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A Futuristic Past: Online Educational Tools to Teach Medieval and Early Modern Periods in 3D and 360 Degrees

Felipe Moraga
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The United States Census Bureau reported that in 2016, 93 percent of people aged fifteen to thirty-four had a smartphone, and that almost 88 percent of them owned a computer with an internet connection.1 Technology is ever evolving and has become a crucial way of communicating and teaching. Online learning has grown at such a brisk pace that in 2016 alone, six million students were taking at least one distance-education course.2 This demand for online classes has become more visible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many instructors shifting to online teaching.

When it comes to teaching languages, there are many websites, apps, and programs that can help students polish their (foreign) language skills, yet the computer resources available for language courses rarely intersect with ones for literature, history, or art history.3 This can be a challenge for instructors who have to teach these kinds of courses. However, in the past decade interest in developing technology to digitally scan and preserve historic sites and art pieces from the past has increased significantly.4 Paradoxically, thanks to inactive copyrights and lower royalty fees, periods like the sixteenth century are more likely to be of interest to modern technology developers than those from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. These digital projects are not only didactic in nature, but also extremely effective at capturing students’ attention and invoking interest in the medieval and early modern periods.

In this digital age our students encounter new ways of learning and interacting with technology in their everyday lives. This suggests there is a need for new teaching approaches to effectively educate and engage this generation. This article draws attention to online accessible 3D and 360-degree technologies that cover the medieval and the early modern periods, and can be used for online teaching to effectively contextualize a literary work or artwork in its historical period. The use of these tools enables multifaceted connections with Generation Z and their world of modern technology, and helps prevent the so-called “Zoom fatigue” caused by constant use of videoconference platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, or FaceTime in response to the pandemic.5 I have used the tools mentioned in this article to teach online as well as in-person Hispanic literature classes. However, they are also applicable to art history, history, archeology, or any discipline that deals with historic artifacts. This article aims to promote the use of three widely available 3D and 360-degree techniques in order to enrich the student experience and provide greater accessibility and meaningful interaction with historical artifacts.

3D Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is the process of obtaining measurements from photographs that later result in the creation of rendered 3D models of actual historic buildings or objects.6 Thanks to this technology, students can virtually visit real historic buildings and observe sculptures and other artifacts from medieval times or the early modern period. This format allows them to interact with material culture from all perspectives, including zooming in, zooming out, rotating, walking inside, observing from outside, and more. There are websites that provide dozens of free 3D photogrammetry models of important historical locations for educators and institutions that are accessible to everyone.7 This tool is especially useful to art historians because of the zoom in feature that permits close examination of concrete details. Instead of viewing 2D pictures, students can look at an object almost as if they were holding it in their hand and rotating their wrist to observe it from different angles. Additionally, this tool is useful in a history class, as it allows students to jump into a virtual world with historic artifacts fully reconstructed in 3D. Students can grasp what the sixteenth century looked like by either analyzing early modern artifacts in 3D or by having the immersive experience of virtually walking inside a medieval building such as the Virtual 3D model of the Castle of Calatrava la Vieja in Ciudad Real, Spain created by Global Digital Heritage (fig. 1).8

Fig. 1. Virtual 3D model of the castle of Calatrava La Vieja (Ciudad Real, Spain) by Global Digital Heritage on Sketchfab.


Besides artifacts and buildings, entire historic sites have been digitalized. With a few clicks, students have access to more than 10,000 historic locations in 3D through Google Maps’s Street View and can tour cathedrals from the medieval and early modern periods.9 Additionally, Google Arts & Culture has even digitalized 2,000 museums from all over the world, from the outside to the inside. These 360-degree tours allow students to stroll virtually through a specific art gallery, stopping to stare at the busts, paintings, and sculptures inside by using the zoom feature.

In an online course, an instructor could direct students to the website to visit the halls at the Uffizi Gallery, which contain emblems of humanist culture and educated display (fig. 2).10 Students could start their tour by walking through hall number “10/14” to view paintings by Sandro Botticelli such as Spring or Birth of Venus to observe the interest artists and scholars in Renaissance Florence had in Greek and Roman mythology and the impact Classical civilization had on the elites of the Renaissance.11 This could also lead to discussion of the Medici family’s artistic patronage as they commissioned the gallery and some of its works. The walkable halls also provide access to other areas of interest to early modernists such as rooms twenty and twenty-two, which host Flemish and German paintings and portraits of Martin Luther. This invites discussion of other central themes of the Renaissance, like the creation of the printing press with movable metal type, propaganda, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, etc.

Some of the museums digitalized by Google Arts & Culture contain descriptions of the artwork inside of them, which approximates an interactive walk through the museum with a tour guide.12 Instructors can make use of these resources to structure a course. For example, in a panoramic course about Western Civilization, students can start the course by visiting Greek and Roman temples, aqueducts, and arches in 3D through Google Maps’s Street View.13 Then as the class progresses, the instructor can direct the students to sections of a museum that focus on the Middle Ages. Little by little, the instructor can open other doors containing art pieces from later in time, ending with a visit via Google Arts & Culture to the Museum of Modern Art in New York or any of the hundreds of museums that are walkable virtually.

Uffizi Gallery walkable hall

Fig. 2. Walkable hall inside the Uffizi Gallery, Italy. Image taken from Google Arts & Culture .

360-Degree Videos

The popular video website YouTube is one of several platforms that provide access to 360-degree videos. One can click and pause the recording, zoom in or move the camera around to the desired position. Given the success of 360-degree videos, it is easy to implement them in a literature course. For example, when introducing an early modern Spanish play in a class, the teacher can direct students to view a 360-degree video of the early modern Spanish courtyard theater at Almagro (fig. 3).14 Students can also use these videos to stage and block each of the actors in a scene, or situate where each member of the social class was seated inside the theater. Theater companies are making more recordings of their plays available in the 360-degree format by placing cameras in strategic locations around the stage. As a result, users can immerse themselves in the production and feel as if they are part of the cast by moving around on the stage and situating themselves next to the actors.15 Being virtually present raises students’ awareness of production features such as staging, props, clothing, movement, and acting that can enrich class discussion.

Modern cameras enable the recording of 360-degree videos without any further processing and are becoming affordable. Using them allows teachers to record 360-degree videos when they visit a location related to their classes/research for pedagogical purposes.16 The number of 360-degree videos being recorded is growing rapidly and are increasingly available online.17


Fig. 3. 360-degree image of the early modern Spanish courtyard theater at Almagro, Spain.

Emerging Technique: Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality is still under development, but it claims to have “the potential to change education to become more efficient in the same way that computers and Internet have.”18 It is a hybrid technique that superposes digital information in video, audio, and text formats over real objects or existing spaces.19 Upon scanning an embedded code in a book or website with a smartphone, the student views a 3D reconstruction of the setting or a visual depiction of a literary character from a particular book on the phone. Some examples of what a student can instantly access include 3D sculptures, visual representations of book scenes, maps, or reproductions of objects mentioned in the textbook. The only thing the student needs to do is use a smartphone to scan the code on a painting or in a book. This technology appears promising, however there are not currently enough platforms that have integrated this tool to utilize it in teaching.20

All the resources presented in this article can be incorporated in an in-person class, but in my experience they are more effective when employed in online or hybrid environments, because they are not conducive to the traditional printed-page format. These tools can be used in different disciplines of the humanities, as they increase student accessibility to particular artifacts and promote a better understanding of the piece itself. These technologies empower students to grasp historical context through close-up observation from multiple perspectives. They could be used in a class to introduce specific topics by first letting students explore on their own, engaging virtually with several of the most interactive technologies available. Then the instructor could contextualize what the students have seen and delve into the details in follow up sessions.

The technology presented in this article illustrates several directions for teaching using accessible online tools that are both creative and appealing to current students. It also promotes the integration of text, image, or video to enhance the learning experience. Free access to museums, cities, theaters, historic buildings, and artifacts from all over the world is available to students just a few clicks away, in 3D and 360 degrees. By selecting the locations, artwork, and cultural artifacts that are most relevant to the course, teachers can design a virtual pathway for students to engage with relevant material.

Some resources might seem futuristic, but as Yong Zhao and Seppo Tella observe, educators and students are the mediators of learning technology and the real “gate keepers” of these tools as they decide what becomes a mainstay in the classroom.21 The use of this modern technology helps justify its funding and continuous development. In the end, it is in the instructor’s own interest as an educator to continue exploring ways to use this technology as a pedagogical tool to present the students with a more complete and enriched vision of any historic artifact. Implementing these resources makes learning more tangible, especially in times like these, of cautious social distancing due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, it enables the transformation of traditional 2D pictures or texts into a 3D or 360-degree experience that is closer to the student’s increasingly digital reality.

Felipe Moraga is a dissertator specializing in early modern Spanish literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught online and in-person literature courses as well as Spanish language classes from elementary to advanced levels. His current research focuses on visual and literary studies of monsters, automatons and emblems in literary works and news pamphlets from the medieval and early modern periods. He is the editor of the journal Zona de carga.

1 Camille Ryan, Computer and Internet Use in the United States, American Community Survey Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, 8 Aug. 2018, 6–8. 

2 Julia E Seaman, I. Elaine Allen, and Jeff Seaman, “Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” Babson, MA: Babson Survey Research Group, 2018), 11. 

3 Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, “Between Language and Literature: Digital Text Exploration,” in Teaching Literature and Language Online, ed. Ian Lancashire (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009), 104.

5 Julia Sklar, “‘Zoom Fatigue’ is Taxing the Brain: Here’s Why That Happens,” National Geographic, 24 Apr. 2020. 

6 Robert Warden, “Towards a New Era of Cultural-Heritage Recording and Documentation,” APT Bulletin: The Journal of Preservation Technology 40, no. 3/4 (2009): 6–7.

7 The free website Sketchfab contains thousands of examples: “Models/Cultural Heritage & History,” Sketchfab.  Another option is Turbosquid, but purchase is required: “3D Models for Professionals,” Turbosquid

8 For examining historical artifacts, students can conduct a keyword search of such objects as “armor,” “sword,” “shield” and the desired time period. Material available under Public License at “Calatrava La Vieja (Ciudad Real, Spain),” Sketchfab. 

9 Click on “Satellite view” (lower left-hand corner), then on “globe view” and “3D view” (lower right-hand corner). Not all cities have been digitalized in 3D, but many have. The city of Canterbury and its famous cathedral is a good example to test this feature.

10 Here one can access information on the Uffizi gallery. At the bottom of the webpage, click on “explore” to walk inside the gallery and visit the collections. “Uffizi Gallery,” Google Arts & Culture.

11 Here is a list of what is located in each of the halls: “First Floor Rooms of Uffizi Gallery”  and “Second Floor Rooms of Uffizi Gallery,” Florence.net.  When virtually walking you can change floors by clicking on numbers one or two, at the right side of the screen, on top of the compass symbol. This same system applies in other museums.

12 See for example the Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada, Google Maps.

13 There are dozens of relevant locations to visit at this link: “Ancient Rome,” Google Maps.

14 This 360-degree video is narrated by José Sacristán, a renowned Spanish actor: “Los espacios teatrales de Almagro en 360º,” YouTube.

15 This 360-degree modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, presented by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company shows a good example of how 360-degree technology can be implemented to improve the user experience: “Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit—Shakespeare in VR,” YouTube.

It is also worth watching this 360-degree video that depicts scenes from the life of Cyrano de Bergerac. It was recorded in the Palace of the Fugger family in Almagro, Spain: “#Cyrano360,” Almagro Respira Teatro.

16 Jeff Meyer, “How a 360 Degree Camera Works,” Camera Jabber, 3 July 2018.

17 To access these videos, type “360” plus a keyword, such as “360 visit” or “360 play” in online platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, Google Arts & Culture, or Facebook360.

18 Misty Antonioli, Corinne Blake, and Kelly Sparks, “Augmented Reality Applications in Education,” The Journal of Technology Studies 40, no. 1/2 (2014): 96.

19 Matthew Hackett and Michael Proctor, “Three-Dimensional Display Technologies for Anatomical Education: A Literature Review,” Journal of Science Education and Technology 25 (2016): 642.

20 More information about Augmented Reality (AR), with examples, can be found at “Augment” and “AR in Action.” Different from 3D and 360-degree technology, AR requires downloading applications for one’s smartphone.

21 Yong Zhao and Seppo Tella, “From the Special Issue Editors,” Language Learning and Technology 6, no. 3 (2002): 1.

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