Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators around the world had to adjust from teaching in an in-person, face-to-face setting to using an online platform. In past year and a half, Gyeonggi-do Institute for Language Education (GIFLE) also had to acclimate to online distance teaching and learning. Mostly, we have done classes and training programs through Zoom Video Communications and Google Meet. While using Zoom and Google Meet, we realized there are some limitations on teaching through these platforms. While searching for other online software, we have discovered Gather Town (gather.town) as an alternative to Zoom.
Gather Town is a video conferencing software program, much like Zoom and Google Meet. The difference is the format. With Gather Town, teachers can create a virtual world for their students that simulates real-life school and classrooms and interactions between people.
We’ve made a guide to help you get started with Gather Town! You can scroll through the presentation below to see how to get started.
When teaching through Gather Town, there are some things a teacher needs to consider. The following are benefits and cautions when designing a virtual world and teaching students via Gather Town.
- Movement is possible – One of the disadvantages of Zoom is that all movement and interactions need to be arranged beforehand. Once they are in a Zoom meeting, they must stay in the meeting room. The students cannot form partners or groups by themselves. Movement can only occur when the teacher creates breakout rooms and assign students to enter a breakout room. In addition, the students cannot spontaneously interact with other individuals, groups or the teacher privately. In Gather Town, spontaneous movement and interactions are possible. Since students are using an avatar, instead of being fixed on a screen, they can move their avatar around to move around the classroom to do assigned activities, form groups easily, and speak privately without the assistance of the teacher.
- Interactive Objects – With Gather Town, teachers have the ability to create objects in their virtual space that students can interact with. These objects can be embedded with videos, Powerpoint presentations, Google Docs, Google Slides, Youtube clips and etc. These objects are easily clickable and accessible for the students. Instead of sending files to the students and not knowing whether they received it or not, teachers can create an object where any student can click in order to access teaching materials. If the students need assistance with technical issues, the teacher are nearby ready to assist them.
- Mirrors real-life classroom – When preparing for in-person classes, teachers would try to arrange desks and decorate the classroom so the environment is conducive for learning. The Gather Town virtual space or classroom gives teachers the ability to arrange or decorate the classroom that their fit their lesson. This ability to design the classroom and the freedom of movement in the classroom provides the teacher with more options to mirror in-person classroom teaching in an online setting. There is less of an adjustment for trying to prepare lessons for online format. Instead teachers can take what they do in -person and create a virtual space that simulates the real-life classroom experience.
- No Camera Fatigue – When taking online classes via Zoom, the teacher and students are fixed in a certain position and staring at the screen. There is a physical toll when staring at a screen for a long time, especially if you are just looking at the same thing. In Zoom, people are just looking into the camera and viewing the other participants. This makes the teacher and students set physically in a fixed position. The eyes are on the camera and the posture is set so With Gather Town, there are a lot of things to see. People are moving and depending on the virtual space set up, the eyes are moving from one object or person to another. Even while sitting and taking online classes, the teacher and students can move their eyes and neck and change their posture while taking the class. It relieves a little of the stress of staying still.
- Too much movement – Since the avatars can move around the screen, it can be a distraction while doing classes. The students may pay attention to the movement in the classroom rather than on what the teacher says. Teachers have to spend time managing the movement in the classroom which takes away valuable teaching time. Basic Gather Town classroom rules and etiquette needs to be established in order to minimize movement distractions in the classroom.
- Cannot share files immediately(drag and drop) – In Zoom or Google Meet, the teacher can share documents or files by dragging and dropping them in the chat windows. This is important in case students don’t have the teaching materials immediately in front of them or they are not able to access any links. With Gather Town, documents and files cannot be sent using the chat window. Only messages can be typed in order to communicate with the teacher or other students. This means that the teachers need to spend some time to set up the classroom so the students can smoothly access documents and files. Usually, this will happen by creating various interactive objects with links embedded in them. Then the students are able to access documents and files while interacting with objects.
- All group discussion can be difficult – In the Gather Town classroom, students can move easily in and out of public and private areas in order to participate in group work or discussions. The students can talk to other trainees without being heard by others but still feel like they are not isolated in a breakout room. The discussions that can be difficult is the all group or class discussion. There are times when the teacher has to lecture to the whole class. During the lecture, a teacher can pose a question that he or she wants a student to spontaneously respond. This type of interaction may be difficult because students cannot swiftly and easily shout out the answer. The students either need to be given a spotlight function by the teacher or go to the spot with a spotlight indicator to speak. Then they can participate and speak to the whole group. This added step to speak to the whole group may make all group discussions not run smoothly.
As with learning all new online software, tools and apps, there is going to be a learning curve. Don’t let frustrations and failures discourage you. Hopefully, with these how to instructions and advice on using Gather Town, you can utilize them in your own classrooms and have an online teaching experience that can be similar to your in-person classroom teaching.