Archaeology is an inherently applied, field-based discipline requiring onsite research and study, e.g. at archaeological sites and museums where excavated materials are stored or displayed. While in situ work is essential for archaeological research, it can be an invaluable instructional tool as well. In a classroom setting students are typically introduced to the theory, objectives and methods of archaeological work. Surveys of archaeological sites and synthetic overviews of material and visual culture associated with specific sites provide the factual background for approaching questions of broader historical significance, interpreting ancient societies and relating to the past. While traditional instruction is useful and essential as an introduction to the field, it delivers a kind of ‘meta-archaeology’ passively absorbed by students and creates a disempowering learning environment in which only the work of specialists is accessible and worthy of discussion. What is typically missing in higher education on campuses is the opportunity to do archaeology, rather than just learn about it, i.e. the ability to apply theoretical knowledge based on real archaeological data and to directly engage with the object of study.
In a similar direction, simulations are an important component in student-centered learning, leaving fact gathering, decision-making and conclusions in the hands of students. In the context of higher education, they involve people, a designed environment and activities. Placing students in true-to-life roles, they can incorporate exercises, models, visual or descriptive information, and even games (Hertel & Millis 2002). The success of such simulations ultimately relies on close alignment of the environment and related activities with the specific learning objectives of a course: including mastery of substantial content through scaffolding, honing of higher order thinking skills, and development of discipline-specific skills to deal with real-world problems. The success of immersive simulated environments also relies on collective (as opposed to individual) knowledge-building in which diversity of opinion, multiple perspectives and modes of inquiry are constructed as part of a community of learning among students (Wankel & Blessinger 2012; Nygaard et al. 2012). The benefits of simulations in higher education are manifold, including the ability to construct one’s knowledge through direct experience; to meaningfully and personally engage with the object of study for deep learning; to critique and query content as opposed to passively absorb knowledge; and to augment traditional content learning by emulating real-world, complex problems.
Archaeology is an ideal environment for exploring constructivist teaching and situated learning, because it is by definition an interpretative, collaborative, hands-on discipline. Digital or analog simulations, role-playing, games, scenario explorations etc. have only been recently explored in the field (e.g. Burke & Smith 2007), with most ‘authentic learning’ happening in actual field schools (e.g. Perry 2004; Baxter 2009). Developing a campus-based simulation on the basis of a real-world assemblage can help students explore the methods and principles of archaeological practice before they venture out in the field.
This project, funded by a Learning Technology Incubator grant (College of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia), utilizes a worthwhile assemblage available on UVa Grounds to simulate archaeological work in the field, in particular the ceramics lab. The project entailed the development of the current web resource, an interactive model of site PG64, the digitization and systematization of extant information about the site (descriptive data, artifacts, maps etc.), as well as new research on the collection. The combined resource is intended to support archaeology teaching across the curriculum by enhancing hands-on, immersive learning and to foster collaboration across several units of the university (Archaeology Program, Art Department, Alderman Library, School of Architecture). It is also meant as a public archaeology resource in the framework of K12 education and the DOE’s Standards of Learning (Virginia Studies and Virginia’s First People, Past and Present; US History to 1865; Virginia & US History).
A peek into an experiential classroom: Intro to Ceramic Analysis (A. Dakouri-Hild, University of Virginia)