Tagged 3D technology

Side angle view of a 3D-scanned leafy plant woodblo

Make-Ready: Fabricating a Bibliographic Community


The 3Dhotbed project was established in 2016 with the goal of leveraging maker culture to enhance the study of material culture. An acronym for 3D-Printed History of the Book Education, the project extends the tradition of experiential learning set forth by the bibliographical press movement through the development of open-access teaching tools. After successfully implementing its initial curricular offerings, the project developed an engaged community of practice across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, whose members have since called for further development. This paper reports upon recent efforts to answer these demands through the design of a community-populated repository of 3D-printable teaching tools for those engaging in bibliographical instruction and research. Among the key findings are the demonstration that the same pedagogical methods that made the bibliographical press movement successful are now applicable more broadly throughout the expanding discipline of book history, and that 3D technologies, distributed by a digital library platform, are ideal for providing open access to the tools that can promote this pedagogy on a global scale. By outlining the theoretical grounding for the project’s work and charting the hurdles and successes the group has encountered in furthering these efforts in the burgeoning bibliographical maker movement, the 3Dhotbed project is well positioned to serve as a model for others seeking to utilize 3D technologies, digital library infrastructure, and/or multiple institutional partnerships in the design of interactive pedagogy.


In the mid-twentieth century, a new approach to research and instruction surrounding the history of the book emerged, which advocated for a hands-on mode of inquiry complementing the traditional work performed in a reading room.[1] The bibliographical press movement, as it came to be known, demonstrated that first-hand experience with the tools and methods of, say, an Elizabethan pressroom allowed researchers to put into practice the book history they theorized. In recent decades, the movement’s continued success has hinged largely upon access to appropriate equipment with which students and researchers can conduct these experiential experiments. The reality today is that many more would like to offer an immersive approach to book history pedagogy than have the proper equipment to do so. However, with the proliferation of affordable 3D technologies and advancements in digital library distribution, there is a new opportunity to democratize and significantly enhance access to this and other forms of instruction. This paper reports on efforts of the 3Dhotbed project (3D-printed History of the Book Education) to build a community-populated repository of open-access, 3D-printable teaching tools for those engaging in bibliographical instruction and research. Following a brief analysis of how the project has evolved from decades of application in book history-related instruction, the paper will outline 3Dhotbed’s work toward establishing a community 3D data repository and fostering a community of practice. Beyond the realm of book history, these findings will be relevant to those developing projects using 3D technologies, or anyone working on a digital project that relies upon workflows distributed among partners at many institutions.

An Overview of the Bibliographical Press Movement

A crucial element in the expansion of bibliography during the last century was the advent of the bibliographical press movement. Defined by one of its key proponents, Philip Gaskell, as “a workshop or laboratory which is carried on chiefly for the purpose of demonstrating and investigating the printing techniques of the past by means of setting type by hand, and of printing from it on a simple press,” these pedagogical experiments have provided an ideal environment for scholars seeking to understand the printed texts they study (Gaskell 1965, 1). The movement appeared in the wake of a call-to-action made in 1913 by R. B. McKerrow, which has served as a refrain for book historians over the last century: “It would, I think, be an excellent thing if all who propose to edit an Elizabethan work from contemporary printed texts could be set to compose a sheet or two in as exact facsimile as possible of some Elizabethan octavo or quarto, and to print it on a press constructed on the Elizabethan model” (McKerrow 1913, 220). As he postulated, with even a rudimentary experiential lesson in historic printing, students “would have constantly and clearly before their minds all the processes through which the matter of the work before them has passed, from its first being written down by the pen of its author to its appearance in the finished volume, and would know when and how mistakes are likely to arise” (McKerrow 1913, 220). It would be some twenty years before McKerrow’s course of study was brought to fruition with the establishment of a bibliographical press by Hugh Smith at University College, London in 1934. By 1964, at least twenty-five such presses had been established across three continents (Gaskell 1965, 7–13).

In practice, the work McKerrow’s successors have embarked upon with these bibliographical presses has served to further both pedagogy and research. The hands-on approach encourages students to internalize the processes, forging an intimate knowledge of them that better informs subsequent analysis of texts. In the past several decades, experiential learning theorists have confirmed Gaskell’s adage that “there is no better way of recognizing and understanding [printers’] mistakes than that of making them oneself” (Gaskell 1965, 3). As Sydney Shep has written:

By applying technical knowledge to the creation of works which challenge the relationship between structure and meaning, form and function, sequentiality and process, text and reader, students achieve not only a profound understanding of nature and behaviour of the materials they are handling, but an awareness of the interrelationship of book production methods and their interpretive consequences. (Shep 2006, 39–40)

The continued proliferation of these bibliographical presses stands as a testament to the efficacy of an experiential approach that focuses on the process to better understand the product of printing. This presswork has formalized a methodology through which book historians have established and tested hypotheses regarding how books were printed in the hand-press period. Indeed, much of the foundational work done during the twentieth century to investigate the history of the book relied upon the reverse engineering of historical methods in bibliographical press environments (Shep 2006, 39). However, such advances have not come without significant logistical obstacles. Notably, the acquisition of proper equipment has been a perennial challenge for those wishing to take up this work.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Philip Gaskell described how he relied on the charity of his colleagues at the Cambridge University Press, who lent him their castoff equipment to start his operations. However, these two nineteenth-century iron hand-presses differed significantly from those used in the Elizabethan period. Gaskell acknowledges, “Ideally we should try to imitate the ways of the hand-press period as closely as we can, and the establishments which have built replicas of old common presses are certainly nearest to that ideal” (Gaskell 1965, 3). Modern iron hand-presses such as those given to him mimicked the operations of an Elizabethan common press well enough to foster an understanding of early printing, so long as one understood the historical concessions being made.

Concerns regarding how to procure the right equipment pervaded the early decades of the bibliographical press movement. In his article advocating for an experiential approach, Gaskell included a census of current bibliographical presses and took pains to list the equipment each held, paying particular attention to the make and model of the press and how it was acquired (Gaskell 1965, 7–13). Notably, only one of these was fashioned before the nineteenth century, with most dating to the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Today, even locating latter-day printing equipment proves to be a struggle. Steven Escar Smith has commented upon the increasing difficulty of doing so as the printing industry continues to evolve, adding that “the scarcity and age of surviving tools and equipment, especially in regard to the hand press period, makes them too precious for student use” (Smith 2006, 35). This being the case, one must resort to custom fabrication in order to facilitate the kind of hands-on experiential learning that Gaskell and his colleagues advocated. In today’s market, where securing even a few cases of type can be prohibitively expensive for many instructors, such a prospect is a nonstarter. In order for the bibliographical press movement to grow and expand in the twenty-first century, an updated approach must be adopted.

New Solutions for Old Problems: 3D Technologies in Book History Instruction

The 3Dhotbed project was devised to alleviate the difficulties that would-be instructors in book history encounter when trying to develop experiential learning curricula. Using a complement of 3D scanning and modelling techniques, this multi-institutional collaboration has created highly accurate, 3D-printable replicas that are freely available for download from an online repository. The project is positioned as a confluence of book history, maker culture, and the digital humanities, and is grounded by core values such as openness, transparency, and collaboration (Spiro 2012). Succinctly put, the project proposes (a) the same methods that made the bibliographical press movement successful in the instruction of early modern western printing can and should be applied more broadly throughout the expanding discipline of book history; and (b) 3D technologies, distributed via a digital library platform, are ideal for providing open access to the tools that can promote this pedagogy on a global scale.

Extending the practice of relying upon custom fabrication to build multi-faceted collections of book history teaching tools, we envision a future for bibliographical instruction that embraces additive manufacturing to create hands-on teaching opportunities. The project aspires to continue the spirit of the bibliographical press movement, which was marked by experimentation as inquiry and a commitment to experiential learning, within burgeoning digital spaces. By leveraging the sustainable, open-access digital library at the University of North Texas (UNT), the project democratizes access to a growing body of 3D-printable teaching tools and the knowledge they engender beyond often isolated and institutionally-bound physical classrooms. Ultimately, 3Dhotbed envisions an international bibliographic community whose members not only benefit from the availability and replicability of these tools, but also contribute their own datasets and teaching aids to the project.

3Dhotbed: From Product to Project

The 3Dhotbed team’s initial goal was developing a typecasting toolkit to teach the punch-matrix system for producing moveable metal type. The team captured 3D scans of working replicas from the collection of the Book History Workshop at Texas A&M University as the basis for the toolkit’s design. The workshop’s own wood-and-metal replicas were painstakingly fabricated by experts in analytical bibliography and early modern material culture, and have been used in hands-on typographical instruction for almost two decades.

Rotating gif of a 3D-modeled hand mould.
Figure 1. Rotating gif of Moveable Hand Mould Side A. One piece of a two-part mould used for casting hand-made type. Slid together, the two parts of the mould create a cavity that adjusts for varying letter widths. A typecaster inserts a matrix for a specific letter into the hand mould and fills the resulting cavity with molten type metal, creating a piece of type (Jacobs, McIntosh, and O’Sullivan 2017).

Successfully developing the typecasting toolkit was an iterative process that included scanning, processing, and modeling the exemplar wood-and-metal replicas into functional 3D-printable tools.[2] The resulting toolkit served as a proof-of-concept, not only for the creation and use of 3D tools in hands-on book history instruction, but also for the formation of an active community of practice invested in their use and further development (Jacobs, McIntosh, and O’Sullivan 2018). Since being launched in the summer of 2017, the 3Dhotbed collection has been used more than 3,100 times at institutions across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

In developing the first toolkit, the project illustrated the potential pedagogical impact of harnessing maker culture to advance the study of material culture. As Dale Dougherty, founder of Make magazine, framed the term, a “maker” is someone deeply invested in do-it-yourself (DIY) activities, who engages creatively with the physicality of an object and thinks critically about the ideas that have informed it. It is a definition that places a maker as being more akin to a tinkerer than an inventor (Dougherty 2012, 11–14). As a tool designed for classroom use, the first 3Dhotbed toolkit includes several distinct pieces, which the end-user must interpret, physically assemble, and enact in order to fully understand. Inspired by the maker movement, this personal engagement with the design and mechanical operations of tools of the fifteenth century, as mediated through those of the twenty-first century, encourages a student to actively construct their knowledge of the punch-matrix system (Sheridan et al. 2014, 507).

The team members immediately implemented the typecasting toolkit into curricula across their respective institutions. At the University of North Texas, Jacobs partnered with Dr. Dahlia Porter to incorporate hands-on book history instruction into a graduate level course focusing on bibliography and historical research methods. The required readings introduced students to the theoretical processes of type design, typecasting, typesetting, imposition, and hand-press printing, but many struggled to connect those processes to the resulting physical texts they were assigned to analyze prior to their visit. In a post-instruction survey of the visit, Dr. Porter stated, “It is only when students model the processes themselves that they fully understand the relationship between the technical aspects of book making and the book in its final, printed and bound form.” At Texas A&M University, where an experiential book history program was already established, O’Sullivan incorporated the typecasting toolkit in support of more ad-hoc educational outreach, such as informal instruction and community events. Doing so allowed detailed bibliographic instruction to be brought into spaces where it might not otherwise appear, illustrating the immediate benefits of portability and adaptability provided by using 3D models outside a pressroom environment.

From the outset, 3Dhotbed was envisioned as a community resource, and the team has repeatedly solicited feedback and guidance from end-users. For example, the team hosted a Book History Maker Fair in 2016, attracting a varied group of students, faculty, and community members. Attendees widely reported that handling these tools was helpful in crafting their understanding of historical printing practices, and expressed an eagerness to attend similar events in the future. Following the project’s official debut at the RBMS Conference in summer 2017, instructors contacted the team to discuss how they were successfully incorporating the typecasting toolkits in their book history classrooms and offered ideas for additional tools to be developed.[3] Simultaneously, scholars involved in similar work reached out to the team with datasets they had generated, hoping to make them publicly available for teaching and research (see Figure 2). This international group of scholars, students, and special collections librarians offered innovative use cases, additional content, and suggestions regarding areas in which to grow, which encouraged the team to develop the 3Dhotbed project from a stand-alone toolkit into a multi-faceted digital collection.

A key feature of this second phase is the involvement of this community—not only in the reception and use of 3Dhotbed tools, but in their creation and description as well. These continuing endeavors have developed into networked and peer-led learning experiences. In moving to this community-acquisition model, the project draws from a wider selection of available artifacts to digitize and include, as well as a broader array of expertise in the history of the book. Moving toward such a model also created an opportunity for the project to benefit from the perspective of independent designers, book history enthusiasts, and makers who work outside the academy.

The success of this distributed model depends on three things: the utilization of a trusted digital library for the data, the development of logical workflows with clear directives for ingesting and describing community-generated data, and considerations for responsibly stewarding datasets of collections owned by partner institutions. Rather than create an unsustainable, purpose-built repository to host the datasets, 3Dhotbed leverages the existing supported system at UNT Libraries. This digital library encourages community partnerships and has a successful history of facilitating distributed workflows for thorough content description (McIntosh, Mangum, and Phillips 2017). The team built upon this existing structure and developed additional tools to facilitate varying levels of collaboration. This model enables the 3Dhotbed project to explore new partnerships within the international bibliographic community while promising sustainability and open access.

Community-Generated Data in Theory

The twenty-first century has witnessed a boom in the development and use of 3D technologies across both public and private sectors. In 2014, Erica Rosenfeld Halverson and Kimberly M. Sheridan pointed to the makerspace.com directory as listing more than 100 makerspaces worldwide, citing this as an indicator of the maker movement’s expansion (Halverson and Sheridan 2014, 503). As of this writing, only six years later, the same directory now lists nearly ten times that figure.[4] With this massive growth in available resources has also come a great expansion in the types of projects and products incorporating 3D technologies and similar maker tools. In some cases, the focus of activities taking place in a makerspace is upon the making itself, with the end-product being only incidental—the relic of a constructive process and physical expression of more abstract ideas (Ratto 2011; Hertz 2016). In others, however, the process is driven toward a specific goal, an end-product that might possess future research, instruction, or commercial value. Such activities include custom fabrication, prototyping, and 3D digitization. In these instances, where the deliverable could be considered a work of enduring value, particular attention must be given not only to the design and manufacturing of the product, but also to its metadata and sustainable long-term storage (Boyer et al. 2017).

In the humanities, where 3D projects have begun to proliferate, we must develop methodologies to guide work of enduring value to ensure its rigor and validity. As in any digitization project, it is important to understand what information has been lost between the original artifact and the resulting 3D model when incorporating it into research and instruction. The field of book history is well prepared to utilize 3D models, as scholars in the discipline have regularly turned to functional replicas to inform their inquiry where precise historical artifacts were not available (Gaskell 1965, 1–2; Samuelson and Morrow 2015, 90–95).

The 3Dhotbed team strives for full transparency in this regard, communicating where concessions to historical accuracy have been made, and attending in particular to the anticipated learning outcomes of each dataset. For instance, the 3Dhotbed typecasting teaching toolkit cannot be used to cast molten metal type when 3D printed from plastic polymers, but is nevertheless effective in communicating the mechanics of how a punch, matrix, and hand-mould may be used to produce multiple identical pieces of movable type.

These decisions are an integral part of producing a detailed 3D model. Most are inconspicuous, but cumulatively they have a real impact on the finished product. Understanding where and how these decisions are made has been one significant outcome of this project. With the progression toward a collaborative model, there is a communal responsibility to make informed recommendations as to how the scanning or modelling ought to be carried out, ensuring a consistent level of quality across the digital assets ingested into the repository. Likewise, it is essential that those who download, print, and use future replicas are able to evaluate historical concessions for themselves. An analogous concern is encountered by anyone conducting research with a microfilmed or digitized copy of a book or newspaper (Correa 2017, 178). These surrogates provide much of a book’s content (e.g. the printed text), but they cannot convey all of the information contained therein (e.g. bibliographical features such as watermarks or fore-edge paintings)—a fact that has limited their utility to book historians.

By contrast, 3D models can enter a repository as complex objects accompanied by supplemental files and other forms of metadata. Through these we have the ability—and the ethical responsibility—to contextualize the digital surrogate with full catalog descriptions, details regarding the scanning and post-processing, and photographic documentation of the original artifact (Manžuch 2017, 9–10). To facilitate the fabrication and use of 3Dhotbed models, information on how best to 3D print these tools is included within the metadata. For example, woodblock facsimiles require a granularity in printing not afforded through fused deposition modeling, or FDM, printers (the most common 3D printer type among hobbyists and publicly available makerspaces). Rather, these tools are better served by resin printing, a process that is suited to the production of finely detailed models. By identifying the appropriate 3D printing process, these supplemental data help mitigate frustration and wasted resources on the part of the end-user.

Side angle view of a 3D-scanned leafy plant woodblock.
Figure 2. Due to its fine detail, the Mattioli woodblock requires resin-printing (Sweitzer-Lamme 2016).

Community-Generated Data in Production

Expanding the collection to include data contributed from a broader community of practice is the ideal way to continue the original mission of the 3Dhotbed project. By including objects from a variety of international printing traditions, the collection encourages the study of the book over the course of millennia beyond its history in western Europe. Doing so also affords the opportunity to include a more diverse range of expertise for the contribution of metadata, scholarship, and teaching materials in concert with the data itself. However, in expanding the repository, it was imperative the team institute workflows to ensure this phase of the project adhered to the same principles of transparency and accuracy for both data and metadata. Thus, this phase of the project signals a shift from 3Dhotbed acting solely as content generator to content curator as well.

This shift introduced unanticipated hurdles not encountered in previous additions to the 3Dhotbed collection. While some were specific to the objects themselves, other broader issues were the byproduct of putting a community model into production. These included describing uncataloged and/or foreign language materials and managing the institutional relationships that come with hosting others’ data. The first community-generated teaching tool added to the 3Dhotbed project illustrates some of these challenges. Like the typecasting toolkit, it was fashioned in response to a distinct pedagogical demand. While developing the curriculum for a history class covering Qing history through Manchu sources at UCLA, Devin Fitzgerald (an instructor in the English Department) contacted UCLA Library Special Collections staff to arrange a class visit. During their visit, University Archivist Heather Briston introduced the group to a complete set of thirty-six xylographic woodblocks carved during the eighteenth century to print miracle stories, or texts based on the ancient Buddhist Diamond Sutra. Due to their age and fragility, the Diamond Sutra blocks are no longer suitable for inking and printing. In response to the instructor’s desire to facilitate a hands-on learning experience for his students, Coordinator of Scholarly Innovation Technologies Doug Daniels led a project in the UCLA Lux Lab to digitize all thirty-six blocks and create high-quality, resin-printed facsimiles that could be inked and printed to recreate the original text. Working with Fitzgerald and Daniels, the 3Dhotbed team ingested one of these digitized blocks into the UNT Digital Library as a tool for those in the broader community interested in studying and teaching xylography and eastern printing practices (Daniels 2017).

Rotating gif of a carved xylographic woodblock illustrating on one half a standing teacher and three seated students, and, on the other, Chinese characters.
Figure 3. 3D dataset model of a xylographic woodblock containing pages 31–32 of “An Illustrated Explanation of Miraculous Response Appended to the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra,” an ancient Buddhist text published by Zhu Xuzeng 朱續曾 in 1798 (Daniels 2017).

Like many items from complex artifactual collections, the Diamond Sutra woodblock had not yet been cataloged by its home institution, due in part to a foreign language barrier. This limited the 3Dhotbed team’s ability to mine existing metadata to describe the derivative 3D model. However, in collaboration with the instructor, a specialist in both European and East Asian bibliography, the woodblock data was described in both English and Chinese. The addition of the Diamond Sutra woodblock model into the growing corpus of the 3Dhotbed project is an exciting development, as it enhances access to educational tools that help decenter the often anglophonic focus of book history instruction. Developing a system for community-generated description in which scholars are encouraged to describe foreign-language materials is central to developing an international bibliographic community of practice. Additionally, the project’s website supplements the digital collection and creates a space where scholars can host valuable pedagogical materials to help contextualize the teaching tools within multiple fields of study.[5]

Integrating the Diamond Sutra woodblock into the collection also helped refine workflows that will be necessary for taking on larger partnerships in the future. For example, the team realized that community-generated data necessitates community-generated description. Facilitated by the infrastructure already in place in the UNT Digital Library, 3Dhotbed provides two methods for description via distributed workflows, allowing content generators to provide detailed metadata for objects within their area of expertise. These two methods are the direct-access description approach used for larger, more complex projects and a mediated description approach for smaller projects.

The direct access description approach leverages the partnership model already implemented by the UNT Digital Library. UNT Digital Projects staff create metadata editor accounts for individuals and institutions submitting data. The describers then have access, either pre- or post-ingestion, to edit the individual records for items uploaded to the collections under their purview through the UNT Digital Library metadata editor platform. The editing interface was built in-house and includes embedded metadata input guidelines as well as various examples to guide standards-compliant data formatting. The editing platform’s low barrier of entry eases the training required for new metadata creators, and makes it flexible for use by partners with varying backgrounds in description. Additionally, users are able to update descriptions continuously, meaning partners can add additional description based on future cataloging projects or other developing knowledge about an item.

Despite its low barrier of entry, partners still require some base-level training in order to provide standards-compliant description in the metadata editing platform. The 3Dhotbed project required a workaround for ad-hoc partnerships, which led to developing a mediated description approach for smaller scale and discrete datasets. The project team replicates the required fields necessary for standards-compliant description into a Google document along with guidelines and examples that mimic the metadata editing platform. Project partners populate the document with descriptive information for their 3D data, often with guidance from the project team. The project team then formats the metadata as needed for compliance, then ingests the metadata together with the data for the object itself into the digital library.

These foundations offer numerous possibilities for small- and large-scale partnerships with individual content generators as well as institutions. Flexible workflows provide multiple modes of entry for potential partners, scaffolding the iterative steps from acquisition to description, and enable various levels of investment depending on the nature of the project. Additionally, both approaches ensure item description adheres to the metadata standards required for all items ingested into the UNT Digital Library, regardless of format.

With the possibility of varying levels of collaboration comes the added challenge of managing relationships with varied partners. The team anticipated the potential sensitivity of hosting data generated by other makers, which may duplicate digital collections held in other repositories. Fortunately, this is another area in which the 3Dhotbed project benefits from the existing infrastructure in place within the UNT Digital Library and its partner site, the Portal to Texas History. The Portal models itself as a “gateway … to primary source materials” and provides access to collections and data from hundreds of content partners to provide “a vibrant, growing collection of resources” (Portal, n.d.). It mitigates conflict over attribution by establishing clear ownership and credit for each hosted item. The growth of the 3Dhotbed project into a community-generated resource hinges upon carefully navigating these relationships with our core principles of openness, transparency, and collaboration.

The Bibliographical Maker Movement

With the aid of twenty-first century tools and digital library infrastructure, the 3Dhotbed project creates broad and open access to the previously rarified opportunity to work with models of the tools and materials used in historical book production. Moreover, the future success of 3Dhotbed is not solely based on the volume, diversity, or rarity of individual items, but also on the ability of the platform to put these items in conversation. Distributed workflows facilitate the creation of an innovative scholarly portal, which inspired a community around book history instruction in digital spaces while also making possible new facets of original research around these aggregated materials. As this collection of teaching toolkits continues to grow, the analytical practices set forth in the mid-twentieth century are expanded and refined. With the inclusion of a wider array of objects and tools, this bibliographical maker movement reflects the global reach of book history as a discipline. The project strives not only to make examples of these global book traditions more readily available, but also to enable diversity in experiential book history instruction. The Diamond Sutra woodblock now hosted in the digital repository provides users the opportunity to view a full 3D-scan of the original woodblock and download the data necessary to 3D print a facsimile. By virtue of its inclusion in the 3Dhotbed project, the Diamond Sutra is accompanied by a video demonstrating the processes of carving, inking, and printing woodblocks in various time periods, further enhancing the data’s potential as a teaching tool.[6]

In moving toward a community-led project in the second phase, 3Dhotbed has sought mutual investment from the international bibliographic community in developing and expanding a growing corpus of datasets to facilitate their diverse research. In addition to affordably fabricated teaching tools, the 3Dhotbed project will now include high-resolution 3D models of various typographical and technical collections items related to book history, contributed by these new members of our community. As the repository continues to grow, it will digitally collect and preserve 3D models of tools and collections items that are physically distributed across the globe. Thus, the 3Dhotbed project will become a valuable research portal in its own right—a total greater than the sum of its parts that will facilitate research and instruction across institutions and between disciplines to further our understanding of global book history.


[1] Authorship of this article was shared in equal collaboration; attribution is thus listed alphabetically.
[2] For more detail on the team’s toolkit development process, see Jacobs, McIntosh, and O’Sullivan 2018.
[3] Audio of this presentation is available at https://alair.ala.org/handle/11213/8581.
[4] The current directory is located at https://makerspaces.make.co/.
[5] For examples, see https://www.3dhotbed.info/instructionalresources.
[6] See https://www.3dhotbed.info/blog/2020/10/5/printing-with-woodblocks.


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About the Authors

Courtney “Jet” Jacobs is the Head of Public Services, Outreach, and Community Engagement for UCLA Library Special Collections where she oversees the department’s research and reference services, instruction, exhibits, programming and community events, as well as the Center for Primary Research and Training. She holds a BA in English from Ohio State University and an MSLIS from Syracuse University. In partnership with teaching faculty, she has developed and delivered multiple lectures and workshops on book history and printing history utilizing primary source materials in support of course curriculum.

Marcia McIntosh first began working in digital collection development as an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. After earning a BA in English and African & African American Studies, she went on to earn an MS in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information. She is currently the Digital Production Librarian at the University of North Texas where she assists in the coordination, management, and training necessary to create digital projects.

Kevin M. O’Sullivan is the Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at Texas A&M University, where he also serves as Director of the Book History Workshop. Prior to this, he was awarded an IMLS Preservation Administration Fellowship to work at Yale University Libraries as part of the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program. He holds a BA in English from the University of Notre Dame, and received his MS from the School of Information with a concurrent Certificate of Advanced Study from the Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Historical Record, both at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, he is working toward his PhD in English at Texas A&M University.

Group of twenty-one symposium attendees sitting in a circle actively engaged in a workshop discussion session.

Immersive Pedagogy: Developing a Decolonial and Collaborative Framework for Teaching and Learning in 3D/VR/AR


In June 2019, a cohort of CLIR postdoctoral fellows convened Immersive Pedagogy: A Symposium on Teaching and Learning with 3D, Augmented and Virtual Reality at Carnegie Mellon University. The symposium sought to bring together a multidisciplinary group of collaborators to think through pedagogical issues related to using 3D/VR/AR technologies, as well as to produce and disseminate materials for teaching and learning. This essay presents the Immersive Pedagogy symposium as a model for interrogating and developing pedagogical practices and standards for 3D/VR/AR; we offer a decolonial, anti-ableist, and feminist pedagogical framework for collaboratively developing and curating humanities content for this emerging technology by summarizing the symposium’s keynotes, workshops, as well as its goals and outcomes. Workshops, keynotes, and participant conversations engaged with decolonial and feminist methodologies, practiced accessible design for universal learning, offered templates for humanistic teaching, and illustrated the possibilities of using 3D/VR/AR to extend critical thinking. While 3D/VR/AR technologies demonstrate real possibilities for collaborative, multidisciplinary learning, they are also fraught with broader concerns prevalent today about digital technologies, as well as complex issues specific to 3D/VR/AR. There is a clear need to assemble academic practitioners on a regular basis in order to facilitate an ongoing discussion about 3D/VR/AR technology and its responsible, meaningful use in teaching and learning.


As access to three-dimensional (3D) technologies has become increasingly available in academic venues, the desire to teach with these emerging technologies, particularly augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), has outpaced digital humanists’ abilities to provide meaningful support for immersive projects. There is a growing and ongoing need to produce shared and open pedagogical materials adaptable to the needs of teachers in various professions and disciplines and are accessible to students without significant coding experience. This need is partially driven by the contingencies of relatively new and rapidly updating technologies, as well as the fact that support for commercially-available immersive tools are tailored for industry purposes. Game-driven tutorials, for example, do not always take into consideration the needs of humanities practitioners seeking to integrate critical thinking with technical mastery. Contemporary contexts for emerging technologies can structure our interactions with 3D/VR/AR. Though not always visible to users, these can have the effect of naturalizing problematic historical and political narratives through selective access to resources and functionality.

Nonetheless, game engines that offer free educational licenses have been repurposed for academic inquiry and teaching over the past decade. For example, Unity Technologies’ Unity 3D game engine is utilized by over 4.5 million users and has been at the forefront of historical and archaeological 3D visualizations in scholarly research. First available in 2005, the Unity 3D game engine has been used to make approximately 60% of all AR/VR applications and is used by 90% of AR/VR companies (“Public Relations” 2019, np). Educational licenses are available for students and educators seeking to use the engine for scholarly or creative use. Its main competitor, the Unreal Engine, while initially inaccessible beyond professional and academic institutions with licenses, dropped its paywall for educational use in September 2014. VR headsets, once a hypothetical fantasy or niche short-lived technology, are now commercially viable and relatively inexpensive for institutions to purchase. In a few years, the financial barrier for individuals may diminish; in the meantime, Google Cardboards and other stereoscopic viewers with fewer interactive features currently provide alternatives for students with access to smartphones. However, students are also increasingly able to make use of interactive 3D/VR/AR technology within dedicated spaces in academic libraries, maker spaces, media studios, and community outreach centers. Yet, we would be remiss not to point out that access is still mediated by other social hierarchies; 3D/VR/AR technology is still not accessible in much of the Global South, or in marginalized communities across the world. These aforementioned developments still privilege students at institutions that dedicated staff or faculty to maintain and encourage use of 3D/VR/AR technologies and facilities.

This is all to say that in our current 3D/VR/AR moment, digital humanists have a lot to navigate. Current 3D/VR/AR pedagogy and projects can pose problems related to accessibility and long-term preservation of projects and assets, and often run afoul of minimal computing recommendations. Yet the technology offers rich possibilities for multidisciplinary research and collaboration; many virtual reality projects combine art production, computing, archival research, network theory, and data visualization, among other practices. Given its potential for scholarship and teaching, understanding how to use the technology responsibly necessitates engaging with active practitioners to identify what is now possible and what still needs to be done to facilitate productive use of 3D/VR/AR. As many key problems are likely to persist through subsequent permutations of the technology and its use in educational settings, this conversation needs to be ongoing and open. What humanists within and beyond the academy have to say about 3D/VR/AR will probably not be unique to humanistic inquiry. This dialogue will provide crucial critical approaches to the emerging technologies’ advantages and limitations that will be of use to industry professionals as well as the casual creative user. A vocal contingent of humanists seeking to think and learn with 3D/VR/AR may, in fact, fill a wider sociocultural need by addressing these issues.

This is the context in which a small cohort of 2017–2019 Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellows organized Immersive Pedagogy: A Symposium on Teaching and Learning with 3D, Augmented and Virtual Reality at Carnegie Mellon University on June 26 and 27, 2019. The CLIR cohort included Lorena Gauthereau (University of Houston), Jessica Linker (Bryn Mawr College), Eric Kaltman (Carnegie Mellon University), Emma Slayton (Carnegie Mellon University), Neil Weijer (Johns Hopkins University), Alex Wermer-Colan (Temple University), and Chris Young (University of Toronto). The goal of this symposium was to assemble a wide range of stakeholders to develop teaching materials and strategies that considered problems inherent and specific to immersive technologies, as well as to address problems that affect but are not unique to 3D/VR/AR. It is for this reason the symposium was so attentive to decolonial and feminist methodologies in thinking about appropriate pedagogical applications. Building on the previous work of scholars such as María Cotera, Elizabeth Losh, Tara McPherson, Angel Nieves, Roopika Risam, and Jacqueline Wernimont, we have advocated for an intersectional digital humanities that interrogates a wide range of technologies through the critical methods developed by the fields of ethnic and feminist studies. Such methods, we argue, can highlight the ways that technologies often leave out marginalized people by replicating colonial hierarchical structures including race, ethnicity, class, gender, and disability.

The Immersive Pedagogy symposium offered an early—if not first-of-its-kind—opportunity to have productive conversations about what critical approaches to 3D/VR/AR could look like from a multidisciplinary and multi-professional perspective. Additionally, the symposium sought to seed collaborations within and beyond academic institutions and stand as a model for future conversations on these topics. In recounting our experiences with different applications of 3D/VR/AR technology in pedagogical spaces, the group tackled a number of thorny issues, such as accessibility in hardware and bias in asset stores, while acknowledging that we would need to continue the dialogue by reconvening. We sought to develop teaching materials collaboratively with the long-term plan of sharing these resources through a variety of means, including via open-access publications. In the remainder of this essay, the Immersive Pedagogy organizers describe the symposium’s theoretical foundation and methodological approaches as a model for structuring communities around 3D/VR/AR, summarize some of our group’s findings, and invite digital humanities practitioners to help us to continue this work.

Structuring a Symposium on Decolonial Models of Immersive Pedagogy

Because the initiative was organized by CLIR postdoctoral fellows, the symposium emphasized diverse ways that libraries participate in creating, curating, and preserving 3D/VR/AR pedagogical materials. We considered faculty, staff, and students as equal partners in 3D/VR/AR projects, and aimed to include early career researchers at the table. Overarching goals for the symposium included teaching faculty and librarians how to support and enable learning for students using 3D technologies, and to help students to disseminate skills within their own communities. By bringing together scholars from a wide range of disciplines and professions, we addressed problems while identifying new ones. Participants had the opportunity to share links and descriptions to their projects (current and in progress) with each other prior to the symposium via a Slack channel and Google Docs. They also shared information on their work during a lightning talk round as examples of the kinds of humanistic projects 3D/VR/AR could cultivate. The symposium began and ended with keynotes from experienced practitioners whose work modeled creative and responsible uses of the technologies.

Our opening keynote speaker, Angel Nieves (Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities at San Diego State University), presented “Developing a Social Justice Framework for Immersive Technologies in Digital Humanities.” Nieves’s talk outlined strategies for achieving social justice through digital-supported inquiry, highlighting his own work on Mapping Soweto, a 3D reconstruction of apartheid South Africa. Nieves emphasized the need to ground digital work in women of color theory and argued that fields such as ethnic studies have developed a foundational structure that would benefit the field of digital humanities as a whole:

If we brought the sorts of methodological and practice-based questions about power, privilege, and access from ethnic studies to our work in immersive technologies, we might begin to see new ways of harnessing these tools–that originated as part of the military industrial complex–to serve our social justice needs. (Nieves 2019)

Mapping Soweto draws from Belinda Robtnett’s (1997) work on social movement theory, revealing the often messy, multilayered narratives of social movements by visualizing a map of spatial liberation. This 3D representation shows what Nieves terms an “intersectional cartography,” or a network of social activists—especially networks of women and young girls—across townships “and how those activist networks were embedded into the physical geography and vernacular architecture of individual houses, streets, and neighborhoods” (Nieves 2019). Attention to intersectionality further reveals the ways multiple identities—township, gender, sexual orientation, class, and race—came together to form a cohesive activist movement, whose complexities are often lost in the official retelling of history. In particular, Nieves identified immersive technologies as one way to “re-establish coalition-building potential” (2019) with local communities and reminded us that the important work of recovering marginalized histories for social justice is often messy.

Two image composite. Top image is of Angel Nieves standing behind a podium delivering his keynote speech. Bottom is a slide showing a Unity 3D model of Winnie and Nelson Mandela House, in Soweto South Africa (generated September 2018).
Figure 1. Angel Nieves presents “Developing a Social Justice Framework for Immersive Technologies in Digital Humanities” at the Immersive Pedagogy symposium.

Our closing keynote speaker, Juliette Levy (Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside), presented “How Not to be a Replicant: Working Towards a Useful VR.” Working with a team of women programmers, Levy has developed VR simulations for teaching abstract concepts related to historical thinking, interpretation, and writing. Levy’s keynote presentation focused on the question of gaming and interactivity; and she traced the origin of her experimentations in VR from teaching large lecture classes numbering in the hundreds in hybrid and online courses. Rather than approach VR in the mode of cultural heritage projects, reproducing a historical location, to deal with pedagogical problems commonly experienced in online learning, Levy’s team built Digital Zombies (see Levy 2017), an abstract simulation meant to introduce students to the hierarchy of library information and assessment of primary and secondary resources through game-based learning. Levy envisioned a VR environment for her historical research methods class that not only encouraged students to follow a written outline of research steps, but to extend their library experience in a more immersive, playful way by completing a series of game-like missions related to research that students would be more likely to remember. Levy argued that the cognitive effect of a VR experience has a lasting impact on users: “What matters about doing something in VR isn’t about what happens in VR, but what happens outside of VR, after the VR experience” (Levy 2019). Yet, despite the advantages of VR, Levy warned that a lack of critical conversation and pedagogy around digital literacy can have dire consequences, as increasingly ubiquitous immersive technologies become exploited to misrepresent historical events. The stakes for fomenting critical conversations between technology creators, consumers, and scholars, therefore, are quite high, as they could have lasting effects on how people choose to build and interpret virtual representations of historical events and people.

Juliette Levy stands at the podium while presenting a slide reading “fake news, fake history, alternative facts, virtual reality or fake reality” in front of an image of John Lennon and Che Guevara playing the guitar.
Figure 2. Juliette Levy presents “How Not to be a Replicant: Working Towards a Useful VR” at the Immersive Pedagogy symposium.

The symposium included five workshops that centered on theory, methods, and practices significant to and capable of incubating pedagogy related to US Latinx, Latin American, and Caribbean studies, which we prioritized when considering applicants. The workshop topics were: (a) Decolonial Methodology and Theory; (b) Accessible Immersive Pedagogy; (c) Integrating Immersive Technology in the Classroom; (d) Critical Writing for Immersive Tech; and (e) Collaboratively Designing 3D/VR Experiences. The Immersive Pedagogy organizers, joined by Jasmine Clark (Temple University) and Juliette Levy, led the participants through these interactive workshops (“Program” 2019). Pedagogical content crafted by participants before, during, and after the symposium included a bibliography of 3D/VR/AR-related readings, an archive of workshop slides, video recordings of keynote presentations, adaptable templates for pedagogical activities, and working models of 3D/VR/AR pedagogical applications. For example, Kat Hayes and Samantha Porter submitted a video walkthrough of their IOS app Virtual MISLS that explores historic buildings at Fort Snelling, while Meaghan Moody and Coral Salomón submitted a description of their work with students using a virtual map of historic Paris to better understand life under German occupation during World War II.

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Libraries hosts the symposium’s materials on its institutional repository, KiltHub. KiltHub provides stable, long-term global open access storage for 3D/VR/AR assets, and functional applications, as well as pedagogical and technical documentation. Materials in this repository are held for a minimum of ten years, ensuring that what is submitted will remain available past typical terms of software updates. The teaching materials produced during and following the symposium will also be published in the Digital Library Federation’s Pedagogy Working Groups open-access series, the DLF Teach Toolkit. The materials will be revised and tested, including during a pre-conference workshop at DLF’s Annual Forum 2020, pending acceptance.

Group of twenty-one symposium attendees sitting in a circle actively engaged in a workshop discussion session.
Figure 3. Immersive Pedagogy symposium participants in discussion.

The following essay sections explore the key components of the symposium, which outlined the theoretical foundations to decolonizing development and curation of 3D/VR/AR tech, before guiding participants through workshops on decolonial critique and accessible design, on integrating immersive technology into the classroom and beyond, and on collaboratively designing 3D/VR projects.

Decolonial Foundations: Critical Approaches to the Development and Curation of 3D/VR/AR Technologies

To practically introduce the decolonial methodologies and theories crucial to our workshops on developing and curating 3D/VR/AR materials, the Immersive Pedagogy symposium opened with a workshop, led by Gauthereau and Young on the “walkthrough method” (Light, et. al. 2018, 881–900), a critical analysis of technology using the Unity Asset Store as an example. This exercise was contextualized through a theory of decolonial pedagogy and a discussion on the critical analysis of the game platforms that curate content for 3D modeling and representation.

The application of decolonial theory and methods to digital pedagogy allows students to interrogate and resist colonial, hierarchical epistemologies, especially the privileging of Western European and Anglocentric knowledge structures. Such an approach is increasingly necessary as 3D/VR/AR technologies become integral to Western education systems and overwhelmingly applied to cultural heritage projects by and for Western consumers. While colonialism refers to the “political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or people rests on the power of another nation,” making that nation an “empire,” coloniality “refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administration” (Maldonado-Torres 2007, 243). Thus, coloniality denotes the ways in which colonial hierarchies of power continue to structure our everyday lives (i.e. racialized class hierarchies, labor hierarchies, gender hierarchies, the gender binary, racism, etc.). Decolonialism urges us to actively de-link from colonial epistemologies and ontologies in order to avoid re-creating colonial worldviews and hierarchies.

Considering the ways that 3D/VR/AR technologies allow users to create immersive worlds and environments, the symposium sought to stress the need to avoid replicating the colonial gaze. Representing marginalized people through this gaze continues to enforce racialized and gendered hierarchies of power. Colonial epistemologies continue to control knowledge production, not only through institutional archives, but also through academic research, digital projects, and 3D/VR/AR environments. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpede Mohanty argue that decoloniality has a “pedagogical dimension” as it obligates us “to understand, to reflect on, and to transform relations of objectification and dehumanization, and to pass this knowledge along to future generations” (1997, xxviii-xxix). For this reason, the symposium’s first workshop exercise involved guiding participants through a decolonial walkthrough of the Unity Assets Store. The walkthrough method requires researchers to directly engage with “an app’s interface to examine its technological mechanisms and embedded cultural references to understand how it guides users and shapes their experiences” (Light, et. al. 2018, 882). We asked participants to browse and search the Unity Assets Store for 2D, 3D, audio, and animation assets and interrogate them using a decolonial approach, as well as to document their walkthrough by taking notes, taking screenshots, and recording audio-visual content.

To guide the decolonial inquiry, we asked participants to consider a set of questions adapted from Roopika Risam’s discussion of the stakes of postcolonial and decolonial digital humanities (2019, 35–46):

  • What are compulsory activities within the Unity Asset Store?
  • What are the social hierarchies within the menu system?
  • To whom and which types of users is this knowledge accessible?
  • What is considered a “legitimate” asset within the Asset Store?
  • Whose epistemologies, such as histories, languages and memories, are considered important enough to archive in the Asset Store?
  • What knowledge or assets are privileged within the Asset Store?
  • Does the asset avoid the exoticization or fetishization of a people/cultures?

This inquiry resulted in participants recognizing the disproportionate representation of a Eurocentric worldview. For example, they noticed that the search term “Viking” yielded twice as many results as “Native American,” whereas the term “Indigenous” yielded zero. Among results for the search term “Mexican,” participants discovered a Mexican Restaurant Pack that reflected generalized stereotypes of Mexican aesthetics and cuisine, reduced to bottled hot sauce, chips and salsa, and a decorative green parrot. Assets also reduced the multiple and varied cultures, nations, flora, and fauna of the entire African continent to the myopic colonial imaginary of only the Serengeti, populated by wild animals. During group break-out sessions exploring the Asset Store, participants discovered a potential intervention through editing crowdsourced user tags. Like during Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons, users could challenge the authenticity of colonial representations of people, cultures, and nations by tagging or reviewing assets as not authentic, representing stereotypes, reproducing colonial views, etc. Since the symposium, unfortunately, Unity has removed the user tagging option and currently limits metadata generation to the individual uploading the asset.

This workshop stressed that engaging in decolonial work requires a constant questioning of how knowledge (3D/VR/AR environments, research, stories, syllabi, etc.) is being produced, who is producing it, whose stories are being told, and how these stories are being told. Not only should we consider what histories are told in the digital world, but we must also attend to the ways in which they are produced. As a result, the participants learned that generating and interacting with 3D/VR/AR environments they must use decolonial methods to acknowledge their role as world-creators and reflect on the ways that these technologies often replicate colonialism.

In the following workshop, Clark foregrounded the ableism endemic to technological innovation in the West, introducing participants to accessible user design for virtual reality. This involved a tutorial on developing alternate access plans for disabled students in classrooms. Clark’s work with Temple Libraries’ colleagues Jordan Hample and Wermer-Colan has prioritized research into and creation of accessible features for VR during their development of the Virtual Blockson: A Primary Source Teaching Tool for Secondary Education (Clark 2018, np). Clark’s workshop overviewed the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in order to showcase the problems with applying standards created for web-based screens to virtual reality environments and experiences. She related an overview of key advancements that can be made to enable universal design for this emerging technology ranging from innovations in haptic feedback to caption legibility. Clark’s talk focused on guiding participants through strategies for accessing resources for disabled students at their universities. She led participants through an exercise with a template she created for developing “alternate access plans” that enable teachers to offer comparable options for students who cannot use the available VR and/or AR hardware and software. This approach to accommodating students with different learning styles provides a realistic way for teachers to work with emerging technologies in academic institutions, most of which still lack sufficient resources to support disabled students in the use of analog technologies.

Virtual Lessons: Integrating Immersive Technology in the Traditional Classroom and Beyond

After the symposium’s opening workshops on decoloniality and anti-ableism in immersive pedagogy, Levy’s workshop put to practice the principles she laid out in her closing keynote address on the idiosyncratic game mechanics for simulating virtually interactive dialogue and exam questions involving classification. VR offers, Levy argued, a unique pedagogical opportunity, functioning as a distraction-free zone where her students were able to recollect experiences at a much higher rate compared to other learning activities. During the workshop, Levy asked symposium participants to select several library books from various library collections and work in groups to think about how to put the texts in conversation with each other based on titles, subject headings, table of contents listing, and a quick skim of their contents. Levy demonstrated how and why she constructed a VR environment that simulated this activity, as her students had to physically place boxes with various titles onto empty shelves in an order that reflected connections. The application of VR to this type of historiographical exercise, Levy maintained, left a lasting impression on the students that they were able to put into practice for essay assignments. Levy’s emphasis throughout her workshop on the pedagogical significance of “what happens before and after” the virtual experience, furthermore, offered a valuable foundation for the subsequent workshop on integrating writing exercises to guide student learning during virtual and augmented reality experiences.

Wermer-Colan’s workshop modeled how to guide undergraduate students across the disciplines through a structured composition exercise for reflection, in particular, by guiding the participants through a reflection on what they hoped to learn and do in the coming school year as they sought to develop their immersive pedagogy projects. To provide a context and model for students before their writing reflections, Wermer-Colan summarized his current projects employing 3D technologies for Temple University Libraries’ Digital Scholarship Center (now the Loretta C. Duckworth Scholars Studio). Temple Libraries has experimented with transforming the purposes of library collections, development, and reference work to enhance its learning and technology outreach, including through its Innovative Teaching with Makerspace Technology Grant and its newly constructed VR Lab in the new Charles Library. Wermer-Colan’s past experiences working in the Medgar Evers College Writing Center in the City University of New York (CUNY) system helped him to think about ways the Digital Scholarship Center can use 3D/AR/VR technology to enhance learning across the disciplines.

As an example of Temple Libraries’ supporting the use of immersive technologies in class-room projects, Wermer-Colan detailed a collaborative project with Ajima Olaghere, Assistant Professor of Criminology working with her ethnography students to do “systematic social observation” of Philadelphia neighborhoods. This project used 360 cameras to record neighborhoods affected by Temple’s gentrification of North Philadelphia. The recordings were later viewed on twenty-dollar Desktek smartphone headsets that allowed students to remotely examine environments to understand what contributes to disorder and crime, while the instructor facilitated ways to maintain a critical understanding of what they were viewing. The accompanying writing exercises guided students to reflect on their mediated experiences of urban space and call into question the “broken windows theory,” common assumptions that visible signs of public disorder exacerbate criminal behaviors. The use of phone-based headsets also invited an opportunity for students to consider the physical processes that enable virtual technology. Instructors were faced with the problem of scaling pedagogical uses of VR; as this project used relatively inexpensive headsets, workshop participants considered how to create immersive experiences similar in quality to those offered by state-of-the-art VR headsets like the HTC VIVE or the Oculus Rift that, as of 2020, cost hundreds of dollars.

To illustrate the role libraries and digital scholarship centers can play in the curation of 3D content for teaching and learning, Wermer-Colan overviewed a complementary use of immersive technologies. His collaboration on the Virtual Blockson project with Digital Scholarship Librarian Jasmine Clark, Academic Technician and Developer, Jordan Hample, and Blockson Archivist Leslie Willis-Lowry aims to recreate Temple’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection as a virtual reality game for innovating the teaching of primary source literacy in high schools across Philadelphia. The project at its heart allows a small, fixed collection and its reading room to be available to students remotely, lowering the intimidation factor and physical limitations of these spaces, while enabling interactive explorations of historical artefacts. The Virtual Blockson offered an opportunity to discuss how libraries can help curate interactive gaming environments for remediating archival collections and cultural heritage sites to foreground previously marginalized histories. In these contexts, virtual reality offers affordances for lowering the barrier for students to use archival sources and spaces, facilitating access and accessibility, and offering students a novel medium through which to conceptualize analog and digital literacies necessary to navigate the changing new media world today.

3D-rendering of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, a few sculptures and a painting on display in the reading room.
Figure 4. Screenshot of the Virtual Blockson designed by Jordan Hample using Unity 3D. For more, see Jasmine Clark’s “Progressing Towards an Accessible VR Experience”: https://sites.temple.edu/tudsc/2018/11/07/progressing-towards-an-accessible-vr-experience/.

Wermer-Colan foregrounded in both these projects the use of writing exercises to help students reflect on their virtual experiences in meaningful ways. The 360 SSO writing exercise encouraged humanistic thinking about the technology by asking students to compare their field work exercises with the virtual experience, as well as writing reflections that asked the students to identify various ways the 360/VR technology mediated said experience. Similarly, humanistic writing exercises were designed to guide students before and after their experience of the Virtual Blockson’s introduction to archival spaces, etiquette, and practices through game-based, interactive experiences. Drawing upon the Society of American Archivists’ Standards for Primary Source Literacy and the Common Core Standards for historical understanding, digital literacy, and critical thinking, these critical writing questions ensure students reflect upon the virtual experience of library collections’ historical artifacts from the African diaspora. After offering these models to the Immersive Pedagogy participants, Wermer-Colan guided the group through a critical writing exercise to reflect on their own plans to implement the 3D/VR/AR technology for various pedagogical purposes. Wermer-Colan encouraged participants to think of resources at their local institutions, pedagogical standards in their disciplines, and affordances in the spatialized medium of VR for enhancing their approaches to teaching. The writing exercise simulated the kind of exercise participants could implement in their own pedagogy, while offering an opportunity for the symposium participants to reflect on what they had learned during the workshops.

Feminist Reconstructions: Collaboratively Designing 3D/VR Experiences

The concluding workshop, run by Linker and Young, offered a sustainable model for including students as partners in the creation of 3D/VR pedagogical materials, through an overview of Linker’s time creating the Bryn Mawr Women in Science project with her various undergraduate partners: Elia Anagnostou, Courtney Dalton, Jocelyn Dunkley, Tanjuma Haque, Arianna Li, and Linda Zhu. From 2017 to 2019, Linker taught undergraduate students how to integrate historical inquiry with 3D technology in order to think about women’s invisible scientific labor, the spaces they occupied, the tools they used, and their everyday lived experiences. The project considers Margaret Rossiter’s “The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science,” which articulates a systematic disparity in affording women scientists credit for sophisticated and important discoveries, which in turn necessitates that historians find ways to tell stories in order to make their labor visible. It likewise adapts aspects of Pamela Smith’s Making and Knowing Project by taking seriously the need to consider scientific processes. However, rather than engaging in physical reenactment, students offered up women’s processes in a modern, digital format, contextualized by a recreation of spaces that were no longer intact or available for historical analysis.

3D rendering of a biology lab created for the Bryn Mawr Women in Science Project. Rendering contains depictions of glassware, scientific artifacts, equipment, and laboratory furniture.
Figure 5. Screenshot of the 3D-rendered Advanced Biology Lab c. 1900, from Bryn Mawr Women in Science.

Linker and her students recreated two laboratory spaces that had once existed at Bryn Mawr College in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Major Chemistry Lab and the Advanced Biology Lab.[1] Students learned a variety of 3D skills, including 3D modeling, photogrammetry, various mechanics of the Unity 3D game engine, and the Oculus Rift. Interactive WebGL versions of the project are available online, and a VR demo of Bryn Mawr’s Advanced Biology Lab was available at the conference. The Advanced Biology Lab was the site of early genetic research and a place once utilized by Nettie M. Stevens, the subject of Stephen Brush’s Nettie M. Stevens and the Discovery of Sex Determination by Chromosomes. Years before Margaret Rossiter coined the phrase “the Matilda Effect,” Brush identified that Stevens’ discoveries had been overshadowed by male collaborators or individuals working concurrently on the same subject. Her contributions had likely been diminished because she was a woman. Students researched each space by spending time in Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections. Through building each laboratory, the students became aware of how to put historical materials in conversation, as no resource could tell them everything they needed to know to build and contextualize the 3D models. Pedagogically, the two-year process of building was designed to seed humanistic deployment of 3D technologies by undergraduate collaborators. Afterward these students participated in professional presentations of the digital and historical work, and served as ambassadors to various communities in order to disseminate the skills the project cultivated to a wider audience.

Linker enabled her students to accomplish a lot in a short period of time; no student was an expert in the technology or in historical research prior to their tenure on the project. This was intentional, as she sought to teach rather than to employ experts. Students represented a diverse range of interests and majors, and all students participated in each phase of production (rather than assigning humanities majors to research and STEM majors to coding) so that afterwards, they could create projects similar to this on their own. Part of what facilitated their success is that she treated them as equal partners in the project, making decisions with them throughout the two years they worked together.

To prepare her students to participate as equals, she devised a plan that would serve as an introduction to using 3D technology to address social and pedagogical problems, and would also serve as a diagnostic tool for assessing student strengths and interests. Essentially, students were asked to propose and implement a 35-hour project (which could be run over the course of days or weeks, depending on individual need) that used an aspect of the Unity 3D game engine’s functionality to teach users about something the students cared about. Students drafted plans that identified what they knew, what they needed to learn, and were prompted to think about modularity, such that students could scale the project if they were running out of time. Students who were not familiar with coding at first could use Unity’s GUI interfaces to produce fully functional scenes, allowing for students with varying levels of proficiency with computer science to produce something useful by the end of the exercise. By the end of the 35-hour period, students not only had a small project they could put in professional portfolios, but had become proficient in a particular aspect of Unity, thought about the technology as a means to serve others, and in implementing their projects, had a better sense of what they would need to do going forward. It also convinced them that they were capable of using the technology in a way the Unity tutorials did not engender. Linker and Young guided the participants in thinking through how symposium participants might adapt this exercise for their own project teams.


Through the symposium and the workshops described above, participants engaged in conversations around designing socially-conscious pedagogy for 3D/VR/AR. Building a framework for teaching and learning with 3D/VR/AR technologies founded in decolonial theory and practices resonated with our participants. This enabled the group to evaluate how projects and assignments fit into an ethical model for cultural heritage pedagogies. The symposium closed with a productive discussion about what the participants learned, with a focus on planning for future steps.[2] Several participants suggested the importance of backward design, which would specifically place the learning outcomes as the first step in creating 3D/VR/AR and related assignments.

Conversations among group members brought up multiple questions, such as: how do we anticipate student use? How do we adjust our use of 3D/VR/AR in response to unexpected circumstances? How do we introduce emerging technologies in the classroom while accommodating individuals unable to take advantage of the intended purposes of ready-made hardware and software? How can these technologies enhance hybrid and online learning? Are students (or faculty) distracted by the freedom of immersive environments? Can we create bilingual metadata in a VR environment? If one could, where would you display subtitles or transcriptions in a virtual or augmented environment?

These conversations confirmed that digital humanists would benefit from future cross-institution discussions of 3D/VR/AR, as well as from shared access to teaching materials, which are often siloed within institutions and departments. Students engage differently with course concepts and each other, depending on the application of the technology within that course. Student learning is dependent on the skills and interests of individual instructors; collaboration is necessary for producing robust materials and responsible projects. Perhaps the most challenging task is creating accessible and sustainable materials applicable to multiple modes of disciplinary learning outcomes at a time of rapid technological and institutional transformation.

In an effort to increase the reach of the conversations that arose out of Immersive Pedagogy, the symposium organizers are working to produce an open-access, peer-reviewed publication containing lesson plans and educational material to facilitate disciplinary and interdisciplinary work that engages 3D/VR/AR technologies. This project aims to extend the work of the Digital Library Federation (DLF) Pedagogy Working Group’s Teach Toolkit that provides lesson plans for digital library instruction.[3] To guide educators to adapt immersive technologies to the needs of diverse disciplines, the Immersive Pedagogy teaching materials will introduce a range of 3D hardware and software, including asset or game repositories. The teaching materials will include diverse lesson plans with tailored learning outcomes, introducing a representative sample of available immersive technologies and resources while addressing humanistic pedagogical goals. Because this project was born out of the CLIR postdoctoral fellowship program, it aims to contribute to the growing field of scholarship on the crucial role that academic libraries or research and teaching centers can play in the integration of immersive technologies across the curriculum.

The Immersive Pedagogy symposium’s prioritization of decolonialism, feminism, and accessibility speak to a radical and critical perspective that can apply to a range of 3D/VR/AR applications and instruction methods. Indeed, in starting conversations on how to promote making immersive experiences accessible and inclusive, there is an opportunity to move beyond operational concerns to lasting pedagogical practices. For decades, contingencies have transformed education and cultural heritage, requiring us to rethink the potential of emerging communication technologies through a critical lens. More evident in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which has spurred the need for digital ways of teaching and learning, is the critical pedagogical use of virtual surrogates. These include 360° museum spaces and objects, 3D virtual meeting spaces, photogrammetry models, and interactive exhibits. By addressing upfront, rather than through remediation, the issues of social justice, accessibility, and decolonial pedagogies in immersive technology, educators can leverage these tools to respond to a transformative period in the education system.


[1] For a discussion of problems and considerations specifically related to the construction of historical 3D spaces, see Sullivan, Nieves, and Snyder 2017.

[2] For more detail, see the Immersive Pedagogy collaborative notes: “Shared Notes Wrap Up Session.” 2019. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1TSv8jrQlOlbPwi-TyvyOfV1_ZvA9I4y8.

[3] See the #DLFteach Toolkit 1.0: Lesson Plans for Digital Library Instruction.


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We would like to acknowledge The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) for the microgrant that funded the Immersive Pedagogy symposium, as well as Carnegie Mellon University Libraries for hosting the event. Thank you to the entire Immersive Pedagogy team, including Eric Kaltman, Neil Weijer, and Chris Young for making the symposium possible. Last, but certainly not least, thank you to all the Immersive Pedagogy participants and keynote speakers, who created a positive, productive community of practice: Andy Anderson, DB Bauer, Katie Chapman, Elena Foulis, Kat Hayes, Juliette Levy, Juan Llamas-Rodriguez, Meaghan Moody, Angel Nieves, Samantha Porter, Coral Salomón, Julia Troche, Jordan Tynes, and Christa Williford.

About the Authors

Lorena Gauthereau is the Digital Programs Manager for the US Latino Digital Humanities program at the University of Houston’s Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage. She received her Ph.D. in English and her M.A. in Hispanic Studies, both from Rice University. Her research interests include US Latinx studies, digital humanities, and decolonial theory. Orcid ID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7185-8982.

Jessica Linker is an Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University. She was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow and Program Coordinator at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bryn Mawr College, and the Director of Bryn Mawr Women in Science. She researches women’s scientific practices in early America.

Emma Slayton is the Data Curation, Visualization, and GIS specialist at Carnegie Mellon University Libraries. She obtained an MPhil from the University of Oxford in 2013 and completed her Ph.D. at the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University in 2018. Her current work centers around improving and supporting digital literacy efforts. Orcid ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2230-3101.

Alex Wermer-Colan is a postdoctoral fellow in Temple University Libraries’ Loretta C. Duckworth Scholars Studio, where he coordinates research and pedagogical projects in cultural analytics and digital media arts. His editorial and scholarly criticism have appeared in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Twentieth Century Literature, The Yearbook of Comparative Literature, Lost & Found, Indiana University Press, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Orcid ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7030-6070.

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