I’m experimenting with virtual office hours this quarter. I wanted to reproduce the casual mingling that happens during my person-to-person drop-in hours at the UW Tacoma Teaching and Learning Center (TLC). I like the ability to wander around and eavesdrop on conversations. So after learning about Gather (gather.town), I decided to give it a go.
It has a decidedly nineties video game vibe. No matter how much you customize your avatar, it looks like an escapee from Super Mario 2 or Pokeman.
As the name implies, when avatars gather in proximity, their camera and sound feeds are shared—much like a Zoom breakout room. Many small conversations can happen in the same room at the same time. To change who you are interacting with, simply move your avatar. Shared whiteboards, documents, or online games can be added to the space and you can share your computer screen with those near you.
There are “private spaces,” denoted by the areas rugs in the screenshot above. Only people on the rug are in conversation. I have asked students to respect the privacy of the rug so others can discuss difficult topics as if the door is closed in an office environment.
When I am engaged with a group in the main room, newcomers can listen. If the discussion is related to their own questions, they are welcome to join in. Otherwise, my hope is that they will retreat to a different location, interact with others, create community, and learn together—just like in-person at the TLC.
I held my first drop-in Gathering this evening. Fourteen students visited, shared goals, and explored the space. A people few stayed the entire 1.5 hours to meet people and play. There was original artwork left on one whiteboard. We played the card game SET. The question was raised whether we could virtually hold class as a Gathering instead of on Zoom. So I would say that the first experiment was successful. Hopefully in the future, they will come to play with math.
Gather is free for less than 25 people (and seems reasonably priced per person to host a limited duration special event like a poster session, workshop, or conference.) Students expressed interest in customizing the map; I have encouraged them to unleash their creativity.
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