Explore Gather.Town and its potential as a new teaching resource

 

Published 16 February 2022

Gather.Town screenshot

Gather.Town: an organic online social interactivity tool that found potential as a teaching resource 

What is Gather.Town? 
Gather.Town (Gather) is a web-conferencing tool designed to transform video communication into sociable serendipitous interactions. The concept stems from the tried and tested multiplayer video gaming world: a hybrid of nostalgic ‘80s pixelated 2D video console game (think Super Mario, Donkey Kong), with current technology in video communication interfaces. Unlike other ubiquitous video conferencing applications, Gather’s unique focus is its custom virtual spaces in which avatars (users) freely move to and away from conversations with other users. At any one time, users can enter and leave conversations and spaces to engage with other users or interactive objects (documents, media, links, etc.). With a simple and intuitive interface, the complexity of its virtual world interactions become second nature as soon as you enter the digital spaces. As a browser-based application, it is universally accessible with minimal compatibility issues. 

Case study: application of Gather.Town at UNSW’s Education Festival 
The inaugural UNSW Education Festival was a week-long event for the teaching and education community, enabling the sharing of educational practices in collaborative, cross-disciplinary ways. With the Festival mainly conducted online, there was a need for a social space for delegates to meet and gather in between programs, and to engage in synchronous poster presentation discussions virtually.

It was a challenge and an ambitious task, but Josu Abrego, Educational Developer, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, and Bonnie Xin, Educational Engagement Officer, PVCESE Portfolio, soon discovered Gather as the solution to facilitating organic, engaging experiences. Feedback continually flowed with educators expressing interest in implementing Gather in their own teaching. Welcome to the metaverse. 

Gather was successfully used during the Festival for a number of sessions, including synchronous poster presentations and roundtable discussions, and it even hosted the live-streaming of the in-person event held at the UNSW Kensington campus.

Part of the success can be attributed to the conceptualisation, design and layout of the spaces and their interactive elements. The entire Gather space was designed based on a blueprint of the actual Scientia building areas, which included a Registration Foyer, Scientia Lobby, Leighton Hall and Tyree room. This universal design principle approach made the users’ experience familiar despite being new to the platform. Their positive experiences contributed to increased engagement with the virtual space and returned visits. 

Building any of the environments in Gather is relatively simple. In fact, it requires more creativity than technical skills, but as in real life, it can take longer than you first anticipate, particularly if you want to 'go beyond' the available templates. However, the benefits of the end product proved to be well worth the time invested.

One of the most important elements in Gather are the impromptu conversations the platform enables among users. The Education Festival Gather layout was designed to facilitate authentic discussions between poster authors and participants. Gather’s interface offered an organic intuitive ease-of-use as well as a sense of exploration you won’t find in other video communication software.

Entering a Gather space and interacting with others can feel like a mixture of work and play interfaced through real-life norms. The gamification experience allowed your avatar to take full agency of your actions and make all interactions very dynamic. Overwhelmingly, participants at the Education Festival Gather space commented on how much they enjoyed the experience and opportunities it provided to discover different areas within sessions and ‘bump into’ other delegates. 

"The use of Gather.Town was a fantastic idea. I am glad the organisers were not afraid to introduce a sense of play and experimentation - that is exactly what all of us need right now, and it worked! It was so refreshing to participate in an online event that had some variation to what we've experienced over the past two years and I hope UNSW continues to find uses for such an engaging platform. Thank you to the staff who had this idea and no doubt put in a lot of effort to pull it off," commented one attendee.

What’s next? A valuable tool to consider implementing in teaching environments  
Josu, who led the creation process, remarks: “From an Education Developer’s perspective, Gather is a tool with tremendous pedagogical potential. As the organisers of the Festival, we took the calculated risk to use Gather to great success. The virtual rooms served as a great interactive online socialising tool for the event, and it also inspired the education community to use the platform for other education purposes, a versatile addition to their toolkit of teaching resources”.

Some UNSW academics have already discovered the potential of Gather with spaces created for students. During the Festival, poster presentation "a virtual cuppa & catch up in Gather.Town" was voted one of the best posters, and the short video "Creating an authentic virtual research and industry conference for students" won the Scientia Education Academy Exemplary Teaching Practice Award, both implementing Gather in their teaching. 

“The Gather.Town platform and event hosts were great. I came away very enthused and full of ideas for how these platforms could be used in my own work and University,” commented an external participant. 

Naturally, there are some limitations. Some of Gather's shortfalls were evident in its ability to showcase certain types of media. Unless documents are housed on a website (e.g. Google Docs, URLs), offline files could only be displayed as JPEG/PNG rather than PDF/Word. Furthermore, visual maps of the space lacked context, which meant participants could easily get lost in a space with many rooms (though that, at times, added to the excitement!). 

Overall, Gather.Town is a solid platform that can assist with bridging the teaching hybrid divide between in-person and online delivery. It uses a language that a younger generation of students speak within a gamification environment they're likely to be familiar with. It is the metaverse, a space where we will find ourselves immersed in sooner than we think. 

Have a wander and explore the UNSW Education Festival Gather space

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Article authors: Josu Abrego, Educational Developer, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, and Bonnie Xin, Educational Engagement Officer, PVCESE Portfolio

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