Teaching anthropology with VR and Interactive Media

One of the frustrating things I experience in teaching ecological and environmental anthropology is demonstrating how amazingly cool and interconnected our world is while sitting inside a classroom. People and researchers living and working in places, talking about and showing their experience of the human-environment relationship, are way more interesting than dry slides or discussions. In class, I use a lot of mini-videos, but VR and other interactive media have been on my radar ever since I downloaded Nomads. Appropriate use can be really helpful in illustrating theory and method, as well as showing what you mean by swidden farming, wildlife conflict, and redlining.

I was recently inspired by Dr. Megan Duffy‘s post on ecology videos for teaching over at Dynamic Ecology. I hope to do this for ecological and environmental anthropology eventually, but a recent VR find for Rising Star Cave and Homo naledi (below) side-tracked me. This post is an attempt to pull together free material that might be relevant for teaching anthropology that focuses on ecological, environmental, and evolutionary topics. It includes links to apps that can be downloaded and used with VR glasses, as well as links to sites that can be used to explore sites online through VR. I will update periodically. Please leave your own favorites in the comments.

Interactive Media

  • The Last Generation – This interactive documentary from PBS Frontline (2018) follows 3 young Marshallese (Izerman, Julia, and Wilmer) as they talk about how the past, present, and future intersect with climate change and sea level rise in their community. The firsthand accounts intermingle with facts about sea level rise impacts in the Marshall Islands. 
  • Journey to the End of Coal – The viewer is the journalist protagonist of this documentary exploring coal mining’s impacts on people and the environment in China. The documentary makers (2008) collected 300 photographs, 3 hours of video, and 10 hours of audio. Viewers can direct where they go, ask questions of migrant miners, and read more about China’s coal mining industry. 
  • Hollow – The documentary (2013) explores life in Appalachia, boom and bust economies based on resource extraction, and the future of rural America. Viewers learn about McDowell County, West Virginia through the eyes and voices of 30 local residents.  Fact-based materials accompany the interviews.  
  • Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt – This (2013) story explores the production of a “simple” t-shirt from growing cotton through to sales. NPR’s Planet Money site provides short videos plus text with graphs and facts related to particular chapters, while the basic NPR story site gives additional text and podcast material including a story on the Afterlife of American Clothes. As a whole, this is a great interactive documentary to talk about consumption, industrial agriculture, greenhouse gases, labor, and sustainability.

Virtual Tours (no VR glasses needed)

  • Cueva de Covaciella – This cave in Austrias, Northern Spain offers views of bison and reindeer painted by local residents during the Upper Paleolithic 11,000 – 35,000 years ago. The journey starts outside on the side of a mountain and with 360 images you can travel through the 40m cave gallery at your own pace.  More info on this cave and others in Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque country can be found at Spain Is Culture.
  • Lascaux 19,000 years ago – Offered by the French Ministry of Culture in French, English, Spanish, and German. You can stop and start the tour of the various chambers to look more closely at the diverse paintings. Additional information about the archaeological, geological, and environmental context of the site, how the paintings were made, the history of the site’s discovery, and archaeological research at Lascaux is provided. Online use with computer, can be projected to a screen.
  • La Grotte Chauvet Pont d’Arc – With the option of self-guided or guided, you can access 36,000 year old rock art images through your computer screen. The home page offers additional information about the images, research, paleolithic environment, and prehistoric residents in French, English, or Spanish. 
  • Smithsonian Virtual Museum Tours – 360 images allow you to tour permanent and select past exhibits in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – some relevant to anthropology, others not so much (but equally interesting). You can zoom in to read the signage and move through the museum as if you were there walking around. The Human Origins (permanent), Western Cultures (select past), and Written in Bone (select past) would likely be of interest for courses related to human evolution, ecological anthropology, and forensics.

VR Apps (need glasses, see video below for DIY version)

  • Nomads – Explore three nomadic cultures through VR technology – yak herders on the Mongollian steppe, Maasai herders in Kenya, and the Sama-Bajau sea nomads of Borneo. The video can be used to discuss transhumant and nomadic pastoralism and nomadic fishing as adaptations to environmental resource distribution. Recent studies also point to a Bajau genetic adaptations that gives them a larger spleen and freediving abilities that allow them to remain at depth for fishing. 
  • Dinaledi Chamber VR Experience – Explore the chamber where Homo naledi was discovered in Gauteng, South Africa in 2013. The short features six different scientists describing the cave and what they found, as you experience it. The app page at Perot Museum also has a 360 image of the landscape in which the cave was found.
  • Land of Salt and Fire – Students can experience how people have adapted to desert life in Dallol, Ethiopia, where they may travel with camel caravans moving salt across the vast plains and active geothermal zones of the Afar region. This VR experience can be accessed through the New York Times VR app or directly on your computer. 
  • Climate Change: Toxic Trespassing in Texas – Viewers visit a neighborhood in Houston, TX where residents talk about their daily experience of living with toxic chemicals.  
  • Dining on Elderflowers at the Lost Kitchen – Modern foragers harvest and prepare elderflowers for fine dining. Great for introducing ethnobotany or discussing livelihood practice. 
  • Step into an Igloo on the First Day of Summer – Adami Sakiagak and Tiisi Qisiiq, Inuit in northern Canada, build igloos to teach the next generation the disappearing craft. A cultural adaptation to local environmental conditions.
  • These last 4 VR experiences come from the New York Times VR YouTube page, where they are constantly adding new material. Video can be viewed on your computer or through VR glasses.
  • Discovery VR has some great VR experiences as well. The video can be viewed on your computer, but seems to be a little clearer through the VR glasses.
  • Under the Net – A Discovery VR experience of Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania where malaria is the number one killer. Amisa, a young girl living in the camp, narrates to help viewers learn more about how malaria affects peoples’ day-to-day experience.

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