Past Meets Future: Humanities students interact with the history of World War I through virtual reality

November 15, 2022

Welcome to the front lines of the war.

Looking around, students on Victoria Thompson’s HST 130 course, The Historian’s Craft, find themselves in No Man’s Land: the treacherous, muddy territory besieged by the bombing that separated the Allied and German trenches during World War I.

“Put yourselves in the mindset of the soldier who just arrived. Think about your motivation for joining. What do you think of what you see around you?”

To help students prepare for an essay assignment based on letters from German soldiers in World War I, Thomson She arranged to immerse her class in the world of soldiers. Through the use of Oculus Quest virtual reality (VR) headsets and handheld consoles, students had the unique opportunity to interact with the history of World War I in a simulated environment.

Thompson’s course was the first application of VR technology in ASU’s humanities course and an introductory class test for Huddle, New educational tool Developed by a student-run, student-led team at Arizona State University Learn the future. With Huddle, 5G and cloud infrastructure allow groups of up to 13 students at once to share virtual space. Students are guided through an instructor-led experience, interacting with each other and 3D objects in a virtual environment.

As her students sat around tables at ASU’s Creative Commons, Thompson guided them through the lesson using a fact-packed narrative text, prompting deeper investigation and personal inquiry as they explored World War I terrain, examined German uniforms and studied a variety of artifacts, including Including weapons and artillery.

“I asked them questions about things and how those things helped them understand the experience of soldiers on the front lines,” Thompson said.

Students responded verbally during the lesson and later incorporated their perceptions and connections made during the experiment into their essays.

“Being able to take a more personal look at certain things can help them understand what people were feeling at the time or what they had to go through,” said Nathan Lefort, a high school history student enrolled in the course.

Explaining the benefit of recreating a time period or subject matter, LeFort encourages the student to virtually step into the shoes of someone from another era or culture, saying, “Especially for someone involved in history, being able to get up-close view of what you don’t get Before, in my opinion, is invaluable as an experiment,” adding, “I think it can certainly be used further in other humanities classes in the future.”

The interactive experiences enabled by Huddle’s visualization tools provide opportunities for students in any field of study to connect with objects and activities that would not otherwise be possible in traditional settings.

said Olivia Hernandez, Creative Director at Learning Futures Emporium.

“When we enter a museum, there’s a kind of precious scarcity mentality where you can’t get too close, you can’t touch anything,” but Huddle—which operates according to ASU charter—is defined by who we include, not by who we exclude.

This is corroborated by Thompson, who explains that seeing and actually handling artifacts contextualized by a teacher elicits a strong emotional reaction, giving students a window into what people in the past may have felt or thought when faced with something like going to war.

“It is possible to use other sources, such as written accounts, photographs, or films, to develop this feeling of ‘historical empathy’ — the ability to connect on a personal level with people in the past — but the VR experience seems to accomplish this in a very different and memorable way.”

The Historian’s Craft course introduces students to the ways historians ask questions and suggest answers, but the possibilities for using the Huddle technique in other humanities classes abound.

Toby Kidddirector of Learning Futures studios, says, “For something like the humanities, you’re dealing with a discipline focused on storytelling of lived experiences,” which Huddle is ideally situated to complement.

“We don’t want to put technology in the hands of teachers and students just for the sake of doing that; this is about enhancing learning, linking it to learning outcomes, so that pedagogy can shine,” Kidd said.

To this end, all Guild and Project teams at Learning Futures are academically diverse student groups.

“It is important that the students are the creators of these experiences because they are the workforce of tomorrow, they are in the classroom now and they can see how they will benefit from that in their current experience,” Kidd said.

Amanda Federico, student project manager for the team, praised the students’ participation in the educational tool.

“Huddle’s success is due almost entirely to the student engagement because we’re the one who created it,” said Federico, who double majors in Animation and Digital Culture (media processing) and runs the Barren Mind Improv, a comedy improvement student at ASU. “I love showing Huddle magic to all kinds of students!”

Thanks to the Huddle team working their “magic,” Thompson said her students “had an amazing time. They were very engaging and really understood what I wanted them to get out of the lesson.”

Teachers interested in integrating Huddle into their course should contact Learn the future to start the conversation.

Top photo: Humanities students interact with the history of World War I through virtual reality. Photo by Erica May/Arizona State University

Don R.  Bison

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