The World As We Know It: Remote transitions and augmented realities

Katie Navarra
Eric Williams-Bergen introduces the Sophomore Journeys Digital Scholarship Fellows to the new augmented reality software.

Eric Williams-Bergen introduces the Sophomore Journeys Digital Scholarship Fellows to the new augmented reality software.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic rapidly unfolded, on March 11, Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Karl Schonberg sent faculty and staff a message saying: “For all of us, the uncertainty caused by the public health crisis of recent weeks has been deeply unsettling. To the extent that, as mentors, we can help students know that we will work together, in our individual classes and as a University, to enable them to complete their work with the full richness and rigor that we value at St. Lawrence, this moment can be a time for them to learn to face such uncertainty with calm and intentionality, a skill they will need throughout their lives as we all do in order to do our best work.”

In the days following this outreach, St. Lawrence University, like hundreds of colleges and K-12 schools across the country, mobilized their faculty and staff to convert nearly all learning environments into digital classrooms, online resources, and creative solutions to distance learning in order to safeguard the health of the community as the nation responded to the COVID-19 threat.

The LIT division provided the backbone of support and expertise, and the campus community jumped, without reservation, into a new paradigm, knowing the transition to remote learning for the weeks ahead would be a profound challenge in every course, for every instructor and student. 

However, The Campaign for Every Laurentian commitment to Learning in the 21st Century began long before our accelerated adoption of online instruction and has manifest in many different ways across campus. Thanks to the generosity of many Laurentians, the University’s technological capacity includes hardware and software which allow students to explore the chambers of the human heart from the inside and step virtually through time to explore the streets of ancient Rome. Through digital scholarship students have an enhanced lens on the world as we know it.

Virtually Everything

Carolyn Twomey, a visiting assistant professor of European history, has been to the Roman forum twice and is considered an expert in the field. But, she says, she never fully understood the scale of the space until using immersive software and virtual reality headsets.

Technology brings the textbook chronology of historical events and places alive. Twomey says the imagery is so powerful that the immersive software has given her an understanding of ancient Rome she never previously comprehended. Students can “walk” the city as it was built in 320 AD or they can get a bird’s-eye view of the ruins below.

Twomey regularly incorporates class trips to the Owen D. Young Library so that students can use an Oculus Vive VR headset. With that technology, they can explore almost anything, from a virtual reconstruction of ancient Rome to the other-worldly experience of a spacewalk, explains Eric Williams-Bergen, director of Research and Digital Scholarship. 

“Getting students out of the classroom and doing hands-on activities is by far the most popular of my assignments in my courses,” Twomey says. “Despite the talk of Gen Z being ‘born digital,’ still many of my students have never tried out VR, so they often are very excited to try something new.”

Interactive virtual experiences offer immersive experiences that support St. Lawrence’s efforts to address how digital technologies intersect with research, education, and society. In 2014, the University launched the Digital Scholarship Program with a $750,000 grant awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Digital Directions for the Arts and Humanities.

In just five years, over 70 faculty and student digital scholarship projects have been supported and 27 professors have become Digital Initiatives Faculty Fellows. The enthusiasm has positioned St. Lawrence, its faculty, and students as leaders in cultivating the power of digital technologies to preserve the past while preparing for the future. The technology enables students to examine everything in three dimensions, from modeling a human skeleton and traveling to Mars to experiencing life in a refugee camp or feeling the stress of what it’s like to be kept in solitary confinement.

“What’s appealing about these technologies, from an educational perspective, is that students can get a sense of what it might be like in a certain location rather than having to travel into a dangerous part of the world or be in a dangerous scenario,” Williams-Bergen says. “People are calling it empathetic VR, which is where people can experience things virtually in a way that might help them understand and become empathetic or sympathetic, but not expose them to the associated risks.”

Defining Digital Scholarship

It’s difficult to find a singular definition of the phrases digital humanities and digital scholarship. At the most basic level, it is the practice of using visuals and media to understand history and current events, while also exploring fact-checking and accessibility. Academically, digital scholarship is often described as using new modes of scholarship and collaborative interdisciplinary research supported by computers.

Associate Professor of Performance and Communication Arts (PCA) and English Juraj Kittler was a member of the committee responsible for securing the Mellon grant. He had noticed that students excelled at finding results of baseball games, stats for football players, or bootlegged videos, but their eyes glazed over when asked to apply those same skills to classwork.

“I wanted them to be able to learn how to employ the skills they already had to redirect them for more academically oriented purposes,” he says.

He also found students struggled to understand space as it related to how events happened in a particular setting, both of which are fundamental to social research and inquiry. Using digital archives and visuals, Kittler had students construct timelines and story maps to better understand these concepts. 

“In my early Modern London class, students read letters a young Swiss traveler writes to his friends as he walks through London. The letters describe what he sees,” Kittler says. “Before students get into writing, I have them use the digital tools available to become familiar with different places in relation to coffee houses.”

The exploration helps them better grasp space, is more playful, and fully reveals the intrinsic aspect of digital scholarship. Each student covers one or two places mentioned in the letters, and the work of all the students is compiled to create a larger project than any one student could complete.

Judith DeGroat, associate professor of history, was also a committee member and later the grant director for the Mellon grant. As a historian, paper and centuries-old handwritten documents are central to her work. Despite being suspicious of technology, she embraces the value it has in preservation and in teaching.

For one class research project, students composed a traditional paper spanning 25 pages of primary and secondary sources including written texts, images, audio, and maps. With the help of Williams-Bergen, students converted their research by blending text and visuals to create what’s called a digital narrative. Helping students develop a digital presentation was only part of DeGroat’s goal. She also emphasizes the importance of assessing the validity of sources.

“Now that digital means are what we use for a large part of our news consumption," Degroat says we must consider, "how we assess this information coming in and how we use it. Visuals and media can be transformed and manipulated, so it becomes a question of fact-checking."

Digital Scholarship Fellow Fernanda León Canseco ’22 uses the Vive VR System

The Gift of Technology
Thomas Caulfield ’82, CEO of Global Foundries, significantly helped to advance the digital scholarship initiatives with a recent gift of HTC Vive Virtual Reality System for the Owen D. Young Library, seen here operated by Digital Scholarship Fellow Fernanda León Canseco ’22.

The Student Experience

Ntsieng Botsane ’22 says she had little confidence using digital media until her acceptance into the Digital Humanities Fellowship program. The program is designed to create opportunities for sophomores where digital technologies, methods, and culture are subject to critical inquiry in the liberal arts.

“The program has gone as far as teaching us about visual literacy, as it relates to photography, and this has helped me in doing visual analysis in art history as well as in my pursuit of photography,” says the global studies and Art History major. “With regard to global studies, we were able to realize the power of visual communication in global media.”

During the fall and spring semesters, students are engaged in a series of workshops, led by Williams-Bergen and DeGroat, as well as Research Fellowship Librarian Avery Olearczyk and Digital Scholarship Technologist Corey McGrath.  

The workshops and related tasks are designed to progressively increase the students’ skills in the use of digital technologies for scholarly research and to acquaint them with the debates about the role and challenges of technology in our society.

Fernanda León Canseco ’22 was also selected to participate in this year’s Digital Fellowship Scholars program. Although it covered technology, she was already familiar with the workshops that also emphasize effective communication and the permissions granted or needed to use photographs or illustrations. Not only has she applied these skills to her classwork, but she’s also been able to integrate her Digital Fellowship Program experiences in an online cultural journal produced in Spanish called “Aquí y Allá.”

“The journal compiles student pieces from Creating Writing Workshop, a course that is taught in Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages,” she explains. “This project not only allowed me to write poems and short stories in my native language about my experience in Costa Rica and in Mexico, but also taught me how to create a collaborative piece.”

Along with this work, she is interested in leading a social project related to female empowerment and education in her community during the summer. She plans to use what she has learned in the Digital Fellowship Program to design websites and document the project in an interactive way.

Faculty Fellows

Digital technologies can also illuminate the identities of ancient peoples unable to preserve their cultures in written contexts. Scholars have been able to reconstruct the lives of people from the past using material and archaeological evidence as well as using digital technologies such as 3D modeling to reconstruct objects, architectures, or places from the past that have been destroyed. 

Twomey is one of 70 faculty members who has transformed their research through campus digital resources. She uses the digital scholarship approach in her research on medieval Christian baptismal fonts. A challenge to ancient and medieval history is that much of the surviving evidence has been damaged, destroyed, or must be painstakingly reconstructed by experts.

“I would visit and photograph the fonts in their parish church settings, but they had often been moved or damaged in the post-medieval centuries since their creation, not to mention brightly painted and now faded. So 3D modeling the fonts in situ allowed me to have a vivid image of their current appearance,” she says. “I could manipulate in modeling software to reconstruct how they would have originally appeared in their historical context.”

In the spring of 2018, faculty voted to include a 10th learning goal for students, “to develop the capacity to examine critically the relationship between humans and technology.” DeGroat says the development of that goal was a multi-disciplined collaboration which included Associate Professor of Music Christopher Watts, Associate Professor of Sociology Steve Barnard, and Assistant Professor of German and Film Studies Brook Henkel as key members of that effort. 

The resulting innovative pedagogies and digital scholarship projects resonate with students and parents because they both prepare students for the future, as well as maintain the relevance of the humanities as part of the liberal arts. The student engagement includes using technology for good rather than evil and being able to discern when someone is using it carelessly or maliciously. DeGroat also hopes students think about access to these technologies and acknowledging that it is not equal.

“There’s a concern that students in poor schools didn’t have computers. Now there are programs where those schools have Chromebooks, but the poorer students are just getting access as middle and upper classes are saying, ‘How much screen time do I want my kid to have?’” she adds. “It’s citizenship in a very important way. Who has access to knowledge, creating and sharing knowledge?” she adds.

“Our Digital Scholarship Program is taking a very traditional historical topic and approach and bringing in a lot of these different digital components to make it more accessible and also to enrich the experience for the students,” Williams-Bergen concludes.

Visit to learn more about Learning in the 21st Century initiatives.