Reliving history: Virtual world lets IUP students participate in critical civil rights battles

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Imagine what it would be like to learn about the past by stepping into the pages of a history book.

Graduate students in the communications media program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania are using Second Life to bring milestones in history to life in a three-dimensional virtual world. In the fall 2010 semester, they completed a project designed to teach college-level students about the civil rights movement.

Allen Partridge, a professor in IUP's communications media department, has Ph.D. students in his Simulation of Games class use Second Life as part of their course work. Dr. Partridge also has a background in game design: He has created many two- and three-dimensional interactive computer games and has written several books on the topic.

The students chose the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s and created a series of scenarios that document and explain those turbulent times.


"They were thinking about how we can communicate effectively what it might have been like for somebody to live through these historic experiences," Mr. Partridge said.

They created simulations of several key events in the history of the civil rights movement and the battle against racial segregation and oppression -- the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., a Mississippi freedom school, the 1963 March on Washington and the confrontation between marchers and police during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

The visuals combine the layered, colorful 3D environment that is Second Life with archival black-and-white film and still photos from the era. The students also put together a short video featuring images from the project, which is posted on YouTube.

The civil rights movement project is an adventure game designed to combine game play with educational experience. Players navigate the Second Life world and collect objects or tokens. Some of the items include quiz questions or provide students with information.

One of the benefits of using Second Life, Mr. Partridge said, is that even students with no background in game design can use the tools provided by Second Life to build an adventure game.

Malaika Turner was one of the students who had never built an online game before.

"I enjoyed putting together this project," she said. "Being introduced to Second Life, it really changed my thinking."

She worked on the section dealing with the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" March on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma that turned into a violent confrontation between police and civil rights marchers.

Reading about the tension between police and civil rights marchers in the 1960s is one thing. Becoming a virtual participant in the march and trying to get around police barricades is quite another. The objective in the Pettus Bridge environment is to attempt to cross the bridge and collect different pieces of information. One of the students purchased a Second Life police dog that becomes part of the police barricade.

"It was intense," Ms. Turner said of the final result.

The students already had Second Life avatars -- the character one becomes to move about in the virtual world -- and they changed them to be more historically accurate, researching period clothing and hair styles and changing their appearances dramatically.

Educators are also exploring other virtual worlds that may be better options than Second Life. There are open source versions of virtual world building software that would enable designers to create worlds outside of Second Life.

"It would have an advantage over Second Life in that one can create a more closed and controlled environment for the users only," Dr. Partridge said, rather than placing them in Second Life environment, which is accessible to anyone who registers for an account. An invitation-only virtual world would be a safer online space for elementary and middle school students, for example. Membership in Second Life is limited to ages 16 and older.

How viable using virtual worlds to teach about the real world remains to be seen, Mr. Partridge said. "The jury is still out. It looks positive, but it exists in an environment where the tools are subject to commercial whims. We have not yet seen the critical proof ... that will push it over the edge and we'll see this used commonly."

But, he adds, educators need to find alternatives to teachers lecturing in front of the class. "We know from research on the brain that that's actually not how people learn. It shuts down, rather than lighting them up. We need to find our way into something more discovery-based."

As an aspiring educator, Ms. Turner sees the potential for using tools like Second Life to teach in new ways. "I think in the traditional classroom, sometimes we miss the other learning styles that students may have. There are other options that might be better suited. In Second Life, there's role-playing. It helps you to immerse into the topic. If you're a visual learner, it will help you. It just opens up a number of ways in which we can reach students."

The student-produced video on this project, "Civil Rights Movement Comes of Age in Second Life," is embedded above and is also on YouTube.

A Second Life account is required to see the IUP civil rights project. Second Life members can find it by typing "IUP COMM Media -- Indiana University of Pennsylvania" in the Second Life search box.

Adrian McCoy: or 412-263-1865. First Published February 9, 2011 5:00 AM


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