Virtual Past Places progress report: VR embedding and evaluation

Jitte Waagen and Emma van de Goot

It has been 9 months since the official start of the Virtual Past Places project (VPP). The VPP project revolves around the development of Virtual Reality (VR) environments, tailor-made for selected courses in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam. As we are in full development, and many interesting steps have been taken, it is about time for an update!

Since the start of the project, we have been closely working together with lecturers on the implementation of Virtual Reality in the classroom. A total of eight courses from different fields were selected for the project and for each of these, we are creating VR environments optimized towards a specific learning objective. In this phase of the project, we focus on two specific challenges. The first is to further strengthen the embedding of the VR environments in the teaching modules, and the second is to develop a method to evaluate the effect of the VR activity on improving education (Waagen, 2021).

Embedding and evaluating

In order to properly design the VR environments and to develop an effective evaluation method, a close collaboration with the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) at the Faculty of Humanities was established.

Together with the TLC, we organized a brainstorm session with all involved to plenary discuss the affordances of VR in the context of improving cognitive skills, as well as a workshop for course (re-)design. We will expand on both below. The end goals of these sessions have been to ensure all involved are aware of the possibilities of VR for their education and are able to select a proper place for it in their courses. Through this process of plenary discussion and development, we aim to bolster the alignment of their design and implementation to learning goals of the selected courses.

Evaluation of VR in higher education as reported in literature is limited, partly due to the practical complexities of doing VR with large numbers of students. An important step has been a literature study into the current state of the implementation of VR in higher education. A, perhaps surprising, conclusion is that there is relatively little information available on the effective use of VR in higher education in the Humanities. One of the reasons is that many of the applications of VR are geared towards the development of affective or practical skills. This means that with the implementation of VR in this project, which will be oriented towards cognitive skills, we are venturing into little researched territory. As for the evaluation, with the help of evaluation expert Nina van Stokkum from the TLC, we decided on a three-part evaluation approach, a combination of assessing EvaSys evaluations, executing pre- and post-tests and organizing in-depth interviews with students and lecturers. We are still working on finetuning the three methods of evaluation.

Brainstorm session

In November 2022, the first session took place; a brainstorm on the potential added value of VR in higher education. All involved lecturers were received by Jitte Waagen and Tijm Lanjouw from the 4DRL, and education innovation specialist Jolanda Broex of the TLC. The objective of the session was to inform the participants of the possibilities of the browser-based collaborative VR Mozilla Hubs. In addition, the involved lecturers were asked to share their views on their perception of the potential benefits of VR in education. This meeting provided the project with a first indication of where the implementation of VR in the different courses could be headed. In addition, it gave us the possibility to manage expectations where needed.

The main expectation of lecturers on the implementation of VR is that it could indeed potentially improve cognitive skills, spatial thinking, and increase motivation among students. Given the different courses, coming from Architectural History, Ancient Studies, Conservation and Restoration, and Archaeology, a nice range of very diverging VR environments and potential learning goals were discussed.

ABC learning design session

Jolanda Broex hosted the ABC learning design (Active, Blended, Connected) session with the participating lecturers to critically think about the design of the courses and the proper place of a VR teaching activity. The ABC learning design session, a method developed for UCL (Young & Perović, 2016), was selected for its hands-on approach that assists participants in reevaluating their course in a short time span.

The method starts with three actions, namely producing a tweet, drawing a learning activity graphic and evaluating the degree of blended learning in the course. This part is aimed at stimulating reflection on current course setup and materials. In a Tweet (max of 320 characters) participants described the main learning objective and unique qualities of the course. After this they were required to create a graph that reflected the balance of different learning activities: production, practice, investigation, discussion, collaboration, or reflection. Finally, they evaluated the level of blended learning they were practicing and indicated this on a scale bar.

In the following redesign phase, a storyboard with a timeline of the course was filled with cards representing different learning activity types. Then, on a second timeline, these cards can be reshuffled following insights into the desired sequence of learning activity types in a new course design. After this redesign process, the lecturer could turn these activity type cards and learn what kind of actual practical exercises can be implemented, i.e., at the back of the card ‘Investigation’ one can find exercises such as ‘literature study’, ‘lab observations’, ‘web search’, etc. During the sessions, lecturers would brainstorm with students about the course and related activities.

In this way, we hoped that by deconstructing and then reconstructing the course from its basic premises, a conscious design process was stimulated that ultimately benefits the project goals: namely, assessing how to embed the VR environments. At the end of the session all lecturers created an action plan, listing the necessary steps they would need to take before turning to the actual VR environment design. Experiences have been shared in this blogpost by Jolanda Broex.

VR environment design

Following the workshops, the VPP team engaged with individual lecturers in actual VR design sessions. In a series of meetings that we are currently undertaking, concrete learning scenarios are being developed and VR content envisioned, after which an intake will follow with the developers at the 4DRL. Currently five initial VR designs have been developed. An example of a VR design is that for the MA course Historical Archaeology: Theories and Concepts. The main idea here is to develop a basic reconstruction of a part of the 19th century Amsterdam Neighborhood ‘De Jordaan’. Students will research archival material of the area and period and use the VR to contextualize historical photographs by locating the exact place where they have been taken. As such, the VR environment helps to improve understanding of the spatial context of historical information and provides a tool for data-integration, discussion, and reflection.


In this blog post, we hope to have taken you along on our journey of conceptualizing and designing Virtual Reality for higher education in the Humanities. The past months, we have been working on solutions to ensure a smooth VR design process, to create a seamless embedding of the VR in the course design and create solid methods to evaluate the VR elements. We are excited to see how the project develops and we will update you soon!


Young, C., & Perović, N. (2016). Rapid and Creative Course Design: As Easy as ABC? Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 228, 390–395.

Waagen, J. (2021, 10 November). Virtual Past Places, a collaborative VR for storytelling and education. 4D Research Lab.

Experiencing the virtual reality environments available on
Mind map of the brainstorm session on VR affordances and teaching potential in higher education
ABC course design session in actions (Prof. dr. Danielle Slootjes)
Preliminary VR design sheet for Historical Archaeology: Theories and Concepts

3DWorkSpace project announcement

The NWO Open Science application that the 4D Research Lab submitted with main applicant dr. Jill Hilditch of the Tracing the Potters Wheel project (TPW), has received funding!

The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration on developing and deploying a 3D viewer for education and research purposes. This project, which we called 3D WorkSpace, is a collaboration with Loes Opgenhaffen, PhD researcher in the TPW project, Hugo Huurdeman, freelance designer (Timeless Future), Leon van Wissen, scientific programmer of CREATE, and is being executed in cooperation with Paul Melis and Casper van Leeuwen from SURF and the developers of the Smithsonian Institute represented by Jamie Cope, computer engineer at the Digitization Program Office of the Smithsonian Institute. Here, we present an outline of the project that will start in March, 2022.

Open access 3D models are often placed in online platforms with limited options for interactive communication and education. Although some 3D collections are published with their associated metadata, paradata, annotations and interpretations, these currently provide no open tools for re-use or interactivity. The Voyager digital museum curation tool suite, developed by the Smithsonian Institute, allows for interactivity and enrichment of the data but does not enable reuse or open content creation in a multiuser environment. Annotating, adding information to a 3D model without modifying the model itself, is possible for the creators of the content, but not for the end-users.

3DWorkSpace will facilitate re-use of 3D models through the addition of annotations and narratives, as well as side-by-side comparison of multiple models, within an online app environment adapted from the open source Voyager platform. It will allow data enrichment by enabling multi-authoring through the built-in annotation system, as well as through linkage to datasets (e.g., thesauri and museum catalogues) available as Linked Open Data (LOD). Two heritage-based case studies, production traces on experimental ceramics from the Tracing the Potter’s Wheel and a drone-based dataset from the 4D Research Lab, will allow full exploration of diverse 3D models for the implementation and testing of the adapted Voyager environment. Learning pathways, using the Voyager annotation feature, will train users in the necessary skills for guiding analysis of the 3D data models.

3DWorkSpace utilizes existing open access resources to realise a truly open science platform: from adaptation of the Voyager tool suite and testing with web-based open access 3D datasets, to technical support for data creation and access via Linked Open Data and Figshare. Evaluation will occur in tandem with the creation of training materials for technical set-up and 3D data curation. In this way we will lower the threshold for adoption, create best practice through training and demonstration, and create a roadmap for implementation and evaluation.

Although born from the material culture field, 3DWorkSpace is an initiative aimed at any field engaging with 3D data visualisation, as well as users seeking to integrate interactivity and data re-use, and will open up new ways of communicating and debating the narratives in which 3D reconstructions function for educators, researchers, students and general users.

We are really looking forward starting with this project!

Screenshot of the Voyager app

Virtual Past Places, a collaborative VR for storytelling and education

With this blog post, we would like to introduce our online virtual reality platform Virtual Past Places. From early 2021 the 4DRL has started experimenting with the browser-based collaborative VR technology of Mozilla Hubs. This came as a natural follow-up from the experiments with various Blended Learning projects in ACASA and the current interest of the 4D Research Lab into extended reality applications for storytelling and educational purposes (see e.g. here and here). Initially, the 4DRL was contacted by Paul Melis and Caspar van Leeuwen at SURF (find them here) to provide a case study for a pilot with the XR ERA network, Centre for Innovation, Leiden University, which we picked up on. The experience generated a lot of enthusiasm and ideas to continue to explore the possibilities in the 4DRL field of expertise: material heritage studies in a broad sense. This is evidently very relevant in times of Covid that placed emphasis on the necessity of online and hybrid learning approaches. This blog post aims to provide a succinct overview of recent developments and plans for the immediate future, and stages the Virtual Past Places website.

Homepage of Virtual Past Places

Experiencing virtual Vlooienburg

For the initial experiment with the XR ERA network, we used (part of) the historical reconstructions of the Vlooienburg neighbourhood, which provided us with a first impression. In addition a second room, a virtual exhibition space, was created to introduce the research project and elucidate the reconstruction process while allowing participants getting acquainted with navigating the environment. The experiences have been written up here and here, where the proper credits for this collaboration can also be found. Some of the more interesting positive observations were on 1) the possibilities presented by the platform to create different VR settings, 2) a straightforward sense of being which was much more pronounced than with a regular slideshow, 3) the fact that the onboarding was not too hard, at least not for the tech-savvy group of participants of that meeting and 4) a general sense of enthusiasm about the potential to experience 3D content in a first-person life sized perspective.

After the initial experience with the XR ERA network group, the excursion was repeated in various settings, ranging from research meetings to social events, and even valorisation purposes, the contents of the tour expanding every time.

Screenshot of the Vlooienburg VR experiment with XR ERA and SURF

Expanding the range of VR places

Inspired by these possibilities, funds have been obtained to create other virtual experiences as well. Where the Vlooienburg reconstructions represent a lost neighbourhood and how that could have looked like, as a set of visualised historical hypotheses, we thought it would be nice to add other types of projects that can benefit from virtualization.

For example, for the iconic UNESCO world heritage site of Troy, Turkey, we used models derived through drone and terrestrial photogrammetry to create a digital twin of the archaeological remains. ACASA is currently executing the Archaeology of Archaeology project at this renowned site. Although Troy is physically accessible, it is at the same time a far-away site, where you cannot take students at any moment it is opportune for a teaching module. Furthermore, it is often flooded by tourists affecting the experience, and moreover fenced off so there are parts of the site actually inaccessible for all but the archaeologists themselves. In close collaboration with project director dr. Gert Jan van Wijngaarden, a virtual tour was created, focusing on the Archaeology of Archaeology project with a specific attention on the ‘silent’ unknown workmen that did the actual excavation in most periods. Virtual information panels were placed at the site that served as illustrative materials alongside the site and the excavation trenches themselves.

Another interesting option is to place a real excavation in VR space as well. Usually such archaeological material remains are only visible during the excavation, where in the rest of the year they lie under a protective cover. The VR could allow for presenting the excavated remains and discuss the complex interpretations of the archaeology present to students and colleagues. They can enter the actual trenches where they would physically not be allowed to do so. An environment such as this can serve interesting purposes in student preparations for coming fieldwork campaigns, as well as to teach them about basic archaeological excavation methods.

Grassroots innovation

All in all, these endeavors gave us a lot of hands-on problem solving experiences with the software, which has been very helpful in getting things to run smoothly for the various VR spaces. In addition, and most importantly, the ongoing experimentation and evaluation allows for a build-up of experience and ideas on how to use such a collaborative VR effectively for storytelling and teaching purposes. Currently, this has culminated in a UvA innovation (Grassroots) project, in which we will implement Mozilla Hubs experiences as class modules in close collaboration with Gert Jan van Wijngaarden and other teachers at ACASA.

Examples of these are courses such as Archaeology, Museums and the Public, where the experience of authenticity will be critically assessed for the virtual environments, or the Research lab: The palaces of Troy IV, where the Troy VR will provide students with a comprehensible and detailed visualisation of the study subject.

The subsidy allowed the installation of a Mozilla Hubs cloud for ACASA, that provides three key-advantages; 1) control over content, as we retain full ownership over the uploaded materials, which is an important aspect in the world of heritage and visual rights, 2) scalability, i.e. temporarily upscale server capacity to allow much more participants then the standard number, and 3) branding and creating a UvA landing page, so we have been able to develop an easily accessible visual portal into the virtual spaces, which became Virtual Past Places. Furthermore, the subsidy will provide for technical assistance necessary for the cloud implementation and application during classes.

Towards further integration

At the moment, opportunities for further research and implementation are being explored. Since the content and infrastructure are secured, we aim for a deepening the conceptual embedding of VR spaces in the teaching modules, and combine that with a thorough evaluation programme to gather empirical data on the advantages and disadvantages of this technology in an educational context.

In the meantime, we welcome you at the Virtual Past Places website, where all discussed VRs (and more) are accessible:

Screenshot of Satricum VR, excavation of a Roman villa

Augmented Reality in Humanities Education

Last month the coordinator of the 4DRL, Jitte Waagen, was awarded with a grant from the University of Amsterdam for the development of Augmented Reality in education. As far as we know, this is within humanities at the UvA the first attempt to use this technology in academic teaching programs. That means this project is still very explorative in nature: what works, and what doesn’t? We improve by free experimentation, but also by clearly defining aims and setting out a vision for the future. So I asked Jitte to write down his ideas regarding the specific aims of the current project and in general about the future potential of AR in education.

How did the idea for this project rise with you?

Jitte with an AR experiment from earlier this year: a roman villa projected on a textured panel.

In ACASA, we do city walks with students to introduce them to the archaeology/history of Amsterdam, as well as introduce them to the world of online spatial data; the Through the Looking Glass (TtLG) project. Students are provided with a tablet with old maps and archaeological data that shows them where they are in relation to historical sources. This has so far been based on digital two-dimensional maps; we always wanted to do this in 3D, projecting historical data on the screen of a tablet as 3D reconstructions visible in the Amsterdam streetview. You could show so much more information, i.e. how would the 1481 city walls look projected on the current skyline of Amsterdam. In addition to our own curiosity, in evaluations of the TtLG project students often mentioned they would like to see buildings and objects in 3D during the walk. So it was basically an idea that was waiting for a project. The project in collaboration with the APM flowed naturally from this as well, since the museum is also used for teaching purposes at ACASA.

Continue reading “Augmented Reality in Humanities Education”

Grant for exploring augmented reality in education

Augment of Kalverstraat 60/62, the former house and workshop of 16th century painter Jacob Cornelisz.

4D Research Lab coordinator Jitte Waagen received a ‘Blended Learning’ grant for exploring the use of augmented reality in education. Blended Learning is the University of Amsterdam’s program to stimulate the development of new forms of education. There are two projects planned. Augmenting Artefacts will explore the use of interactive augments of artefacts in the Allard Pierson archaeological museum. Students learn to collect data and enrich museum artefacts with contextual information, displayed in an augment. In the Blending Past & Present project students are challenged to visualise the past city of Amsterdam, making 3D reconstruction of buildings and view them in context of the current urban setting. The 4D Research Lab is closely involved with these projects, supporting the students with advise on methodology and technology and creating examples of use-cases.

Read more on the website of ACASA (Dutch)