Discussion Session with 56 Avatars

Nathan LabhartToday’s guest blog post is from Nathan Labhart, a PhD student at the AI Lab, Dept. of Informatics, University of Zurich. He is currently coordinating the “ShanghAI Lectures” project, a global lecture series held via video conference and complemented by a website and an Open Wonderland virtual environment.

First ShanghAI Lecture Discussion Session

By Nathan Labhart

In the context of the “ShanghAI Lectures,” a lecture series on natural and artificial intelligence that is held via video conference among universities around the globe, we are using Wonderland for group exercises and the so-called Discussion Sessions.

ShanghAI Lectures Discussion in Wonderland

The idea is that we alternate between video conference lectures, where entire classrooms are connected, and meetings in UNIworld (our “brand name” for the virtual environment), where individual students can talk directly to the lecturer. They can also send e-mail with questions and topics for in-depth discussion beforehand, so that the lecturer can prepare slides with additional explanations.

In order to find out how many avatars our server could handle, we did two load tests in June and July. It turned out to be difficult to find volunteers — we couldn’t find more than 27 people to log in. However, while some clients were experiencing issues, mostly due to their hardware and bandwidth limitations, the server (a KVM virtual machine with 4GB of RAM, 4 CPUs, 32-bit Debian Lenny running on some Dell box with 64-bit Intel processors, iSCSI storage, Debian Lenny as the host OS) ran without a glitch. So we knew that at least 27 avatars should work.

Back then we didn’t know how many students would join the lecture series, as the semester only starts in September/October at most of the participating universities. Based on our experiences with the first run of the ShanghAI Lectures last year, we expected around 200 students. Therefore, we decided to again group them in teams of 3-5 persons who would then together work on the group exercises, and select one student per group to represent his or her peers in the Discussion Sessions.

However, this grouping of students could not be done in time for the first Discussion Session on Thursday 14 October — so we just allowed anyone to participate.  No risk, no fun!

The session officially started at 9:00 CET, and we suggested that students should log in well before that. Most students should already be familiar with Wonderland, as we provided a tutorial on our website.

I logged in at 8:00 to set up the environment (i.e. place some sticky notes with guidelines such as how to mute the mic and added a Placemark to the Discussion Session’s “stage.” Then I started to record everything (using two Macs: one with Snapz Pro X, one with Screenium) and waited for the lecturer, who was at the Technical University in Munich at that time, to log in for some last-minute tests. However, due to some “unexpected technical issues” (aka “not sufficient testing”) at TU Munich we couldn’t get completely through the university’s firewall settings, so the lecturer didn’t have audio (for next time, we will follow Nicole’s advice and enable telephony support…) At around 9:10 we started with the discussion session anyway, as over 40 students had logged in already by then.

The lecturer showed his PDFs and typed comments in the text chat, asking students for feedback from time to time. In the end, there wasn’t much interactivity, but for a first real-world test it was very encouraging to see so many avatars following the “discussion.” I don’t even know where the students were located (participating universities range from the UK across Europe/Northern Africa/Russia/Asia over to Australia) and which client hardware was used, but I didn’t notice any major complaints, and towards the end we had 56 avatars logged in!

56 avatars logged in to discussion

56 avatars logged in to discussion

There will be four more Discussion Sessions this semester, taking place every other Thursday. We’re working hard to improve the overall experience and are looking forward to truly interactive discussions with dozens of students all around the globe!

About the ShangAI Lectures

The ShanghAI Lectures project is designed to contribute to the fundamental goal of making education and knowledge on cutting-edge scientific topics accessible to everyone on the planet. On the basis of state-of-the-art technology and novel methods of knowledge transfer and community building, it attempts to overcome the complexity of a multi-cultural and interdisciplinary learning context and bring global teaching to a new level.

To learn more, to: http://shanghailectures.org/.


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