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Gather.town: An opportunity for self-paced learning in a synchronous, distance-learning environment

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Higher Education to adopt distance-learning approaches in traditionally face-to-face and practical-based fields such as the Health and Life sciences. Such an abrupt change to distance-learning contexts brings a variety of challenges to student learning communities, and ensuring key skills are effectively transferred. Chief among these is the limited opportunity students have to discuss their individual needs with their educators and peers in a synchronous manner. Proximity-based video-conferencing platforms such as gather.town can offer a unique opportunity for learners to interact with educators as well as pre-developed materials in a self-paced manner to tailor the teaching experience, and develop these relationships in a distance-learning context. In this case study the concepts of statistical analysis and the use of the data analysis software R is introduced to 38 University students using the online platform gather.town. With the use of private spaces, pre-recorded videos, and demonstrators, students are trained in both the concepts and practical skills to undertake data analysis in a self-paced manner. Both students and demonstrators provide their opinions on the effectiveness of the platform, and identify its benefits, preferring it to alternative online systems such as MS Teams for their educational sessions.
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Gather.town: an opportunity for self-paced learning in a synchronous, distance-
learning environment
Colin D McClure*, Paul N Williams
Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland
* Corresponding author
Keywords: Self-paced learning, distance-learning, COVID-19, video-conferencing,
synchronous video-conferencing
Abstract
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced higher education to adopt distance-learning approaches
in traditionally face-to-face and practical-based fields such as the health and life sciences.
Such an abrupt change to distance-learning contexts brings a variety of challenges to student
learning communities and makes it all the more important to ensure that key skills are
effectively transferred. That students have only limited opportunities at the time of their
learning to discuss their individual needs with their educators and peers is a particular cause
for concern. Proximity-based video-conferencing platforms such as ‘Gather’ (gather.town) can
offer a unique opportunity for learners to interact, at their own pace, with educators, peers and
pre-developed materials, to tailor the teaching experience and develop these relationships in
a distance-learning context. In this case study, the concepts and practice of statistical analysis
using the software R are introduced to thirty-eight university students via gather.town. By
means of private spaces, pre-recorded videos and demonstrators, students are trained in both
the concepts and practical skills to undertake data analysis at a pace they themselves
determine. Both students and demonstrators provide their opinions on the effectiveness of the
platform and identify its benefits, preferring it to alternative online systems such as MS Teams
for their educational sessions.
Background
Higher education institutions (HEIs) must constantly adapt to environmental and economic
changes to ensure they meet their responsibilities to both their students and wider society. At
a time when the global financial situation for higher education (HE) favours a low-cost, high-
fee model and when the number of versatile digital learning platforms has significantly grown,
universities have increasingly adopted distance-learning (DL) to create a more sustainable
economic system (Harry and Perraton, 1999). Such motivation has led to a steady rise in the
number of American universities offering online degree courses, from 70% in 2012 to 76% by
2016 (Xu and Xu, 2017). Within the United Kingdom (UK), between 2011 and 2015, the
numbers of overseas students studying online degrees increased by 26% from the USA,
41% from Canada, 125% from Australia and 135% from South Africa (Vickers, 2017), so
demonstrating a growing global demand for universities to meet.
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In such an economic landscape, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities to adopt DL
approaches (Dhawan, 2020). Since the initial national lockdown in March 2020, practically all
teaching within UK HEIs has adapted to a DL-based approach, bringing many challenges,
particularly for traditionally practical-based subjects such as the health and life sciences (Dost,
2020).
DL is defined as providing education to students who are separated by distance (i.e., who are
not physically present in the same space) and in which the pedagogical material is planned
and prepared by an educational institution” (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2016, p.443), often taking
a blended approach with both synchronous i.e., learners engaged at the same time, usually
via synchronous video-conferencing (SVC) (Themeli, 2016) and asynchronous sessions to
support students’ learning. Although students generally show a greater preference for
synchronous settings over asynchronous (Kemp and Grieve, 2014), the latter provide
autonomy for students in the progression of their work, enabling self-paced learning for the
individual (Azizan, 2010). This is particularly true for DL scenarios, as synchronous sessions
now often delivered via static, SVC software such as Microsoft (MS) Teams offer little
opportunity for individual educator-student contact, tailored-learning or peer-to-peer
interactions (Themeli, 2016), although effective examples may be achieved using such
features as breakout rooms to facilitate small-group interaction and instruction (Al-Samarraie,
2019). Fostering and encouraging meaningful formal (but also, particularly, informal) peer
interactions is an important element, enabling students to develop and manage their own self-
regulated learning (SRL) strategies (Zimmerman, 1989), something especially challenging
within blended DL approaches, where student-student contact has been shown to influence
SRL and enhance academic achievement (Lim et al., 2020).
Gather.town (GT), from Gather, is an intuitive, online, proximity-based video-conferencing
software which offers participants the ability to move freely within a 2-D, pre-designed space
where users can access private rooms’, interact with shared documents and files (including
pre-recorded videos), co-create using a wide variety of available objects and connect with
one another. Currently, the platform offers full design features and access for up to twenty-
five participants in any space for free, with no limit on the number of spaces a user can create.
Although used predominantly for conferences with much success (Samiei et al., 2020; Fischer
et al., 2021), there is, to date, very limited literature on its use as a learning tool. Despite this,
GT offers educators the ability to pre-design learning spaces specific to their audience, to
communicate effortlessly between entire spaces and small groups and to provide tailored
support to students and/or student groups as they progress through the activities in a DL
synchronous environment. In this manner, it is proposed that GT could present an opportunity
for students to derive the benefits of synchronous sessions, which provide opportunities for
peer-peer communication and development of a sense of identity within their learning
community (Themeli, 2016), as well as offer the flexibility and tailored nature of self-paced
learning to enable students to develop their SRL strategies (Tullis and Benjamin, 2011).
This case study aims to investigate the practical usefulness of GT in the context of a research-
intensive UK university and is focused on a student cohort traditionally considered
‘technologically challenged’. It also aims to determine the perceptions of both students and
educators as to its effectiveness as a learning tool for teaching a practical skill. These students
were specifically selected, as the majority are active farmers based in remote locations in rural
Ireland/Northern Ireland and generally demonstrate unfamiliarity with technology (identified
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from previous interaction), thus enabling assessment of the platform in relation to a less
capable and physically distant audience. From the clear but limited results obtained, we
propose GT as a useful novel resource, enjoyed by both students and educators, which can
be used to supplement face-to-face synchronous sessions in order to support learning
communities at a distance and provide tailored, self-paced learning with the benefits of SVC,
particularly in relation to teaching practical-based skills.
Implementation and evaluation
To determine the effectiveness of GT as a platform for practical skills education, Dr McClure
and a team of demonstrators delivered a series of five, weekly, one-hour data analysis
sessions via the site to a cohort of thirty-eight final-year (fourth-year) students within the
Research Project module of the BSc Agricultural Technology course at Queen’s University
Belfast (QUB). The cohort was separated into two groups (of nineteen students each) to
avoid the need for a service fee ensuring that no more than twenty-five individuals were
accessing the space at any one time. Dr McClure and two demonstrators taught the sessions
delivered back to back to each of the cohorts - each focusing on an element of the data
analysis process. Although each session was open to students via a unique link, passwords
could have been created and altered weekly to ensure restricted access to the course content.
Each week, Drs McClure and Williams (hereafter referred to as “we”) arranged the online
teaching environment with the appropriate materials for the students to engage with. The
specifically designed space consisted of three private rooms, each containing information
and materials related to a specific task, each attended by an educator and each labelled
appropriately within the site to direct the students (see figure 1). Interactive materials consisted
of pdf. guides to the task, instructional videos (accessible only to the students) and links to
websites and anonymous quizzes via MS Forms. A video guide for map-building, as well as
embedding ‘objects such as posters, videos, surveys etc. to which participants can interact
within the environment and a general introduction to GT, can be found on the official
YouTube Channel.
Prior to the five-week programme, we introduced students to the GT platform via the
University’s virtual learning environment (VLE), Canvas, with an online guide (see appendix
I). We also described the sessions format and overall Learning Outcomes, via Canvas, in
advance of the sessions. For the overall assignment, students were to complete five individual
but related tasks, and each week the three rooms were dedicated to the tasks appropriate
to the students overall progression (as monitored by weekly anonymous polling). Throughout
each week, we made interactive resources available to the students, so that they could access
them asynchronously, and encouraged them to compile questions and determine limitations
prior to the GT sessions, where they could address these, either with peers in groups or with
the educators directly.
At the beginning of each session, Dr McClure provided a brief introduction to the particular
task of the week via a ‘podium’ (a GT object), which enabled the educator to broadcast to all
individuals within the space, regardless of whether or not participants were in a private space.
Following this, students had the freedom to interact with the available resources, the educators
and/or their peers in their own manner (example engagement can be seen in figure 1). This
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format 1) enabled students to choose, and engage specifically with, the material most relevant
to their individual progress and 2) provided more of an opportunity for one-to-one assistance
and peer support than would have been possible through other SVC formats. Educators had
the facility to message each other privately during the session, to assist necessary real-time
adaptations to the educational environment to better suit students, as well as to provide ‘global
announcements in order to support the structure of the sessions. Following each session, Dr
McClure provided a written summary on Canvas, in addition to any recorded material from the
session’s introduction and task overview for the students to access.
Figure 1: The GT environment designed for the data analysis sessions.
An anonymised snapshot of a live GT session in action with three educators and fourteen
students demonstrating the various functionalities of the platform and enabling students to
access materials appropriate for, and relevant to, their individual stage. The highlighted tiles
surrounding the user (Dr Colin McClure) indicate a private space the user is presenting to.
To evaluate the perception of GT, we delivered a short, anonymous survey via MS Forms to
the students and to the educators involved, to capture their impression of the platform as an
educational resource. Both surveys were distributed between the second and fourth sessions
of the programme (i.e., 2 February to 15 February 2021) and are available in appendices II
and III. We asked respondents to provide their perspectives of GT in comparison to other DL
software and of face-to-face sessions, as well as to rank in order of importance six features of
the GT software: i) ability to discuss with educator; ii) ability to discuss with peers; iii)
placement of interactive resources; iv) ability to go where you want; v) ability to access private
spaces; vi) aesthetics of the programme. Students did not complete the assignment by the
time this manuscript was submitted for publication, and the ability of the students was not
directly assessed.
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Results
Students who engaged in GT sessions indicated that they enjoyed using the platform, giving
the platform an overall rating of 3.57 / 5 stars overall (n=7), while educators rated it 4/5 stars
on average (n=5). 86% of student respondents stated that the software was the same or better
(i.e., same, somewhat better, or much better) than alternative distance-learning software
(figure 2A), while only 29% indicated that they preferred the GT sessions to face-to-face
sessions (figure 2B).
Figure 2: Student and Educator perceptions of the GT platform in relation to a) other
commonly used distance-learning software (e.g., MS Teams), and b) face-to-face sessions.
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These opinions were supported by the free-text comments students submitted to explain their
selection; one respondent stated:
can speak to lectures [sic] about our issues / problems more freely than in front of
the whole class on ms teams however still more difficult than face to face Student 3
Students particularly identified the benefits of using GT for learning practical skills, which
require more structured, self-directed learning with continuous, individualised feedback (Vogel
and Harendza, 2016); another student stated:
Much the same as MS Teams but think it better for practical work. Its [sic] harder than
face to face but is probably the best alternative due to Covid-19 Student 2
Overall, the impression of GT was positive within this student cohort, as 71% of respondents
indicated they would like to have more educational sessions in their course delivered via the
platform.
Preference for the platform was also shared by educators where 100% of respondents stated
that more education sessions should make use of the system. However, in contrast to the
students, 100% of educators felt that GT was not an equally effective alternative for face-to-
face sessions, while all respondents indicated a preference for the system over more static
SVC learning platforms (figures 2B and 2A respectively). These opinions were furthered by
the comments of the individual educators, who identified the novelty of the platform and its
ability to increase engagement between both students and educators:
The software allows a good virtual interaction between participants in a session and
it makes learning more fun than the other distance learning software Educator 2
I found that gather.town allowed for much more engagement than Teams (used for
both for the same purpose) Educator 3
Another educator went further to identity particular aspects of the GT platform they felt
supported the learning experience for the students:
Having separate rooms with demonstrators, the option to watch videos and see other
content, was in my opinion very helpful and it provided more options to the students to
both learn on their own, but also to interact better with demonstrators, as they could
directly speak to them if they had specific questions Educator 4
To explore this further, both students and educators were also asked (optional) to rank the
importance of various elements which GT enabled for the users. These elements included
those relating to communicating with others (both educators and student peers), the use of
interactive materials, the ability to move within the space and the aesthetics of the platform
(figure 3, A-C).
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Figure 3. Top three GT features as ranked by both educators and students and the proportion
of respondents who ranked each element ‘highly(i.e., within their top three of six positions).
Statements shown are those presented in student-directed surveys and were altered
accordingly for educators (see Appendices II and III for details). Full rankings for all features
can be found in Appendix IV.
The ability to discuss with educators was ranked by both groups as the most important element
offered by GT and the ability to interact with pre-prepared materials was agreed as the second
most important aspect of the platform (figure 3A and B). Both groups thought ability to discuss
between peers was a close third (figure 3C), but, while educators thought the ability to move
around would be the least important element of GT, students were in agreement that the
aesthetics were not important (see appendix IV).
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It was clear that, although not ranked as the most significant element, interaction between
peers was an important feature of the GT experience, particularly within this context of
practical skill learning; one student stated:
I enjoy gather town as their is [sic] more options to talk and interact with peers however
I do miss the classroom experiences however that cannot be helped in this pandemic
Student 1
This comment highlights the importance of how peers can interact in GT, either in private
video-calls as individuals or groups or within the instant message function, which enables
students to learn from each other, to collaborate to complete tasks or to share self-paced and
SRL strategies. This aspect was also recognised by the educators, who appreciate the
importance of personal and individualised conversation in the formation and strength of
learning communities:
I think GT is better than (MS) Teams because the interaction experience is more
realistic - as it facilitates more dynamic person-person engagement Educator 1
Outlooks and limitations
The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the current economic landscape of HE within the UK and
beyond, has forced HEIs to evolve and deliver distance-learning (DL) programmes and
modules in place of traditional face-to-face sessions (Ali, 2020). This adjustment brings a
variety of challenges, particularly within the teaching of practical-heavy subjects, when relying
on synchronous video-conferencing (SVC) for much of live learning (Dost et al., 2020). This
case study demonstrates GT, when compared to a common SVC software (MS Teams), to be
a learning resource preferred by both students and educators when teaching a practical-based
skill in a UK research-intensive university (figure 2).
The responses obtained from both students and educators from this study indicate that the
primary advantages of GT are its ability to support tailored and self-paced learning, enabling
students to interact with educators on a more informal basis, and the opportunity to use the
designed resources in an individualised manner. Additionally, both groups emphasised that
an important element of the platform was its ability to offer peer-discussion opportunities and
facilitate engagement between participants (figure 3). Peer-to-peer learning has been
demonstrated to support deeper learning (Hildson, 2014), inform students’ SRL strategies and
support the development and strength of learning communities, which can be difficult to foster
in a DL environment (Themeli, 2016; Lim et al., 2020).
This case study therefore demonstrates how GT could be used as a means of supporting
learning communities and of providing opportunities for tailored learning alongside other
synchronous and asynchronous sessions. It is important to consider, however, that these
elements may be encouraged to some extent through a range of other technologies; for
example, the use of student-led breakout rooms in MS Teams (Al-Samarraie, 2019; Saltz and
Heckman, 2020), although it is the authors’ opinion that GT offers the most effective
opportunities for informal communication important for students to self-pace their learning
(Rhode, 2009). While acknowledging this, it is important to understand the practical limitations
of using this platform for education sessions in place of other SVC systems. First is to note
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the various minor audio and video glitches which occur when using GT (as detailed by Samiei
et al., 2020), but these can usually be resolved by exiting and re-entering the session, simply
by refreshing the web page or pasting the session’s url into the web browser. Another concern,
as with all SVCs, are the bandwidth demands to run the platform. This, of course, will depend
on the variety and quantity of resources educators provide for their sessions (please note:
poster objects require high-bandwidth), but, from personal experience, Dr McClure was able
to join and interact with a session with a 2-3 Mbps connection, which is comparable to the MS
Teams requirement i.e., 1Mbps (Microsoft, 2020). Despite these low requirements, an
educator did experience connectivity issues, stating:
you will need good internet connectivity for the full experience otherwise the software
freezes often Educator 2
This, however, may be on account of the specific context of the study, as both students and
educators are often in rural locations within Northern Ireland, which exhibit slower connectivity
in general (Ofcom, 2018). It is important to note here, however, that access to the GT platform,
to the authors’ knowledge, is not restricted when using foreign VPNs, enabling students to
engage with the platform from any location.
Arguably, the most significant limitation of GT currently is the number of participants who can
use the software at any time, a concern raised by one educator:
but it is limited (unless using Premium version) by the number of people who can
access it simultaneously Educator 3
Owing to the exploratory approach of this evaluation, the case study was completed without
cost to the education team, enabling up to twenty-five users to access the learning space at
any one time. However, this can be increased on a per-user basis (see
https://gather.town/pricing for details).
Furthermore, it is important to recognise accessibility concerns when incorporating GT for
students with visual impairments, who will find it difficult to navigate the 2-D space unassisted,
or neurodiverse students who may find the novel environment and the number of objects
and/or moving avatars in the environment overwhelming (Kent, 2015). Additionally, current
access to the complete suite of facilities offered by GT can only be achieved when using the
laptop/desktop version of the platform rather than that for a mobile phone. This is of concern,
considering the increasing desire of HE students to use smartphones as their preferred
learning devices (Ahmad, 2020). Given these accessibility issues, educators, prior to
deploying this tool, should give careful consideration to whether to implement it in a
programme and, if they do decide to use it, to plan appropriately to overcome potential
difficulties.
With these limitations in mind, it is important to consider what GT can offer to the educational
landscape of HE during and beyond the pandemic. What is clear to the authors as well as the
participants, is that GT is not a direct replacement for face-to-face synchronous learning; nor
is it to be used as a sole teaching tool. As the data here represent, GT can be used as a
resource complementary to other asynchronous and synchronous DL and even face-to-face
educational approaches, allowing students to maintain a connection with their cohort of
learners and to take advantage of more tailored and self-paced learning. Such a blended
teaching approach has many benefits, for both educators and for students, and seems to be
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the clear and preferred direction of HE following the COVID-19 pandemic, where GT is sure
to be a useful feature in all educators’ toolkits (Amir et al., 2020; Paudel, 2021), as
enthusiastically stated by one of the educators in this study:
GT is a great idea and delivers an exciting alternative to static video call platforms
such as MS Teams Educator 1
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January 2021).
Xu, D. and Xu, Y. (2019) The Promises and Limits of Online Higher Education. Available at:
https://tacc.org/sites/default/files/documents/2019-03/the-promises-and-limits-of-online-
higher-education.pdf (Accessed 21 February 2021).
Zimmerman, B.J. (1989) A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(3), 329-339. Available at:
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Barry-Zimmerman-
2/publication/232534584_A_Social_Cognitive_View_of_Self-
Regulated_Academic_Learning/links/549483c40cf20f487d2c12a4/A-Social-Cognitive-View-
of-Self-Regulated-Academic-Learning.pdf (Accessed: 07 February 2021).
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Appendix I
What you need:
- A desktop/laptop with a mic and camera.
- A web browser (Chrome or Firefox recommended).
- We strongly recommend using headphones to help prevent feedback.
- That’s it! There’s nothing to install, no software to download.
How it works:
- Gather is a video chat platform that has avatars move around a map. As you get close
to other avatars, your videos will pop up and you will be able to chat.
- Move around the space using the arrow keys.
- By moving your avatar around you can have spontaneous conversations with those
around you. These can be either one-on-one or small groups, depending on how many
people are around your avatar.
- When your avatar moves closer to an interactable object, there will be a notification
that shows up saying ‘Press x to interact with -object-’. This can range from
informational flyers, playable arcade games, integrated Zoom meetings and more!
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Not-So-Obvious Features:
Here are some things you might find useful but aren't immediately obvious.
- There is a messaging feature that allows you to message people in four ways:
1. individually by clicking on their name in the participant panel,
2. locally to the people you are video-chatting with,
3. room chat (must be requested) with all the people in the current room you are in,
4. globally to all the people in your map.
- There is a locate feature to find others by clicking their name in the participant panel.
- Interaction distance is also sometimes altered by designated private spaces. This
allows conversations to include only people inside that space.
- Want to full screen someone else’s video? Just click on their video.
- Talking to a group of people? Click the down arrows centred below the videos to shift
into grid view.
Privacy Features:
We have three ways for you to control who has access to your map:
- You can add a password via the mod setting for a room.
- If you want to allow only certain people, you can create an email whitelist here.
- Domain whitelists allow the moderator to allow entry into the space for all those who
share the same email domain (e.g., something@gather.town).
For managing people who are already in the space, we have the following options:
- Any moderator has the ability to ban individuals during the event
Technical difficulties:
- Refreshing the page will fix most things!
- If that doesn’t work, try muting and unmuting your mic and camera in Gather.
- Check if your browser permitted camera and mic access
- Additional troubleshooting at https://gather.town/video-issues
Available from http://gather.town
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Appendix II
Gather.town Class Survey Student
Thanks for attending the online session on Gather.town (http://gather.town).
Please complete the short anonymous survey online to provide your perspectives on the
platform for teaching.
Your participation in this questionnaire is completely voluntary and you may opt not to submit
your responses at any time prior to clicking the submit button following your completion of
the final question. Should you wish to do so, simply close this window. By completing this
survey, you are consenting to participate in this study and for the data to be used in
presentations or publications resulting from this work. Any information that you do submit will
be stored within a password-protected folder on an encrypted QUB file server, in compliance
with data protection legislation.
* Required
1. How would rate gather.town (http://gather.town) as an educational platform from your
experience? *
2. How would you rate gather.town (http://gather.town) as an educational platform in
comparison to... *
3. Please comment on the reasons for your selections above:
_________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________
4. Please rank the following elements of the gather.town (http://gather.town) session in the
order you found them most useful: TOP = Most useful; BOTTOM = least *
i. Placement of interactive resources
ii. Ability to discuss with peers
iii. Ability to discuss with lecturer / demonstrator
iv. Ability to access private spaces
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v. The aesthetics of the platform
vi. Ability to go where you want
5. Would you like to see more sessions delivered via gather.town in your course? *
Yes
No
Not sure
6. If you have any final comments on gather.town as an educational system, please write them
below:
_________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________
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Appendix III
Gather.town Class Survey Educator
Thanks for demonstrating for the online session on Gather.town (http://gather.town).
Please complete the short anonymous survey online to provide your perspectives on the
platform for teaching.
Your participation in this questionnaire is completely voluntary and you may opt not to submit
your responses at any time prior to clicking the submit button following your completion of
the final question. Should you wish to do so, simply close this window. By completing this
survey, you are consenting to participate in this study and for the data to be used in
presentations or publications resulting from this work. Any information that you do submit will
be stored within a password-protected folder on an encrypted QUB file server, in compliance
with data protection legislation.
* Required
1. How would rate gather.town (http://gather.town) as an educational platform from your
experience? *
2. How would you rate gather.town (http://gather.town) as an educational platform in
comparison to... *
3. Please comment on the reasons for your selections above:
_________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________
4. Please rank the following elements of the gather.town (http://gather.town) session in the
order you found them to be most useful for your students: TOP = Most useful; BOTTOM =
least *
i. Placement of interactive resources
ii. Ability to discuss with peers
iii. Ability to discuss with lecturer / demonstrator
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iv. Ability to access private spaces
v. The aesthetics of the platform
vi. Ability to go where you want
5. State how you agree with the statement that Gather.town (http://gather.town) is a more
effective platform to deliver the following educational practices over standard video-
conferencing software... *
6. Do you think more educational sessions should be delivered via gather.town? *
Yes
No
Not sure
7. If you have any final comments on gather.town as an educational system, please write them
below:
_________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________
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Appendix IV
Figure A1. Proportion of respondents ranking of various elements of the GT system (A F)
out of a total of six. Statements shown are those presented in student-directed surveys and
were altered accordingly for educators (see Appendices II and III for details).
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p class="3">Distance education is expanding in all continents, and the use of video has dominated internet. Synchronous Video Communication (SVC) has not been an option thoroughly investigated and practitioners, who use and design synchronous learning scenarios, are in urgent need of guidance. Distant learners face many barriers, and as a result, they drop out more frequently than on-campus students. Educators seem to be equally affected by the “transactional distance” and the new digital literacies needed for facilitating online learning. This study explores the educators’ perspective on how SVC could offer alternative educational forms and possibilities for distance learning. Findings had indicated that the use of visual communication and human to human contact (prosopogonosia: seeing faces) could have a strong impact on learning and teaching, therefore, a theory called Tele-proximity was formulated. Tele-proximity is defined as online embodiment that explains how instructors and students are connected in synchronous networked environment via tele-operations. SVC creates a sense of place or a stage where online identities perform and highlights recent research on audio-visual signals in communication and team work (Pentland, 2012, 2008). The theory can be seen as an extension of the Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000) and a theoretical framework according to which learning objectives could be designed. Transactional distance could be minimized and may be implemented to facilitate more synchronous, visual, and humane options in distance education.</p
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Objective: Practical skills are an essential part of physicians’ daily routine. Nevertheless, medical graduates’ performance of basic skills is often below the expected level. This review aims to identify and summarize teaching approaches of basic practical skills in undergraduate medical education which provide evidence with respect to effective students’ learning of these skills. Methods: Basic practical skills were defined as basic physical examination skills, routine skills which get better with practice, and skills which are also performed by nurses. We searched PubMed with different terms describing these basic practical skills. In total, 3467 identified publications were screened and 205 articles were eventually reviewed for eligibility. Results: 43 studies that included at least one basic practical skill, a comparison of two groups of undergraduate medical students and effects on students’ performance were analyzed. Seven basic practical skills and 15 different teaching methods could be identified. The most consistent results with respect to effective teaching and acquisition of basic practical skills were found for structured skills training, feedback, and self-directed learning. Simulation was effective with specific teaching methods and in several studies no differences in teaching effects were detected between expert or peer instructors. Multimedia instruction, when used in the right setting, also showed beneficial effects for basic practical skills learning. Conclusion: A combination of voluntary or obligatory self-study with multimedia applications like video clips in combination with a structured program including the possibility for individual exercise with personal feedback by peers or teachers might provide a good learning opportunity for basic practical skills.