2011 Campus Technology Innovators | Education Futurists

Duke University School of Nursing

The Innovative Nursing Education Technologies team created what is perhaps the first-ever immersive 3D poster session: Participants made their presentations as avatars in a virtual meeting room, complete with laser pointers and on-screen visuals.

Project: Immersive Virtual Poster Sessions

Project lead: Mary Barzee, iNET program coordinator

Vendors/technologies used:
Dropbox
Microsoft
Twitter
VenueGen

When leaders of the Innovative Nursing Education Technologies (iNET) group began planning their annual conference last year, they talked about adding a poster session.

"Then we realized that a traditional scientific poster session is not very innovative at all," recalls Mary Barzee, iNET program coordinator for the Duke University School of Nursing (NC). (iNET is a federally funded collaborative effort among the nursing programs at Duke, Western Carolina University, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to integrate technology into nursing education.)

Barzee was also concerned because some nursing educators who wanted to attend reported having their travel budgets slashed. "We started talking about the possibility of a virtual interactive poster session to allow people to participate remotely," she says.

Unafraid to try something new, Barzee and the iNET team researched the use of avatars for presentations in online virtual environments. The goal was to evaluate whether a traditional poster session could work in this new arena.

Last August, after months of preparation, iNET hosted what was perhaps the first-ever immersive 3D poster session. Eight presenters and 25 attendees participated, all represented by avatars. "This was all new to us," Barzee says, "yet it felt quite natural. People made their presentations with laser pointers, with visuals on screens behind their avatars."

The team's initial research into virtual environments wasn't promising. They looked at Second Life, but because iNET's target population has little experience with virtual worlds, ease of use was a concern. "We were so clumsy in that environment," Barzee recalls. "We realized it would take some time to get up to speed. Also, we were hoping for something more businesslike. We didn't want people to choose dragons as their avatars."

Undaunted by their first virtual experience, Barzee and the iNET team followed up on a tip about a nearby startup company. North Carolina-based VenueGen offers a browser-based 3D immersive meeting platform--sort of a cross between Second Life and GoToMeeting. Although it was still in beta testing at the time, VenueGen's product was easier to use than Second Life, Barzee says. "You start out in a seat, which removes the pressure of figuring out how to walk around, sit, and stand. Also, the avatars are more professional looking." Other pluses for iNET: VenueGen has a selection of businesslike settings, and attendees use their real names instead of invented screen names.

Overall, says Barzee, there wasn't much to lose: iNET could use VenueGen on a short-term basis, paying only a monthly subscription fee. For an organization that wants to host an unlimited number of meetings per month with up to 30 attendees, VenueGen charges $299 per month. Meetings are free for attendees.

During the preparation phase for iNET's virtual poster session, Dropbox was used to store and share posters and abstract submissions, so that the review committee, made up of faculty members from three university campuses, could all access the same information. In addition, the iNET team used its strong following on Twitter to publicize the event. (The Duke School of Nursing won a Campus Technology Innovators award last year for creating a Twitter soap opera to teach nurses about patient care, privacy, quality, and safety; read about it here.)

One advantage of the virtual meeting was that iNET was able to draw attendees from a broader geographic region, Barzee notes. In fact, four institutions that made virtual presentations would not have participated in a live event due to distance and cost. For the most part, though, presenters were a little apprehensive about the technology, she admits. "No one had used a virtual world or an avatar before, and some were presenting on their material for the first time," she says. "We did workshops with them and they did practice sessions with VenueGen representatives."

Three virtual poster sessions were held simultaneously with a moderator in each room. Participants displayed their virtual posters (created in Microsoft PowerPoint), and spoke about their work using microphone headsets and a personalized avatar. Attendee avatars asked presenters questions about their posters and discussed healthcare, education, and technology. Besides being able to speak, the avatars also conveyed nonverbal gestures and facial expressions.

During the sessions, some familiar issues, such as attendees leaving the room during the middle of a presentation, took on new dimensions. Slightly annoying in real life, such departures are more pronounced in the virtual environment because the avatar simply disappears, as though it has been beamed up to the Starship Enterprise.

"This got us thinking about what is socially acceptable in a virtual world," Barzee says. "If there is a list of acceptable practices somewhere, we didn't find it."

The iNET team sent out surveys asking if participants would use the environment again. Many said yes, but others said they would like to attend but perhaps not present. "It was time-intensive to prepare for," Barzee says, "and it was a little anxiety-inducing for the presenters. But it was exciting. We would definitely do it again."

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