remote learning

With New Investments, Vermont Tech Startup Aims to Improve Virtual Classrooms

InSpace, which announced $2.5 million in venture capital funding, provides tools educators can use to encourage classroom engagement

NBC Universal, Inc.

A Vermont college professor thought her online teaching tools fell short, so she built her own. And now, with investors’ backing, her tech startup hopes to keep growing well beyond its New England roots.

“One of the hardest things with virtual learning is the ability to keep students engaged,” said Narine Hall, the program director for data science at Champlain College in Burlington.

When teaching first went remote, Hall was frustrated with digital platforms that may work great for simple meetings, but which weren’t quite right for managing the energy of a classroom the way she wanted, she told NECN.

“I tried everything,” Hall remembered, describing a range of platforms she experimented with before setting out to design her own teaching tool.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released new guidance on school reopenings. It advises schools to phase-in their reopening plans in accordance with the severity of local outbreaks.

Along with a longtime friend and coding partner in her native Armenia, Hall launched InSpace, which describes itself as a virtual classroom by educators for educators.

Teachers can broadcast to their whole class, then move themselves around in the virtual space, so they can connect more naturally with students through video — either one-on-one or in small rooms.

Students can move their bubbles around, too, to collaborate with peers or to replicate the experience of walking up to their professor and asking a question.

The platform got its first try-outs on the Champlain campus, but is now in use at more than 85 U.S. universities and K-12 schools — and growing every week, according to the company.

“It’s so much more interactive,” said Reid Anctil of Westford, Massachusetts, who is a junior at Champlain College.

Anctil said he has heard of some students doing laundry during remote classes using other systems.

However, with InSpace’s small meeting rooms, professors can more easily see if someone’s zoning out or not talking to classmates, and they could move their bubble over to check on them and spur thought or discussion.

“It just kind of encourages more of that interpersonal connection, I think,” Anctil said.

Just this month, InSpace announced $2.5 million in venture capital funding, much of that from the investors at Boston Seed Capital.

As the CDC urges teachers and students to get back in the classroom, Massachusetts teachers call for better access to the COVID-19 vaccines.

The co-founder said the new backing should help InSpace reach even more schools, but she knows COVID-19 has made virtual meetings a suddenly competitive field.

“It is very crowded,” Hall said of the marketplace she is in. “It’s really good to have competition — it pushes us all.”

Hall said InSpace plans to unveil many more features to help it keep standing out in the education space.

With online learning expected to stick around and grow long after the pandemic, the Vermont-born startup wants InSpace to be tomorrow’s classroom today.

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