How are Educators Using Immersive VR worlds for CTE Classes?

A few weeks ago we had the chance to interview Matthew Hodge from CART about the amazing work he is doing with his game design students for our podcast. Here is a bit about what he had to say about how he has been using Virbela to help his students make the most of a turbulent year.

We would love to learn more about CART and hear how you transitioned your classes to a remote environment, specifically your utilization of the Virbela platform. But first, can you give us some more info on yourself and CART?

Yeah, so I’ll try and keep it brief on myself. I entered teaching about seven years ago as a CTE teacher. I have my CTE credential. I came into teaching from being an industry where I worked in web development, motion graphics, a lot of companies and things local to our area. And then I made some connections through a local organization called Bitwise, which is kind of its own cool thing happening in the Fresno area.

From Bitwise I was introduced to the people that lead CART. We made introductions right around the time they really needed a new game design teacher. So, I was in industry kind of doing my own thing. Trying to make it as a freelancer, you know, paycheck to paycheck. And oh man. In the span of about six weeks, I was invited to become a teacher. And then I became a teacher. And then two weeks after becoming a teacher, my daughter was born. And my life just like flipped upside down. So, a lot of industry, a lot of trying to make it an experience heading into education.

I will point out going into education, I only had my Associate’s Degree in digital animation. So, if you’re coming in through CTE, you don’t always have to have high level degrees. But since becoming a teacher, I completed a Bachelor’s in software development and a master’s in applied computer science to kind of to make sure I, you know, look like the rest of the teachers. My education really didn’t kick in until I actually became a teacher at CART.

Wow, that’s quite a unique story. I’m sure that was a turbulent time coming a teacher and having your daughter born within a couple of weeks. Man, what was it like? Were you nervous becoming a teacher? Were you excited?

No, actually, it was pretty easy move to make for about the prior year, I had been teaching this HTML and CSS boot camp through a group at Bitwise and their tutorial school called Geekwise Academy. So, I just got done with a year of like, six-week course turnovers with everyone between the ages of like 17 and 72. And it just was natural. I was kind of just in the mode of showing people how to do stuff with technology. So, I just kind of rolled into it and treated it as the same kind of thing. Except now I was in public education, which is its own beast that I didn’t realize I walked into the mouth of

Well, that seems like a seamless transition and love that story. So, what can you give us a little info on what CART is and what they do?

Yeah, CART is an interesting setup. It’s classified more as a program and not a comprehensive high school. It’s not a magnet school or anything like that. It’s a free program in own location. It has its own building. And it serves the Fresno and Clovis unified school districts, it costs nothing for students to go there, they just have to apply. And it’s not based on grades, as long as you’re passing. It’s kind of like a pulling a name out of a hat kind of a scenario lottery. Buses from our local high schools will bus students to CART where they spend half of their day five days a week. And they either choose to come in the morning for a block of time or after lunch for a block of time.

At CART we merge subjects together the academic and the CTE. So, in my class, specifically, I’m the CTE instructor teaching a game design course. But I work in the classroom and I work my curriculum with a credentialed English teacher that is providing their senior year honors English requirement. So, we mesh the academic English with the technical that goes into game design. It’s a unique setup.

 So, it’s started back in the planning started for like in the late 90s. I know this from history, I wasn’t around for the beginning. But in 2000, they had their first class. And they were, as far as I’m aware of one of if not the first, schools that were focusing on providing project based learning experiences, while actually combining multiple disciplines to try to present it as one thing because they saw this need where it’s like people go to English, they go to Mass, these are all academic subjects that are separated out, you learn this topic, but you don’t necessarily know how you would apply it in real life. And they cut you loose to the real world. With CART back in 2000 scholars met and worked together so that they were learning English and psychology and all these other academic courses, as it applied to some real-world career, they were interested in.

Wow, that is quite an amazing learning environment. I surprised that is not nationwide at this time. Didn’t I hear so many people, I hear so many people saying I’m using learning so much stuff, and I’m never going to be able to apply in real life. So that’s great that you’re crossing disciplines like that.

Yeah, there’s been a lot of folks who have come through over the years, we get a lot of tours, there’s been like a case study done on us. But like, somehow, locally, we don’t have a big name for ourselves. But throughout much of education nationwide, even at some point the name has come up in studies of how to do project-based learning and researching people who have done it what works and doesn’t. The name pops up in a lot of places in terms of like, paperwork and studies and planning but you don’t hear it much like even in our own town. It’s not that known.

So how many students Do you teach at CART?

So, I’m fortunate, I have a class of I have a cap of 25 students per class. And I only teach two classes, I have an am session and I’m with them in a normal year, three and a half hours a day, five days a week. And then after lunch, I have a pm session for another three and a half hours a day, five days a week. And that time is shared and integrated with their English teacher and their English class.

Nice. I know that you have been using Virbela, to teach classes since for the last few months, or maybe even longer. And for those that don’t know what Virbela is, it is a virtual reality software that is installed as an application on your computer. And it requires no special VR headset to use only a computer. And the platform builds immersive virtual worlds for education events, and works to drive collaboration, training and learning goals. Once you download it, you can create an avatar control your avatar in a 3d environment, talk with others and share content seamlessly. So, Matthew, could you explain a little bit how you’ve been using Virbela to teach?

Yes, I can. So, like most teachers out there, the year for me began (and for most of CART) is zoom. The thing we quickly realized with zoom is that it is a tool. And it’s a specialized tool for a specific purpose- on the fly meetings. But I don’t think it was ever meant to emulate the classroom, we don’t sit and stare each other in the face all day long. My students are behind their desks if they’re in the classroom, sometimes I’m at my desk answering an email or helping another student. Unless I’m giving direct instruction, I’m not constantly looking every student in the face, and they’re not constantly looking me in the face.

Additionally, they’re all in their home environments, which they’re a different person at home. And that can be very difficult because they might have their camera off because they really don’t want to, and you probably wouldn’t want them to, show the environment they’re in. It’s very invasive when you have to keep those thumbnails on in their house. It creates an unnatural learning environment, where we’re all kind of just like, just nervous and tired of looking at each other. And knowing that we’re all face to face like that. So, I needed a tool that lets me have the direct line of communication where I know that they’re there. And I know that they’re working, and I can help them in a natural way. But we’re not just staring each other in the faces, especially when they’re at home.

So, we’ve been using Virbela to maintain the ability to communicate with each other to share my screen and give demonstrations. And the big thing that’s been helpful is the little virtual desks in the classroom that we use, and every student comes in with their 3d avatar, and takes a seat at their virtual desk. And there’s a little computer in front of them that has one of Virbela’s interactive screens, and they can share their desktop to that screen. So when we’re working on a coding project, or an art project or even an English assignment, they can directly share their desktop to those screens and I’m with my digital avatar, I’m actually walking around the virtual classroom, going to each student’s desk, I can come up next to them, I can see exactly what they’re working on and whether or not they’re actually working. Because it’s right there on the virtual screen in front of their 3d avatar. And we can have conversations and there are times where it’s just as natural as if I was walking around my classroom and they were there.

That’s been helpful. That’s the kind of thing I don’t really get on a platform like zoom because zoom we’re either all in the main session, and a student has to share like one at a time their screen and then we all see the students screen or you use breakout rooms, you have to use breakout rooms. I must go to the breakout room and then that the other students are getting left alone, and the other breakout rooms are in the main session. Virbela has been helpful with that because I’m still visibly present with all the students I don’t have to jump back to a main session to make sure everyone’s still there and doing work. I can just naturally walk around my classroom with my students have conversations at their desk. It gives me back everything that a video conferencing world took away about being in the classroom. And that works specifically well for me because I teach a software subject, I don’t have a lot of you know, hands on mechanical things like in our robotics lab, it would have to get a little more creative. But you know I found the best thing Virbela has helped us with is replacing zoom breakout rooms and just giving us more natural Communication.

Thank you so much for that. Now, that is amazing to hear. And I love how you’re using Virbela to teach. And it also has a plus that you’re teaching a game design class in a platform that was designed on unity. You teach it in a in a real-world use case scenario. So how did you get the idea to use Virbela for teaching? Where does it derive from?

So, okay, I’ll be completely honest about this one. One of the things as a teacher I do is I come from industry, and I didn’t mean to become a teacher, and then no longer connected to my industry. My goal is to stay frosty, in the world of tech, specifically Game Design Technologies. So to do that, one of the things I like to do is seek out companies to make connections with between my class and those companies, and I’m going to seek out companies I would want to work for, I want to connect my students to the people I think I’d want to work for. So last August, I completed my Master’s in applied computer science and I was writing this kind of this high of the my best technology wise, and I went did what’s the job search, who is hiring for a game developer that’s ready to jump in. And I was having a moment, you know, Virbela came up. And my first thought was, no, but then I’m like, hold on the clients free to just log into the main world. So, I logged in. And as I was walking around it, I realized right away without looking at the website, or reading any material, I looked at Virbela campus and I’m like, Oh, this is a unity project. I can tell that just by looking at it. And then I got excited about it. Because I’m like, well, it’s unity. That’s what I do. That’s my thing. I wonder if they got a spot for me. And then I got really hyped up about them as a company. But then the school year began.

 And as the school year began, and I got my students back, I’m like, I got a responsibility to my students. So, I started working this idea how, how can I be the best for my students, not just in this crazy weird year, but by still actually getting them real industry connections, but also keep this job exciting for me. So, I decided, you know, I’m not going to leave teaching. But if I was to leave teaching, Virbela is the kind of company that the kind of products that I would go work on. And then in my exploration of that, I realized how powerful it all was. So, I just decided, we need to use this. We need to use this right away. I would love to run my whole year on it. I’m using the platform.

I showed it to my admins. I don’t know what they really thought of it. I think sometimes they just humor me. But we got to our showcase. We do this thing called a showcase. Every January, the local public gets invited into CART. There are hundreds of people, and students are giving presentations about the work and the projects they’re doing. And this year, they had to cancel the events, of course, and instead did a series of Adobe Spark pages. But I’m like, No, we can do this live. So, I got permission, I got the official blessing to kind of roll my own live night. So, I communicated with Virbela. I got introduced to Sherri Smith-Dodgson And she kind of started working with me to coordinate and plan for a night, I got my some of my students on the zoom call to record an introduction inviting some of our VIP guests to join us in Virbela that night.

So, for one night, we got a free trial event that they offered us in one of their classrooms. And not all my students could make it because at that time, we still had an issue where not all students could install the client. So, we did it entirely on a volunteer basis. For the for that night, I kind of integrated. I made I made a communication workflow between a zoom session and our virtual classroom so all the students could participate. Only a handful of them were in the world for our showcase night, but it went so well.

For that first night, I was watching my students and they were having like, the normal interactions we would want them to have on a showcase night there was trying to stand next to a computer screen and show a guest a project they’re working on. There was even like, the little awkward things that went wrong, like the tech support problems. And they had to handle that and be like, Oh, hold on. We’re just having a little issue. I don’t know why the game’s not loading. Just give me a minute and then somebody else would come along and like, throw a conversation line out to distract them.

That way that the other person would get the technical issue sorted out. And you know, it’s just the stuff that happens when you’re running a live event, the good and the bad, and I’m supposed to train them for that. They’re not going to have a perfect showcase night. This is the training for what this kind of thing even is. So, it’s like the things that would normally go wrong went wrong, and the things that would normally go right went right, and it created a REAL experience. And for everyone that went, they felt like they went somewhere and had an experience. When that happened, I started to think “How do I get this every day? How do I use it every day?”  And then that’s when Sherri connected me with DSS Education Campus. And from there the rest of history.

Check out the full interivew here:

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