Virtual platform VirBELA now offers Branksome community a full ‘private campus’ called Open U
Branksome Hall’s spring term was unforgettable for so many reasons. For the more than 300 guests who ‘attended’ Branksome’s first-ever Virtual GY 2020 Celebration on May 26, the impressive ‘remote-collaboration’ platform called VirBELA allowed graduating-year ‘avatars’ to toast each other and dance to “Dancing Queen” on a virtual stage.
“A lot of people have now seen the auditorium and want to experience other spaces,” says Michael Ianni-Palarchio, Director, Technology and Innovation.
While the original iteration of Branksome’s VirBELA experience offered this auditorium, the innovative platform evolved over the summer into a complete private campus called ‘Open U[niverse].’ The virtual spaces include ocean views and sports fields upon which one can stroll, along with ambient bird song. There are meeting rooms off the field, with roll-down doors for ‘privacy’—and even a virtual beach.
Many applications for creative student collaboration and presentations are planned. The first Middle and Senior School Assembly was held in the VirBELA auditorium on September 21 and this year’s Clubs Fair will lend itself particularly well to the Open U format on October 14. Each club will have a labelled room, with embedded Google Slides presentations. Visitors can visit in real time, or stroll through the exhibits at their leisure, all year, once they’re installed. As well, Grade 9 Science classes piloted VirBELA applications for their final presentations in April.
Indeed, Open U has certain advantages compared to Zoom and other applications.
“One of the most interesting things about 3D space is that many things can be happening concurrently,” says Ianni-Palarchio, who has also piloted the platform for faculty presentations and, not surprisingly, IT has held its own team meetings on VirBELA for a year.
Unlike Zoom, there is an Open U beach, upon which one might hang out and find other employees doing likewise. As Ianni-Palarchio says, he likes to “toggle” between several open browsers. While he may be working on one screen, he can concurrently have his office door open in an Open U meeting room, where other Open U students can drop by for specific office hours or a less formal encounter.
“It’s like a real school in the sense you can have passers-by,” he says. “You can see other people on the same floor in different rooms and drop by to see what’s going on. It’s a great way to augment the limitations of Zoom in a fun way.”
As well, with the use of customizable avatars, Open U gives students the ability to present their work in a less self-conscious way. “They were less nervous,” says Ianni-Palarchio, referring to the experience of the Grade 9 Science class in the spring.
Moving forward, much is planned. While the platform requires some training, the hope is to have the entire community adopting and suggesting applications in the months to come. For example, Senior School Music teachers could have a drumming circle on the beach and Boarding students who’ve chosen to be virtual this year could ‘drop by’ in the evening. Recorded videos could be left in certain spaces and virtual art galleries could be installed.
“It’s a great way to develop a sense of place and community, as well as experimentation,” says Ianni-Palarchio. “We are taking this slowly so everyone can have time to explore and understand the possibilities.”