Student using Virtual Reality to explore the novel Lincoln in the Bardo
Virtual reality allowed Introduction to Literary Studies students to explore literature and journalism in new ways and from new perspectives.
Exploring the past, present, and future with virtual reality
Jun 06, 2019

What if a classroom had no boundaries and students could explore any time, any place, and any possibility? In English and Cultural Studies Lecturer Ryan Marnane’s Introduction to Literary Studies class, creative assignments, aided by the latest in virtual reality (VR) technology and Bryant’s new Data Visualization Lab, empowered students to examine literature, journalism, and the future in new and exciting ways. 

The course let Kiana Pino ’22 and her fellow students see the world through fresh eyes. “Our professor liked to focus on how literature relates to our lives today,” she says. “VR allowed us to learn from the past in a different way and encouraged us to envision what the future could be like.”

“For most of the students in the class, it's their first time experiencing virtual reality,” says Marnane. “They're excited about the possibilities.”

Preparing for tomorrow

Introduction to Literary Studies, part of Bryant’s First-Year Gateway, introduces students to critically reading and writing about texts. By exploring key elements of imaginative literature and other creative practices, students become discerning readers, critical thinkers, and thoughtful writers. 

"This is a fertile space for seeing how STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics], the humanities, and business fields can all come together."

For Marnane, learning about new technologies such as VR is an important part of that work. “As advancements in tech continue and digital systems become increasingly sophisticated and integrated into our lives, notions of information literacy will change as well,” he says. “How we consume and engage with the news, how we encounter narrative, and how we build community and create shared meaning will continue to depend upon and reconstitute our relationship to technology.”

Bryant’s Data Visualization Lab is an important tool for that exploration. "This is a fertile space for seeing how STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics], the humanities, and business fields can all come together."

Past and future

The course used VR in a variety of ways. For example, a VR adaptation of George Saunders’ novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” allowed users to move through a scene in the novel and experience events directly. “It helps get students thinking about questions of immersion, narrative discourse, and adaptation,” says Marnane. “It's not that one form or medium of storytelling is superior than another, but rather that they function on different levels."

"If I were just reading a piece of text, I wouldn’t have been able to experience the material in the same manner.”

For a unit on narrative nonfiction, the class used the Data Visualization Lab, equipped with Windows Mixed Reality headsets and controllers and HP Z VR Backpack workstations, to learn how narrative journalism is evolving by incorporating new rhetorical and storytelling techniques. The students read and compared print pieces with interactive web stories and podcasts, and, through the lab, investigated the next stage of multimedia storytelling in the form of 360-degree immersive narrative journalism from the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and other sources. 

The immersion "allowed us to observe context that we might have otherwise overlooked,” notes Jake Cooper ’22. “If I were just reading a piece of text, I wouldn’t have been able to experience the material in the same manner.”

“We investigated how the various types of media affected the way a story is perceived and felt,” explains Matthew Hird ’22, pointing to a piece the class studied on Native storytelling and how using different forms of media enabled indigenous groups to tell their stories in their own way.

"Data comprehension and analytical skills are what employers are looking for and that is exactly what the Data Visualization Lab and VR technology allows us to develop."

Getting ahead

The students' work with VR technology prepares them for their careers, offering "a firsthand experience with a rapidly developing technology that could soon become an integral part of life,” says Hird, who notes that VR is poised to change a wide range of industries. 

The technology "is extremely important for Bryant students,” notes Pino. “Data comprehension and analytical skills are what employers are looking for and that is exactly what the Data Visualization Lab and VR technology allows us to develop.”

“This is what will set Bryant students apart from others in the next step after college,” agrees Cooper. 

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