Virtual Reality and the Classroom: How Historians Can Respond
Students around the world have sought to learn about World War I on its centennial, but it’s often hard to convey the enormity of the event. The UK, for example, can provide funding for only two students from each school to travel to France to see the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. But British history classes recently found that touring the memorial and surrounding lands using immersive virtual reality (VR) technology helped students understand how vast the carnage of that 1916 battle was. Entire classrooms now strap on VR devices and observe infantrymen moving across fields. Students travel through trenches, traverse the scarred land, and watch historical footage while listening to historian Peter Barton contextualize the experience in his rich baritone. The tour complements a traditional curriculum to provide a fuller understanding of the material. Does it replace a visit to the battlefield? No. But since most students do not have access to the site, this experience can have a significant impact on learning, engaging students’ curiosity.1
VR clearly has great potential for the teaching of history, and the technology is advancing rapidly. It began a golden age in 2016: head-mounted displays became affordable, and corporations directed billions toward VR development. Amazon is hiring VR experts to change the way we shop online; researchers have suggested that VR storytelling alters how juries vote; VR journalism is winning film festivals; and doctors have discovered that VR helps with dementia. Also in 2016, Google unveiled Expeditions, a VR experience for elementary and junior high classrooms. Expeditions allows teachers to take their students on virtual trips to the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China, the International Space Station, the human respiratory system, and other remarkable places. Using a small viewing device, students connect a cell phone to their teacher’s guiding computer and experience a series of 360-degree photographs in high resolution. They look up, down, and around, marveling at the experience. And teachers overwhelmingly report that their students become immersed in the subject matter, driven to learn more.2
Just as historians need a strong voice in textbook creation, we will also need to push to influence VR production.
It is only a matter of time until VR history becomes even better, changing from static images to even more compelling interactive video and locations. In December 2016, I finished filming The American Revolution, a high school history course that permits such interactivity. Working with a new VR education curriculum company, I delivered a series of 40 mini-lecture modules captured in high definition, 360-degree video. These eight-minute lectures were shot in front of a green screen, which will allow the producer to place me anywhere: in Boston Harbor as colonists throw tea off ships, in Independence Hall, on the deck of a British ship of the line—or in a traditional lecture hall.
Not only will students learn in exotic locales, they will also experience something new. When my lecture comes to the Boston Massacre, for example, they can look around and see themselves in 18th-century Boston, on King Street, in front of the Old State House, with a crowd of Bostonians on one side and British regulars on the other. At Concord, students will be at the bridge and, if they want, can try to load an 18th-century musket and fire it, playing a mini-game that will test their nerves and help them realize how profoundly brave the Continental Militia was.
The decisions involved in the design and building of this high school course may foreshadow changes coming to higher education, especially the history classroom. Having worked on a VR course, I’ve reflected on its potential for history education as well as its possible pitfalls.
First, I can understand the criticism that VR courses will largely be edutainment. My course, for example, will include at least two games: the bridge-and-musket game and another set in Independence Hall, where students will work through a hidden-object puzzle game with the Declaration of Independence. These games are optional experiences designed to encourage students to think about how it felt to be in battle in that time and to evaluate the importance of a document. They are entertaining, but they are also supplemental; the course still focuses firmly on history education. The American Revolution is perhaps the first VR high school history course, without any competition from other publishers or curriculum companies. Increasing emphasis on entertainment seems inevitable as more publishers get into the act, pushing to increase the entertainment value of courses in order to attract more customers. So just as historians need a strong voice in textbook creation, we will also need to influence VR production. This might be difficult, for while we are known to be writers and can have a direct hand in textbook creation, I suspect that few of us are 3-D digital artists.
A second pressing issue, related to the question of edutainment, is veracity and being as faithful to the past as possible. Movies, novels, reenactments, games, and other forms of popular culture related to history tend to value entertainment over historical accuracy. My course contains VR portions that include entertainment, and my role was to act as a consultant, providing expertise to rein in some of the designers’ more fanciful notions. With no 3-D art experience or affinity, I could not create the experience myself, but I advised by providing images and ideas, based on my own research. In the mini-game at Concord, Old North Bridge is based on a 3-D artist’s interpretation of sketches and paintings of the battle, all made well after the fact. The experience is therefore many steps removed from what things really may have looked like to a participant, but it certainly feels real. In VR, with your eyes and ears fooled, it feels like you are there.
We train our students to suspend their credulity when it comes to sources, to be skeptical. But VR feels real to them.
This raises a third issue with the course: experiencing is believing. This technology is transportive and engrossing. Even when looking for the mistakes, I forget that I am really in my living room: my eyes and ears are completely fooled. And fuller immersion is coming, with companies today working on VR haptics (devices that let you touch and manipulate virtual objects). One of the things we strive to teach our students is that history is never simply what happened; rather, history is what people say happened, which can be an entirely different thing. We train our students to suspend their credulity when it comes to sources, to be skeptical. VR makes this more complex, because VR feels real. It is called virtual reality appropriately, and feeling that something is real makes it believable and seem true. But in most VR applications, students will not experience what happened but rather what an artist imagines happened. We might need to reinvent critical thinking with our students so that even when an experience feels real, they continue to be skeptical. A new type of digital literacy is emerging with VR.
Finally, our students will likely come to expect such historical experiences. Some of today’s grade school students are engaging with VR now in their classrooms. How much more will they expect by the time they are in college? This situation becomes more complex when we think about literacy. Without going into too much social theory, our students are coming to us with a dearth of significant reading expertise, patience, and attention. The digital platform, useful in many regards, stunts literacy by favoring shortened, pithy reading over deeper, substantial reading, and it certainly favors watching video over reading of any kind. The historical imagination, formerly stimulated by careful reading and the occasional film, may find its greatest muse in coming years in the virtual experiences of the student. Why read about ancient Rome when you could virtually walk the city in Bernard Frischer’s Rome Reborn project?3
The virtual reality genie is out of the bottle—and what a genie it is, able to make some wishes come true. From my experience with VR content creation, I see the technology being quite transformative when it comes to education, permitting greater access to the humanity of the past and giving a sense of what things might have been like. But I also think historians have a responsibility to be involved in the creation of such content, because it is certainly among the most persuasive storytelling mediums I have experienced. We care deeply about how the past is interpreted, and we have expertise to lend to these ventures. We can learn more about how VR experiences are created and what they might mean for teaching, for students will turn to us to help them make sense of it all.
Andrew M. Koke received his PhD in American and Atlantic history in 2013. He is on the faculty at Indiana University Bloomington.
1. Watch a one-minute introduction of the VR Somme experience.
2. One compelling report with attached video is provided by Bill Ferriter, “Tool Review: #GoogleExpeditions Virtual Reality App,” March 9, 2016.
3. Bernard Frischer, “Rome Reborn VR,” June 16, 2016.
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