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CITL teams help campus events go virtual during pandemic

Oct 12, 2020, 17:04 PM

When renowned game designer and author Rafael Chandler gave the keynote speech at the Playful by Design Fall Symposium 2020, he captivated audiences by describing his creative process in developing ViewScream – recognized as the first Live Action Online Game – discussing its evolution, and reflecting on his 20 years of experience in the game design industry. 

In a typical year, the keynote speaker would have addressed attendees at a reception at the Spurlock Museum. But this year, which has been anything but typical, Chandler gave his talk from his house via Zoom. 

“We had planned a much different in-person event for April,” said Alexis Kim, a Ph.D. student in Informatics, who directed the symposium this year. 

“We had already been considering moving the event to the fall,” Kim continued. “Because of COVID and the shutdown, we had to cancel (the April event). Then sometime during the summer, it was decided that we would host it in the fall and that everything would be online.” 

Doing it all along

While much different than the first two, organizers hailed this year’s event, held October 1-3, a success thanks in part to a team from the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning, which helped coordinate and livestream many activities. 

“Jamie’s team took care of streaming, logistics, scheduling, moderating, among other miscellaneous details like getting the whole show up and running on our YouTube channel,” former director Judith Pintar said in her online welcome. 

Pintar, a Teaching Associate Professor and Acting BS/IS Program Director and CITL faculty fellow in 2019-20, was referring to Jamie Nelson, Assistant Director of Emerging Educational Technologies. His logistics team included Lisette Chapa, an academic hourly at the center’s Innovation Spaces at the UI Armory, and Emma Santiago, a senior linguistics major and computer science and informatics minor and intern. 

The Playful by Design symposium is one of several campus events held during the pandemic that CITL helped transition from an in-person event to a virtual one, according to Robert Baird, the center’s Senior Associate Director of Instructional Spaces & Technologies. 

“When the pandemic hit, a small group of us … set up triage teams to help people when they asked, ‘What can we do now that we can’t provide an event?’” Baird recalled, pointing out that large gatherings had to be canceled or reworked due to new health and safety guidelines. “One team could help with media, another with facilitating, another with events. These are things we have been doing at CITL all along. So, we have the expertise and talents to help with this going forward.” 

The first event CITL assisted with was the Faculty Summer Institute this past May. Each year, FSI brings faculty members and instructional-technology professionals to Champaign for three days of presentations on new technologies in education, hands-on training, and networking. This year’s theme, appropriately, was Strengthening Student Experiences during COVID-19. 

The in-person event at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign typically drew 200 participants or so, Baird said. While they missed out on live presentations, interactive workshops, and traditional networking opportunities, he said there were benefits, including reaching a larger audience. 

“All of a sudden with it being on Zoom, we had 400 to 500 people,” he said, adding there was a waiting list. “It got us thinking, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this all along?’” 

Baird said the CITL teams helped organizers not only put the conference online but also found ways to make the content lively and engaging – just as they do when they help educators create their courses. 

“We didn’t want to do a full day of Zoom where you’re listening to someone talk at you and watching slides,” he said. “We kept it active. We kept it moving. We kind of reinvented the information and had intermittent things to break it up. Everybody loved it.” 

Other events CITL helped with on some level include the Undergraduate Research Symposium, previously held at the Illini Union in May; the New Faculty Orientation, previously held at the I Hotel in August; and Japan House’s Ganbaru! also held in August. In some cases, it was answering a few questions; in others, such as the Playful by Design symposium, it was providing technical assistance. 

Playful by Design partner

CITL staff have been part of the Playful by Design community network and involved in the symposium from the onset, Nelson said. Members – consisting of faculty, students, and community members – study and design games, engage in playful pedagogy, and are helping to build an interdisciplinary academic game studies program at the university. 

In previous years, the symposium’s Day 2 activities – including panels, roundtable discussions, and demonstrations – were held in CITL’s Innovation Spaces and classrooms. In addition to planning, staff helped register participants, host activity spaces, and facilitate activities, among other things. 

When the event was canceled in April, Kim said the committee had to reimagine it and find activities that would not only be better suited for the online format but also include some that addressed issues caused by the pandemic. For example, Chris Ball, Assistant Professor in the College of Media, discussed his successes and failures when piloting a class on virtual reality and other challenges of distance learning. And Chris and Anne Lukeman, former video professionals and owners of CU Adventures in Time & Space in Urbana, discussed how they adapted their in-person adventures to become critically-acclaimed digital games. 

During the events, Kim and her “stream team” set up the operations center in the Innovation Studio, where the activity in the room and online was displayed on a large screen spanning the center third of a wall. From her workstation, Kim directed speakers in the Zoom rooms. 

A few chairs down, Santiago moderated the chat room, and across the room, Chapa ran the livestream. Nelson oversaw all of the different components taking place and uploaded recordings to YouTube, available at Go.illinois.edu/pbdyoutube. 

Illini Esports – a registered student organization for competitive and social gaming, supported by CITL – also hosted a few events on Twitch, and took viewers on a tour of the Quad, built in  Minecraft. 

“A big piece of this has been people gathering. We’re missing that,” Nelson said, pointing out that Day 3 activities were to take place at the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab. 

“But we have still pulled the community together for this,” he continued, adding that in addition to university faculty, staff, and students, area companies like Volition and organizations like CUDO Plays, which wrapped up a month-long game jam, were involved. 

Kim was also pleased with the support from everyone involved and the online format. She told them she and other committee members believe “it was a great start to expanding Playful by Design and reaching wider audiences.” 

“We’re the full package”

Baird, who participated as one of the roughly 200 audience members, said he hopes more groups think of CITL when planning their online events. 

“These days, innovation is a necessity,” he said. “Since you’re forced to think about how am I going to do this, you want to spend a little time being smart about it. We’re here to help with that. … Our secret sauce is we know educational technologies. We know online tools. We understand and can do media, and our basis is in pedagogy and learning. We’re the full package. 

"We have the range of expertise and talents, which allows us to brainstorm with who’s putting on the event and be inventive.” 

Are you interested in how CITL services can help you? Contact us at citl-info@illinois.edu.