventional classrooms. This increases students’ touch with their surroundings, classmates, and instructors, broadening their educational experience.

When I discovered Gather Town, I was certain that the social interaction would be powerful enough to attract kids in this specific session and keep their attention throughout. This had an extra benefit: kids developed an appreciation of what it was like to play video games in the 1980s.

Gamification, Self-determination Theory and Avatars

While gamification is not successful in and of itself, various game design components may elicit a range of different motivated reactions. Using a self-determination theory framework, the consequences of different combinations of game design characteristics were explored.

Self-determination Theory (SDT) is a motivational theory of personality, development, and social processes that investigates how social contexts and individual differences facilitate various types of motivation, particularly autonomous and controlled motivation, and thus predicts learning, performance, experience, and psychological health. According to SDT, all humans have three basic psychological requirements that must be addressed in order to operate and be happy: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Satisfaction of these essential criteria promotes the development of optimal motivational traits, independent motivation, and intrinsic goals, all of which lead to psychological well-being and effective interaction with the environment.

Badges, leaderboards, and performance graphs all affected competence and autonomy in terms of job meaningfulness. According to this study, avatars, a compelling story, and teammates all had a positive influence on social relatedness.

The pupils are expected to discover different artefacts while roaming the castle as miniature avatars with names hovering over their avatar-heads. Each found object has a math problem and multiple-choice answers, as well as hints. To obtain the proper clue, students must solve a math problem and choose the correct answer. The who-what-where worksheet should include all of the answers and hints. After crossing off “Who,” “What,” and “Where,” just one clue remains in each column. The last Who, What, and Where is a true narrative of a Croatian writer who lived in a specific place, and it also serves as the final answer.

I reasoned that the distinctive gamified aspects of Gather-facilitated classes could only generate motivating effects if participants were aware of their presence. A meaningful tale, for example, that is presented to elicit emotions of social connectivity, cannot fail since players are unable to skip essential screens because they are interwoven into the narrative.

What happened with using this app?

Before the lesson utilising this software, students were polled briefly about their past experiences with and attitudes about video conferencing in online classrooms. The majority of them claimed that they are demotivated to engage in video calls, annoyed by the prospect of engaging in video calls, think that video calls are meaningless or offer no value, avoid video calls whenever possible, and even when they are “present.” A substantial proportion of them, 92 percent, said that they had had no contact or spoken conversation with any of the call participants.

The satisfaction, narrative, social interaction (communication style), and attitudes regarding the Gather Town classes were evaluated using a survey-based questionnaire with a sample of 56 students aged 15–17.

The held lesson, which included stimulating gaming aspects, had a positive impact on learners’ communication, engagement, and learning interests, as well as supporting them in establishing self-directed learning. These opinions directly reflect the success of Gather Town teachings. Gather lessons, according to the opinions, have distinct traits such as the degree of enjoyment, ease of access, ease of use, and level of communication. Only 2% of students stated that they had no oral contact with others.  As a consequence, teachers must take use of these advantages while conducting video conversations (conference calls).

CONCLUSION

Web-based videoconferencing system design and optimization should take a more human-centered approach. For example, the next generation of web-based videoconferencing systems should enable learners and educators alike to make choices and harness technology to improve the virtual learning experience rather than restrict it due to system capabilities constraints. Another related problem is how to bridge the gap between educators and students, students and students, and students and material. This is one of the most serious challenges that videoconferencing systems will face in the future. All of these challenges were effectively overcome with the prepared lesson that included gamification, intangible cultural heritage, and the web-conference software, Gather Town. According to the conducted lesson, establishing in-person contacts with avatar usage enhanced students’ social engagement as well as lesson satisfaction. Furthermore, it means that different types of social interactions impact learners’ behaviour when it comes to gamification. Gather promoted social relationships via the use of gamification and collaboration inside an online learning environment utilising a videoconference technology.

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