Virtual Pompeii

I’ve just been reading about the Sydenham Crystal Palace project, a JISC funded project to recreate the Pompeii Court in Second Life. Now it’s been a while since I looked at Second Life, having decided that the requirements for high spec graphics cards, the requirement for users to learn to operate in the world and the (let’s face it) naff quality of the animation made it pretty much a non starter for educational purposes.  It’s quite telling that the project page tells potential users to access the world through a non standard Second Life viewer.

Still, things move on, and I was interested  to see that JISC thought this project worth funding.  Here’s what the project team say they’re trying to do:

The aim of our project has to build a digitised collection of the material that was in the Pompeii Court and to create an interactive online space to house it. Visitors will be able to tour the Court and interact with us, other visitors and the objects on display. In the upcoming phases of the project, we want to compare further how the social and educational experiences offered by our Model compare with the successes and failures of the original Court, which itself was a Victorian experiment in education and reconstruction.

Well, I can see the rationale behind that. The original was a reconstruction, so it makes a sort of sense to reconstruct it again to see if the digital world can offer the same experience. But I don’t see how it can be the same. Virtual Worlds aren’t really 3D experiences, but 2D representations of a 3D world.

What is more problematic though is the experience of being a student. If you accept Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework model, there needs to be an opportunity set out your own conceptions first,  to interact with your teachers so that you can modify your conceptions and then to restate them. Laurillard also points out, rightly I think that academic knowledge is second order, that is, it consists of knowledge of others’ descriptions of the world, rather than of the world itself. A reconstruction tries for first order knowledge – that is to allow students to perceive the world. But actually it’s all based on others’ precepts.

For those reasons, I ‘m not sure that the project will be all that helpful in teaching students about classical civilisation. I do realise that this isn’t exactly what the project is about. There’s quite a lot about art, perception and philosophy built into it, and that’s important, but I’m interested in the pedagogical value of the project, so I am going to talk about that aspect anyway. I’ve never done any formal learning about Roman civilisation myself, (other than  school Latin) but a visit I made  to the real Herculaneum  some years ago did really change my conception of what a Roman town might have been like. I remember being very surprised to discover the atmosphere and the architecture put me much more in mind of a Middle Eastern village, than the classical structures we generally associate with Rome.  Equally, reading Mary Beard’s Pompeii (Which, incidentally is the best non fiction book I’ve read in some time.) made me see Roman life in a different way.  Of course had I been able to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii in, say, AD 78 I would probably have a different set of conceptions again.

My point is that I think claims for the kind of environment that the project is trying to claim are a little overblown. Second Life is not immersive, in the way that a visit to a site, or even reading a book is. Certainly students could be asked to discuss the value of this kind of representation before visiting the simulation, and again after a visit. Expert avatars could be provided at regular times to talk to visitors about these cities, or about the other aspects of the project.  I do wonder about the accessibility issues though – there’s quite a lot of evidence in the literature of students who are using technological applications focusing on operational issues, how to work the thing and so on, rather than learning the content. And how users with disabilities will cope remains to be seen.

Still, I look forward to seeing the evaluation report. Should make for interesting reading.