The virtual classroom – new technology for teaching African American literature – includes related article on Western Governor’s University – Cover Story - Higher Education

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The virtual classroom – new technology for teaching African American literature – includes related article on Western Governor’s University – Cover Story

by Ronald Roach

Bryan Carter is devoted to teaching African American literature
from the Harlem Renaissance era, a period considered one of the most
creative in American history.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, Harlem inspired some of the
nation’s best known Black writers, poets, musicians and visual artists
to make the legendary community their artistic home. To Carter, a Ph.D.
candidate in African American literature and an instructor at the
University of Missouri-Columbia, part of Harlem’s appeal was the
vitality of its neighborhoods. The social scene, churches, restaurants,
architecture and night life exerted great influence on African American
artists of the period.

Two years ago, believing that students would better absorb the
literature of the Harlem Renaissance if they had a thorough
understanding of the community and its environment, Carter enlisted the
university’s Advanced Technology Center to recreate Harlem locales
through virtual reality technology.

“I wanted to assist students in the visualization of what may have
inspired various artists to create their work during one of the most
artistically productive periods in African American history,” Carter

The collaboration between Carter and researchers at the Advanced
Technology Center has yielded Virtual Harlem, a virtual reality
rendering of Harlem streets and sites. The program allows students to
tour Harlem renaissance-era sites by viewing photographic and film
images projected onto a fifteen-foot by twenty-foot screen. The
students wear special goggles that allow them to see the images in

While facing the screen, students follow an interactive tour —
viewing sites and buildings, and hearing the daytime sounds of busy
streets. During the nighttime — Virtual Harlem tour, students peer
into the interior of the legendary Cotton Club, listen to music, and
eavesdrop on conversations.

Last spring, the forty-six students in Carter’s “Survey of African
American Literature in the Twentieth Century” class tested Virtual
Harlem for the first time as part of their coursework. This fall, fifty
students are testing phase two of the program — which includes more
sites, speeches and poetry from personalities of the time, and filmed

“Virtual Harlem allows us to see and hear with great detail what
writers of that period saw in their day. It shows us what was the basis
of their inspiration,” Carter says.

Coming to Grips with Reality

Across the nation, researchers and faculty are exploring ways to
turn virtual reality into a tool to enhance student learning. According
to Carter, the University of Missouri’s Virtual Harlem is one of the
few humanities-related virtual reality instructional technology
projects taking place in higher education.

Instructional research projects in virtual reality cover topics in
math, science and the social sciences. One such project designed to
help students learn difficult science subjects is being spearheaded by
George Mason University, the University of Houston and NASA. Other
universities conducting significant virtual reality research include the

University of Washington, the University of Illinois-Chicago, I Georgia Tech, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, researchers have been
designing and creating virtual reality environments for several years,
according to Carmel “Merc” Mazzocco, acting director of the center.
Virtual Harlem, along with other virtual reality projects at the
laboratory, is run from a $250,000 computer.

The goal of researchers at the University of Missouri is to develop
phases of Virtual Harlem that will include more interactivity and more
filmed scenes from the era so participants can see and hear choirs
singing and street corner debates. Eventually, a CD-ROM will be
developed to allow users to tour Harlem on their personal computers.

Just as the development of high performance computing and
communications led to the creation of new media such as the Internet’s
World Wide Web and multi-media software, that development has also made
virtual reality a possibility.

Virtual reality (VR) is accomplished through advanced computers
that manipulate complex graphic images with sounds and other sensory
information to recreate a high-sensory, three-dimensional experience
for the user. Its technology can take many forms.

The most advanced form, referred to as full immersion virtual
reality, gives the user a full-blown experience of a unique space or
location by using sensory clothing, goggles with head-mounted display,
motion pads, and other special equipment. Full immersion virtual
reality is used in complex training situations for flight and other
advance machinery. The U.S. military has made extensive Use of virtual
reality technology to teach flight and combat training.

Virtual Harlem is considered “semi-immersive” virtual reality,
according to Carter. Semi-immersive programs typically limit the VR
experience to that of sight and sound.

Helping Master the Abstract

Although the public image of virtual reality is largely associated
with the U.S. military and the entertainment and video games
industries, the technology is of great of interest to academic
researchers. Dr. Chris Dede, a senior program director at the National
Science Foundation and a leading virtual reality researcher, says the
technology is highly regarded as a training tool for tasks that require
physical skills and hand/eye coordination. However, according to Dede,
its capacity for teaching abstract concepts is being tested and

“VR is very good for teaching psycho-motor skills. The U.S.
military has demonstrated that it can be effective in flight training
for pilots,” says Dede, who is on the faculty of George Mason

Although Dede is currently assigned to the National Science
Foundation, he has been leading a research project designed to explore
virtual reality’s potential to teach scientific concepts. Project
ScienceSpace, a joint venture among George Mason University, the
University of Houston and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is using virtual
reality technology to introduce students to Newtonian physics,
electrostatics, and molecular biology.

The project’s objective is to help students succeed at parts of the
science curriculum that often discourage them from considering or
completing undergraduate science and engineering majors, according to
Dede. Students are taught complex subjects by being immersed in virtual
reality environments that let them see and feel the dynamics of a
particular subject.

The environments consist of a high-performance graphics
workstation, a head-mounted display for sight and sound, a magnetic
tracking system for the head and both hands, a 3-D mouse, and a vest.

Dede believes Project ScienceSpace can have a major impact because
it’s directed at students who, if they master the most abstract science
subjects, could go on to become highly productive scientists,
engineers, and researchers.

“It think we lose a lot of potential scientists because many bright
students hit a brick wall with these subjects. I’m convinced that we
would not lose that talent if we had better teaching methods,” Dede

In “Newton World”, the virtual reality environment for exploring
Newton’s Laws of Motion, students are made to see objects and feel
pressure that allows them to experience the concepts of mass, velocity
and energy.

Jayfus Doswell, a Howard University graduate student in computer
science, also believes virtual reality has the potential to make
abstract subjects more manageable and learnable by young minds.

Working with Dr. Jim Chen, a George Mason University faculty member
and Project ScienceSpace researcher, Doswell has recently begun a
masters thesis project to create a virtual reality program that will
help teach math to elementary school students.

Like many other researchers in the virtual reality field, Doswell
is excited about VR’s potential to help students master abstract
subjects such as math. As a student at Oberlin College in Ohio during
the 1993-94 school year, Doswell won a research grant to demonstrate
how an interactive computer graphics program could enhance a student’s
understanding of geometry. The study, which showed that teaching with
computer graphics could boost student learning of geometry, now serves
as the basis of the virtual reality project Doswell is undertaking.

“It’s a very promising project. The technology is there and we can use it to help teach abstract concepts,” Chen says.

Doswell’s motivation stems partly from the fact that he often struggled with math and science as a college student.

“When I got to Oberlin, I hit a brick wall on some courses. I had
to work that much harder to get through them,” says Doswell, who adds,
“I want to make it easier for the next generation coming up.”

Doswell expects to develop his thesis project as fishtank” virtual
reality. Far less complex than semi-immersive and fully-immersive
environments, fishtank virtual reality does not require special glasses
or other VR equipment. It allows users to manipulate three-dimensional
objects on a computer screen with either a keyboard or a mouse.

One virtue of fishtank programs is that they can he distributed by
the Internet. Doswell says such programs are far less costly: than
semi- and fully-immersive virtual reality programs, and can be
distributed to any institution that has access to the Internet.

Planning for the Next Generation

Institutions must devote considerable resources and funds to engage
in virtual reality research. Like other advanced computer technology
applications in higher education, virtual reality programs will have to
undergo rigorous evaluation if they are to receive funding and support.

“VR is always going to be kind of an exotic technology. It’s always more expensive,” Dede says.

Though students in Carter’s spring literature class largely had
favorable impressions of Virtual Harlem, the young graduate assistant
is conducting extensive evaluations this semester and next to prove the
program helps students better learn and retain material.

Carter says he’s optimistic the University of Missouri will
maintain Virtual Harlem as a campus teaching resource even after he
completes his Ph.D. next year and begins a teaching job at Central
Missouri State University. Carter, however, will continue to spend time
at the Advanced Technology Center to develop the project. Until now,
the development of Virtual Harlem has been funded by the school’s
Advanced Technology Center. Nearly $115,000 has been spent to develop
the first two phases, Carter says.

The project’s further growth will depend on outside funds and
grants. Carter has applied for grants that he hopes will support the
production of a CD-ROM and the development of a World Wide Web
curriculum site. With these enhancements, Carter expects Virtual Harlem
could become widely used to teach African American and American
literature courses.

RELATED ARTICLE: Virtual U “That Doesn’t Sound Like a College

SALT LAKE CITY — The Western Governor’s University, with its
cyberspace campus and virtual classrooms, is approaching the first
hurdle in gaining full college accreditation.

A group of national education experts, some admittedly Curious
about the computer-based school, will convene in San Francisco in
December to begin evaluating the revolutionary idea. It could take four

Meantime, the school plans to open its computer ports on trial basis in January. It will offer an associate of arts degree.

Typically skeptical accreditors are intrigued by the plan, which
calls for a university with no campus, no faculty and no requirement
that its students take classes. “That doesn’t sounds like a college,”
said Steven Crow, higher education commissioner for the North Central
Association of Colleges and Schools. “Conceptually, it’s a really
interesting thing to get your head around.”

Officials expect most pilot students in January to Use courses to
fulfill degree requirements at their current schools — making the
Western Governor’s University a coursed broker or what they call “a
one-stop center for credit hours.”

Existing universities are taking the plan seriously because of the
school’s political clout. Co-founding governors Mike Leavitt of Utah
and Roy Romer of Colorado have the backing of the governors of its
fifteen other member states.

Western Governor’s University intends to use computers and
satellites to link existing campuses within the seventeen western
states so students at traditional schools will have a wider choice of
classes. Local offices will offer testing and counseling services to
participating students.

“Distance learning” harkens back to the 1930s and correspondence
courses. Technology such as videotapes and satellites, and now
computers and modems, have advanced the concept to the point where
accreditors like Crow see little controversy.

But the revolutionary part is the way Western Governor’s intends to
grant degrees–anyone passing its tests gets a diploma. Prospective
employers will be assured that graduates have certain skills regardless
of whether they were acquired in a classroom, from books, or on-the-job.

“If we determined you needed `X’ number of skills for a degree, and
you already have many of them, we could shorten the time it would take
to get the degree,” said Jeff Livingston, the school’s chief executive
officer. “That’s pretty significant.”

Some educators scoff at the notion, but Crow said he is eager to
consider it. “That’s just a very different way of defining a degree,”
he said. “It’s pretty revolutionary.”

For information or, Virtual Harlem and other Advanced Technology
Center projects, go to on the World Wide

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