“Gather”ing Your Classroom Community

02.06_gathering-your-classroom-community

As educators, we’ve often found that one of the greatest impediments to creativity in the classroom is, quite literally, the classroom. At a large public university, where class sizes of 80 students are on the smaller side, it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that our greatest bottleneck is usually our class space. Over the years, there have been countless times when we’ve said, “Wow, this would be such a cool idea to implement . . . if we had a smaller class.” Group projects, games, and other activities that would have been easy to complete with fewer students can be almost impossible to scale to larger classes as seemingly insignificant obstacles, like a lack of proper tables or chairs that can swivel around, often become huge barriers to effective learning.

One of the few positive outcomes of the early part of the Covid era was the explosion of new technologies to help students learn in live online environments. Zoom, YuJa, and a host of other platforms became essential in this regard, and instructors found ways to overcome physical space limitations to attain desired learning outcomes. Yet while many of these tools have now taken a back seat as institutions return to in-person learning, we’ve found that some of them can still prove quite useful for the classroom experience today, especially in addressing the obstacles noted above.


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As educators, we’ve often found that one of the greatest impediments to creativity in the classroom is, quite literally, the classroom. At a large public university, where class sizes of 80 students are on the smaller side, it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that our greatest bottleneck is usually our class space. Over the years, there have been countless times when we’ve said, “Wow, this would be such a cool idea to implement . . . if we had a smaller class.” Group projects, games, and other activities that would have been easy to complete with fewer students can be almost impossible to scale to larger classes as seemingly insignificant obstacles, like a lack of proper tables or chairs that can swivel around, often become huge barriers to effective learning.

One of the few positive outcomes of the early part of the Covid era was the explosion of new technologies to help students learn in live online environments. Zoom, YuJa, and a host of other platforms became essential in this regard, and instructors found ways to overcome physical space limitations to attain desired learning outcomes. Yet while many of these tools have now taken a back seat as institutions return to in-person learning, we’ve found that some of them can still prove quite useful for the classroom experience today, especially in addressing the obstacles noted above.

Introduction to Gather

One such tool is Gather, an online platform where users can create virtual spaces that mimic the real ones that they are accustomed to. Office hours, group meetings, conferences—many events meant to bring people together in the real world can translate into the virtual world. But stop right there, you say. Isn’t this what platforms like Zoom breakout rooms do? True—but while Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and so on, provide adequate ways for people to congregate, there is often that pervasive feeling that there’s just something missing. It just doesn’t quite feel the same to talk to someone online as it does in person, and this difference can in turn hinder class productivity and effectiveness (Kraut et al., 2002; Hoegl & Proserpio, 2004).

Gather helps to bridge this gap by allowing users to create avatars for themselves that they then navigate through the virtual spaces created by others. The platform thus mimics the feeling of walking through a classroom to check on students, passing by cubicles to chat with coworkers, or meandering through a conference hall to network with colleagues (see image below). Gather removes one of those psychological barriers to interaction—the feeling that I am not physically near those around me—by allowing users to feel a little more like they’re doing what they would normally do in the real world, whether that be walking around, going from conversation to conversation, or dropping in and out of offices.

Screengrab from Gather. Webcam images of participants appear at the top of the screen, while their avatars gather around tables in a virtual classroom in the middle of the frame.

For example, when we have a group activity that may be difficult to work through in a physical classroom, we often take our students to Gather. We build a model of our classroom on the platform, and Gather’s tools allow us to be as creative as our imaginations allow: we can craft spaces featuring large lecture halls, offices where groups can hold discussions, and even lounge areas to encourage casual interaction. Gather allows us to be even more creative in how we approach the classroom learning experience than we ever could be in the real world, and we find that students respond extremely well. Most of them enjoy the ability to create their own avatars, talk to their classmates freely, and soak in a unique experience that they wouldn’t find elsewhere.

Application of Gather

You can implement nearly any class activity on Gather, and real-world obstacles—such as lack of rooms for group discussions or areas for students to chat—become moot. We recently used Gather in a marketing research course to provide students with a space to conduct focus groups, creating mini offices on the platform for each team to use to query participants and collect data (see image below). This never would’ve been possible in a real-world setting, where the noise of 80 students talking all at once would’ve made such an activity a literal headache to implement. With Gather, however, students completed their work seamlessly and efficiently, with multiple teams facilitating their focus groups simultaneously throughout the class session. And really, any class that encourages group collaboration would benefit from using such a platform. Engineering courses might find Gather useful in hosting group projects, economics classes could craft ways to demo game theory to students, and psychology courses might discover a handy tool to conduct research experiments. The possibilities are practically endless, bounded only by the instructor’s imagination.

Screengrab from Gather. Webcam images of participants appear at the top of the screen. The middle shows several rooms, one with chairs around a table. A larger lobby room includes several groups of couches, labeled Team 3, Team 4, and Team 5.

Conclusion

Before we end, we would be remiss to leave out a drawback of the platform. The use of Gather naturally assumes that each student has access to a computer or laptop, along with a strong internet connection. Thus, there are equity issues in using Gather, given that not every student may have such resources at their disposal. As technology advances and becomes more affordable and accessible to everyone though, we are confident that this is a tool whose benefits will continue to outweigh its costs.

At the end of the day, there is nothing more wasted than untapped creativity. Thankfully, for us as educators, resources such as Gather provide the means of making the most of that creativity and ensuring that our most important stakeholders—our students—benefit in the process.

References

Hoegl, M., & Proserpio, L. (2004). Team member proximity and teamwork in innovative projects. Research Policy, 33(8), 1153–1165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2004.06.005

Kraut, R. E., Fussell, S. R., Brennan, S. E., & Siegel, J. (2002). Understanding effects of proximity on collaboration: Implications for technologies to support remote collaborative work. In P. Hinds & S. Kiesler (Eds.), Distributed work (pp. 137–162). MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/2464.003.0010


Jonathan Lim, PhD, is an assistant professor of teaching in marketing, and Rich Yueh, PhD, is an assistant professor of teaching in information systems in the School of Business at the University of California, Riverside.