Literary Worlds is the creation of a team of Western Michigan University English professors and doctoral students working in 2006-07 to develop and test in the classroom a series of free, on-line virtual worlds to enhance the study of literature.

Utilizing virtual reality environments in teaching draws on old ideas, such as the dramatic satisfaction from participatory story telling and the learning potential of entering deeply and imaginatively into specific informational contexts. It also leads educators into the future of teaching and learning where traditional values are extended and enhanced by the properties and pleasures of emerging digital environments.

We seek to develop the imagination of students through reading, writing, and discussing great literature and we hope to foster the skills, cultural knowledge, and sympathies that will help our students enter into the complex inner life of characters in settings and circumstances often profoundly different from their own.

We believe the new technologies can be used to create immersive, interactive, and engaging virtual reality environments that support reading and writing in a variety of disciplines.  In the case of literature, they can more deeply involve students with the language, characters, settings, and cultural and historical contexts of literary works.  Students can explore and interact in virtual literary worlds, role playing and interrelating as characters, extending and altering character conduct in purposeful ways, analyzing impact of setting, language, and dialogue on behavior and events, all directly related to the specific works they are assigned to read in their classes. 

These environments are free and open educational spaces that can be used by students and teachers around the world. These environments are experimental and it is hoped that they will lead students to more fully engage in content rich, context-based learning. (To use this space in your classes, contact the designer of the particular world you are interested in.)
These virtual reality environments allow students to enter into a complex visual and textual space specific to a literary work, explore textual, visual, and cultural contexts, and/or assume the roles of characters and interact in complex ways with other characters and objects.  In these virtual reality spaces, students are able to engage with literary works from the inside out, to enter into and more deeply understand specific cultural and historical contexts as they explore in their own imaginative voice the dilemmas, controversies, and issues that face literary characters. 

These environments are visually engaging in a way not before possible, and they are complex performative spaces where students engage in extensive interactive writing.  They offer a marvelous extension of reading and discussion, and, because they are so involving and interactive, they create astonishing spring boards to class discussion. These virtual reality environments promise to capture the imagination of a generation of students weaned on video games and the internet and draw them into serious literature and academic content in a truly creative and intellectually serious way. 

The potential of emerging soft and hardware technologies to enhance teaching and learning is enormous, but meaningful technological development will depend on an intense and sustained engagement with specialists deeply knowledgeable about content, as this proposal sets forward.

After selecting a specific literary work, or collection of works, WMU English professors and graduate students program a learning environment that is something between an interactive video game and a collection of interactive chat-rooms. In the spring of 2005, Dr. Webb taught an experimental 500-level course where students used this software to develop virtual reality environments for literature instruction.  All of the graduate and undergraduate students in the class were successful in using the software to design virtual reality environments. Successful projects included learning environments for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights’ Dream, Edgar Allen Poe’s and Arthur Conan Doyle short stories, a volume of the Narnia series, and Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.  Dr. Webb’s award winning prototype environment, based on Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart as well as doctoral researcher Joe Haughey’s Midsummer Nights’ Dream virtual reality space have been used successfully with students to engage them more deeply with literary texts and generate significant writing and critical thinking about the works.

In one WMU class in fall 2005 Haughey had students reading Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights’ Dream take time away from discussion to enter into an enormous virtual world he created in Dr. Webb’s class that paralleled the Classical Greek setting of the court and forests portrayed in the play.  Taking on the roles of court society, working class guild members, imaginative fairies and sprites, such as Puck, students followed a series of role play activities in close parallel with the text, and experienced virtually the confusion, magic, charm, and possibility of Shakespeare’s most imaginative play. English literature is also written in Africa, and in another English class, students reading Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart entered into Dr. Webb’s prototype virtual reality environment and became a wide range of Igbo villagers, British missionaries, and colonial administrators in a visual space based on an extensive archive of authentic black and white photography from turn-of-the-century Nigeria.  

The scholars participating in this project include experts in Early and Contemporary British Literature, American Literature, Postcolonial Literature, and Children’s Literature. The kind of literary reading experiences they will be creating were first described as a theoretical possibility in MIT professor Janet Murry’s pathbreaking 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (MIT Press).