A report for the Warwick Classics Network by Rachel Plummer
About the author: Rachel Plummer completed her PGCE in Latin & Classics at the University of Cambridge in 2022. She currently teaches at Rugby High School, having previously taught in the independent sector. She is interested in supporting the development of Classics teaching across the state sector, and in using technology to enhance teaching, particularly for those pupils whose opportunities to travel to ancient sites and museums are limited.
Huge thanks to Dr Paul Grigsby for allowing PGCE students at Cambridge to experience VR headset technology, and for allowing me to borrow the headsets to conduct further exploration of their pedagogic value in Classics teaching. My pupils loved time-travelling and would like to know when we can borrow the headsets again!
During the academic year 2021-22, I was given the opportunity to borrow the University of Warwick Classics Department’s VR headsets to investigate the potential uses for VR in modern Classics pedagogy. During my PGCE, I was placed in 3 separate schools, and used the VR headsets in all 3 to explore their potential uses as both extra-curricular enhancements and as part of the GCSE and A-level national syllabi.
The VR headsets owned by Warwick’s Classics Dept are Oculus Go 64GB headsets, and the downloaded apps offer the user the opportunity to explore ancient sites such as Athens, Olympia, Rome and Pompeii.
During my first placement at a comprehensive academy, I incorporated the use of the VR headsets into our OCR A-level Classical Civilisation curriculum. Students followed the Greek Religion unit, and the Athens and Olympia apps gave the pupils chance to explore the 2 ancient sites on the syllabus in a VR setting. Once pupils had overcome the initial ‘wow’ factor, they began to engage more closely with the sites, recognising key features which they had previously read about in their textbooks. I provided some initial introduction to the activity and gave pupils a few key features to look out for, such as the ash altar on the acropolis and particular key temples at Olympia. The Athens app offers users the chance to begin their journey in the lower city and progress up to the acropolis, which is the closest we will ever get to participating in the Great Panathenaia.
The VR headset session was greatly enjoyed by the pupils, and by the teachers who visited the classroom to find out more about what we were doing. The lesson was followed by an online lecture by Dr Paul Grigsby, who added further detail to the pupils’ knowledge of these ancient sites, and answered the pupils’ many questions (for which I remain very grateful!).
Unfortunately, my placement at this school lasted only a few short months, so there was no opportunity for me to re-visit this syllabus with the class to assess whether the VR session had added to their awareness of the prescribed ancient sites. However, based on my own experience, I certainly have a better awareness of the key features of ancient Athens and the acropolis (which I have not yet visited in real life), and an appreciation of what Olympia may have looked like when still in use (although having visited the site before using the VR app, my initial thoughts when thinking of Olympia are still of the remaining ruins). There is perhaps therefore greater benefit to be derived from viewing the VR reconstructions before visiting or viewing images of the modern-day remains.
During my second placement at a grammar school, which lasted 5 months, I had more opportunities to use the VR headsets across a range of settings. We allowed pupils to freely explore the apps during our Classics lunchtime club, and they were a huge hit with pupils across Key Stages 3-5. Pupils commented that they felt the ancient sites had been ‘brought to life’ and they could picture the sites much better compared to seeing pictures in a textbook. Great hilarity ensued when pupils discovered the colossus statue, who was not wearing a fig leaf to cover his modesty.
The same activity was available to pupils during a day of ‘Roman birthday’ celebrations, accompanied by theatrical productions, ancient board games, artefact handling, and the construction of a custard cream colosseum. Another session was also run for teachers.
I also wanted to incorporate VR into regular lesson time, but there were no Classical Civilisation lessons happening during this term. Year 10 pupils starting book 4 of the CLC see their main characters returning to the city of Rome, including some discussion of building construction in the city. I therefore arranged a VR lesson to allow pupils to explore the Rome Reborn apps, to explore the forum and amphitheatre area in greater detail, and to view the full city landscape from the sky through the guise of a balloon flight. Pupils enjoyed the lesson, and some seemed to have a better grasp of the key city features in the following lessons when these appeared in our Latin texts. However, as my placement time was limited, I had no opportunity to conduct further, more formal research into whether the VR experience had enhanced their knowledge of the geography and key features of the city.
During this short placement teaching KS5 Latin, I had no opportunity to use the VR headsets during my lesson teaching. The headsets were used during a lunchtime Classics club, with pupils given chance to freely explore the app(s) of their choosing. Pupils responded positively to the experience. The class teacher reported that he felt VR technology had huge potential to expand the way we teach our pupils about ancient sites, but there need to be further improvements and developments to its current format to allow for this.
The VR headsets were greatly enjoyed by pupils across all 3 of my placement schools, and made teaching staff and senior leadership team members reassess the dynamic and innovative potential of Classics teaching and the relevance of our subject to the modern day. The ‘wow’ factor of using VR headsets should not be underestimated, given the constant need to justify the place of Classical subjects on the school curricula.
However, the current application of VR to academic syllabi is limited due to the nature of the apps currently available on the market. While many are free, the quality is varied, and they target the main ancient sites that a general audience would wish to visit, e.g. Athens, Rome. There is scope for further apps to be developed which target the prescribed ancient sites for the different course syllabi for Latin, Greek, and Classical Civilisation and Ancient History.
It would also be beneficial for the teacher to have some kind of central control over what pupils see, so that their attention can be directed to key sites or buildings in order to provide further information pertinent to their exam requirements and to spark whole-class learning and discussion. Currently, pupils wander the apps independently, meaning that each pupil will get a different experience.
Using the VR headsets has certainly allowed me to enhance my teaching where key ancient sites are concerned. Visits to ancient sites and museums, as well as seeing reconstructions on video walk-throughs (many available on YouTube) are a key part of Classics teaching which help to bring the subject to life for pupils and elevate it off the page. The arrival of the VR headsets into the classroom generates a buzz of excitement among pupils, and it is hugely rewarding to see so many pupils excited to learn more about the classical world. Thank you WCN for giving me and my pupils this opportunity!
Key questions for consideration
Are VR headsets an alternative to school trips?
No, because the reconstructions don’t give the same appreciated of location and size of the sites, but they do allow us to see what they would have looked like while buildings were still intact and in use, as opposed to the remains of sites which are extant today.
How do they fit with our exam syllabi?
Latin & Greek language – VR offers the chance to experience the ancient world, where these languages were spoken on a daily basis and where some of our textbook characters and set-text authors lived.
For example, pupils using the CLC can visit Pompeii (albeit this app currently does not show a reconstruction, just a small section of the current-day ruins) to tie in with their studies of book 1, and later in book 4, they can visit Rome in VR to coincide with Salvius’ and Quintus’ return to the city. Characters in the CLC also visit Roman Britain and Alexandria; apps could be built which help to bring these places to life to enhance the teaching of these stages.
The VR headsets could also be used to enhance the culture units of the GCSE syllabi; the colosseum and circus maximus were both on the recent unit on Roman Entertainment.
Ancient History & Classical Civilisation – VR would be useful for any unit which incorporates study of the ancient sites. Greek Religion includes Athens and Olympia on the syllabus; Imperial Image includes a close study of the Augustan building regime, although the Rome seen on the app is limited to the forum and surrounding areas during a later period.
What are the pro’s and con’s of using VR headsets in class?
- Offers pupils the chance to experience the ancient world without having to leave the classroom, avoiding costly school trips abroad for pupils who can’t afford it.
- Pupils remain safely in the classroom. No international flights or hotel bookings required.
- Shows full reconstructions of the ancient sites, as opposed to the remains which exist today.
- Impressive ‘wow’ factor for pupils, parents and senior school leadership.
- Demonstrates the innovative nature of Classics pedagogy and technology, helping to dispel the myth that Classics is an outdated subject with little relevance to the modern world.
- VR is still new technology and therefore generates excitement among pupils to be doing something different. Very few pupils have their own VR headsets at home.
- Expensive – Oculus Go VR headsets cost in the region of £200 each. Cheaper alternatives are available. Some of the better apps also have a small fee attached.
- No central teacher control – pupils can ‘travel’ in any chosen direction, which means the teacher cannot focus pupils in on particular aspects of an ancient site or building which is pertinent to their syllabus. This option may be available in other apps, such as NearPod.
- Time-consuming – to know whether a particular app is of academic use, the teacher must spend considerable time familiarising themselves with each app to know what aspects are visible to pupils. I also found that pupils explored in a more targeted way if I gave a short lesson before using the headsets to give them some key features and buildings to look out for.
- Tech support – the teacher will spend most of the lesson time fixing technology issues for pupils who are less-fluent with new technology.
We need more and better apps, tied to particular syllabus units, e.g. Rome across different time periods, the route of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Athens app doesn’t show the Theatre of Dionysus, but this would help Greek Theatre pupils to appreciate the size and scale of the theatre and to better visualise theatrical performances.
VR could also be used in conjunction with museum collections to allow pupils to view prescribed sources on each syllabus, such as vases and coins, and to see each object in greater detail and from different angles.