Teaching with Gather

Mark Lewis
8 min readFeb 3, 2021


The purpose of this blog post is to describe some of my experiences using Gather for teaching and related activities. The short version of this is that I think Gather is a great tool for educators and that it provides a much better experience than Zoom for many different activities. More importantly, it restores the concept of “place” to departments on residential campuses.

Gather interface for our departmental colloquium.

The Gather interface looks like a 1980s top-down video game. Users have avatars that they can customize and move around in virtual spaces. Then you are close to other users you will see and hear them, but the important thing is that users far away from you aren’t seen or heard. There are also “private spaces” where everyone in them hears and sees other people in that area, but doesn’t see or hear those outside the area. Similarly, those outside the private space don’t see or hear anyone inside them.

The immediate advantage of Gather for teaching is the dynamics of small groups. Teaching online is challenging, especially in terms of making it engaging for students. Having students work in small groups not only brings in active learning aspects but also breaks up the flow so that students stay more engaged. Unfortunately, the interface for breakout rooms in tools like Zoom is clunky at best, especially for the instructor. In a physical classroom, I can easily circulate around the room checking on how groups are doing. If something comes up in one group that I want to mention to everyone I just yell it out to the room. Those types of interactions are much harder to create in standard video conference tools like Zoom.

View of a classroom space when students are working in small groups. I generally walk around the room visiting the groups to see how they are doing.

In Gather, that exact style of interaction is almost as natural as it is in a physical classroom. Indeed, some elements, like mixing up the groups, are even easier in Gather than in a physical space as there aren’t desks in the way and the tendency of students to sit in the same spot all the time doesn’t limit random group construction. The standard “lab” space in Gather has a number of private spaces around a central area. When it is time to work in groups I send the students out to the different private spaces, then I simply walk around the virtual room visiting each one in turn. If a student needs me for something, they can walk over to me and talk to me about it. If I find I need to announce something to the full room I can use a “spotlight” which allows me to talk, or screen share, with everyone in the room simultaneously.

My experience is that being completely online with Gather is superior to even in-person with social distancing for this purpose. I used Gather for my CS2 course after Thanksgiving in the fall and I had some first-year students who had been attending in person all year who told me they preferred Gather because they actually got to talk to each other for the first time while doing the small group interactions.

The Gather interface also provides shared whiteboards and other shared documents, so students can easily collaborate in those small groups.

Gather is also proving to be a great tool for office hours. A number of my colleagues agreed that Gather looked like an interesting tool, so I set up a replica of our departmental space in Gather. There is a main space with our offices and the non-teaching lab spaces. There are doors off of this that connect to the various teaching spaces. When I am in office hours, I have my avatar just sit in my office. If I’m working on something else, Gather will mute my mic and video until I go back to that tab. When students show up I generally hear them and there is also a function where they can “ring” me that plays a chime on my computer.

There are a number of advantages of using this interface for office hours. One is that it brings back social interactions and chance meetings between students that we, as a residential campus, have mostly lost with the pandemic. In the brief time I used Gather during the fall semester, I got to see one of these chance encounters when two students in a class came in at the end of a research meeting I was having with two other students. One of my research students and one of the class students knew each other and were very excited to see one another because they didn’t have classes together and therefore were completely out of contact during the pandemic.

Office hours with a student. Other students in the hallway can see we are talking and I can see that they are there.

The Gather interface also restores certain social cues. One of the biggest ones is that students who come to my office can see when someone is already there. I can see them waiting as well. If my current meeting is just social, or if I expect that the two students have similar questions because they are in the same class, I can easily have multiple people come into my office as I would in person.

I think that the benefits of doing office hours in Gather grow when multiple faculty use the same space for office hours and teaching. This brings in more students, which increases the odds of those random interactions. It also allows faculty to interact more like they do when they are in physical offices just down the hall from one another. One of my colleagues had a question for me and he initially sent an email, then he remembered that I was in Gather just down the virtual hallway, so he walked over to talk about it. With Gather, the interaction wound up happening much more the way it would have happened in person.

Many of the advantages of Gather stem from a single aspect. Gather provides a sense of place in the virtual world. Instead of having different Zoom links for every meeting or type of interaction you have, there is one virtual space that you and multiple other people go to. It is a space where multiple different interactions can happen at once but separately. It provides an environment for students to get together for social reasons with minimal planning. Indeed, after the first large class event that we held in our departmental Gather space in the spring, a number of students simply chose to hang around and interact socially in much the same way that they might normally do in our physical space. Instead of rolling-chair races, they switched to making a conga line using the “follow” feature in Gather.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and there are some challenges with using Gather for teaching instead of more standard video conferencing apps, like Zoom. The first one that jumped out to me is the lack of recording capabilities. I feel a need to record my courses for students in different timezones as well as for students who run into technical problems during class time and can benefit from the ability to go back to a recording. I’m doing this currently with OBS (Open Broadcast Software), which I have used for a few years to do screencasting for my flipped courses. While I was set up for this, I can see this being more of a problem for other faculty who don’t have experience recording on their computers.

While I originally viewed the lack of recording as a missing feature of Gather, I now see it as something that doesn’t make sense for them to add. When I do record my classes, I don’t record that Gather screen. I keep Gather off to the side and use OBS to record a different section of my screen. The reality is that students watching later don’t need to see 2-D avatars running around. They need to see my slides and live coding. The recording allows them to hear me and other students, but there is no reason the recording needs to show the other students.

Another limitation that I have faced is that I can’t view the participants' list and the chat at the same time. The Gather interface only allows one of these at a time. Since a “raised hand” appears in the participants’ list and typed questions appear in the chat, this has been slightly less than ideal, but because there is a visual cue to indicate unread chat messages, I found it worked well to keep the participants’ list up most of the time and go look at chat when one was waiting.

As I’m writing this, Gather has just released a significant update that includes things like HD video, limited interaction ranges, and the ability to emote in multiple ways that appear above the user. I’m optimistic that with this last change I will go to keeping chat up all the time and I will see hands raised in the main display with the avatars.

A quick note related to that, because I’m not recording the Gather display on my machine, I generally minimize my screen share in Gather. As you can see in the second screenshot, their interface allows you to have the screen share appear as a thumbnail instead of taking up the majority of the display. Since I can already see what I’m sharing on a different part of my screen, I don’t need it duplicated in the Gather interface. The flexibility to minimize or maximize both screen shares and videos of those around you is a great feature of the site. My only complaint is that I don’t get to see multiple screen share thumbnails and pick the one that I want to view. Even without this, if students are working in groups on code and one student is screen sharing, their screen will pop up when I walk into the group’s private space in pretty much exactly the way that I would want it to.

In the fall I did all my teaching using the free option in Gather. This works great for up to 25 simultaneous users. Since all my courses had fewer the 24 students this was fine. In order to allow multiple faculty to share the space and enable multiple courses or bigger courses to use Gather, we needed to have a paid space. The normal pricing options for Gather might be fine for business but are a bit expensive for education. However, they do have educational discounts. When I reached out to them they were happy to give an educational discount of $2/user/month. I have no idea if this is standard. That’s a significant saving over the normal price of the Metropolis level space and it made it very reasonable for our department to pay for a space that allows all current and potential majors to be present at one time.

I will close by saying that I have no affiliation with Gather. I just think they have a really cool product that has great uses for education. I have to admit I’m tempted to apply there as a software developer during my sabbatical next year, but as a startup, I doubt they have much interest in 12-month contracts and I don’t think they use my preferred stack. I strongly encourage anyone who is teaching to go check them out. You just might find you can recover some of what has been lost by the move to online instruction.



Mark Lewis

Computer Science Professor, Planetary Rings Simulator, Scala Zealot