Virtual Education In Covid-19 Era: Importance of Social Cues I Interview with Narine Manukyan, Founder of InSpace Proximity

InSpace Proximity is a new virtual learning platform that integrates the social interaction between educators and students into the remote learning.

Startups / Virtual Learning / Covid / Students / Learning / Armenian Founders

Episode #4

Covid-19 has disrupted higher education in many ways. 1.2 billion students were out of school due to the Covid crisis. Virtual learning has become a real challenge for many educators and students. From finding the right virtual platform to hold classes, adopting new technology tools for remote learning to creating a new curriculum that can be as effective as face-to-face classes, many educators across the globe have been struggling to adopt this new reality of virtual learning.

Narine Manukyan was one of those educators who had to move to virtual instruction and like everybody had to somehow figure out how to exist virtually professionally. In late August, she came up with the idea to create a new technology tool that can behave the same way as in a physical space and create the ability to connect with students. 

In this Episode, Narine Manukyan, the Founder and CEO of InSpace Proximity of a new virtual learning platform joins me to discuss some of the challenges the educators and students face with remote learning and the solutions InSpace brings to those problems. 

Guest

Bio: Narine Manukayn, Founder and CEO of InSpace Proximity. Narine holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and she is a Program Director for Data Science Center in Champlain college. Her passion is digging deep into Big Data Design, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Evolutionary Computation, Data Mining, and Social Contingency.

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Interview Highlights

Narine M: Yes. So I’m originally from Armenia and I went to school at the University of Vermont. I got my master’s and PhD there. Since then, I have been in the tech industry. I’m a data scientist. AndI teach at Champlain College. I’m an Assistant Professor in Computer Science and Data Science. And I also started the Data Science program at Champlain College. And recently we started InSpace. And I’m the CEO of InSpace 

Narine: You are the CEO and founder of this fascinating startup called In Space. This is a new virtual learning platform that helps students and teachers to build better experience during virtual learning. What is the story behind in space? How you came up with this idea.

Narine Manukyan:  Yes So you know, like in the spring, we all had to move to virtual instruction and I’m sure everybody had to somehow figure out how to exist virtually professionally. And this time, Yeah, I was teaching a class and actually one of my classes. I was teaching a machine learning course, and it was going great. We’re having a great time. And it was like, always, like vibrant conversations in the classroom and discussions. Actually, I made some of my content online available and actually got a Google faculty award for developing discourse.

And then when the pandemics started in the lock down, we moved to virtual spaces. And you know that first day when we’re starting the class, I felt great. Oh, my content was online. Everything is great. I thought the transition would be great, and I asked a question, and I think like 25 students at once answer the same question and we all pause for a minute and realized that the virtual interactions are not going to be the same, because we’re missing some of the social cues where you can see where your audience is when somebody is about to say something. And missing the social cues was making all the difference, and somehow the interaction felt more disconnected. I felt like I couldn’t really connect with my students and it was hard to do team work because I don’t know if you know, it’s like we were using Zoom at the time and, you know, creating breakout rooms. And then the students just go to different meetings, and I just didn’t know where they were. It’s hard for them to come back and ask me a question, and we sort of lost that advantage that we have in the physical classroom versus, you know, in online world. 

And that was one of the things. And at that time I thought, Well, it’s not rewarding anymore to be teaching in virtual space. So I actually quit my job and I got another job as a senior machine learning engineer in Silicon Valley Company and that was great. Um, however, later on in August, I was thinking about this and I realized that perhaps it’s possible to teach virtually and still connect with students if we only have the right tools and maybe we’re just missing the right tools, and at the time I sort of was thinking tinkering about this idea of like, proximity based work on. Do you know, I sort of had this idea of, like, what if we can just use virtual tools to just behave the same way we do in physical spaces? So I called my friend, my longtime friend in Armenia high canoes, who is, uh, my co founder and in space. And I told her I was like, Look, I have this idea and I think it’s going to make it possible. Thio teach in virtual spaces just like we do in real spaces. And I think it’s gonna make a big difference. And she said, Well, that sounds great. And she said, What do you need it for? And I said, well, the classes start in a month. So I need this in a month. You know, she kind of laughed and she was like, so you want to build something that is better than Zoom or on other platforms in a month? And she said, well, that makes sense, Right? 

Yeah. So at that point, basically, what happened? I went back and I literally just started by looking like how to build a virtual video conferencing platform and started digging, doing some research in the morning. I sent her some stuff and basically just started tinkering. And then we were coating overnight for a few days, and in a week we had, like a team of 7 to 10 engineers join us because everyone was just excited to build this new thing. That could change how we interact virtually. And, you know, one of the things was like we all had kids in the schools that were using Zoom and other platforms, and it was hard to watch them not be able to participate like, for example, like some kids felt like they didn’t get a chance to talk in the classroom because of the, you know, the whole management of the classroom thing. And yes, so we started coating very quickly in a month. We had our minimum working product s Oh, this is like right before school started in September, and I sent it to one of my colleagues, the Champlain College, and said, “Hey, see how it works.”  She just loved it, and she sent it to another friend off course. At this time, we didn’t have our, you know, account management system yet because this was a minimum working product so everybody could just enter the spaces and check it out. 

So it started spreading like a wildfire in the college. And next thing I know, the president called me and said, Look, I don’t know what Inspace is, but everybody’s talking about it and everybody wants to have it.

Narine Manukyan: We are two women co founders. We, me and high canoes started the company on DWI always made a goal that 50% at least 50% of the company will be females. Uh, this, you know, I have been intact for a long time. I’m part of the women tech makers and women in data science. And, you know, I supervise a lot of the clubs in the campus, and I think it’s really important for us to, you know, support this trend. And that was one of the goals, like, at the core values of our company to make sure that that’s, you know, waste a solid on that. 

Narine Manuyan: We are two women co founders. We, me and high canoes started the company on DWI always made a goal that 50% at least 50% of the company will be females. Uh, this, you know, I have been intact for a long time. I’m part of the women tech makers and women in data science. And, you know, I supervise a lot of the clubs in the campus, and I think it’s really important for us to, you know, support this trend. And that was one of the goals, like, at the core values of our company to make sure that that’s, you know, waste a solid on that. 

Narine: How does InSpace work?  In terms of building interaction between the educators and students, how InSpace provides this interaction between students and teachers?

Narine Manukyan: Yeah, that’s a great question. So the way InSpace works. You know, it was designed for education. Everybody is in a video circle, and you can click on your video circle and you can move it around. So now you can move anywhere you want to be on the space, and you can also just drug the space around. You can zoom in and zoom out so you get to decide how big or small you can see. Your video circle and the magic wall in space is that when circles are close to each other, you can hear each other, and they can engage with each other. Have conversations, can see each other. 

Narine: Can they see each other? 

Narine Manukyan: Yes, they can see each other from these video circles. Imagine, like sort of the square zoom circle. But it’s like a circle, and you can move it around anywhere you want to be in your video. So when the circles air close to each other, they can hear each other. They can see and engage together as they move away. The sounds go down and the video goes away so they can go find other conversations. So what happens is now you can have multiple conversations in one space and you can see everybody in your space. So if I’m doing a classroom, I see all my students in my space. However, they all can have different conversations in the teams on different corners of the room, so they’re not interrupting each other, and then I actually just go around and check in on them and see you know what they’re doing with their project. And sometimes if a student has a question, they would come to me and we’ll have one on one conversation, and all of this happens while I still see everybody else in my classroom and having those social kids is, like, really important When you’re, like, you know, moderating a classroom or really doing anything. I mean, imagine like when you’re giving a talk when I’m, you know, presenting. I can see where students are. I can see when they make movements like If someone has a question, they can move their circle, and I can sort of engage with them without sort of that awkward interaction when you sort of don’t know when who talks went and people you know that actually interrupt each other. 

Narine: You want to say that as a teacher, you follow  what your students are doing in real time? I think this is particularly important for educators to have the ability to see if the students are participating in the classes.  It seems this is a huge problem for many educators. You know how it’s with online earnings. You can join the conversation, mute yourself and even leave the room to go do your things?

Narine Manukyan: Exactly. And that is one of the biggest challenges for higher education right now, because a lot of students, they would, you know, turn their cameras off and they will go into mute. So now you’re teaching to a lot of black squares and students are not as engaged. And one of the reasons is because, like in a Zoom like environment, it’s one person talks and many listen on. You can’t have multiple people engaging at the same time. So if a student has a question and they asked that question, everybody else that doesn’t have that question, they have to listen to the answer. And then they start getting unengaged. And then it’s harder to engage them back into the conversation versus InSpace. You know, they can just continue working on their teams, and the student can just have a one on one conversation with me without interrupting anyone. Anyone else. So it’s a little bit more engaging. Thio, you know, just stay connected to the space and one of the things I want to say. So our listeners, you’re welcome to those who are in space that chat, and we’re offering a free trial so you can check it out and see for yourself how it works. It’s so different. It’s really hard to describe. 

So, basically everything InSpace.  Friends in the cloud we use AWS, which is very secure and state of the art for a lot of companies. And a zoo, you know, is a start up way past our coast to our customers that are, you know, cloud cost. And we have different plans that people can use. Schools  are our primary customers right now, and they can sign up for however many minutes is appropriate for the number of hosts in their college. 

Narine: You said your primary customers are schools. What about colleges and universities? 

Narine Manukyan: Yes. right. Eso When we started, our main goal was to stay in education and be built by educators for educators. That’s like the vertical we always want to be. So we can cater better to the needs of education and eso. Colleges or universities are our primary customers. However, recently we also had K 12 schools sign up and they just tried it and they realized that it works great for their needs Because students have more agency over their experience, they can move around, and it also helps them to learn about social interactions. So if you think about it like in K 12, 1 of the things that students actually are learning is how to behave themselves in a sort of a classroom environment. So when they’re sort of stuck in the Zoom like environment, they don’t really have much choice of interaction. Um, in space. They actually have to think about how to go about the space, where to sit or where not to go or like, You know, there’s, like, sort of these interactions that are happening there. So, yeah, so we have K 12 schools now, and we also recently had, like, different events Organizer’s contact with us and we’re not. We’re staying in event space, but we also have customers in events that are using it. 

Narine: Can you organize conferences using Inspace, for example? 

Narine Manukyan: Yeah. So one of those things that in space is really focusing on is like small group conversations where you can really connect with people and feel like you’re part of the interaction. So if you think about it, you can have 200 people conference calls and then you can really have everybody talk to each other. What we have learned is that 50 is the maximum number, at which point everybody feels connected and relevant to the conversation. So we have, Yes. So we have a maximum of 50 people per space. However, you can create as many spaces as you like for each event. So ah, a lot of times we’ll see groups doing, you know, different, networking events with us. For example, colleges air using this in space for doing admission events that we actually have the ability to do custom backgrounds. So they would actually pick different parts of the campus to be in different spaces. So people can just do a tour and they can go check out this building and the library and the other building. And it feels like you’re almost on campus kind of virtually touring over the buildings and checking out different things. Yeah, and then the other groups. Yeah, advancement offices have been really excited about this, too, because they can actually like if they’re planning for a building or something, they actually just have the background on that. Then they can go over the plans and kind of discuss it. It’s really fun. 

Narine:  Do you need any type of licensing to start using InSpace? You work for college. You know that each university or college has special policies in place on how to use virtual learning tools.  How are you overcoming this entry barrier? 

Narine Manukyan: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So what happened is the word just got out. You know, we haven’t done any marketing or anything. It’s just like, you know, next thing I knew, I was talking to reporters inside higher ed and just explaining how it works and just giving them accounts to try. And what happened is we got a lot of faculty to reach out to us from different places. Like a little bit ago. I was doing a demo for a College in Hawaii. Just signed up for an account with us. And then there’s, like all these different colleges that just found out somehow, and we showed faculty how it works and gave them accounts to check it out. We’re in over 53 colleges as of today, and you know, they got excited, and then what happens is they then show to their departments, to their chairs, to their deans. And then we started getting cold emails from them saying, How can we sign up at that? At that point, we started signing, signing them up and, 

Narine: The power of word-of-mouth marketing. Best thing

Narine Manukyan: Absolutely. And I think it’s really great to have faculty to be. We call them our champions because they really are there. Like early adopters, they see the benefits of being able. Thio teach in a better instructional way, and they just take it to their colleges and spread it. 

Narine: For me it’s a really very bold step to quit your job and open a new startup in today’s hyper competitive market where you have tech giants like Zoom, Microsoft Team, Slack,  who already dominating this market of video learning and working. 

In fcat, when this pandemic happened, it was so unexpected that many cut off the guard. 

Absolutely 

For remote work, and learning, users had to pick Zoom or Microsoft Team that are the most popular brand names in the online industry. 

On the other hand, it was clear that there are a lot of challenges and problems that many users faced and they were not happy with them. 

What exact problems are you trying to solve, uniquely that other platforms like Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft team they are not able to solve? 

Narine Manukyan: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. And I want to say so. Like Zoom, Google Meets. Those are all great platforms and they do a really good job at what they’re doing, which they’re very generalist. So they were built for everybody. What didn’t work for us in education was that it wasn’t built for education. So it didn’t take into account all the needs that we had in higher Ed. And I as a professor I just knew that I needed a better tool for just being able to run my classes. I’ll give you one example. For example, I do a lot of hands-on experiences in my classes, and project based work is very important. We actually have a lot of industry collaborations where, like, you know, different companies exchange data with us and students work on that, and it’s like really experience is the best right for learning, and I just couldn’t do that in a zoom because I was, I basically had to change my entire content and change how I run my classes because the tool was just not supporting it. And I just couldn’t have students just have, you know, 56 peril meetings where I just don’t know what they’re doing and I can’t help them. And the biggest part is really not being able to have those one on one conversations. 

And we all can look back and remember, like a few professors who inspired us, really just inspired our career and where we are at right now and those moments where the biggest ones that were visiting.

 So within Inspace, the teamwork becomes so easy you basically have one click, and then there’s rooms that appear on the space, but you can see all of them in front of you. And as a student enters the room in that space, uh, they only can hear people inside that room, and they can easily just get out. And then they can navigate between different rooms, and all of that is ready in front of you so you can see the social cues. So if I am standing outside of those rooms, I can see when the students are talking inside, but I don’t hear them so it’s not destructive, but they can come outside and ask me questions. 

It really just feels like you’re in a classroom environment, and that has been our inspiration. Every feature, we added, we just go back and like, Is this how the real world works? And then if it is that we added to the in space, if not, then we don’t. So that’s that’s kind of how it has been working. And the other cool thing is that we have a lot of professors when they do a demo to see how in space works. They instantly start brainstorming about some cool features that would make it even better for their teaching experience, depending on their use case. And so a lot of these meetings, they just turn into brainstorming meetings. So as of today, I probably had about 100 colleges that I spoke to. That sort of idea came from, and we actually started naming different features after different professors who came out with those features. So there’s like a really fun culture going on like we have the Gaels,  Timer and so

Narine: you’re talking about features. What are the top three features about space? You would like to mention right now. 

Narine Manukyan: Yeah, I would say teamwork is the huge one, like just the ability to seamlessly teamwork, the ability to be in charge of your virtual experience and just quick and move anywhere you wanna be or talk to whoever you want. Thio at that moment, proximity based audio is what you know makes this possible on. Then we have some other features like you can broadcast the entire space. You can create a presentation room where everybody just takes a seat and you can see your audience when you’re, you know, talking and presenting. We also have some new features like, for example, our chat has something called Toxicity Filter, which is using a machine learning algorithm to classify when someone writes a toxic comment or something that’s not inclusive. And then it just gives them a warning. Yes, so, like they can actually publish it.

Narine: One thing we can say firmly about Covid Crisis, that the education system has been disrupted in many ways. Due to closure of schools over 1.2 billion children actually across the globe were out of the school. 

So many educators face the challenge to make a transition to remote learning and hold effective classes.  You are an educator yourself. How does Covid impact you personally? 

Narine Manukyan: I think there’s always a positive and negative thing in any situation, and I usually like to look at the positive and use the negatives as challenges to tackle and self. 

Yes. And you know, for me the good stuff is that you know, we have so much more time. If you think about all the time that it usually takes to drive into work. And you know I have Children so, like, you know, pick ups and drop offs, it’s just so much time. And now we just like you just get up and, you know, maybe do an exercise instead, before going to your office thio, which is like, right next door, right? Uh, and so there is some positive things. Like I feel like there’s so much more flexibility, and I think in tech industries I was talking to other some of my friends who work in idea and Google and other places.

 We realize that it’s so much more easier to do work, life balance when you’re working remotely from home. And this, of course, assumes that you have. You know, if you have children, you have childcare and everything sort of integrated. 

And those of us fortunate to figure this out. I think it’s so much more productive. I know I couldn’t do in space, probably if I had to work in a physical building and sort of spend all that time going back and forth. But however, the challenging part was that the connection was missing as human beings, like, we need to feel like I just said hello to someone and that just feels good, right? 

But you know, absolutely. I think we all need those moments of connection. And for me, that was the missing piece when we switched to virtual and that’s where in space came in. I wanted to recreate the water cooler conversations where you just passed by and like, Hey, you’re great today. Like what? What’s happening? Like what? You’re excited about your projects, right? So I think that’s really important to have those moments and within space and proximity based audio, you’re actually able to have those moments. Ever since we we feel that our team has been hanging out in space and our team was born virtually for virtual, and we had never felt 

Narine: But what was so surprising for me personally, was the fact that in today’s technology-driven world the most of the educators and students have not been prepared to make the transition to online learning as smoothly as possible. I understand you might have huge problems with inequality in technology and resources for the developing countries, but when you take a look at the schools, colleges and universities across the United States, many of them were pretty much un-prepared to do this transition to remote learning. Many educators  had to adopt new technologies, find the right online platform to hold their classes, create a new curriculum that can be as effective as face to face learning. 

What do you think? Why in today’s technology driving world, teachers and students were so unprepared to make this transition to virtual learning as smoothly as possible. 

Narine Manukyan: I think that’s a really good question. I think one of the things is like sometimes when people get comfortable with something, they’d like to stay in the comfort zone. And I think for a lot of educator educators, um, it’s being the comfort zone has been. You just met in person and we had so much technological advancement. However, there was no riel pushed Thio, you know, get in there. So only the innovators and people who really were sort of busy trying to find new things were, yeah, and it’s it’s kind of interesting, So, like, you know, you have early adopters and then you have late adopters. In some ways, we have, like, are late adopters, always just sort of have this motivation or no choice to switch Thio online instruction and figure out like how to survive the online world. I’ll give you one example. For example, like a temple in college. We use canvas, and it’s absolutely great for running classes like, you know, you have different modules and stuff and actually we are integrating in space with canvas so that it sort of similarly works together. However, we had, you know, outside of the technology department, some other departments did not choose to use it just because they were doing things the old way. And once the pandemic happened, it was sort of this disruption where there was no choice, so people had to figure out how to switch. And we have a lot of students who are actually really happy about this because, you know, it’s more managed because everything’s online, and if they miss something, they can still keep up and keep going. And I we have seen the students really thrive in some ways in this environment, on DSO. So the pandemic in some ways became the destruction destruction off the education where, like we had to make changes and pivot and but however, the changes are systemic and I think that those coming and moving forward I think one of the things that we’re going to notice is that higher education is never going to be the same that we have known before pandemic. I think some things have changed permanently, and we’re all a little bit more tech savvy and there better tools that are catered to the needs of educators. And I can totally were totally saying that, Uh, you know, professors mentioned how they’re going to continue using it even when they’re in person instructions back because, you know, there there’s never gonna be a snow day again because we don’t have to go to school. We can just hop into virtual and continue to. 

Narine: So this is like this. This is my next question. It’s good to you. Talk talked about it. This is my next question. What lessons can educators, colleges, universities take from this carpet Corbett crisis? Because in one point, we’re gonna go back to I’m hoping we’re gonna go back to normal and face to face learning whatever. But some of the lessons I think they should take from the carpet crisis. 

Narine Manukyan: Absolutely. And I think one of those is like being prepared. And the other thing is that a little bit outside of educators, so on, which is like having the right tools. And that’s where InSpace is coming into. And there’s other tools that have been sort of built in this time frame as well. And I think having this prepared for this is going to really help us because, well, one thing is we don’t we don’t know when another pandemic is gonna happen and what we need to be prepared for. But the other thing is that I like to think about seasonal flu, for example. Now, if there’s seasonal flu going around, there’s no reason to make people go to the classroom so they don’t miss classes so they can just hop online and continue doing their work instead of getting in there and getting everybody else to take right. It’s 

Narine Manukyan: Exactly, and you know, there’s all kinds of reasons, like in Vermont, we have snow days, and it’s a very tough decision, usually for schools to stay open and safe. I think those are gonna be so much easier decisions. 

Narine: Covid crisis has been a wake up call for universities, colleges, including countries, to rethink their strategy towards education. And now you can see colleges and universities are more flexible to embrace virtual learning tools. 

This notion that we do not want online learning in our school or program is not anymore actually. And I think more universities and colleges would consider online learning as the part of their curriculum. In this perspective, What does the future hold for online learning? 

Narine Manukyan: Yeah, I think I want to kind of highlight. So I think pandemic is the disruption of higher education and the change is systemic. And I think we’re seeing that coming. And online education is one of the other things. So if you at the beginning of summer, actually I was thinking about this way. What’s the big difference between online education and traditional education? What’s the biggest differentiator? And if you think about it, it’s really the ability to have access to professors and the ability to build a network with them. To be able to ask questions, connect with peers, those are the biggest changes because we can all now go to coursera or index and watch, you know, great lectures, right? 

Narine: I am all for I’m all for online learning. Seriously. 

Narine Manukyan: I think there’s a huge place for that in our system. However, it’s sort of missing. Those moments of connection were like, Professor inspires you to change your major or go pursue something else that you never heard before, the sort of moments where you can’t really discover from online education. And I think, what we’re going to see, we’re going to see a sort of convergence of the two and okay, lurching sort of this new thing where you have part online education. But then you have this ability to connect with peers using in space, for example, and doing project work and  work to sort of build those connections and network and learn together opportunities. And yeah, I think we’re going to see some of the integration of, like, say, coursera and addicts with tools like in space, where you can actually make those pure network networking events possible. And it’s probably gonna be the future. And the best part is that we can actually use machine learning to match different students with professors. So, like now, you can actually find people you know suggest people the better classes they can take and sort of really Okay, the best of both worlds. 

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