MA Reveal: Immersive Literature

Over the last eight months, as those who are regular readers will know, I have been studying through the University of the West of England for my MA Education in Virtual Worlds. Four papers over; Orientation in VWs, Designing Curricula in VWs, Simulations and Role Play and Scripting and Building; I thought I’d now take the time to share some of the results of these invigorating, busy, sometimes frustrating but overall worthwhile and satisfying months of study and research.

This first post covers the build presented for the Scripting and Building module assessment. Weighted at 60% of the overall assessment, the build was to be a multi-object space with scripted activity, themed to be ‘A virtual Teaching Space’. It is presented below through the 1000 word max. written submission that accompanied it, filled out a little now I don’t have the word restriction, though essentially as presented. At the end is a YouTube video of the build as it stands at the moment.

In essence the build represents a concept that, in terms of it being a useable space, is not quite finished. There are some scripting issues to deal with still around making it a transferable package, there are some presentation aspects that could do with tweaking and the discussion phase of the last act requires bringing together so that students have a sense of closure for the discussion. But, in my view, the concept succeeds in presenting literature in a way that is immersive, engaging and of value in the learning process.

One can however be a little one-sided when critiquing one’s own work, so I would really encourage feedback and discussion on the post if any feel inclined; this is why I am opening my work up after all. I would also be very open to sharing the resource, once it is in a packaged state, so that others might test its efficacy with their own students. If you are interested, please contact me through the comments section or email me directly (see Questions or Enquiries section in the sidebar).


Written Submission

My build has been created with the intent to investigate the design question, “In what manner might the visual and auditory affordances of a virtual learning space be used to immerse students viscerally in a literary work, supporting a responsive engagement with the novel beyond being a mere academic observer of the piece?”.

In many virtual spaces I have experienced a sense of immersion purely because of what surrounded me; the artefacts, the atmosphere, the soundscape, the lighting; all combining to provide a sense of being there that was beyond that of a spectator; I was emotionally there. It is my view that this level of immersion would facilitate students connecting with a literary work such that discussions would provide far more meaningful and emergent learning than those conducted solely from a classroom environment. As Thomas states (2010, p.503) “engaged learning is an emergent property of learning spaces that are designed to provide affordances that actively encourage such engagement”. I want to investigate how a build can actively engage students in literature at an emotional level and move their discussions beyond the abstract.

The work chosen to investigate how this might be achieved is the novel Night, by Elie Wiesel. A number of factors weighed into this choice, the primary being that a number of years ago I had been invited to create an immersive build for the same novel for the Literature Alive program (Literature Alive, 2007). My ideas at that time, though work commitments intervened, were based on a recreation of the physical environment. In retrospect those ideas were poorly formed, based on a modeller’s mind set and not really coming from an educational design point of view. In now perceiving that mood and atmosphere would be better tools to achieve immersion and consequently engagement, revisiting the work seemed appropriate.

It weighed heavily that the space should have the gravitas that the work deserved and not slip into a parody of what was a horrific period in history. As Night is a personal account of the author’s experience, it was appropriate to base the discussion the space would engender around a deeply personal aspect of Elie Wiesel’s life; his faith. The build, in that sense, would introduce his deep religiousness then open itself to a discussion on how that would affect his world view prior to 1944. It would then portray the events of deportation and arrival at Auschwitz and again open itself to a discussion on how those events changed Elie’s relationship with his God.

One assessment criteria for the learning space, the 20m x 20m x 20m build area, though initially thought of as limiting, was in fact instrumental in providing a very tight focus for the build. Because I wished it to investigate atmosphere and mood however, I did want to limit any visual interference into the space that might compromise the “feel” I was staging. With this in mind I used the space limitation literally and enclosed the build in a 20 cubic metre box using the front as an introduction through the novel’s title, the author’s name and an overview question.

The next limitation was the world lighting, as the light in Second Life day setting permeates any structure and can hinder generating a darker mood. To resolve this constraint a sculpted shadowing effect has been created which mimics layered primitives, with a high transparency applied, causing a deepening of colour as it is moved into. This effect was used to surround the central core where the build, described as being in acts, would play out.

The shadowing served multiple purposes; in relation to the title it evokes night, upon entering the build it created a certain unsettling and once inside the build it discouraged moving the camera out from the scenes inside to the outside world, retaining immersion in the space. It also enables changing of mood through increasing/decreasing transparency.

The first act of the build is introduced as students enter and involves a depiction of iconic observant Judaism; menorah, bimah and torah. A projection effect into the space displays an appropriate line from the book.

As the act begins kaddish is heard, echoing in the space, the menorahs come alight, and the shadowing draws back from the core to reveal the interior of a simple synagogue. Upon the reveal the projector fades in a young Elie and his voiceover is heard describing his relationship with God.

The participants are then invited to sit and consider such a relationship, between this fifteen year old young man and his God, and discuss it amongst themselves.

The participants stand to enable the next act to continue. Because so much of the build plays out regardless of any interjection from the participants I deemed it important to give them control over this timing.

The act then moves into the precursors of Auschwitz. Scenes of the sackings of property, a ghetto and loading of the deportation cars fade in and out, overlaid with sound effects and another Elie voiceover, setting the scene for the journey. Though black and white, each scene photo has had an individual aspect coloured to add poignancy.

The participants are then physically displaced into the next act, to mimic in a small way Elie’s displacement, and dropped into a cattle car on its way to Auschwitz. Short passages from this part of the novel float through the participants, crowding them, unsettling them while the noise of the train overlays the scene.

The engine stops and the door opens, revealing Auschwitz. One last Elie voiceover plays lines from the novel on the horror of the camp and the destruction of his faith.

At this act’s end, discussion is again initiated on the contrast of Elie’s relationship with his God now, to what it had once been.

In reflecting on the build, in my view it succeeds in having participants present to the literary work, taking them beyond the classroom and exposing them to the essence of how the author’s view of God was affected by his experience. The discussion space, rather than recreate visual aspects of the novel, uses visual imagery, sound and lighting to engender a sense of the mood and atmosphere of its story. Participants passing through the space are engaged by it emotionally and in being so are open to emergent learning possibilities that go beyond the affordances of a classroom environment.

Literature Alive (2007) Literature Alive! in Second Life. Available from: http://literaturealive.blogspot.co.nz/ [Accessed 2 May 2013]

Thomas, T. (2010) Learning spaces, learning environments and the dis’placement of learning. British Journal of Educational Technology [online], 41 (3), pp. 502-511. [Accessed 1 May 2013].


Video

This video capture has been truncated at two points to save file size; the first is the short waiting period at the introduction phase that has been set to allow students time to enter the build and assemble in the central area; the second is the period where students sit to discuss the first topic. Having stood, the journey through the build experience then continues. The short periods of music played at the beginning and around the pauses are not part of the actual build experience.

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23 thoughts on “MA Reveal: Immersive Literature

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  3. Aaron, this is intense — very impressive. I would like to point to your post, the video and the MA on the “Campus Hamburg in 3D” page on Facebook. Is the teaching space open for visiting avatars, and if so, would you share a SLurl? Thank you and good wishes from Hamburg, Germany.

    • Thank you for your comment Hanno. Feel free to point to the post and video, etc.

      In terms of opening up the teaching space I have a few tweaks to do to it, more useability issues than anything else, and I need to enable its reset to the start state. But as soon as thats done I’ll send you the SLurl. In fact I’ll probably package it as takeaway resource too but that will be a little further down the track.

      • Not quite that yet Hanno. I’d have to recreate it off-world and that is down the track a bit. More an in-world (SL) package that can be deployed in other than its current location.

      • That’s equally awesome! Your video has given me an idea or two for our own work; we use avatars at Virtual HWR Berlin in a course originally created by Marcus Birkenkrahe for students during their internships abroad. In role play, they learn about and discuss critical situations they encounter at work. Your setting points towards an opportunity to increase the immersive character of that experience. Thank you for sharing this!

      • You’re welcome Hanno. Nice to know that what I am doing is having some benefit outside of itself *smiles

    • Sorry to but in here, but re the MA we’d be very happy to be pointed to Hanno :-). Also, we’re having open days on our Innovation Island at UWE (the base for the MA) on 12th June, 18th July, 5th September and 19th September. Student work will be on display there too. Just search Innovation at UWE in Second Life and you’ll find us. As Aaron’s build is still going through assessment for the MA at the moment it would be inappropriate for me to comment too much on it here (but it’s awesome!!!). Cheers, Liz.

  4. Aaoron. What is the slurl? This is a fantastic piece of work! Well done! During the summer and fall I would like to be able to show this to my students. Very powerful and thought provoking.

    • Thanks for your comment Paul.

      It has always been the immersive nature of virtual environments that have attracted me to their educational possibilities. It is how to best affect that immersion that I had hoped to investigate in this build. Technically it was very challenging and still a little away from what I would like to present as a finished build (see earlier comment responses) but I am happy with what I have achieved to date.

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