Stanford University Students Flock to a Virtual Campus

A new digital platform allows students to explore campus and connect in Zoom rooms during the school’s Covid-19 shutdown

Club Cardinal dorm.jpg
Club Cardinal users can decorate their own dorm rooms. Club Cardinal

For many universities, this fall's back-to-school season has been demoralizing. Many are opening only virtually, while others have brought students back to dorms only to see near-instant outbreaks of Covid-19. There’s no perfect solution. Online-only is safer, but students miss out on the face-to-face interaction—late-night dorm chats, theater rehearsals, professors’ office hours, parties—that truly make college college.

Stanford students, facing a new semester of remote learning, have come up with a novel way of coping: they’ve invented “Club Cardinal,” a gamified virtual campus.

“We made Club Cardinal as a project to allow students to experience university life again when so many campuses were shutting down and sending us home due to Covid,” says Allison Zhang, one of Club Cardinal’s creators and a sophomore at Stanford.

Club Cardinal is a free website designed to look like a game version of “the Farm,” Stanford campus’s affectionate nickname. After registering with a email address, users choose avatars and are assigned dorm rooms, which they can decorate with furniture and other items from a virtual store. They can explore the virtual Stanford campus via a map featuring campus landmarks, such as the Oval, Meyer Green, Main Quad, Green Library and the late-night eatery known as TAP. Each location has its own Zoom room for video chatting with other users whose avatars are nearby. Club Cardinal users accumulate money for decorating dorms by spending time on the platform and can store those savings in a virtual bank.

Club Cardinal - Launch Video

The club, which launched on August 1, has an internal calendar system to let users know about virtual events. Student groups can host gatherings via Zoom in virtual locations. There are “coffee chats” with faculty members, informational sessions with a capella groups, “ask an upperclassman” Q&As, and even class reunions. The club recently held a “virtual activity” fair with some 40 student groups. As of late August, there were 3,000 users (Stanford has about 7,000 undergraduates). Faculty members are encouraged to join Club Cardinal as well; their avatars have distinctive red name tags.

“We've had so many casual, fun interactions—both ones that would also happen in real life, but also experiences that are now possible because of this online platform,” Zhang says.

Students have hosted birthday parties, gone virtual “fountain hopping” (a tradition on the campus dotted with 25 fountains), played tag, organized races and had long chats with old friends and faculty members they ran into on the site, Zhang says. The class reunions, for both alumni and current students, have been especially popular.

“Many of us had to leave campus suddenly and haven't seen each other in nearly six months,” Zhang says. Club Cardinal has also been “extremely popular in the incoming freshman class, as they're able to use the site to better get to know their future classmates.”

Virtual campuses can be “a way to create community, and interact with peers in a different space beyond the 'Zoom landscape' in which we all find ourselves,” says Melanie Hibbert, director of Barnard College's Sloate Media Center and Instructional Media and Technology Services.

“There's also been some really interesting research about the use of avatars, especially for youth, and how customizing avatars in virtual spaces allows for safe experimentation of identities and expressions,” Hibbert adds.

Stanford isn’t the only campus experimenting with virtual spaces. Students at dozens of schools, including Columbia University, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, Northwestern, the University of Texas, and the University of Minnesota, have built virtual campuses on the video game Minecraft. They’re using them to throw parties, hold club meetings, even have graduation ceremonies. Schools are also experimenting with other virtual reality platforms, such as VirBELA, as environments for holding classes or socializing.

Club Cardinal was created last spring as part of the Stanford Women in Computer Science Innovation Challenge, a 10-week student competition. After the competition was moved online because of the pandemic, one team–Zhang, Michelle Qin, WenXin Dong, Sreya Halder and Azhia Harris–dreamed up a virtual campus as a way of connecting the Stanford community. Their entry earned them the $500 first place prize, as well as a Covid-19 “creative community response” grant from Stanford.

Club Cardinal’s creators are currently working on making the site mobile-friendly. But they’ve got far bigger dreams than that.

“Our hope is, in the long term, to expand Club Cardinal into a social platform where students from many different colleges–and even beyond–can network, visit each other's campuses, hold events on a central platform, and connect, all within the visual appeal of a virtual world,” Zhang says. “Club Cardinal isn't necessarily a replacement of in-person socializing, but can definitely supplement it and become a new form of virtual socialization.”

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