Thursday, July 29, 2021

Real-time Online Team Formation with 200 Students

Gather Town
Greetings from the Australian National University team formation event, for TechLauncher computer student group projects. Some of the 45 clients are giving one minute pitches to 200 students via Zoom. After that the students can join a client to discuss their project in Gather Town, with support materials in Slack. The list of projects and clients is provided in a shared Google Spreadsheet. The clients include a baker, rocket scientist, doctor, fashionista, financier, insurer, power engineer, and many software entrepreneurs. This is a complex mix of tools and people, but so far it is all going okay.

Before COVID-19 closed the campus in 2020, a large flat floor classroom was used for team formation. The clients would stand around the walls, next to posters. The master of ceremonies would walk up to each client in turn and hand them a microphone. Then students would walk to the client they were interested in and stick a post-it note with their details to the poster. In 2020 this was moved online, first using Zoom and Slack

Remo Conference
Remo Conference

To emulate the physical room, Remo Conference was used for some Techlauncher events. This time Gather Town is being used. Like Remo, Gather shows a two dimensional floor plan or map. Each participant is represented by an avatar. The topics are represented by tables. Participants move themselves to the topic they are interested in, then can talk to those at the table using video, audio and text chat. 

Gather has a chunky 1980s video game look. You navigate your character around using the keyboard like a video game. I prefer Remo's approach where the mouse can be used to move. For the team-building exercise participants were asked to color code their characters, like the crew on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. As teaching staff, I was yellow (the color reserved for aircraft directors).

With more than one hundred users, it was impressive the application worked. There were repeated "disconnected" messages, but then automatic re-connection. Video and audio worked fine, which is also impressive on my slow, high latency wireless broadband. 

While Gather seemed to work, I found the interface, with avatars continually moving in all directions very distracting. It took several attempts for me to be able to cope with Remo's chaotic layout, and it might be the same with Gather. However I suggest there should be the option of a simplified interface suitable for mobile devices and those on low bandwidth connections, similar to Slack, as an alternative. There may be scope for building these type of interfaces on top of Slack and similar text based systems.

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