Pandemic-proof learning and socializing at Georgian’s virtual campus
May 24, 2021

Some Georgian students are living large, despite lockdown. After sharing a lecture together, they might head down the beach to catch some rays or maybe jump on a boat and tour around the lake before their next class starts. It’s all possible thanks to the creation of Georgian’s virtual campus.

Rob Theriault, Georgian’s Immersive Technology Lead, introduced the college to the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN) and the iRLN VirBELA campus. iRLN is an international organization of educators and research professionals collaborating to explore how new immersive technologies can improve the student learning experience.

“Once the pandemic hit, we surveyed our students, staff and faculty,” says Jamie Doran, Executive Director of Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Georgian, and project lead. “One of the big issues was connectivity. We realized everyone was missing that campus experience where you randomly bump into people and chat. It seemed the virtual campus might be the answer.”

So Georgian partnered with iLRN.

Head shot of Dr. James (Jamie) Doran outside near some trees; wearing suit and dress shirt, smiling at camera

Jamie describes the virtual campus environment as a video game. You go in, create your avatar and then basically the whole campus is at your disposal. Students enter classrooms, sit where they want, see the professor lecture, have table discussions with their group or push the cone of silence button to have a private conversation.

When class ends there are social spaces to gather like a theatre, a nightclub, not to mention the beach shack and lake. The best part is students, through their avatars, are talking, walking and interacting as they would in real life.

Avatar of Jessica at the virtual campus beach
The beach is a popular spot to hang out

The next challenge was recruiting teachers to deliver their classes in the virtual classroom. Keith Connell felt the digital environment was the perfect venue for his Applied Digital Marketing class.

“The whole online learning process has been difficult for some students,” says Keith. “But this virtual classroom has interesting advantages. For the introverts of the class, they can be very comfortable while the extroverts still have the opportunity to be fully engaged and leading group discussions.”

Keith has also noticed a stark difference in how students engage in the virtual environment versus a class on other teaching platforms. He estimates a low percentage of students were hyper engaged, while attendance for some was slipping with remote delivery. Now he’s getting full attendance, with about 30 to 50 per cent of students hyper engaged and 20 per cent decently engaged.

Arthemise Lalonde, instructor of the Applied Hospitality Management course, recently started teaching in the virtual classroom too. Technical difficulties and a learning curve made the transition challenging. But she does admit that as time passes and everyone learns to navigate the system better, she’s starting to see some improvements with connectivity.

“Even though we’re still virtual, it feels more interactive,” says Arthemise. “We’re avatars, so it’s not like our real faces. Although we can see people in other platforms we use, most students don’t show their faces. Having an avatar standing in front of me at least gives the sense that somebody is there. And I think students feel the same way.”

The pilot stage for the virtual classroom has been hectic for everyone involved. Jessica Thomas, iLRN co-ordinator, has seen the extreme dedication the Georgian team is putting into the project.

“We have a whole campus built on the iLRN VirBELA platform. The team and I are constantly learning about new functions and different things you can do in the space,” says Jessica. “And we’re sort of the pioneers of this in Canada. There aren’t many other institutions doing it right now.”

Jessica Thomas, woman standing against beige wall outdoors; long dark hair, warm smile, wearing dark jacket and blue sweater

Jessica is also a co-op student in the three-year Business Administration program, so she sees the student perspective as well. She’s thrilled to be involved in the project.

Female avatar overlooking lake and view in virtual campus
Jessica takes in the view

“It’s really great that Georgian has put the human resources and funding behind this virtual campus because they knew students were suffering academically and mentally,” she says. “I think that really shows what kind of a college they are: they put students’ needs first.”

Watch this video of Jessica exploring the campus. She shows you how to teleport to cool places like the Mountain Retreat, Mixed Reality Lounge, and the beach.

The future of learning at Georgian

While most students and instructors admit they can’t wait to get back to classroom, it doesn’t mean Georgian will return to its pre-pandemic teaching models.

Students who prefer learning from home may want to remain in the virtual classroom. Plus, there are many innovations and new ways of delivering knowledge that continue to develop each day.

Avatars engaging in virtual campus at Focus on Teaching Conference
Georgian recently held its annual Focus on Teaching Conference, a Business Management Career Day, employer networking session for the Big Data Insights Conference, and celebration for Nursing students in the virtual campus

In the future, the iLRN team envisions creating a virtual campus that looks just like Georgian’s actual campuses so people can put on the VR headset and visit from anywhere in the world, any time they like. 

Take a comprehensive tour of the virtual campus

What post-pandemic learning looks like for Georgian may be uncertain. But one thing is guaranteed: the possibilities are endless and Georgian’s path forward will be guided by inspired innovation that provides the best possible student experience.