In the Classroom
Teaching cultural and social history, literature or in other areas of the humanities which involve the past can be difficult. Students often enter such courses with little or no previous historical knowledge. Increasingly it seems, they find the past harder to relate to; it is a world so different from their own. Furthermore, today's students are potentially more likely to reach for electronic sources rather than traditional ones such as books, computers have become their libraries.
But what if you could take a 21st Century student and immerse them in an 18th Century world? What if they could interact with others in that society, using the polite culture and social expectations of the day? What if you could encourage them to recreate a shop, a theatre or other physical aspect of that world which represents a cultural or social element of that society? What if you could expose them to, or even take part in, court room proceedings or social gatherings? What if you could allow them to witness and participate in such events? What if....?
It is with these questions in mind that this project was envisaged and with these questions in mind that a virtual Georgian London is used as a digital component of learning and teaching in the Humanities.
Although immersion is a wonderful and instructive tool, hands on involvement encourages deeper learning. For this reason students are not just required to enter, explore and exit the virtual world. Instead, they are required to interact with it, participate in it and contribute to it. Therefore, all courses using this virtual world require student participation as part of the assessment regime. Students conduct role plays, work in collaboration with other students from across the country and across the world. They meet and conduct tasks, tutorials and workshops within the virtual space, and construct interactive spaces of their own. They soon discover that building a space requires more than four walls and a door. In order to recreate an authentic Georgian establishment they need to research, to understand who was involved, why, how and so forth. They need to be able to evidence their structure by providing note cards and explanations as well as links to scholarly resources and bibliographies.
In 'The Georgian House', for example, they become their avatar, a character from the period. They take on a role within the house for the duration of the semester: the maid, the slave, the head of the house and they are expected to react to given situations within these roles. This too requires research, the acquisition and application of both practical and discipline-specific knowledge. In 'Portraiture and Power' students not only study portraits in virtual galleries but have the opportunity to consider how they might put together an exhibition of portraits and what information would be needed to inform the viewer. They literally become a curator of their own exhibition. In 'Crime and Punishment' the Old Bailey can become their classroom and the court proceedings their textbook.
While the advantages are enormous there are also many challenges when teaching in Second Life. University computers are often slow and the software crashes and lags or does not load, or 'rez', properly. This causes frustration for students and staff alike. Students may not always have the facilities at home or in university accommodation and are therefore constrained by the need for university labs and facilities.
Although generally quick learners, the learning curve can be steep and time is required for students to feel comfortable with the avatar controls and navigating within the virtual environment. Time is also a factor for staff in the initial construction of sites and for conducting online office hours and being available for students in the early phases of the course.
Student feedback, reflective journals and expositions indicate a greater level of research and a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. They become quite fascinated by their projects, by the immersion. They work collaboratively and this collaboration is not limited by course or geographical boundaries. Shy students who are so often silent in conventional tutorials find the avatar an aid to communication and participation.
The student to student and student to teacher relationship is also altered in a positive way. Students look to each other and learn from each other's projects. While in a course delivered and assessed in traditional structures only, essays are rarely shared in the virtual space projects are open for all to visit and learn from and discuss.Similarly, online 'office hours' result in questions and collaboration between teacher and student in a more relaxed, practical and hands on manner and impromptu meetings often result in meaningful discussion about the subject matter or assignments of the kind that rarely happen in a 'brick and mortar' environment.
Despite the challenges, it is our experience to date (supported by student survey results, expositions and reflective journal entries) that a classroom conducted in a virtual Georgian world is worth the time and effort of both teacher and student, contributes to a deeper understanding of the topic and provides an environment conducive to collaboration and mutual learning.