Guest Post: John Soboslai, Assistant Professor of Religion, Montclair State University
This article is the third in a three-part series on using virtual reality (VR) to promote religious literacy and enhance civil discourse. My first post outlined the general idea of using virtual reality (VR) as a way to remotely step into various religious rituals. The second post addressed some of the difficulties in defining both “religion” and “ritual.” In this last post, I want to explore the benefits of using immersive media to teach about religion, while offering a brief outline of how my colleagues and I intend to move forward.
Virtual reality, which makes use of 360-degree filming and 3d sound, has been shown to be a powerful educational tool. Our group of interdisciplinary scholars and media creators focused particularly on recording a selection of religious practices. Such resources could allow users to witness unfamiliar sacred rites (or variations on familiar ones) while learning about their procedure, symbolism, and meaning. Along with the associated micropractices of preparation and purification, VR technology also enables us to incorporate interviews, information overlays, and 3d objects. Together, these features generate a complete immersive experience for the viewer.
It turned out, however, that when it comes to religious rituals, this is easier said than done. First, both “religion” and “ritual” are notoriously difficult to define. Then, there’s the issue of choosing which rituals to capture. Rather than establishing a top-down list of practices, we decided to begin by partnering with interested religious communities – an approach that seemed optimal both methodologically and ethically.
Now, we must move from conception to (virtual) reality.
Beyond Cool to Valuable
If you’re like me, the first thing you thought when presented with the idea of VR experiences of religious ritual was: “Cool!” (In fact, that was one of the first responses of this blog’s editor.) I still think it’s pretty cool, and the students with whom I’ve shared the project do, too. There’s nothing wrong with that. Anything that promises to increase interest, attention, and engagement in my classes is most welcome, but studies also show a number of additional benefits to deploying immersive media in humanities classes.
For example, students using VR show better retention, advanced learning outcomes, greater intercultural empathy, and an increased ability to apply course-related insights. The overall result is increased civic competence related to living in a multicultural society. Those benefits are certainly well-suited to the study of religion. In addition, by focusing on intra-religious diversity, we hope VR experiences will help counter the notion that religions are inherently anti-progressive.
There is still a great deal of work to be done to hone future resources and understand the long-term impacts of using VR videos. But, we sincerely hope these opportunities to step into someone else’s practices will decrease “otherness” and reaffirm the common humanity of all religious practitioners.
VR for Everybody
An additional goal is making VR technologies appropriate for every classroom. “World Religions” courses could pair these experiences with lessons on the relevant religious traditions, giving students a chance to see live practices firsthand rather than the still snapshots found in popular textbooks. At the same time, anchoring the experiences in local communities could offer nuance to monolithic understandings and provide an opportunity to challenge the world religions paradigm itself. High school teachers could also offer them to students in modules about religion. The possibilities are nearly limitless!
The technology, itself, is also more accessible than you might think. VR experiences made for head-mounted displays (HMDs) still require expensive equipment, but smartphones can yield impressive engagements with 360° video. Try this: pull up YouTube on your smartphone and check out the 360 Video Tour of the Mormon Temple in Washington, DC (made by a consultant on our grant), or Al Jazeera’s 360° Tour of Al Aqsa mosque, or the BBC’s 360 Video of the fire ceremony at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As you watch, spin (slowly) with your phone and note how quickly you’re brought into the scene, responding to the virtual environment with ease. Pair your phone with the ~$15 Google Cardboard viewer and you’ll have an experience that can transport and transform.
From Consuming to Creating
The engagement offered by immersive media could even extend beyond the reception of these experiences to their creation. Digital media skills are in high demand, and we are still in the early stages of VR technology. Both Insta360 and GoPro make 360° cameras that are easy to use and more affordable than ever before. Also available are several means of recording 3d sound – from the relatively inexpensive Zoom H2N recorder to the state-of-the-art Sennheiser Ambeo microphone. There are also guided VR development tools like Glitch.com or Headjack.io that allow novice users to create complete experiences. With the right instructor training, university classes could offer experiential learning opportunities where participants would gain concrete skills in digital media creation while learning about responsible cultural engagement and religious diversity.
Long-term, our project goal is to enlist interested instructors across the country, offer training on the equipment and support on the development, and generate creation “pods” across the country. With guidance, each pod could then connect with local religious communities and produce experiences that contribute to the landscape of religious practices in the U.S.
Imagine the power of being able to step into the rituals of religious communities from Alaska to Alabama, from New Orleans to North Dakota, witnessing their similarities and differences and the vast diversity of our communities. Imagine the enhanced understanding and empathy it would bring about. Imagine the impact of enhanced partnerships between those teaching about religion and the religious communities in our neighborhoods. Imagine the next generation of media creators being more prepared to treat religious communities with respect and nuance.
Now THAT is cool.
About the Author
John Soboslai has been teaching in the department of Religion at Montclair State University since 2016. He has published articles on martyrdom and self-sacrifice in a variety of religious traditions, as well as co-authoring God in the Tumult of the Global Square with Mark Juergensmeyer and Dinah Griego in 2015. Recently, he has begun exploring ways of incorporating technologies like geographic information systems and digital media in teaching his students about religious practices.
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