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10. A New Way to See

Image of the virtual Anne Frank house being constructed by New York educator Andrew Wheelock.


In addition to connecting remote students to a single learning experience and creating richly textured environments for exploring complex subject matter, many educators have started looking at virtual environments as a way to shed light on unthinkably dark periods of humanity.

A virtual version of Anne Frank’s experience is being designed by Andrew Wheelock, a technology coordinator in the Jamestown, New York school district, because he believes that students are more likely to engage with the learning experience in this format. In Second Life, Wheelock’s avatar is named Spiff Whitfield. He gives tours of various sims, or parcels of virtual land, to other educators, including “excitedtoteach,” who commented on a blog called Learning in Virtual Worlds about an educational experience with Whitfield:

“Spiff showed us…that SL is better suited for helping educators work together to enrich their lessons and knowledge about their content area. Spiff listed a variety of locations that he has attended with other educators…and talked about the rich conversations he has had with other teachers.”

To see what Whitfield was talking about, the participants spent time in Virtual Harlem.

“It is a neat place. It gives you a visual of what Harlem looked like in the 20′s, with its famous theaters and rich artistic culture. There were images and notecards about famous African-American artists who transformed how artists of their color were received by popular culture.”

As “excitedtoteach” sat there watching the show, an unusual experience unfolded.

“I remembered that I read a book my freshman year of college entitled When Harlem Was in Vogue. I had completely forgotten about this book until I was sitting there in Virtual Harlem, but suddenly I had a memory of all this information…Experiencing something can jog a memory, which can lead to more depth in a conversation. Teachers who know a little about Harlem in the 20′s could meet in Virtual Harlem, exchange information and because they are connecting the information to their “surroundings” then they may just get more from the conversation.”

A virtual Guantanamo Bay was designed by researchers at the University of Southern California, Nonny de la Peña and Peggy Weil. Participants are submersed in darkness when a hood is thrown over their heads en route to imprisonment in a tiny cage. Once within the prison environment, participants can learn the stories of actual people who have been held at the real Gitmo.

While virtual experiences are simulated, they are interpreted by the brain as three-dimensional, real experiences. Participants react physically and emotionally. This is why virtual environments are being increasingly used for treating post-traumatic stress disorder for combat veterans and make excellent work and social spaces, including for people with various physical disabilities that inhibit ease of movement in the physical world.

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