A Humanistic Metaverse: Immersive Realities and Digital Humanities
by James Hutson
The past two years have witnessed a rapid advancement in educational technology spurred on by the pandemic. At the same time, the future of work and role of colleges in preparing students for that has evolved. With new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the widespread adoption of virtual reality (VR) and metaverses, institutions are now expected to prepare students with the latest technologies, as well as personalize their learning experiences (Fourtané, 2022). While Humanities degrees have come under greater scrutiny with a focus on employment as a main outcome of degree attainment, and a shift from liberal arts education to job-specific preparation, these very factors that are reshaping higher education are the same ones that are now challenging the vocational shift. Recent market research, along with coming changes to work spurred on by automation and artificial intelligence (AI), the most in demand skills are no longer job-specific but are instead “durable” and “transferable” (Adler, 1992; Moghaddam, Yurko, Demirkan, Tymann, and Rayes, 2020; Lund, Madgavkar, Manyika, Smit, Ellingrud, Meaney, and Robinson, 2021). Thus, arguably, the most valuable skills and outcomes of a college education will become an open mindset that can readily adapt to new challenges, and these are associated with a liberal arts education. One of the tools best suited to leverage humanities methodologies and develop these new durable skills is virtual reality (VR).
The potential benefits of integrating virtual reality (VR) education have been touted over the last two decades, but budgetary and technical constraints of implementation have limited its adoption (Bekele and Champion, 2019). We are now getting “unstuck,” again, propelled by the move to virtual education in 2020 coupled with advances in more affordable technologies (Resnick and Morgan, 2017). We are on the cusp of widespread adoption of this technology, though its use has not been fully realized, especially outside of Computer Science. Understanding how VR technology can be used for educational purposes, especially in the digital humanities, will greatly benefit all educators from K-12 through postsecondary education. Furthermore, implementing VR in humanities curriculum will offer unique opportunities for students to interact with cultural artifacts and increase access to global experiences, especially for those lacking traditional access. Increasing VR utilization in humanities education serves not only as a high impact practice through experiential learning, but may also increase student ability to think critically, problem solve, communicate effectively, work in teams, and develop other durable skills (Bekele and Champion, 2019).
A grant from the Missouri Humanities Council provided the platform to promote awareness of VR in the St. Louis region and beyond for both secondary and postsecondary Humanities educators and begin studying its viability for the Humanities. Expanding the use of digital humanities and VR began with a sponsored virtual workshop Digital Humanities: Immersive Realities, which then extended into programs where studies confirmed VR leads to higher motivation, deeper learning, and long-term retention. XR educators and professionals from Duke University, Grinnell College, and The University of Virginia presented virtually on examples of how the technology is currently being used in fields within Humanities, including Foreign Languages, English, History, and more. Respondents who participated in the workshop included faculty, staff, and administrators, and all overwhelmingly agreed with the usefulness of the workshop sessions. 95.65% “somewhat” or “strongly agree” that they would use the information for their own courses. Attendees especially appreciated the immediately actionable resources and concrete examples provided for their areas, which included existing simulations like American Battlefield, The Displaced, Inside Auschwitz and The Tomb of Nefertiti.
The workshop corresponded with two studies on the benefits and best practices of VR activities in Humanities classes starting with the Art History and Visual Culture department. The first study included a complete review of the use of VR for the field of Art History and best practices. Studies suggest flipping the experience to ensure that it is student-centered; engage students with interaction with instructor and peers in a virtual environment (metaverse); start by using pre-existing applications/ simulations to adopt and then later consider custom-designed experiences; and, finally, VR experiences should be used to augment course content and not replace instruction on the part of the teacher (Hutson and Olsen, 2021). The second study (forthcoming) applied these best practices in all Art History courses Spring 2021 in a mixed-method study and gathered data from students’ experiences. The results of the study support the findings of previous studies and demonstrates the positive correlation between the use of immersive technology and positive outcomes, such as increased excitement for the learning process, motivation, deeper learning, and long-term retention. Students reported deeper learning as opposed to other media or engagement strategies. In order to build on these results and scale our efforts, the College of Arts and Humanities founded The Immersive Arts and Culture Hub in Summer of 2021. As part of the Hub, which also includes a Digital Humanities Lab, the only regional Immersive Reality (XR) Lab opened in the main Library and Academic Resource Center (LARC) in August of 2021, just in time for the Fall term. Though the XR Lab serves the whole campus, the first VR applications database and use case in classes came from the Humanities with Art History and Visual Culture: https://lindenwood.libguides.com/virtualreality
The next few years will witness even more change and digital transformations across academia, and the Digital Humanities are poised to lead those initiatives. Moreover, with the future of work slowly coming into focus, and the value of a liberal arts education once again reframed, we are on the cusp of redefining what kinds of skills students should be developing as part of their educational experience. Virtual reality (VR) will be there to develop these skills in the Humanities and will fundamentally shift how we interact professionally, educationally, and socially.
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Bekele, Mafkereseb and Champion, Erik (2019). “Redefining mixed reality: user-reality-virtuality and virtual heritage perspectives,” in Paper Presented at the Intelligent & Informed, Proceedings of the 24th International Conference of the Association for Computer-Aided Architectural Design Research in Asia (CAADRIA), Wellington, New Zealand.
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Hutson, J. & Olsen, T. (2021). Digital humanities and virtual reality: A review of theories and best practices for art history. International Journal of Technology in Education (IJTE), 4(3), 491-500.
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