Davenport enters a virtual world

University one of few in the country offering VirBELA, a platform that simulates the campus, classrooms and classmates.
The VirBELA platform keeps “rooms” looking the same even after students exit so they can come back to their work later. Courtesy Davenport University

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) With the cancelation of in-person classes, educational institutions now have to completely rely on online learning, but one local university is trying something new.

Davenport University for 20 years has been offering online classes to its students, but for the past year, some of its students have been among just a few in the country who have been using VirBELA, a three-dimensional virtual platform that mirrors a university experience.

In conjunction with Blackboard and Collaborate, Davenport has been using VirBELA, which simulates the school campus, classrooms and classmates. Students are represented by a customized avatar that can teleport around on campus, walk into classrooms and talk to classmates who also are represented by avatars.

The software also allows students to use sticky notes, TVs to display a slide presentation and privacy zones that give users a safe space to interact.

Brian Miller, dean of the global campus for Davenport, said by deploying a virtual world like VirBELA, it gives people a sense of space and a sense of permanence.

“By that I mean, the virtual world has rooms and offices and things that clue us in as humans on how we should be interacting with each other,” he said.” For instance, if you walk into a room and you see two people at a desk, having a conversation, you know that they are doing something that you shouldn’t just barge in and start talking because you see two people in a room talking at a desk. If you compare that to a teleconference on a phone or on video, whereas every time someone joins, they say ‘Hello, this is Brian,’ it ruins the entire conversation. I think the virtual world provides virtual clues and virtual cues that that is not appropriate at certain times and it is completely appropriate at certain times.

“By sense of permanence, I mean that those same two people sitting in a room having a conversation might put some notes on a whiteboard or put some sticky notes on a wall with some of their thoughts and then they go away for lunch. When they come back, the virtual room is the same as the way they left it. That is much more like how you would treat an office or classroom; you would put notes on a wall, and you would leave it there and when you come back, it would look the same.”

Davenport has been using VirBELA as a pilot project for a year to hold team meetings and small group projects.

“Both students and staff enjoy the adaptability of the software and the real-life interactions that the software replicates,” said Jeff Wiggerman, Davenport’s director of instructional technology and delivery systems. “Even after leaving the software, the virtual space persists just as it would in a physical setting — providing our online students, staff and faculty with a sense of place and community.”

Miller said the university will be expanding the use of the software platform to conduct health courses starting on May 6. It will be used for the online bachelor’s in health information management degree program. Miller said officials decided to implement the software for College of Health courses about three months ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The reason why we were looking at the College of Health as a good place to try this out is because those students are going into careers where they are providing medical care and medical support,” he said. “We have nursing and other College of Health profession degrees where those social skills we are trying to build with this tool are extremely important. They are important in other degrees, but they are directly, perhaps, more important to those specific degrees.”

The university will continue to evaluate the software as the fall semester progresses.

“We want to make sure that the tools and the technology that we put into our online courses are focused on what the students need to make their educational experience better,” Miller said. “So, we don’t always want to take something that is exciting and put it out there for everyone because if it is just fun and cool, then that might not be necessary for a degree. We are trying to find those tools that will improve the educational experience.”

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