Here at Edorble, we think video chat and other synchronous online learning tools like Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect can be useful tools for online class collaboration, but we think 3D virtual worlds are more personal, playful, and powerful for a number of reasons. Indeed, for these same reasons, we hold our company meetings in Edorble - and they've never been more fun, easy, and effective. This post will touch on a few reasons why we think that, for online collaboration between students, teachers, and classes, 3D virtual worlds like Edorble are better than video chat and other tools.
This is a biggie. In Skype calls, although you can see the other person through their webcam, when people look at each other they are also given a visual reminder, via what's in the background of each video chat window, that indeed people are not in the same space. Hear us out - we know that when people meet online, no matter with what technology, they aren't really in the same space. That being said, if the goal is to actually come together and feel together (what researchers call "co-presence"), it might not make sense to use a medium that actually visually reinforces the fact that you're all in different places. This co-presence is even harder to feel in spaces like Adobe Connect or Blackboard Collaborate, where often students are just represented by a nametag under an "attendees" tab. I've been in Adobe Connect sessions, and I definitely didn't feel like I was particularly "together" with others. I felt like a name with a green light next to it that indicated my presence. So, how does a 3D world do it better? Well, a 3D virtual world actually provides a shared space that participants exist in as avatars, together. People can be in the same "room"...and it looks like a room! You can look around and see your peers and teacher, in the same space, moving about and talking - together. Take a peek, or even better, go ahead and claim an Edorble world for free, invite your colleagues or students, and see how it feels.
The sense of shared space here is useful for a number of reasons. We are already used to certain visual cues about space and the way people interact in it. Students usually know that if someone is at the front of the room, attention should be given to them. Occupying a 3D space together lets teachers and students interact in a way that, strangely enough, can actually feel more normal than video chat, where you see other heads floating about on your screen, something that is a unique, and in my humble opinion, strange experience. Interacting in the shared space of a 3D world can feel a bit more like interacting in the real world. Another major advantage of the spatial dimension of tools like Edorble? It's incredibly easy to have students break into small groups to have discrete conversations, because this works the way it does in the real world - people who want to talk together can just go find their own little area and talk. We put separate little platforms outside the auditorium that are intended to be nice little "break out" spaces. Adventurous groups can go check out the island. The voice chat in Edorble, like sound in the real world, is "spatialized"...you only hear who you're close to (but you can hold down b to broadcast your voice to everyone, if you want). Pulling off this kind of small group break out in other online collaboration or communication platforms is tedious, unnatural, or impossible.
I'm not sure if you've ever tried to have a Skype call or Google Hangout with > 10 people, but it can be pretty hellish. Some people usually have weak internet connections, which causes the voice chat to be choppy or the video quality to be grainty. Various heads are popping up on the screen or getting larger when they are talking, and when having 15 people showing themselves through video chat, there isn't much room left on the screen to do things like share a webpage, watch a video, or really do much of anything besides look at rows of grainy faces. Look again at the screenshot above, and see how comfortably 30 students and 1 teacher can gather in Edorble and watch a large video together. This is possible because of the nature of a 3D world and the vast space it provides (we love our big auditorium in Edorble), and also because virtual worlds are far less bandwidth intensive than video chat. Even people with very weak internet connections can successfully get into an Edorble world and interact just as well as anyone else. It's actually difficult to exaggerate how awesome this is. As Edorble continues to develop, we'll continuously be working on making sure even more users can be in Edorble simultaneously. That way projects like this one can happen at an even grander scale.
No doubt about it, we also think interacting in Edorble is simply more fun than interacting on video chat. Moving an avatar around a cool looking world is just more fun than worrying about how the close up of your face is looking. Don't get us wrong though, the above reasons are more important than this one....but being able to wear pajamas while you collaborate with others online is an icing on the cake that we find pretty irresistible.
We'll be continuing to make Edorble a wonderful place for students to interact with each other and with teachers online, and we've got some great things planned. Help us out by trying out our beta, leaving us some feedback, following us on Twitter @edorble, and getting ready for an absolutely epic Kickstarter campaign.