Although the limits and possibilities of using technology for teaching and learning have been highlighted in the last year, we have begun to explore the usefulness of using virtual reality as a medium for learning. Holocaust education before the pandemic reformed the educational landscape.
Virtual reality (VR) has been around for over 30 years, but only recently has it become affordable enough to be widely used. It is reasonable to expect virtual reality to become a major technology in the coming years.
Over the past decade, researchers, museum professionals, and educators have begun to explore the use of virtual and augmented reality in relation to Holocaust education and memory. At the same time, the Future Projects team (a group focused on innovations in Holocaust education and memory at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or USHMM) and a group of professors and students at the Rowan University Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights (the Rowan Center) have been working on independent but parallel virtual reality projects.
Sthe students revealed that they were eager to spend more time with the experience. One even said he “never wanted to learn history.”
Both projects focus on the Warsaw Ghetto, the well-known ghetto established in German-occupied Poland by the Third Reich during World War II. USHMM and Rowan Center teams developed and deployed and then gathered feedback on these projects from a variety of stakeholders, including scholars, museum professionals, high school and high school teachers, college students, and a general audience.
Both projects use technology that creates an immersive experience, but are aimed at different audiences. The USHMM experience is developing with the museum audience in mind, with users ranging from those who had never found the Holocaust to Holocaust scholars around the world.
The “Warsaw Project” designed by the Rowan Center is created for classroom use with the Oculus Quest portable system. It is intended for larger museum, school and community spaces.
Although the projects are different, the results of the interviews, discussion groups, and written comments about them were remarkably similar. Teachers who saw the recreated spaces of the Warsaw ghetto were enthusiastic, as many had struggled to involve all learners in their (often brief) units on the Holocaust. A high school teacher who shared comments about the project said, “Virtual reality brings the story to life in a very different way.”
Teachers believe that the practical and independent nature of virtual reality will lead reluctant students to study history. Interactive digital and virtual experiences allow students to make decisions about materials and people, something teachers said rarely happens in a traditional study unit. This is very important for learning.
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The students ’comments revealed that they were eager to spend more time with the experiences. He was even said to have “never wanted to learn history.”
Perhaps most importantly, students asked questions about what they saw in virtual environments and tried to learn more through other media after exploring projects. They found that RV allowed them to learn in new ways and considered the experiences to be engaging, emotional, and immersive.
Placing yourself in a recreated virtual space helps users learn something qualitatively different from simply looking at a photograph, reading primary source material, or listening to the testimony of survivors.
The immersive nature of virtual reality allows users to better understand the scope and scale of the Warsaw ghetto while manipulating and examining artifacts destroyed during the war.
Now our teams are identifying best practices for using virtual reality to teach and learn about the Holocaust, as well as other complicated stories. The key to these practices is to know where users are.
Users who are less familiar with virtual reality need instructions on how to use the technology along with an overview of what the tool can (and cannot) do.
Most young people are already committed to emerging technologies and provide expectations of what they will experience while in a virtual world. They understand that they will be oriented towards certain learning outcomes integrated into these projects, but they expect options so that they can interact with the experiences in different ways and spend more time in spaces that interest them.
In addition, we have learned:
- Historical accuracy is essential. End users will assume that the experience is historically accurate and that they do not need to worry about “fake news”. There are different ways to avoid betraying this trust, including subtitles, digital footnotes, and “educational rabbit holes”.
- Sensitivity is required. Using virtual reality to teach about the Holocaust requires the same, if not the same, thinking about ethics and sensitivity that other teaching methods and materials require. Due to the immersive nature of the virtual environment, those who create virtual reality learning experiences must ensure that users are not involved in a “gotcha” scenario, which makes them feel insecure or they are asked to play the role of a perpetrator or victim of the Holocaust.
- Content outside the virtual world is needed. To contextualize the virtual experience, additional content should be provided before and after the experience. This content can take the form of a series of digital tools, videos, or printed materials.
- Consider giving testimonials about empathy. While attention has been paid to the potential of virtual reality to facilitate empathic understanding, in Holocaust education, fostering this empathy runs the risk of inadvertently minimizing the experiences of survivors and victims. A focus on witnessing and the role of the observer can provide powerful experiences in virtual spaces while avoiding this risk.
Although virtual reality has already been used in educational contexts, teaching and learning about the Holocaust through virtual reality is new. Some will have to doubt the use of this technology to teach such a traumatic story. We hope that these guidelines, while certainly changing and growing over time, will provide a starting point for creating and selecting engaging, accurate, and ethical virtual experiences.
Jennifer Rich he is an associate professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rowan University and executive director of the Rowan Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights.
Michael Haley Goldman is the director of Future Projects at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
Sara Pitcairn is the product developer and researcher for Future Projects at the Holocaust Museum in the United States.
This story about virtual reality and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger Newsletter.