Bryan Carter Enables Students to Inhabit History (CHE)

April 20, 2015

Students who enroll in Bryan Carter’s courses on the Harlem Renaissance don’t just get a survey of the period’s rich culture. They immerse themselves in it.

For two decades, Mr. Carter, now an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University of Arizona, has been experimenting with technology to help students get inside the material. The literature and art and music of the period remain central, but students do more than read poems and listen to jazz. They use storytelling apps for presentations and do live-streamed broadcasts instead of taking quizzes. They hold class meetings in Virtual Harlem, the virtual-reality environment that Mr. Carter created in the mid-1990s as part of his dissertation work and that he has migrated from platform to platform as technologies have arrived and obsolesced or become too expensive.

“It was an edgy time, it was jazz, it was improvisational,” Mr. Carter, 53, tells his students. “This class is going to be just like that, where some of the things we do are going to be experimental, they’re going to be edgy, they’re going to be visual, just like the Harlem Renaissance was.”

Many of the undergraduates he teaches have grown up playing video games, and they’re used to interactive, audiovisually rich online environments. “I wanted my students to be able to connect with the period that we’re studying,” Mr. Carter says. In his experience, if a professor just tacks a bit of technology onto an otherwise conventional course, students can tell. He makes technology part of the fabric of the class.

Ken S. McAllister, a professor of English at Arizona who was recently named associate dean of research and program innovation there, co-directs the Learning Games Initiative. He regularly takes his own students to visit Virtual Harlem. “When they leave, they always talk about how they felt they were there — that’s the technology — and they talk about the stories that they heard, that they heard a Cab Calloway concert or saw the Apollo Theater or walked along the boulevards,” he says. “It’s technically impressive, but the content, the stories, are really what carry the day.”

Mr. McAllister has known Mr. Carter since their graduate-school days, though they were at different institutions. He describes Mr. Carter as an early adopter and a transdisciplinary scholar. “He’s always talking to artists and designers and computer engineers and musicians and trying to learn from them,” Mr. McAllister says.

Mr. Carter’s approach is also a study in how to maintain and expand a project as the technologies that enable it change. He began the Virtual Harlem project in a CAVE automatic virtual environment, a square, room-sized space outfitted with projection screens or backlit video displays; a person stands in the center of the space, wearing 3-D glasses with a motion tracker to create an immersive experience.

The original CAVE setup worked well for Virtual Harlem but was relatively expensive, requiring developers and designers. So Mr. Carter moved Virtual Harlem to the virtual-world environment Second Life, where users create avatars that allow them to move around and interact in different virtual settings. A couple of years ago, he switched it to OpenSim, an open-source version of Second Life. That hasn’t been ideal as a production tool, he says. The next iteration will use a 3-D web browser, Curio, being created by a company called the Virtual World Web. Curio uses a graphic engine called Unity to create interactive and 3-D experiences. “It takes the graphic quality up about 20 notches,” he says.

[full article here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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