Digital Learning History through Avatars: Simulations and Role-Play in the College Classroom, Part 1: Roundtable Showcase: Developing and Using Avatars in the 21st-Century Classroom

AHA Session 164
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Grand Hall D (Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Lower Level 2)
Erika J. Quinn, Eureka College
Learning to Think Historically: Using Avatars to Bridge the Gaps
Peter Thorsheim, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
The Large Lecture Course
Elizabeth D. Heineman, University of Iowa
The Audience

Session Abstract

We have created this roundtable to showcase how professors at institutions of higher learning ranging from small liberal arts colleges to research universities are taking advantage of character-driven learning to help students advance through the Perry scheme of intellectual development and achieve higher levels of learning.  Character-driven learning requires students to do more than simply memorize historical information.  Having students create and develop the life of a fictional person within a specific time and place forces students not only to conduct historical research, but also to apply the information they find to differentiated experiences. Thus, not only must students weigh and evaluate information according to its time-frame, but also to other societal-specific contexts, such as class, gender, age, and nationality.  This kind of teaching and learning strategy has several advantages beyond analysis, however.  It helps students better visualize and understand differentiated experiences of the same historical event, place, or time.  In expressing their character’s life experiences, students also develop their communication and writing skills.  Finally, by giving students some choice and control over their “research assignment”, character-driven learning can also spark their historical imagination and engagement with history more generally.

As teachers, the roundtable presenters represent the wide range of historical topics that university professors teach and the variety of classrooms that our modern educators face.  While some are using avatars in small seminar style classes of 10-15 students, others are using these in large surveys of over 100.  In our roundtable presentations, we'll address how we alter and adapt assignments to fit class size and skill levels of students.  We also outline some of the challenges of having undergraduate students develop historical characters from regions of the world with which they are unfamiliar, and ways to address this.  We also present ways to help students overcome language, cultural, and even gender barriers between them and their characters.  Finally, the presenters will offer examples of student responses to these learning tools as part of demonstrating how students react to such active learning assignments. Do students like them? Do they participate? How did they feel their learning was different/better/augmented?