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Using Virtual Reality to Gain a Deeper Understanding of the Blues

Noel Dolan teaching a unit on Harlem Renaissance and blues music and poetry to her ACS students

It was 2008 and Noel Dolan was teaching a unit on Langston Hughes and blues poetry in her Moderns course, which is part of Villanova’s signature first-year experience, the Augustine and Cultural Seminar (ACS) Program. Dolan, who serves as the Director of Academic Learning Communities for ACS, thought her freshmen students would be able to read, understand and know how to scan a poem for its sound quality. It quickly became clear students did not know the blues cadence behind the poem. She turned to playing YouTube clips in class to help her students become more familiar with the music. But it wasn’t enough.

So, Dolan invited Parris Bradley, Executive Director of Villanova’s new Performing Arts Center, to come into her classroom and play blues music live for her students. She said the live performances gave the students another layer of understanding of the music Hughes was trying to celebrate within his poems. While it was a good step forward, she continued to think about what was next.

“Working with Parris, I began to think about how wonderful this experience was,” Dolan recalls. “But how could I scale it? How could I make it larger? How could more people take advantage of it?”

Dolan connected with computer science professor Frank Klassner, PhD, who had received a National Science Foundation grant to develop a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) at Villanova. She also attended a conference on virtual reality and learned about the ways it enhances human comprehension of abstract ideas, how it opens up visual approaches to what a person is curious about when they’re looking at an object and how people will empathize with what they’re seeing.

“This experience led me to think about ways in which we could be using that type of technology to teach the blues,” Dolan said. “So, our students aren’t just listening and checking off the box of ‘oh, that’s the blues, let me go back to the poem,’ but you have a better sense of the people and the culture behind the blues.”

The Spring 2020 semester marks the first time Dolan’s students will enter the CAVE and experience a blues club.

“It’s important for me in using the technology to have multiple points of entry for student comprehension,” she says. “Some of that’s visual. Some of that’s auditory.”

Using 3D glasses, students can navigate throughout the club and activate different experiences with a remote to open to live performances, blues poems and information about poets, musicians and geographical locations influential to the blues.

With the rise of streaming—the likes of Apple Music and Spotify—and the platforms feeding you content based on your interests, music experiences today can be very singular. Dolan’s goal for the CAVE was to recreate the experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries where music exposure was more communal. Bringing her students in the CAVE attempts to recreate that experience.

Before students visit the CAVE, Dolan likes to first set up the unit and provide context in the classroom. After visiting the CAVE, the class comes back to unpack what students experienced and learned.

“You have to come back afterwards and have a conversation. What did you notice? What did you think? What did you link? How did this musician connect to that? Now when you look at Langston Hughes’ poem, let’s go back to it again and what can you add? What greater understanding do you have, having heard and seen what you have about Harlem? Lennox Avenue? How did the sound of the blues change as it migrated up the Mississippi River and eastward, or north to Chicago?”

Dolan says technology in the classroom is a tool, but not the be-all, end-all solution. It should be used to enhance what you’re already doing in class, she says.

“A goal I had in setting this up was that students would have a better sense, particularly of the auditory side of the blues and Hughes’ dialect. I think a lot of students reading his poems on a page felt a certain distance or confusion about the sounds of the words. Once you give the words voice, that opens up for students a sense of the person behind the poem.”

Dolan hopes the virtual reality experience will give her students a clear understanding of the poetry, the blues and the culture behind the blues.

“Now when you go back to the poem, you as the reader are changed in some way—so that it’s not just a piece of paper or a book, but it’s an experience that you once shared and can understand it differently,” added Dolan.

“Captivating Courses” is a feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.