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22st Annual OLC International Conference
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Visualization of Historic Sites for Memory, Memorialization, and Historical Inquiry

Todd Ogle (Virginia Tech, USA)
Thomas Tucker (Virginia Tech, USA)
Additional Authors
David Hicks (Virginia Tech, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 11:45am
Technology and Emerging Learning Environments
Areas of Special Interest: 
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Southern Hemisphere IV
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 1
Virtual Session

This presentation introduces our use of LIDAR to scan World War I sites and presentation in virtual reality, bringing distant sites to American school children.

Extended Abstract

We are exploring how we can access the past and places that are geographically inaccessible to many learners. Our most recent work is in the design, development and evaluation of online educational resources that allow learners to visualize structures, places, and terrain of the Meuse Argonne battlefield from the Western Front of World War I. As part of the TransAtlantic Teacher Scholars project, funded by the American Battle Monuments Association, a team from Virginia Tech created 3D representations of a selection of sites important to the American story at the Meuse-Argonne. These visualizations are intended to help the viewer gain a spatial understanding of these sites, and spark an interest in the greater narrative that the sites are a part of.

The Context:

The German Army took the village of Montfaucon during the bloody battle for Verdun in 1916. The Germans constructed observation posts within the village, which sat atop high ground, allowing the spotting of artillery that fired on Verdun 20 miles to the southeast.

One of these observation posts was built inside the chapel and still stands today. Others litter the south face of the hill, throughout the area once occupied by the village.

During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Montfaucon lay within the main belt of German positions. Situated approximately 3 miles north of the American jump off point, Montfaucon was the first objective of the 79th Division which consisted primarily of draftees from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington D.C. When the 79th approached the village on September 26th, 1918, it lay in ruins. The chapel appeared as it does today.

The Problem:

World War I is covered in various ways in the American classroom. The events of the Great War are separated from today's schoolchildren by not only 100 years, but also a great distance. The Meuse-Argonne battlefield lies in rural, eastern France. Local French schoolchildren visit the sites there on field trips, but if an American child visits France for an educational experience they are far more likely to visit Normandy than the Meuse-Argonne. The American Battle Monuments Commission would like to offer their resources to an effort in bringing world war one home to American school children.

Gunther Kress, professor of semiotics and education, contends that there has been a shift in the predominant form of knowledge construction, meaning-making, and dissemination from the idea of a "world told" to a "world shown," where the concept of literacy goes beyond communicating and comprehending written texts. Media convergence has changed how we now understand what it means to be literate in a multimodal information rich society.

Visualization means many things to many people, for example graphical representations of datasets, processor usage, search terms, mechanical stresses in structures; in our context, visualization is a window into a past that no longer exists in the physical world. Virtual Reality (VR) is a tool that allows for visualization of information at home or in the classroom for visualization of places or structures that are separated from the learner either by both time and place. We use virtual reality to:

- Require student reflection on sources in context, supporting the learning of complex strategy knowledge through scaffolding;
- Require social mediation, as students work together from personalized but similar points of view;
- Allow students to visualize change over time and space to support understanding of chronology.

Learners can use VR to view and reflect on evidence, leverage the benefits of context, conceptualize the past and visualize changes over time, and participate in a compelling experience that engages and motivates.


Our team used a Faro LIDAR scanner to document five historic sites in four locations around the Meuse-Argonne battlefield. LIDAR illuminates an object with a laser then analyzes the light that is reflected. Using this data our team built precise 3D models of German trenches and associated underground galleries, structures such as bunkers and observation posts, and American memorials that mark American involvement in and around the Meuse Argonne. In the case of the ruins of the village of Montfaucon, the data was processed from a point cloud to a mesh, then re-toped and textured from photographs also taken at the site. The resulting model was loaded into the Unity game engine. Narration describing the site was added next. Additional information in the form of photos and videos are being added to the experience continually. We continue to experiment with techniques for engaging learners with the content and environment as a portal to the past which we hope sparks their interest in the topic and begins them on an inquiry arc that will lead to furthering their understanding of the people and events that happen at this important place in our nation's history.


The results of our work are included in the AMBC iBook available at http://tinyurl.com/lc6xmsl, on exhibit at Virginia Tech, have seen usage in Middle School classrooms, and can be used online.

Pre- and in-service teachers are exploring how such visualizations can support concept learning and introduce inquiry-based activities that allow for an exploration of the American experience as they entered the existing conditions in the Meuse-Argonne region of France. These visualizations take the form of video fly-throughs (http://youtu.be/1NCbx2lszNw) VR on the desktop, in the ICAT Cube (http://tinyurl.com/jwkvh4r) in the Virginia Tech Moss Arts Center and via tablets using the Unity game engine.

The session will be an active and engaging opportunity to understand the process of teaching history through digital representations of historic sites from data collection to environment design and learning experience construction. Session participants will have the opportunity to explore the virtual environment via iPad or desktop VR as part of the session.