2018-04-05 – Using Avatars to Bring Students into Historical Spaces

Transcript of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable: April 5, 2018

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Topic: Using Avatars to Bring Students into Historical Spaces

Join the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable for a TEXT discussion based on “Empathy and Engagement: Using Avatars to Bring Students into History” by Steven S. Volk


Camie Rembrandt: Hi everyone! Welcome to the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable. VWER is a forum to educate and inform the community about issues that are important and relevant to education in virtual worlds. We meet for an hour every Thursday at 12 Noon SLT – This is a public meeting and we will be keeping and publishing a transcript.

Camie Rembrandt: Since 2008, VWER has been developing a community of educators from around the world. Please join the VWER group here in SL, and if you are on Facebook, or Google+, please join our groups there as well. Also, find and post pictures to our Flickr group, and follow us on Twitter @VWER. When you blog or tweet about our meetings, please remember to include the hashtag #vwer. I’m your moderator today 🙂

Camie Rembrandt: This week’s topic is: Using Avatars to Bring Students into History

We will be reading and discussing “Empathy and Engagement: Using Avatars to Bring Students into History” by Steven S. Volk

Camie Rembrandt: “The desire to make history real led me to develop a project in which students could locate themselves in the past. Unlike role-playing experiences where students re-enact moments in history by “becoming” historical figures, the project I designed required that students create avatars who would live forty years of the history we were studying. The project took both students and myself beyond traditional (“chalk and talk”) approaches to history learning, and beyond the limitations of history role playing (where the tendency to see figures of the past as actors is often accentuated), and resulted in some of the most significant student learning I have experienced in thirty years of teaching. Students not only learned the specific history we explored more deeply than in a lecture-based class, but they also absorbed some fundamental concepts of liberal education: empathetic imagining, the ability to appreciate the role of contingent knowledge and relative values, and the need for ethically grounded decision making. In short, by becoming real participants in a self-constructed but historically accurate past, my students not only took ownership over their learning, but came to understand the reality of the past.” — Steven S. Volk

Camie Rembrandt: Steven S. Volk is a professor of history at Oberlin College and the 2011 Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year.

Camie Rembrandt: As usual, this will be a discussion in text chat. But first, let’s start as we normally do and introduce ourselves.

Kali Pizzaro: Evelyn McElhinney Phd, Senior Lecturer Glasgow Caledonian University Scotland. VWER co- lead

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): Selby Evans, Blogger, Teach a concept with a game. A use case for web-worlds. https://virtualoutworlding.blogspot.com/2018/04/2018-edu-game-ww-teach-concept-with.html

Beth Ghostraven: I’m Beth Ghostraven, middle school teacher-librarian in RL and owner of the Book and Tankard Pub in Victoria City, Caledon in SL; owner of Ghostraven Professional Attire, classic clothing for educators in SL (http://bethghostraven.com); Communications Chair for the VWBPE Conference; Communications Chair and Focus Sessions Producer for the ISTE Virtual Environments Network; and unofficial liaison between education groups in SL.For information on events for the educational groups that I work with, see the ISTE VEN Massive Open Online Calendar at http://venetwork.weebly.com/calendar.html; Twitter: @booklady9 I’ll be taking photos to publish with the transcript; if you have any objection, please IM me.

Camie Rembrandt: Writer, Digital Storyteller, Independent e-Learning Professional, and Certified Professional/Vocational Trainer with a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (endorsed in E-Learning Pedagogy). VWER Moderator on SL and FB.

Esparanza Freese: is Hope Botterbusch, Retired from Univ. of South Florida, College of Marine Science

Violet (wildblueviolet Sunset): I’m Violet, an interested human being :)..lol

Camie Rembrandt: Welcome Violet

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): I have not been in SL much for a few years due to not enough broadband connection. I was working on a MA in education at Sonoma State but could not present my thesis. I have a concept build sponsored on Inspiration Island

Camie Rembrandt: broadband can be a problem…

Camie Rembrandt: Today’s topic is Using Avatars to Bring Students into History, so we’ll begin by reading “Empathy and Engagement: Using Avatars to Bring Students into History” by: Steven S. Volk (I’ll post the link in a minute). After reading the article, I suggest the discussion gets started by answering the following questions:

  • Q1 ―What are your first impressions about the “Avatar Project”?
  • Q2 ― What do you think about the use of the word ‘avatar’ in that context?
  • Q3 ― Would you consider doing something similar on a virtual world?
  • Q4 ― Which virtual world would you use, and why?
  • Q5 ― How would you go about creating that kind of experience for your students?

Camie Rembrandt: And, now, here’s the link:


Reading the article should take about 10 minutes. Please let us know when you’ve finished reading it.

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Esparanza Freese: I already read the article and was confused by the use of Avatar.  I had to read the article the author referenced to understand this was not a SL project

Camie Rembrandt: Hence my second question, Esparanza 🙂

Esparanza Freese: right, that is why I made my comment

Camie Rembrandt: 🙂

Esparanza Freese: the use of avatar was not appropriate

Esparanza Freese: the author said he didn’t want the students to role play, so he would not have useda virtual world for his project

Camie Rembrandt: Maybe we can go into that in a few minutes – after everyone has read the article?

Esparanza Freese: oh, I thought reading the article was homework before we got here – lol

Camie Rembrandt: In a perfect world, yes 🙂

Esparanza Freese: well, I’m retired, so I had the time

Camie Rembrandt: and thank you for reading it 🙂

Beth Ghostraven: I read it too

Camie Rembrandt: Great Beth!

Esparanza Freese: I enjoyed reading it, but I have to say it frustrated me

Camie Rembrandt: I also have mixed feelings about it – that’s in part why I thought it would be an interesting article for our discussion 😉

Esparanza Freese: indeed, it is

Beth Ghostraven: it would be interesting to compare and contrast the procedure described in the article with a similar unit in a virtual world, to maybe see the effects of using a virtual world

Esparanza Freese: yes, Beth, it would

Camie Rembrandt: yes

Esparanza Freese: when I taught a course here, my students had to choose a character to research and role play

Beth Ghostraven: oh, Espie, that sounds similar to this–what subject was it?

Esparanza Freese: I had education students – master’s level – they had to choose a character in their field of study

Camie Rembrandt: Please, don’t forget to tell us when you’ve finished reading the article 🙂

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): done

Camie Rembrandt: Thank you, Selby 🙂

Kali Pizzaro: I think the use of the word avatar here may be from the original ideal Avatar, Sanskrit avatāra (“descent”), in Hinduism, the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form to counteract some particular evil in the world.  – without the evil – ha

Kali Pizzaro: however this would be better in my opinion in a VW [virtual world]

Camie Rembrandt: I agree with you, Kali

Kali Pizzaro: the students did not need to role play in VW they could still have used a blended (Hybrid) use of multi- media

Esparanza Freese: yes, well, it would have been better had that been identified

Kali Pizzaro: Are we still on Q2 ?

Esparanza Freese: there are so many wonderful places here in SL, students could choose a place and role play there then report on it or give a presentation

Kali Pizzaro: if so the use of avatar is used for many media however for me it is about a form not an image on twitter

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): I carry a number of avatars in my head and discuss the topic with them when I am writing

Camie Rembrandt: Kali, since the questions are all there, we can answer as we please

Camie Rembrandt: Very interesting point, Selby

Camie Rembrandt: I also associated this project with creative writing & avatars with characters in a story

Esparanza Freese: agreed, Camie

Beth Ghostraven: when using a virtual world avatar, an additional dimension is added by clothing the avatar in appropriate attire, and using appropriate language, for roleplay

Esparanza Freese: yes, Beth, true

Camie Rembrandt: To those who’ve just finished reading, feel free to add to the discussion 🙂

Violet (wildblueviolet Sunset): It’s very interesting project.

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): When I write fiction, I have to have all the characters (avatars) in my head

Esparanza Freese: I had one student in fashion design – she chose a character from history and discussed the dress of the day, textiles, etc.

Camie Rembrandt: Yes, I know how that’s like, Selby 🙂

Beth Ghostraven: I like the author’s goal of increasing empathy–that’s something that’s sorely needed by today’s students

Camie Rembrandt: How about the empathy developed by the students? Did that impress you?

Esparanza Freese: indeed it is, Beth

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): When I write information I have several readers in my head and I talk to them or answer their questions

Esparanza Freese: it was not clear in the article how the students acquired information about their avatar

Beth Ghostraven: Selby, your head must feel pretty crowded at times!

Camie Rembrandt: Oh, Beth – we were thinking the same thing 🙂

Esparanza Freese: or did I miss it

Violet (wildblueviolet Sunset): I’m a bit unclear did  you use a virtual world or, historical reading and writing as the “vehicle” for the project?

Esparanza Freese: that is not clear in the article, Violet

Camie Rembrandt: The teacher provided the information, Esparanza

Esparanza Freese: Sorry, Violet

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): Virtual worlds and empathy https://virtualoutworlding.blogspot.com/2015/12/2015-art-people-virtual-reality-as.html

Esparanza Freese: I guess I missed that part

Esparanza Freese: would it not have been better for the students to research about their own character?

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): Empathy conference. Innovation in vivo.    https://virtualoutworlding.blogspot.com/2011/11/stech-empathy-conference-innovation-in.html

Camie Rembrandt: introduced the “Avatar Project” to the forty-three students enrolled in Dirty Wars the second week of the fall 2010 semester. Reaching into a box, each student drew out a slip of paper with demographic indicators: a country (either Chile or Argentina), gender, birth year (from 1930 to 1965), birthplace, parents’ birth location if different, parents’ occupations, and religion if other than Catholic. For example: “Chile; female; Valparaíso; 1950; Father: reporter for El Mercurio (Valparaiso edition); Mother: nurse; both born in Santiago.”

Beth Ghostraven: Espie, yes, but it might have taken too long for the time allotted for the project

Camie Rembrandt: Q3 ― Would you consider doing something similar on a virtual world?

Esparanza Freese: @ Camie, I already have

Kali Pizzaro: I think the project may have been enhanced by the use of avatars in a VW with the narrative that they needed to follow only know by them but did not all know each others (this may have been the case) so the experiences, reactions of others and their own self -determination and behavior was natural… and then how that influenced their thoughts etc. Also bringing in others who they did not know would have been interesting

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): I imagine creating an environment  like this Bread and Roses Strike, Lawrence, Mass., 1912, interactive course https://virtualoutworlding.blogspot.com/2014/10/2014-edu-bread-and-roses-strike.html

Camie Rembrandt: Yes, Esparanza. Want to share more about your project?

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): The Avatar Project reminds me of the medieval build and role-play I did on the teen grid in 2007. It was not a detailed in historical personages as his project but gave them a feel for the era.

Kali Pizzaro: yes Selby

Camie Rembrandt: Interesting, Selby

Esparanza Freese: I was teaching a course on how to use virtual worlds for teaching and learning.  The Role play activity was one of many activities

Kali Pizzaro: or Iggy’s house of Poe

Marly (Marly Milena): I like Shakespeare’s literary projects with history.  That’s how I learned about British history

Esparanza Freese: I asked a role play expert to teaching my students how to emote first

Beth Ghostraven: Kali, yes, The House of Usher by Poe

Camie Rembrandt: That is very interesting, Esparanza. Using emoters/HUD or something else?

Esparanza Freese: no, just how to say things properly in role play mode

Camie Rembrandt: okay

Kali Pizzaro: so language of the times Esp?

Kali Pizzaro: to make it more authentic

Esparanza Freese: yes, and proper words to use while in the character – not sure I remember anymore

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): Actors have to learn empathy to play their roles better. Acting classes help students get more into the real characters of the times too. VW Role-play levels the playing field since you can play any character of any historical time.

Esparanza Freese: good point, Zo

Kali Pizzaro: although some students hate role play; doing it in a VW may decrease their anxiety

Camie Rembrandt: yes, also a good point Kali

Beth Ghostraven: doing it in text might decrease their anxiety too

Camie Rembrandt: that as well, Beth

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): LitAlive classes taught in SL, built fictional settings and students acted the characters in the books they studied. Very effective.

Camie Rembrandt: “One of the Avatar Project’s paramount goals was to develop approaches that could scaffold empathy, or informed perspective taking. Empathy is not the same as sympathy; it is rather the capacity to understand actions and choices made from another’s perspective. “

Beth Ghostraven: the author made a point of showing how anonymity helped the students free up their responses

Kali Pizzaro: sure but does not give them the auditory, visual, spatial affordances VWs do

Marly (Marly Milena): Anyone watching Bill Hader’s new TV vehicle about a contract killer who ends up in an acting class and starts to develop empathy?

Esparanza Freese: no, sorry, not me

Camie Rembrandt: Beth, also very important since some of them were RP very complicated avatars

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): Note that rope play and other extended instructional methods don’t just teach course content

Camie Rembrandt: @Beth “Within the context of the project, I was interested to see how those avatars that supported the military regimes understood their choices.”

Beth Ghostraven: yes

Esparanza Freese: we would have gotten a lot more insight if we could have read the student journals

Camie Rembrandt: Do you think it would be possible to have that kind of deep empathy developed in a virtual world, instead of a blog?

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): It was interesting that he had them read about the Stanford Prison Project. I recently read Zimbardo’s book. It is good to understand a bit of psychology to gain empathy.

[The Stanford prison experiment by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo: http://www.prisonexp.org/]

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): Why “instead”?

Camie Rembrandt: I was just wondering, Selby 🙂

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): I think a blog is a good way to unpack the experiences in a VW role-play. To reflect and discuss the meanings outside of the characters they played.

Camie Rembrandt: Q5 ― How would you go about creating that kind of experience for your students?

Camie Rembrandt: So, virtual world and blog?

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): yes, camie,  both

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): experience– then tell.

Camie Rembrandt: Do all agree with Selby: virtual world and blog would be the best way to create the same kind of experience for our students?

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): I learn a lot when I write a blog article

Camie Rembrandt: Me too, Selby 🙂

Beth Ghostraven: Camie, yes–the blog brings in the reflection piece that’s essential for learning

Esparanza Freese: my students liked the role-play and then presented it to the other students

Beth Ghostraven: also, discussion with the comments can help

Stranger Nightfire: I found myself thinking about Zimbardo experiment too

Camie Rembrandt: all in-world Esparanza?

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): And student  come away with something for their portfolio.

Esparanza Freese: yes, Camie, all inworld

Stranger Nightfire: wondering if there could be any dangers with this technique

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Kali Pizzaro: i think anything that increases perspective taking which is essentially walking in others shoes to increase empathy works

Camie Rembrandt: agree Kali

Kali Pizzaro: so the theory is perspective taking, in psychology terms

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): Yes, Kali

Kali Pizzaro: many papers about this in regards to VWs and I found it in my thesis research also

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): I am in a project about Education through virtual words

Kali Pizzaro: in regards to health and disability

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): The interactive process helps engage students for many subjects Something personal, or something more abstract like math and science. or concepts like Marly’s Using Creative Symbolic Processes, which was very effective.

Camie Rembrandt: @Esparanza, please consider giving a presentation about your project 🙂

Violet (wildblueviolet Sunset): I think it would be interesting to assign roles of learning historical characters with long multiple view documentaries then unveil a video like ken burns Vietnam war or Prohibition… with some VW discussions behind scenes discussion and blogging.

Beth Ghostraven: John, could you tell us a little more about your project?

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): It is exciting to see so many education projects using VWs.

Camie Rembrandt: Definitely Violet

Esparanza Freese: @ Camie, my project, as you call it, were assignments in a graduate course taught here in SL

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): It’s a project started by an agency belonging to our state school system. I am Italian. Here is the website: http://edmondo.indire.it/

Esparanza Freese: sounds, wonderful John

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): They created a special virtual world for teachers and give courses

Zo (Zotarah Shepherd): Language learning is deeper and faster with role-play in VWs too.

Camie Rembrandt: Don’t think we answered Q4 ― Which virtual world would you use, and why?

Marly (Marly Milena): One of the most powerful workshops I took was with someone who had us dress in burqas, stand in front of a mirror and make up our name and our story and make drawings

Stranger Nightfire: Again, I find this idea fascinating, but find I have some fears about it too

ThinkererSelby Evans (Thinkerer Melville): I would use OpenSim because I could keep builds from year to year at no cost..

Beth Ghostraven: Stranger, what are your fears about it?

Stranger Nightfire: well along the lines of the Zimbardo experiment for one

Camie Rembrandt: Yes, I would probably go with OpenSim as well, Selby

Esparanza Freese: I would use SL with beginning students because they wouldn’t know how to build yet. Students could find ready built places in SL

Stranger Nightfire: and also, I wonder if techniques like this could be manipulated to be a subtle form of propaganda

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): SL has some downsides when used for education

Camie Rembrandt: I see what you mean, Stranger – but they did have both sides represented

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): I am in the group of Roma spqr. They used the sim for teaching about Roman history

Esparanza Freese: yes, for underage students, especially, John

Stranger Nightfire: and instructor with a slanted view could perhaps instill their own ideas at a deeper level than in traditional learning

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): they had a british university making 3d models of findings there

Kali Pizzaro: This of course was done by a good friend of VWER Zelda https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298795768_Using_Virtual_Simulation_to_Teach_Inclusivity_A_Case_Study

Marly (Marly Milena): Maybe John could do a roundtable for us one week about his ed, experiences

Camie Rembrandt: Thank you for the link Kali 🙂

Stranger Nightfire: someone mentioned Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam and that was a work of very dangerous propaganda itself, cemented in people’s minds a very distorted picture of the US motives and behaviors in that war

Camie Rembrandt: Yes, good idea -and Esparanza as well

Marly (Marly Milena): I thought we would be talking about learning history from literature and how it is different from a lecture. Maybe that’s for another day as well!

Esparanza Freese: thanks Camie, I enjoyed reading an article then discussing it

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): As they find sl not fit for schools, they have created a special world based on opensim and called Edmondo

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): they invite our teachers to join and teach how to use viewers and virtual worlds for education

Esparanza Freese: what age are the students, John?

Camie Rembrandt: Oh, I’ve attended a few presentations about Edmondo

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): It’s for teachers, who in turn take their students

John Howard Cassio (sticaatsi): age goes from 3 to 19 years of age

Esparanza Freese: ok, thanks, John

Camie Rembrandt: Okay everyone, time’s up. Thank you everyone for coming. Hope to see you next week.

TedWhitecrow: Thank You for the discussion

Darkejade Tempest (Darkejade): thanks and have a great day / night

Beth Ghostraven: Camie, thank you for moderating!


VWER Meeting Transcripts by Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at http://vwer.info.


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