The Uncle Sam plantation project is beginning to gear up and, with the return of Sam Nakahira from archival research in the Louisiana State University special collections, we are presented with a mountain of archival material that needs to be assembled into a virtual reality experience. What does a receipt for $12 issued by J. Faivre, Piano Manufacturer, to Mrs. S. Fagot on 03 September 1859 for one month of piano rental say about life on the plantation? To help focus our efforts, we have decided to focus on one aspect of plantation activity (e.g., sugar production) at a specific point in time (e.g., 1865). Despite limiting our focus in this manner, we are still left with a lot to consider, not the least of which is how to represent this all in a virtual reality environment.
Before we begin to design the virtual reality experience for the Uncle Sam plantation, we need to consider what the technology is particularly good at doing and what it does not as well. This will allow us to create learning objectives that capitalize on the strengths of the technology while, hopefully, minimizing some of its potential weaknesses and undesirable effects. Dalgarno & Lee (2010) note that the technical capabilities of virtual reality provide a more immersive experience and greater representational fidelity, which in turn facilitates subjective psychological responses such as a stronger sense of presence, co-presence, and the increased ability to construct and portray identities within the environment. Based on these technical capabilities and observed psychological responses, the authors describe five learning affordances provided by virtual reality environments: Their ability (1) “to facilitate learning tasks that lead to the development of enhanced spatial knowledge representation of the explored domain” (p. 18); (2) “to facilitate experiential learning tasks that would be impractical or impossible to undertake in the real world” (p. 19); (3) “to facilitate learning tasks that lead to increased intrinsic motivation and engagement” (p. 20); (4) “to facilitate learning tasks that lead to improved transfer of knowledge and skills to real situations through contextualized learning” (p. 21); and (5) “to facilitate tasks that lead to richer and/or more effective collaborative learning than is possible with 2-D alternatives” (p. 23). Ahn, Le, & Bailenson (2013) have also noted that the increased sense of presence in virtual reality environments leads to greater perceived oneness with disabled persons through self-other merging, a more positive attitude toward these persons, and increased helping behavior that transfers from the virtual world into the real one. In another study, Rosenberg, Baughman, & Bailenson (2013) describe how a prosocial virtual reality environment can enhance empathy and influence positive social behaviors that transfer into the real world.
In addition to their ability to promote empathy and self-other merging through an increased sense of presence, virtual reality environments also are perceived to be useful in challenging the positivist epistemology that underpins the use of GIS technology in the spatial humanities. Whereas GIS privileges data points, Cartesian coordinates, and quantitative data, virtual reality can potentially be used to facilitate deep contingency and deep mapping that would “enable scholars to engage the material world rather than observe it and interrelate theories of practice and agency and how people both create their material world and, in turn, are created by it” (Bodenhamer, 2012, p. 12). In another article, Bodenhamer (2010) notes that immersive computing technologies, including virtual reality, have reached a point in development that allows the user to move into exploring evocative worlds consisting of historical fact and personal memory:
“This convergence of technologies has the potential to revolutionize the role of space and place in the humanities by allowing us to move far beyond the static map, to shift from two dimensions to multidimensional representations, to develop interactive systems, and to explore space and place dynamically – in effect, to create virtual worlds embodying what we know about space and place” (p. 24).
From the precursory analysis of research on the topic, it seems that virtual reality seems particularly useful for instructional contexts that explore personal narratives, fuzzy data, communities of practice, interactive systems, presence, and dynamic representations of space and place. Virtual reality is a user-driven experience that allows users to construct meaning by interacting with representational systems and their variables. Knowledge, therefore, emerges from user interaction with these systems instead of being decontextualized content that must be mentally “downloaded” before interacting with the systems.
It can potentially be difficult to design a virtual reality learning environment on account of its open-ended nature and the central role that learner agency plays in navigating and constructing the environment. Although constructivist approaches are frequently employed to inform the use and design of these environments, Fowler (2015) criticizes these approaches for taking more of a technological perspective that marginalizes good instructional design processes: “What is required is a perspective that will focus more on learning outcomes and objectives, and on the kind of learning that any technical environment needs to support” (p. 412). If clear learning objectives and outcomes are not identified at the start of project development, it will be difficult to lead the development team in designing the experience because of the project’s breadth. It will similarly also become increasingly difficult to ensure the instructional integrity of the virtual reality environment as user end experience may diverge radically from the original intent of the designers. There seems to be, in sum, a strong tension between the intrinsic capabilities of virtual reality environments to support intense subjective personal experiences, and the need of teachers and designers to guide and evaluate these experiences.
A hybrid approach utilizing a systems instructional design model, such as Dick & Carey (2001), augmented by activity-based task analysis methods that focus on situated human activity in its sociocultural contexts (cf. Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989) may be a way to release this tension. This will hopefully strike a nice balance between the need to have learning outcomes and objectives, whilst simultaneously also recognizing the inherent strength of virtual reality to create constructivist learning environments that promote intensely personal psychological experiences, relate individual stories, promote a deeper understanding of place and interactive systems, and detail how communities of practice function. The first step of designing a virtual reality environment – identifying the instructional goal for the environment – must therefore consider how the technical affordances of virtual reality will influence the behaviors that learners will demonstrate as a result of instruction. A poorly written instructional goal, such as this one:
“Students will learn how the plantation scrip system propagated racial oppression in the Reconstruction Era.”
should probably be expanded to include aspects of the activity system – such as tools, division of labor, community of practice – as described in Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy (1999). Here’s a rough first attempt at creating a more polished instructional goal that takes situated activity systems into account:
“Students will demonstrate an understanding of the plantation scrip system and how it propagated racial oppression at the Uncle Sam plantation in 1865 by writing a 20-page paper (with accompanying graphics of the plantation layout) detailing the rules that made the system function, the spaces in which it was implemented on the plantation, the tools that were used to both challenge and support the system, the contexts in which the system was implemented, and the personal narratives (including material culture) of the communities that participated in the system. When writing the paper students will refer to notes from their class debriefing following immersion in the virtual environment, secondary resources related to the plantation scrip system, and will have continued access to the virtual environment.”
Instruction design is an iterative process, especially so for complicated constructivist learning environments, so I’m sure that I will need to make several passes and have a few more team meetings before I get the statement right. A good instructional goal is essential, however, since this will hopefully guarantee that the virtual environment is developed in a manner that allows students to construct knowledge that aligns with course learning objectives.
Ahn, S.J., Le, A.M.T, & Bailenson, J. (2013). The effect of embodied experiences on self-other merging, attitude, and helping behavior. Media Psychology, 16(1), 7-38.
Bodenhamer, D. (2010). The potential of spatial humanities. In D. Bodenhamer, J. Corrigan, & T. Harris (Eds.), The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship (pp. 14-30). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bodenhamer, D. J. (2012). Beyond GIS: Geospatial technologies and the future of history. In A. von Lünen & C. Travis (Eds.), History and GIS: Epistemologies, considerations and reflections (pp. 1-13). New York: Springer.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 32-42.
Dalgarno, B. & Lee, M. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (1), 10-32.
Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. (2001). The systematic design of instruction (5th ed.). New York: Addison-Wesley Longman.
Fowler, C. (2015). Virtual reality and learning: Where is the pedagogy? British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(2), 412-422.
Jonassen, D. & Rohrer-Murphy, L. (1999). Activity theory as a framework for designing constructivist learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(1), 61-79.