Digital Zombies and Virtual Reality
Juliette Levy on digital history in the classroom

Juliette Levy; photo by Gia Goodrich

“Complete concentration on a specific event or action is being launched in a part of the brain that does not get engaged when [students] are reading or talking," says Levy. So the VR experience ends up "bypassing cognitive obstacles” that might otherwise hinder learning.


Weekly podcasts, a virtual reality experience involving Che Guevara, and a learning game with zombies are among the digital platforms a history professor has used to enhance her teaching and make the subject engaging, especially for large classes of hundreds of students.

Juliette Levy, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, described her experiences in the second of three lectures on digital history sponsored by the MIT History Section.

Key to Levy’s approach to teaching is putting the student first in curriculum design. Often, she said, “courses are designed to deliver content, and the student is sort of incidental to the equation.”

As a result, among other techniques, she incorporates into her teaching technologies that today’s students are quite familiar with. “There are profound structures of learning that are totally different today than they were 20 years ago, and we need to think about that,” Levy said.

Digital Zombies

She emphasized, however, the importance of a hybrid approach that also encourages more traditional assignments. For example, the Digital Zombies learning game she developed includes seven “missions.” One of these is to talk to a librarian. “This gets students to engage with an expert, which helps them to recognize that there are hierarchies of knowledge in the vast digital expanse. Not all text is the same.”

This physical mission is also important because Levy has noted a decline in research literacy among undergraduates. When queried at the beginning of a class, “some 75 percent of my students say they never use library resources.”

Digital Zombies, she said, refers to “all the people who are constantly on their phone and consider that that is the only thing they need to survive.”

Levy also teaches a 20th century world history survey with 420 students. Rather than deliver a lecture in person, she creates weekly podcasts, each about 30 minutes long, that students can listen to when and where they want. This makes for a more efficient learning environment for both students and teacher. Traditional lectures can often last 50 minutes due to downtime when, for example, people are getting settled. Plus, Levy’s found that often her students listen to the podcasts more than once.

Students in the class still have an opportunity to “meet” and ask questions about content through online discussion sessions led by Teaching Assistants. Each section of about 25 students includes ”tiles” for each person present (like the opening credits to the Brady Bunch). Unlike the podcasts, students sign up for discussion sessions at specific times.

Virtual Reality

Levy is currently developing a virtual-reality experience based on Che Guevara that is in its third round of testing. In it, students are immersed in a Cuban jungle that includes blocks of information related to Guevara and his speeches. They manipulate and sort these blocks in an exercise aimed at teaching them to analyze sources.

Then, students are asked to go to a library, talk to a librarian, “and essentially replicate what they’ve done in VR,” Levy said. “Because the whole point of VR is not to be in VR, it’s to learn something in VR then do it in the real world.”

Levy also believes that the immersive experience of VR and its interactive environments — complete with sound — helps students remember what they’ve learned. “That complete concentration on a specific event or action is being launched in a part of the brain that does not get engaged when they’re reading or talking,” she said. So the VR experience “ends up bypassing cognitive obstacles” that might otherwise hinder learning.

Nevertheless, Levy said, “digital pedagogy is as much about using digital tools thoughtfully as it is about deciding when not to use digital tools.”


Suggested links

MIT Digital History Seminar Series

    Juliette Levy | Seminar 2

    Cameron Blevins | Seminar 1 

MIT History

Jeff Ravel, Head, MIT History

MIT Digital Humanities Program

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Visualizing Imperialism and the Philippines, 1898-1913, an MITx MOOC

Visualizing Japan, an MITx MOOC


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Story prepared by SHASS Communications
Writer: Elizabeth Thomson, for MIT History
Published 28 March 2018