College Students Reimagine Portals

In San Francisco, in another world at 424 Octavia Street, you might walk by a shipping container without giving it much notice. Or any notice at all. The long metal boxes are fairly ordinary objects used across the globe to transport goods via ships, trains, and trucks. They're silent vessels worn from journeys across oceans, over railways, bumping along lonely, desert highways in the night. They're composed mostly of corrugated steel and like children's blocks they're sturdy and stackable, but they aren't for play. They give, they carry, they don't ask much of anyone walking by.

In this world, however, the shipping container on Octavia Street has a new, repurposed life and calls out to you, asks for your attention with its luminous gold exterior. The yellow metal is bright and alluring and invites curious minds to come explore, to move beyond the known exterior and enter a Portal.

The interior of every Portal is identical -- one wall is a screen and the remaining surfaces are carpeted with a deep grey, to create a soundproof womblike wormhole.

Recently, college students from the Minerva Schools at KGI reserved a four-hour time slot at the San Francisco Portal. The school was founded in 2012 by Ben Nelson, the former president of Snapfish and gives students the opportunity to live in up to seven different cities throughout their four years of study. Traditional lectures at the school are banned and students are expected to be more directly involved in their learning. Introductory classes can be taken independently through online courses such as those found on Coursera, edX, and Khan Academy. The school itself began as a response to the need for higher education reform.

For the first half of their session, the students connected with high school students at the El Progreso, Honduras Portal.

After experiencing their first technological wormhole, the Minerva students formed small groups with the intent of developing their own ideas for potential Portal events that could expand general and specific outreach, and build a more diverse audience. You might say the event got a little meta.

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The Minerva students envisioned the composition of an original song. Each Portal around the world would play a specific set of chords looped together into an Andrew Bird-esque number. They imagined nonverbal Portal interactions, highlighting how we use body language to communicate and how that may differ across communities. They pictured users pairing up as Portal Pals, modern age pen pals focused on learning another language. They also imagined events centered around culture, with puzzles or riddles that could only be solved using knowledge from both cultures. And they imagined Portable Portals traveling to various schools in communities, much like book mobiles.

By the end of the session, students had taken their experience, ascribed it meaning and then expanded its potential. The day mirrored the sort of hands-on experience Minerva focuses on giving its students.

Throughout the U.S., education continues to have numerous gaps -- achievement gaps, opportunity gaps, learning gaps. As education technologies grow, will some of those gaps lessen? Perhaps Portals can be mined for more opportunities to learn and share knowledge. How would you use a Portal to benefit education?

Portals is a global public art initiative created by Shared_Studios. Repurposed shipping containers are painted gold and equipped with immersive AV technology. Individuals and groups can enter each Portal and converse with a stranger in an identical Portal around the world. They can also collaborate, debate, perform and more. Currently, we have Portals in Afghanistan, Cuba, Honduras, Iran, Jordan, Mexico, the U.S. and Zimbabwe. Our series of posts highlight some of the creative, exciting, moving, mundane, and unexpected encounters from our Portal locations around the world. Stay tuned and come visit us soon!