Introduction:

Many things have changed over the past couple of years, from a global pandemic and major changes in our school systems to staying in our homes. In the case of online learning, many teachers have seen an uptick in disengagement in their students. Students have found it hard to stay engaged in class. Many blame it on the monotony of online learning, while others feel it may be because of the lack of social interaction. Our product aspires to redefine the online learning experience, cultivating a more immersive and engaging platform where students and teachers alike can connect at a deeper level.

Problem:

The problem we will be tackling in regards to virtual education is the lack of engagement and interest that is seen in students. This problem has become more and more prevalent in the last few years due to the pandemic and the switch to online school. Recent studies have shown that a lack of social interaction has been a major factor in lack of interest and engagement during class. “Some say it is not fun, because they feel that something is missing, such as being together with their friends both in learning and in play” (Sutarto et al., 2020). Many things have been missing ever since the switch to online learning and none are more apparent than the social interactions we no longer have. The platforms we use for online school no longer feel like classroom settings, rather they almost feel like a work meeting.

Why It Matters:

Social interactions are a very important aspect of learning and they have a positive impact on the level of learning that occurs in a classroom. According to a study done in 2013, students learned better from other students, which [leads] to higher comprehension levels of the material taught. Additionally, social interaction created a more inviting and positive work environment and interaction provided students with improved critical thinking skills. (Wallace & Nixon, 2013)​​. In many cases students are able to relate to other students better than teachers are able to relate to their students. Asking the students for help can help build stronger connections with others and be more convenient and helpful than raising your hand and asking the teacher. In our research, we also found evidence that student and teacher engagement does have a positive impact on perceived student learning and student satisfaction (Gray & Diloreto, 2016). Additionally, social-emotional experiences have been shown to be positively correlated to a student’s motivation, learning strategies, and achievement, along with student immersement in learning activities (Noteborn et al., 2012).

Solution:

To help promote student engagement and interest in virtual learning, our solution is to develop an application that fosters social interaction between peers as well as between students and teachers. Our solution is a product that will supplement students with the engagement and social interactions that virtual learning has lacked in the past. The product that we designed is an expansion of existing virtual classrooms that allows its users to actively interact with their virtual environments. However, the novelty of our product lies within its features that the human interaction aspect of an in-person classroom to a virtual, collaborative space that teachers and students alike, may flourish in. As shown in our concept art, we have developed a virtual classroom setting where students and teachers are able to interact as if they were in an in-person classroom. We accomplished this through the use of a proximity chat function and an interactive 2D classroom projection, all while maintaining the function of an online meeting tool, such as Zoom or Google Meets. Our main feature is our virtual classroom environment system, allowing students to feel as if they were actually in a classroom. Within this feature, we have many subfeatures that are key to making the learning experience as engaging and immersive as possible. First, to make the students feel as though they are in a physical classroom with actual autonomy, we implemented a movement feature where students can move their avatars around in a 2D classroom. Of course, the teacher can always lock movement in order to prevent distraction, but this feature allows for more interactive class activities that involve more “movement”. Second, in order to combat the intimidating feeling of unmuting one’s microphone and turning on one’s camera in front of the entire class, we decided to include a feature that gives students the option to only unmute and turn on their cameras to their tablemates. This way, we hope a sense of virtual proximity can be established, leading to the construction of vital peer connections in the classroom. In that same vein, our third feature is a chat system in which students can message the other students at their table without fear of having to bother the teacher or the entire class in the public chat. Our fourth feature is a table-based whiteboard system where each table has a virtual workspace similar to a physical table on which students can write text, sketch ideas, and collaborate. Finally, our fifth feature is a variety of commands and settings the teacher can configure to tailor the classroom experience to their own needs. Teachers can customize their classroom layout, drag students from table to table, and lock movement while being able to manage their online class with the same features one might see in Zoom or Google Meets: enabling screen sharing, screen recording, enabling direct messaging, muting all participants, etc. With all these features, we hope to bring the feeling of an actual classroom to the online student.

Target Audience:

Our target audience for our product will be teachers and school administrations, since we will be needing to convince them of its merits and why it appeals to students.

Applications/Implications:

Although we didn’t fully complete our design, we believe that our product can be very successful in its function of engaging students and creating an immersive learning environment that mimics the traditional in-person classroom online. Using our product, teachers would be able to more effectively manage student-to-student interactions and facilitate more group work time, while students are able to retain the social interactions they would normally have in in-person school and still be engaged in class while online. We believe that our product will be able to engage students more effectively than the meeting applications schools have been using which would, in turn, greatly enhance the online learning experience for students and teachers alike.

Discussion/Conclusion:

Even though the pandemic seems to be getting better, policies that pertain to online learning models cannot be ignored. In our modern digital world, education is gradually shifting towards being delivered via technological mediums. Thus, it is becoming increasingly important for students to be able to effectively learn in a digital environment. The Coronavirus pandemic taught us a lot of things about our society and education, highlighting flaws and weaknesses in our policies. In order to be better prepared for future circumstances and changing job markets, we must continue to investigate potential solutions to problems associated with online education, even if our pandemic is coming to an end.

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