Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for games like SimCity, Age of Empires or Theme Park Tycoon, where I get to be the master of a little universe for a while. From an early age, these games allowed me to construct an alternate reality where I got to be an architect, emperor or entrepreneur. Although these games were always more about fun than anything else, I learned an incredible amount about grown-up things through them—business management, resource allocation and the economy, for example. The simulated environment allowed me to make mistakes and explore possibilities within a realistic scenario.
Simulation-based learning allows us to play in a highly immersive environment that reflects aspects of the real world. In virtual simulations, we can explore and create with much lower stakes than we would encounter in the real world. Questions of “What if?” flourish in a virtual simulation as we create and experience new possibilities with increasing realism. With smartphones making access to virtual reality easier and easier, virtual simulations can now become part of place-based learning in the classroom.
Using virtual reality creation technology, we asked our students at Parklands College to design “District 2020,” a hypothetical eco-city based on an area of Cape Town, South Africa, formerly known as District Six. Students were to virtually design District 2020 as an urban area emphasizing sustainability and food security and reflecting the area’s social history. This created a place-based interdisciplinary project where students drew from English, history and geography learning and applied their knowledge to a contemporary challenge in a local context.
Students designed their eco-cities in a simulated virtual reality environment during class time. They worked in groups of three. While working collaboratively on designing District 2020, each group had an architect, a researcher and an urban planner. We provided students with a checklist of design considerations, but allowed them total freedom as to the appearance, presentation and embellishments of their eco-city. Their final product was a link to their virtual reality eco-city. We could open their links on our phones, slip it into Google Cardboard and assess their work from inside virtual reality.