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