From a Mystery Floor to a Suite Reality, Bemidji State Design Professor Builds Virtual World for Campus

Virbella avatar

Sachel, associate professor, and Mitch Blessing, assistant professor, avatars

Bemidji State University has numerous storage and mechanical spaces across campus, but there is only one that has served as an inspiration to professors in the School of Technology, Art and Design.

Hidden behind a locked elevator door in Bridgeman hall is a fourth-floor wing of campus that never got much attention until, years ago, Bemidji State’s Dr. Sachel Josefson snuck into its secluded, utility rooms to work on his doctoral dissertation. Soon discovered, Josefson was banished from his new retreat and the locks were changed barring reentry from other faculty or students.

“In Bridgeman Hall, where the School of Technology, Art and Design resides, if you go onto the elevator you’ll see buttons for floors one through four, but you’re not allowed to push number four because there is a lock,” the associate professor in the School of Technology, Art and Design said. “Nobody has that key anymore and ultimately, it’s my fault.”

At the onset of COVID-19, Josefson longed for a virtual space where he could interact with his colleagues and students. It was not long before he set out to do so with the help of Assistant TAD Professors Mitch Blessing and Eric Carlson. Now nestled within an online platform called Virbela, there is a virtual world where students, faculty and staff can meet virtually and connect.

Virbella avatars in The Fourth Floor's "bored" room

Virbella avatars in The Fourth Floor’s “bored” room

The space, called The Fourth Floor, is fully equipped with a classroom, faculty offices, a computer lab and “bored” room. Adapting to the landscape of higher education in COVID-19, Josefson wanted to present students with a connection to their home building on campus.

“When students get in the elevator they can see the number four, but they can’t access it in the real world, but we can tie the button in the elevator to the virtual world,” he said.

Virbella is a virtual world that supports virtual worlds. The main “open campus” is the main entry point for all users and offers everything from an auditorium to outdoor seating areas. Users can interact with others using a customizable avatar who can high five, clap and even dance.

“The goal of Virbela was to meet the students where they were. The platform provided us another opportunity to help students feel like they’re a part of the wonderful community that Bemidji State offers,” Josefson said. “I think that all the faculty in the school of technology and design care deeply about students and we just really tried to maximize access to a meaningful experience.”

In Spring 2021, The Fourth Floor was a password-protected suite within Virbella that allowed faculty to engage privately with colleagues, students and even prospective students from across – or off – campus. Though the virtual space was developed in the midst of COVID-19, the department intends to continue to use the virtual space beyond the pandemic.

Virbella avatars on The Fourth Floor

Virbella avatars on The Fourth Floor

“Going on Virbella and having a conversation in the virtual world is easier than the student getting in their car, finding parking, walking to the building, having a 10-15 minute meeting and then driving back to wherever they’re from,” Josefson said.

The virtual suite welcomed students in the Spring 2021 semester for classes, presentations and social opportunities. With the variety of spaces offered to all students, faculty and staff within the TAD department, Josefson and his colleagues sought to create valuable connections between instructors and students in a socially distant world.

“Their experience here matters and if we get too tied down in the nuts and bolts of COVID, we forget about these experiential aspects where students actually have human interaction. That is I think, extremely valuable,” Carlson said. “I think when we have platforms like this, we’re going to create more lifelong learners because they have these tools and they can find and discover things within these platforms in a more self-directed way.”