Covid-19: large schools try the virtual campus

by bold-lichterman

On his computer screen, the student walks his avatar in a virtual version of his school, looking for the classroom where he is about to present the project that occupied him the previous days. Once his destination has been found, he can chat for a few minutes using his microphone with the other avatars – students and teachers – already present, before starting his presentation, using videos or slideshows that he projects on a screen in the room. Virtual.

Forced by Covid-19 to limit the physical presence of their students, several large schools are currently testing the possibilities of “virtual campuses”, which allow educational communities to escape the cold solitude of video conferences. In the virtual campus, “For example, we meet people that we had not planned to meet”, thus regaining a precious dimension of surprise and spontaneity, explains Ivan Laurens, one of the professors who coordinate the virtual campus of Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM).

Avatars have a few ways to express their emotions to enrich the interaction, going as far as a funny little dance to show their enthusiasm. GEM used the virtual campus to welcome its approximately 650 new freshmen. The first major meeting of the students took place in the auditorium of the virtual campus and they were then embarked on the construction of a team of five project spanning ten days, with defense in the virtual campus. “Out of the ten days, they must have spent three or four days in the virtual campus”, says Laura Leick, communications officer at GEM.

The first major student meeting took place in the auditorium of the virtual campus. Credit: GEM / Facebook.

GEM has not yet decided on the future it will give to this experience. But Neoma, a large rival business school with three campuses in Rouen, Reims and Paris, has decided to take the plunge all year round. Today, just under 500 students have their avatar on the school’s virtual campus, but the number should quickly rise to 9,000, probably by the end of the year, explains Alain Goudey, the director. of Neoma’s digital transition.

“For a virtual campus, it costs a few tens of thousands of euros per year”

“The first feedback we have is very good”, he justifies. With the virtual campus, “We manage to recreate a unity of place and time, a co-presence, which does not exist” with video conferencing applications like Teams or Zoom, he says. But ” we do not want to be in a process of obligation. Teachers will be free to use the system or not to teach ”, he tempers. Neoma, like GEM, uses the virtual world solution offered by Laval Virtual, which manages the virtual reality show of the same name, and which is based on the virtual world of the Californian company Virbela.

Laval Virtual had found it in disaster last spring, by setting up at the last moment an online version of its salon canceled due to the epidemic. After the success of the event, the Laval Virtual team was approached by many institutions and companies to share its experience, explains Laurent Chrétien, General Manager of Laval Virtual.

“Today we have a team of six people working” on these professional virtual worlds projects, particularly interesting for everything related to training, he explains. “It’s not very complicated, nor very expensive to test these universes for a few months”, he adds. “For a virtual campus, depending on its size, its ambition, its complexity, it costs a few tens of thousands of euros per year, while remaining below the hundred thousand euros”, he believes.

Laval Virtual is working with the Arts et Métiers on this subject and has hired a student under research employment contracts (Cifre) who is preparing a thesis on the possibilities of virtual worlds for learning. On the supply side, in any case the range continues to expand. ” When we did our research for a virtual world for our living room, we counted around forty available virtual worlds ”, he says. “Today, I think we are more at the level of the hundred”.