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Class using digital technology to experience Black history

Feb. 14, 2008

KALAMAZOO--Some Western Michigan University students will still be in their pajamas and sipping java when they attend their African Religions class Monday, Feb. 18. That's because they'll be attending class online as characters in a virtual 19th-century African village.

While the students are experiencing history virtually, area media representatives as well as WMU faculty and staff have been invited to stop by Room 1354 in Ellsworth Hall between 4 and 5:30 p.m. to observe how this digital technology is being used at WMU to enliven learning.

For the Feb. 18 class session, about 45 African Religions students from across campus will honor Black History Month by logging in to a virtual world called "Village of Umuofia." This imaginary world was created by Dr. Allen Webb, professor of English, and is based on the novel "Things Fall Apart" by Chinna Achebe.

The virtual village incorporates an archive of photos and traditional music with a live-action role play where students who have read "Things Fall Apart" interact as if they were the Africans and arriving British colonizers depicted in the book. Teaching the course is Dr. Mustafa Mirzeler, associate professor of comparative religions and an anthropologist who specializes in African and Kurdish storytelling. For the upcoming class session, Mirzeler will be having his students gain a better understanding of African culture and history by focusing on storytelling techniques and performance.

The session will take advantage of technology made available through a 3-year-old project that integrates virtual reality environments and video games into teaching and learning.

The WMU project received a $117,000 grant from the President's Innovation Fund in 2006 and is the brainchild of Webb and a group his department colleagues. It aims in part to improve learning by immersing students in literary subjects.

Team members are freely sharing their work with students and teachers around the globe through their www.literaryworlds.org Web site. To date, 17 virtual worlds have been created based on the works of such writers as Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. Mirzeler has been working with Webb for three years to refine "Umuofia" as well as apply virtual reality technology to teaching African folklore, storytelling, performance, and other oral and literary traditions.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, (269) 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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