What does the future of education and virtual learning look like?
In this edition of the UpTech Report, Alexander Ferguson meets with the CEO of InSpace, Narine Hall, to discuss how her company is helping educators to teach online with video conferencing software.
InSpace’s virtual classrooms try to emulate what a real classroom would actually look and feel like, providing students and teachers with fun features such as freedom of movement. Plus, after the virtual lesson is over, students can break off into study groups to work, chat out in the hallway while waiting to speak with the teacher, or even attend a virtual tutoring session.
In the future, we are all going to be learning in virtual classrooms and attending virtual events in the Metaverse.
InSpace was created during the Covid-19 pandemic after educators realized the limitations associated with video conferencing platforms like Zoom. InSpace is a virtual learning platform, built by educators, for educators, and comes complete with all of the crucial teaching tools that teachers need to thrive.
Narine is a data-driven entrepreneur and professor of machine learning, dedicated to harnessing the power of data and technology to serve the greater good. Her career has evolved at the intersection where the tech industry meets academia.
A veteran of Wolfram Research, IBM Watson, a recipient of a Google Faculty Award and NSF grants, Narine believes deeply in the democratization of technology and AI and beautiful user experiences.show more
At InSpace, we give primacy to learning in everything we do. Our virtual communication platform is designed specifically to make teaching and learning the joyful, meaningful, and effective endeavors we know they can be.
By honoring how humans interact in the real world with our human-centered, research-informed design, we enable teachers and learners to cultivate connections, support one another, and co-create engaging learning experiences.show less
Narine Hall 0:00
I almost quit pitching because it was just not as interesting as exciting as fun to teach.
Alexander Ferguson 0:11
Welcome to UpTech Report. I’m your host Alexander and this is our applied tech series. UpTech Report is sponsored by TeraLeap. Learn how to leverage the power of customer stories at Teraleap.io. Today, I’m excited to be joined by my guest, Narine Hall, who’s based in Vermont. She’s the co founder and CEO at InSpace. Welcome Narine, good to have you on.
Narine Hall 0:32
Thank you. Thank you, Alex, great to be here.
Alexander Ferguson 0:36
InSpace is a video conferencing platform built for education. unpack this for me, Noreen. What’s, what’s the problem started there? What’s the problem that you solve with InSpace?
Narine Hall 0:49
Yeah, happy to talk about it. So you know, we started Inspace, because when pandemic started, I was teaching machine learning and data science at Jefferson college. And, you know, I was like, Okay, this is awesome. Like, I have all my content and everything, and we should, should be fine. Right? So as we moved to online teaching, I found that online instruction was very different than in person instruction. And, you know, there are lots of constraints and limitations. And for me, one of the biggest things was like really being able to connect with students and have the same efficiency in learning that we had in, you know, in person environment, whether it’s through like project work, hands on experiences, really like creating knowledge with students in a classroom, not just sort of, in a lecturing sort of setting. And I always been sort of in this part of like, active learning and sort of learning by doing sort of mindset. So you know, so the challenge for me was that the videoconferencing platforms that were available to me, even though it was awesome, that it’s something that’s available, right? They were just not enough. And sort of that’s kind of where I was like, Oh, I almost quit teaching because it was just not as interesting, as exciting as fun to teach. And at that point, you know, me and my co founder, were basically we sat down and we’re like, could it be? So technology? What if we change that? And so the whole idea of in space came together? And what we did, it was like, really? Like, let’s forget everything that’s out there. Let’s start from scratch. How would we build a video conferencing that’s just for educators in education, setting nothing else, like no one else matters. And that’s how we started in space.
Alexander Ferguson 2:26
The singular focus, nothing else matters, specifically built for educators by an educator, but also a technologist, like let’s solve this problem coming back as well. I’d like to dig into the technology itself and, and how you’re using it the business use cases. But the problem that you experience in COVID-19, arise, everything is going online, it’s definitely less than ideal. You were like, you want to quit it, I didn’t even realize you want to quit because it was just was not fun. What are some of those issues that arose? That is it just you said lack of of interaction? What were some of the things that came out of this?
Narine Hall 3:03
Yeah, a lot of you know, educators who were doing this virtually it kind of know this, like the pain points, right? So one of the things is like engagement, student engagement, right. So like in a real classroom, when we had discussions, like we’d be talking about sort of machine learning for all like, oh, this really exciting concept, and people would contribute and have this really fun conversations. But like you’re really getting into like this, you know, lightbulb moments where students realize something, and now they’re pumped up, and they go learn about it more, and they’re motivated, all of a sudden, they’re building a whole career around this concept that sort of started in a classroom. And all of that seemed to disappear. Right. So like, you know, of course, at this point, I was kind of doing what I call videoconferencing gymnastics, I was trying every possible way. And like a lot of people got really better at this as the time went on, like how you can use different things to kind of make it more engaging. But really, the biggest thing was like student engagement, right? So the ability to like really participate, like very quickly, everybody turns their videos off. And now you’re teaching through black squares, which is not a fun experience. It’s like helping the wall a little bit, right? And so, for me, it was there’s also like, some psychological factors in there, right? So like, when you’re in a classroom, everybody feels like they belong to that space, we can all have visibility into what’s going on where people are. And like if I want to go have a conversation and ask a question to a student, or Sumos, to ask a question to teacher, you can do that in a real space. This was something you couldn’t do in a virtual setting, because it was one person talks, everybody else listens kind of environment. And it just very, it can get very hard to sort of create those moments where you just want to go talk to your peer for a minute and connect on something, right. So as we were thinking about in space, that was one of the first things that came up, what happens in a real classroom, right? Like, you have this freedom of movement, you can get up and go talk to whoever you want, and that’s kind of where we started. We brought the freedom of movement, everybody’s video circle, you can click on it, you can move it around. When you get close to people, you can hear them and call As you go away, the sounds go down so you can go talk to others, while everybody visually still see where everybody else is. So like everybody’s in this civic space together, it’s our classroom. But at the same time, I can have one on one conversations and everybody’s relevant and kind of participating.
Alexander Ferguson 5:16
So let’s let’s dive into a bit more, you’ve already just started to describe the visual look to it, the the interaction, the dashboard, so less on the video size audio with just squares, or is there a video feed? How describe that to me?
Narine Hall 5:34
Okay, so no squares and in space. So it’s kind of interesting, we actually have video circles. And the reason it’s a circle, because it’s just a little bit more softer shape, and it looks a little bit more like a person’s head. And so your video is covering your head. So there’s less background. So the focus is the person just like it should be. So in some ways, like we have seen students who are less intimidated to turn their cameras on, because they were less worried about what’s happening in their background, because it’s really just their person that’s in there. And then sort of, so what’s happening is, every person has a via circle, you can click on your circle, and you can move it around the space. And the background can be anything the host wants to put like, it could be your school background, it could be a classroom, anything you like. And so what happens, like when you get close to other video circles, you hear them and talk as you move away, the sound kind of slowly goes away, and you can’t hear them anymore. But you can still see them. And you can have conversations on the side. And you can have a group conversation, you know, like psychology professors, they love doing this circle discussion. So they’ll have everybody make a circle, and they’ll have this conversation. And if someone is late, when they come in, you kind of everybody moves a little bit, give them a little space. And it’s very inclusive kind of discussion environment.
Alexander Ferguson 6:45
So are you giving like this opportunity where just naturally, you know, students would would congregate and over in a little corner and maybe even goof off a little bit, you’re actually providing the opportunity for that.
Narine Hall 6:56
Yeah, it’s interesting that that’s exactly what it is like before the class starts, you know, like, usually like the spaces available to them, so they can help in there and kind of spend a little time. And what we find is having that like little icebreaker interactions before the classes really helps them to then focus on the class and be more effective during the class time. Or at the end of the class. You know how usually some students have questions. They want to come and talk to the professor clarify something or just chat to each other. Those are the moments that really create those natural classroom environment interactions.
Alexander Ferguson 7:29
Interesting is these these Hallway Conversations or quarter conversations that can now naturally spring up because people have you mentioned the word did freedom of movement. We’ve talked about this. metaverse. I mean, would you consider this this actually entering or playing a role in this future of web 3.0?
Narine Hall 7:50
Okay, so Metaverse is an interesting topic. So without kind of going too deep into it, it definitely has certain elements of it. So it’s very much 2d, like you’re you’re not in a sort of virtual fantasy world or anything like that. But what’s interesting about like, so one of the things that we use, like backgrounds that are real images, so it feels very real, it doesn’t feel like sort of vectors, etc. But at the same time, you do have that freedom of movement. And it does create a little bit of that immersive experience. So for example, one of the professors who teaches history, they hit like this very interesting theme from historical perspective. And so what they had, so they had students literally follow from one point to the other, and then zoom into specific areas of that scene and kind of talk about what was actually happening at that point in history. And that was like very immersive experience. And one time I was actually I popped into one of the discussion rooms were Professor invited me she was sitting French. And the way she had everything set up, like when I went in there, it’s like I was in Paris. It was like I could almost smell the croissants. And it was very immersive. And like, you know, there’s like screen sharing and different breakout rooms with like French in there and the backgrounds and everything. So but at the same time, it’s not like you don’t have different views, where you go between different views and like you don’t know where everybody else is. At any one time. You always see all your students at the same place.
Alexander Ferguson 9:17
It’s it’s a 2d, immersive experience of a metaverse. We’re not all there yet. We don’t have headsets on.
Narine Hall 9:25
Exactly. It’s a 2d metaverse. I love that
Alexander Ferguson 9:28
2d Metaverse that making that possible. But it’s that freedom of movement. Now the question I can imagine that teachers would have great I’m giving freedom to my students to go off and go around and do other things. Do I can I corral them? Can I bring them back? Is that a problem? And how have you solved that?
Narine Hall 9:50
Absolutely not sort of thing developed by a teacher you might imagine this was one of the first things obviously you won’t be in control of your classroom. Your students place for freedom and Craig but also like, you want to always kind of have that under control, right? So the way this works is, as a teacher, I have plenty of different configurations available to me. So with one click, I can go between presentation room, discussion room, multiple breakout rooms, it’s literally one click. And so what happens then students get like this little notification that says, your teacher started breakout on to say go and then everybody like, goes into, into that configuration. So like, when you start a presentation room, everybody just automatically takes a seat. So like, then they are like, sort of huddled up around your screen share. And like if they want to ask a question, they can they raise their hand or they can come forward. So like, visually, I can see that the student wants to talk. And they don’t feel intimidated to interrupt to ask a question. So it’s like, really the social cues. The other thing that we noticed, like, you know, students do have sort of this freedom of movement, but there’s also accountability, that’s cut, because everybody can see everybody at all times, just like in a real space, right? So you can always get up and start running around the classroom. But they don’t do it. Why don’t they do it? Right. And the reason is, because there’s that sort of social pressure, I guess, to do the ethic ethics of kind of how people behave in virtual. And what was interesting, initially, where we had a lot of folks moving from like zoom environment to our environment. It was so interesting, like, their first experience was like, literally just going around and running run, and then they would come down.
Alexander Ferguson 11:23
To get the zoom, just explore. And then All right, now I’ve got that done. Like we’re free. To go on a break free from zoom. Now. What your your focus specifically on educators? What group of educators? Are you focused on just college? I mean, high school, like, what what grouping? Are you are you imagine this tool we use for?
Narine Hall 11:48
Yeah, so what we have seen, you know, when we started, like, it really just spread by word of mouth, like, academia is like such a connected environment. So someone tried it, and then they started sending to their friends. And then we just kind of spread by word of mouth there organically. So, you know, we have teachers from K 12. Using our platform, we’re mainly focused in higher ed, whether it’s community colleges, or large schools or small schools, really, it’s a whole spectrum. And then there’s also a lot of interesting use cases in any sort of learning environment, like professional development. So for K 12, it’s very interesting. And so our focus as a company is, we are directly focusing on higher ed. And we’re also partnering up with others for, you know, adjacent markets, right, whether it’s professional development in K 12, it cetera, because it’s basically integrates very easily with other platforms, for example, we’re integrated with LMS is right learning management system. So for me, as a teacher, you know, tech burn is real. And people have tried so many things during pandemic like, and I was like, we want to make this super easy, like, super easy to get in no installations, no logins, I don’t even need to register for an account, I just go to my LMS, click on right here. And then when you’re done with your reading all your recordings and transcripts, automatically go back to your LMS. So you can search it and use it. And I’m actually super excited to announce that we’re going to have language support coming up very soon for integrating with a company where you can real time have chat, translations and transcript records, recording transcript translations.
Alexander Ferguson 13:22
Speaking of what you were just digging into there around the making it easy for someone to just jump right in just confirming is it actually just browser based, like there’s no application that’s needed?
Narine Hall 13:34
Yes, so we’re completely browser based. And also integrated in elements. So like as a, as a teacher, a professor, you can go into your LMS, like Canvas, Brightspace, or Moodle. And right there you see in space, you click on it, you see the virtual classroom, you can see who is in the space at that time from outside. And then you click to join when you show up, you know, it’s your interface experience. And then when you’re done, like, all of your recordings of everything goes back and gets, you know, stored there. And we have integration with, you know, authentication systems. So we use your school authentication to get you in and out. So you don’t even have to create an account.
Alexander Ferguson 14:12
Safety is still a big concern and issue for a lot of folks and for for kids of all ages, or people of all ages, and many schools are still considering do we do we come back in person? Or do we just do online, you feel strongly that learn learn online learning is definitely here to stay? Right.
Narine Hall 14:28
You know, it’s interesting. So I think schools are really all over the place right now, there are schools that are staying online, they’re in between hybrid, and there’s in person. So our goal is really take the technology out of the way and let teachers do what they’re really good at. Right? So as a company as a platform, we actually don’t don’t care where people are using in space, right? So for example, when pandemic first started, a lot of schools were just virtual, so they were using completely virtual version of it. And then when a lot of schools went some of the schools went back to in person, they actually took in space with them. So now they’re using it in the classroom. So when you are sharing something with your students, or we have a chat functionality in there, so you can communicate with students, certain files, etc, or like you’re doing hair coding in the classroom. And the other thing that came up is like, sometimes some students had to quarantine or they couldn’t make it to class, they joined virtually, and then from teachers perspective, it’s very easy, like instead of, you know, sharing their project, you know, slides on the projector, they share the presentation room, as students are basically all virtually huddled up around the presentation room, and they can just pop into the screen anytime and ask questions. So basically, they’re not getting the side experience of hybrid, they’re literally fully experience being the same as in person students. And then the other thing that we also noticed that was kind of unexpected use case is like how online completely asynchronous schools are looking at this. And we’re very early on in this stage, but basically, kinda, you know, having completely asynchronous course, where students are always interacting with content, but not necessarily connect have synchronous components to it. It can feel very lonely experience, and sometimes like, it’s really not great for retention. And so what in space does it basically it has this virtual classroom that’s available for students anytime. And that becomes a study lounge, right? You can just communicate through the phone and like if someone has a question, maybe someone else answers and then you’re just like, hey, do you want to pop into the space and talk about this and you just go in there, you know, you share a document, you work on it together, and it sort of becomes like this community.
Alexander Ferguson 16:33
Virtual Classroom. Now, there’s, there’s been definitely a huge growth in thinking the business use case of slack rooms or you know, Slack channels. There’s there’s classroom equivalents in different apps and stuff. But you’re not just talking about it just to chat room. It’s, it’s, it’s this virtual space that you’re can jump in, and people can see other people and this 2d Metaverse mentality to the immersive experience.
Narine Hall 16:59
Absolutely. So each course has a virtual classroom or study space associated with it. And students can join there. So teachers get to choose like, you either get to choose to leave it open outside of the classroom time, so students can use it as a study lounge anytime they want. And then so what we have is like something called persistent chat. So when you’re in the space, there’s the chat, you know, it’s multi channel, chat, etc. But when you finish your class, that child stays in your LMS, and on your phone app, so you can actually continue the conversation around the topics that started in the classroom, and sort of have a discussion and you can tag someone and ask questions, you know, say like, it’s 11 o’clock, and you have a 12am deadline, and you’re stuck. You’re like, Hey, guys, anyone else stock which guaranteed there’s probably more people. So then you’re like, you know, you talk on the chat. And then you’re like, Okay, do you want to just have a person meeting so we can work on this together? So you basically have that classroom that’s always available to you can pop into there, have a conversation? Don’t have to worry about scheduling, sending the legs, etc.
Alexander Ferguson 17:58
So you you’ve you started this? Last year, you launched this 2020? Yeah. This this growth? And what’s the adoption been like that you give hinted at a few pieces, but what’s that look like for the different educators and universities and teachers?
Narine Hall 18:16
Yeah, so we have grown very organically. So you know, basically what happened is like, I was trying to come up with a solution for myself. So like, when I go back in fall of 2020, I had this solution for my classroom, which thankfully, I did. And it was like an amazing lift. And so we actually, so my co founder has been in video conferencing space for like, 15 years. So we basically a lot of that into into this platform. And so yeah, and then basically what happened is I send it to a colleague, and then she sent to others in the college. You know, I think it was like, a few days later, the President calls me and he’s like, Yeah, I don’t know, what do you spaces, but everybody wants it, like, Can we see it? How do we get this? And so I showed a demo, they immediately bought into it, then we sign up first deal. So we’re basically building the platform, but we already had real customers at the same time, which was awesome. No pressure, right. And so what happened that is basically people started sending to other people that they knew in academia, and then it really just spread by word of mouth. We started hearing from a lot of schools, like I think, like, immediately, like, at one point, we had like this support inbox that we didn’t monitor initially. So I go there is like, that was an email sitting there, like people wanting to see the platform. So eventually, we got around to getting back to them and said, you know, started signing schools. Fast forward today. We’re in over 120 schools and growing fast and, yeah.
Alexander Ferguson 19:39
Wow. Now this, this is particularly you’re focused on large, larger institutions. So it’s, it’s a significant rollout, right? It’s not like, hey, let’s let me sign up and use it just for my class. And this instructor could do that.
Narine Hall 19:54
Yeah. So it’s really a mix of different sort of levels. So basically, we have schools that are departments level and we have enterprise level or we have like, you know, small teams like that we’re super excited to go fast. So it’s really a combination of things.
Alexander Ferguson 20:09
Okay, because I’m wondering, for some viewers out there that they may just be running their own professional development or different things that are going on, is this something that they could just sign up and use? What does that look like?
Narine Hall 20:21
Yeah, absolutely. So if they go to in space chat, they can actually sign up for a two week free trial and experience it. It works beautifully in any environment where you have learning, collaboration, interacting, and we have definitely seen other groups use it as an internal tool for their company. We use this in our company as for our stand ups, and our all our meetings, all hands meetings, etc. It’s, it just gives you like a little more interactive space to do things that you kind of need to do. So yeah, our goal is to stay focused on our customers in education. But we do realize it’s useful in all the other sort of environments, whether it’s corporate learning, etc. But we’re just not focusing on really, on those markets at this moment.
Alexander Ferguson 21:07
You’re not focused on building features and solutions for any other markets. But if somebody else wants to sign up for it and pay you money for it, you won’t sign. Exactly. Gotcha. What when you when you ponder the future? I mean, coming back to we talked about earlier that the metaverse I mean, someone just strapping on an Oculus and interacting, you know, in VR, is this really just like that, that stepping stone since known or not everyone has VR headsets? What do you see is that that future look like for the metaverse?
Narine Hall 21:36
You know, it’s interesting. So I did experience. Metaverse a few times. Like I was like, watching dreamscape, like experiences dreamscape and others, and, you know, it’s definitely very interesting. It’s definitely very, very early in that technology still, like we have legs to go. And I’m excited to see where it lands. We’re in spaces. So well, technology is one of the things I’d like there’s a whole adoption curve, when you have like a thing you have to wear on your head and all that stuff. So what’s exciting about it is it’s like it’s, it’s available right now. But it also kind of it’s, you know, you can look at it as a stepping stone towards that more interactive, immersive experience. But the way I kind of look at this is more like as a communication medium, right? So if you think about it, like, try to imagine the world before email, right? I’ll give you a minute. That’s good. So like, you know, if I’m a teacher, that campus, I would have to get up and go across the campus to talk to other teachers and hope that they’re in their offices, right. And then that was the world we lived in. So So then, you know, email comes around, and now like, I just send an email. And that’s it. Like, I don’t have to walk in like, it’s a time thing, right? So, but there’s certain things you can get done with email, right? Like, you know, there’s a lot of back and forth communication and confusion, and people not sure. And sometimes, like having a quick check in and sync is so much more helpful. So the way we see in space, it’s really that next level of that communication platform, like it’s the next level of email, right? You basically have that space available for people where they can quickly check in. And a lot of schools for example, you know, whether it’s admissions office or register’s office or library, they would have those dropping hours and students can just stop by ask questions and move on, versus, you know, writing a paragraph of what the situation is and describing now you’re, you know, testing your writing skills, and students are like, alright, I probably don’t, I’m gonna just pass on sort of creating that connected medium where like, it was just feel comfortable going and asking questions. And I think there’s a ton of value in in person instruction from traditional school prospective. And that’s going to be there. Like, we’re not here to replace that like without saying, you know, everything should be online. But it’s really, you should have this available to you when you need it.
Alexander Ferguson 23:49
So when you when you look at the future, four, four in space, and let’s start with the near future, next year, but as of the recording, I don’t want this launches, but it says still 2021 What are you most excited about? What’s coming up on what you can share on the roadmap?
Narine Hall 24:05
You know, it’s interesting, what I’m excited is sort of different ways that new technology can really shape how we view things, right? And sort of question like some things and then really just elevate and change things. For example, online education, right. So like, it’s very flexible and affordable. In most cases, we, but it’s sometimes like that community piece to it. And that interaction is that sort of that FaceTime, where like, you know, you graduate, and you know, people from there, for example, me and my co founder, we went to the same college and, you know, when we, we interacted with each other and so like, you know, was it like 10 However, many years later, we started a company together. So that’s like the kind of bonds that you’ve formed in college. And I think that experience is huge part of why you go to college, right? And, you know, historically, you know, going through classes was about getting information, but now We live in such an information rich world where like, you can just go into YouTube and Google so and so’s lecture, probably pop up. So I think now it’s a value is in being there with the students and like, you know, really just hands on experiences and connections and like really helping them motivating them to go and pursue another career step, right. And so to do that, like really need like those active environments. So the way I see this is like really, in space kind of pushes that online education experience just a little closer towards traditional but in a different level, where you still have flexibility still is affordable, but sort of gives you like the benefit some of the benefits of the traditional.
Alexander Ferguson 25:45
For those that want to learn more, there’s a lot here, and we just got a taste of it, you can head over to inspace.chat. So that’s INSPACE. chat. Thank you, Narine for sharing, I take giving a taste of what you’re building and kind of the future then of of communication and interacting in education sphere. So thank you. Yeah, of course. And we’ll look forward to seeing you all in the next episode of UpTech Report. Have you seen a company using AI machine learning or other technology to transform the way we live, work and do business? Go to UpTech report.com and let us know