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Today was session 2 of our trial at SMRT – a two hour class with the year 9s, this time down at the school. This time, we moved on from considering the model as a ‘Pompeian’ house, to introduce the Crystal Palace, to explore how the house worked at a Victorian exhibit, and most importantly to use that exploration of the exhibit (armed with hard scans of the original guidebook) and dialogue with our Victorian ‘bots to open a discussion of the subjective ‘interpretation’ of history.

The session worked brilliantly (at least from my point of view – will be interesting to get the final feedback from the students). For the first time teaching a session of this sort, we added more billboards about the likely income/education etc of visitors to the Palace from different classes and then, instead of imposing a back story on each avatar, invited the students to create their own narrative for their character. They did really well, came up with plausible and thoughtful biographies (bar the odd but probably inevitable downton-esque turn!) and I’d really like to explore this further in the future because the students then also replied off the cuff with some very good answers to my questions about how their characters might have experienced the Palace.

Interviewing the ‘bots went well – we had a good discussion about the range of opinions voiced about the Palace and about what kind of attitudes the Victorians seem to have held about the Roman world. This is where things got really good. The students, with little prompting, volunteered ideas about why the Roman empire might have been so appealing to some nineteenth-century visitors, and noted the moral anxiety about ancient culture too. From there, though, we moved on to an impressive discussion about interpretation/reception, drawing on modern history and contemporary culture and politics. The students really grasped the issues and their reactions as they absorbed the implications of our discussion  (‘this is scary’ or ‘this is frustrating because now nothing’s  fixed’ or ‘it’s ok that I can’t get back to what happened but I can learn a bit more about later generations by the way that they interpreted it’ – to paraphrase 3 responses) showed how much they were engaging with it all.

And when the bell went, I suddenly realised I hadn’t had to think about the technology once for the whole 2 hours. By which I mean, that it all stood up. The avatars all appeared, the ‘bots delivered their notecards, the network coped with the load. For the first time, I felt completely comfortable and confident teaching with this medium. This is a huge leap forward because it makes the technology feasible in the longer term. It shows what a great job Nic and our IT dept have done to get OpenSim to cope with what we want it to do – which is, as it did so admirably today, help students grasp sophisticated concepts and apply them to their own studies. There’s no doubt that today’s session will have succeeded in impacting on this group’s understanding of history. Result! As usual, very, very many thanks to Mary, Jo and the Year 9s at SMRT.

 

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