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Though the past year has put a spotlight on the limits and possibilities of using technology for teaching and learning, we began exploring the utility of using virtual reality as a medium for Holocaust education before the pandemic reshaped the educational landscape.  

Virtual reality (VR) has existed for over 30 years, but only recently has it become affordable enough to use widely. It is reasonable to expect that VR will become a mainstream technology in the coming years.  

Over the past decade, researchers, museum professionals and educators have started to explore the use of virtual and augmented reality in relation to Holocaust education and memory. At the same time, the Future Projects team (a group focused on innovations in Holocaust education and memory at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or USHMM) and a group of faculty and students at the Rowan University Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights (the Rowan Center) have been working on independent, but parallel, virtual reality projects.  

Students revealed that they were eager to spend more time with the experience. One even said she had “never wanted to learn history’’ before.

Both of these projects focus on the Warsaw Ghetto, the well-known ghetto established in German-occupied Poland by the Third Reich during World War II. Teams from the USHMM and the Rowan Center developed and deployed and then gathered feedback about these projects from a number of stakeholders, including scholars, museum professionals, middle and high school teachers, college students and a general audience.  

Both projects use technology that creates an immersive experience, but they are aimed at different audiences. The USHMM experience is being developed with a museum audience in mind, with users ranging from those who have never encountered the Holocaust before to Holocaust scholars from around the world. 

virtual reality
Virtual reality simulating a scene from a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto, established in German Occupied Poland by the Third Reich during World War II. Credit: The Rowan University Virtual Reality Lab

“The Warsaw Project” designed by the Rowan Center is created for classroom use on the portable Oculus Quest system. It’s intended for larger museum, school and community spaces. 

Though the projects are different, the results of the interviews, focus groups and written feedback about them were remarkably similar. Teachers who viewed the recreated spaces from the Warsaw Ghetto were enthusiastic, because many had struggled to engage all learners in their (often brief) units about the Holocaust. A high school teacher who shared feedback on the project said, “The VR brings history to life in a really different way.”  

The teachers believe that the hands-on, independent nature of virtual reality will bring reluctant students to the study of history. Interactive digital and virtual experiences allow students to make choices about materials and people, something the teachers said rarely happens in a traditional unit of study. This is critically important to learning. 

Related: Virtual field trips bring students face-to-face with Earth’s most fragile ecosystems 

Feedback from students revealed that they were eager to spend more time with the experiences. One even said that she had “never wanted to learn history’’ before. 

Perhaps more importantly, students asked questions about what they saw in the virtual environments and sought to learn more through other media after exploring the projects. They found that VR allowed them to learn in new ways, and they considered the experiences engaging, emotional and immersive.  

Standing in a recreated virtual space helps users learn something qualitatively different from simply looking at a photograph, reading primary source material or listening to survivor testimony.  

The immersive nature of virtual reality allows users to gain a deeper understanding of the scope and scale of the Warsaw Ghetto as they manipulate and examine artifacts destroyed during the war. 

Our teams are now identifying best practices for using virtual reality to teach and learn about the Holocaust, as well as other complicated histories. The key to these practices is meeting users where they are.  

Users who are less familiar with virtual reality need instructions about how to use the technology along with an overview of what the tool can — and cannot — do. 

Most young people are already engaged with emerging technologies and bring expectations of what they will experience while in a virtual world. They understand that they will be steered toward certain learning outcomes embedded in these projects, but they expect choices so that they can interact with the experiences in different ways and spend more time in spaces that interest them.  

In addition, we learned: 

  • Historical accuracy is essential. End users will assume that the experience is historically accurate and that they do not need to worry about “fake news.” There are different ways to avoid betraying this trust, including captions, digital footnotes and “educational rabbit holes.” 
  • Sensitivity is required. Using virtual reality to teach about the Holocaust requires the same — if not more — thought to ethics and sensitivity than other teaching methods and materials require. Due to the immersive nature of the virtual environment, those who create VR learning experiences must ensure that users aren’t thrust into a “gotcha” scenario, made to feel unsafe or asked to play the role of a perpetrator or victim of the Holocaust.  
  • Content outside of the virtual world is necessary. In order to contextualize the virtual experience, additional content should be provided before and after the experience. This content might take the shape of a series of digital tools, videos or printed materials.  
  • Consider witnessing over empathy. While attention has been given to VR’s potential to facilitate empathetic understanding, in Holocaust education, fostering such empathy risks unintentionally minimizing survivor and victim experiences. A focus on witnessing, and the role of the observer, can provide powerful experiences in virtual spaces while avoiding that risk. 

Even though virtual reality has already been used in educational contexts, teaching and learning about the Holocaust through VR is new. There is bound to be hesitancy from some about using this technology to teach such a traumatic history. It is our hope that these guidelines, while they will no doubt change and grow over time, provide a starting point for creating and selecting virtual experiences that are engaging, accurate and ethical.

Jennifer Rich is an associate professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rowan University and the executive director of the Rowan Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights.  

Michael Haley Goldman is the director of Future Projects at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

Sara Pitcairn is the product developer and researcher for Future Projects at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

This story about virtual reality and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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