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December 8, 2005

Virtual Village Allows Virtual "Fieldwork"


At Wesleyan, faculty interested in creating multimedia learning environments turn to the Learning Objects Studio, a substantial multimedia development lab that has produced everything from flash animations of body wall formations in the chick embryo to the Ricardian Explorer, an "interactive computer game that simulates the functioning of the Ricardian model of international trade." Like Columbia, Weslyan restricts access of some of its "objects" (such as the Ricardian Explorer) to its student population, but there are a fair number of interesting projects available online.

One of the most extensive is the four-year-old site "A Virtual Village," a project co-authored by Wesleyan religion professor Peter Gottschalk and Holy Cross religion professor Mathew Schmalz that maps and documents a small town in North India. Though Gottschalk decided to give it the pseudonym "Arampur," the village is "A Virtual Village" is a real place. Like many rural towns in the area, it has a population of about 5000 Indians with different caste, class and religious backgrounds; it also has geographical and cultural features such as a fifteenth-century mausoleum, numerous Sufi tombs, and temples devoted to a variety of gods and goddesses.

What's great about this web project is the balance it achieves between interactive mapping and scholarly text. The site is divided into eight primary sections, four of them textual and four of them visual. The first textual section, "About Arampur," is divided into pages that discuss topics such as the town's relationship to the city of Banaras, the state of Bihar, India as a nation, and the global economy. Like the later section "Topics In Village Life," these pages (example shown below) are hyperlinked to a glossary, but otherwise resemble the pages of a traditional college textbook:


These geographic essays provide the user with a strong framework for the actual geographic exploration that begins in the next two sections of the project, "Roam," and "Thematic Maps" "Roam" allows the user to explore a map of the village. Clicking on a spot indicated by a pale blue circle reveals a Quicktime VR panorama of the area: when the village map is reduced in size, the QTVR panorama displays additional features such as interviews with locals and "hotspots" that provide additional views of a given location (see red on photo below)


In the "Thematic Maps" section, this basic village maps is overlaid with a series of further map coordinates that reveal things such as local medical practicioners and foodways.

Another section that makes good use of visual material is "My Life," a series of photo essays of the village taken by actual village residents. According to the site developers, these photos - and the extensive series of interviews recorded and transcribed on the site - "allow students using the site work independently through virtual fieldwork and independent investigation." In other words, "A Virtual Village" does more than provide students with a rich scholarly introduction to the North Indian village it documents: it allows them to hone their own research methods, and draw their own conclusions about the "evidence" gathered by both scholars and native informants.

According to the Learning Objects website, the project designers are considering the creation of CD-rom based on the website: given that access to the internet is limited in rural India, this would certainly allow those who are documented in "A Virtual Village" greater access to the site. On the other hand, a great (though underdeveloped) aspect of the site is an "update" section, intended to track the changes in the village as it goes through various stages of development: a 2004 update, for example, describes the first cell phone tower in the village. Given the rapid nature of technological change in India, updates such as this would ensure that "A Virtual Village" truly remained a virtual document of the town.

Posted by lisa lynch at December 8, 2005 2:02 PM