Case Study

Learning with virtual reality – Interview with Elena Radaelli, Collegio S. Carlo

In the last few months several Milanese schools visited the Sforza Castle to attend Beyond the Castle, a VR experience which makes students protagonists of an ad hoc and extraordinary 15th century experience as virtual archers.

One of these schools is the Collegio S. Carlo, an historical institution in Milan, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary since its foundation. We interviewed Mrs Elena Radaelli, ICT teacher and expert in teaching innovation and Edtech at Collegio S. Carlo who brought several classes to enjoy our experience.

Why did you decide to make your students live this experience? Which part of the project did you like the most?

“Well, when we decided to propose this experience, the reasons that guided us were basically two: first of all we wanted to break the idea the young people have about VR, just based on the playful aspect, which I think is still important to convey the contents and learning. Juveniles often think about VR just as entertainment, an experience for its own sake. Our goal, instead, was to show that this kind of technology, which starts from the complexity of the real data, can help us to understand things better. It is therefore necessary to study and know well what surrounds us to create this type of experiences: to know the past, history, science and so on.

Technology does not exist without the past. This is what the new generations lack, the historical dimension. Today the use of technology is quite consumerist and lacks the fundamental aspect of learning.

What we liked about Beyond the Castle is its being rooted in a precise historical environment, in which you can walk where historical profiles walked, where battles took really place and therefore where you can be plunged back in time and experience emotions that stimulate learning processes. Teenagers are often exposed to high complex levels of technology but they don’t have any real idea how to use it properly and as so they use it just in a passive way.

Moreover, it was of course an educational opportunity for us to make students and teachers understand that there are other ways of teaching and learning. I believe in the outdoor learning and being able to take our students to this place full of history has been important (many of them had even never visited the Castle despite they are Milanese!). This even more by linking the visit to the VR experience, where it is essential to follow the rules (from the use of technological components to the different virtual weapons). I think this aspect is very important for stimulating an input-output learning process in juveniles.”

Students trying out virtual reality

What did the students like the most?

“They were very impressed by the fact that it was a VR experience that was definitively different from those they were used to, just related to a gaming purpose. Instead, the fact of having first contextualized (a little bit also thanks to a pre-work developed in class) and then physically experienced, made the difference. The presentation that was shown them by you at the beginning of the morning created a different awareness in students, allowing them to amplify their emotions and therefore their learning approach and process. It was a discovery: it was for them a novelty to be able to learn with virtual reality”.

What technologies do you currently use at school? Which are the most appreciated?

“We are currently in a decision-making moment: we have two computer labs equipped with PCs and 3D printers but we would like to focus a lot on mobility, to use technology in a transversal way. The point is how to use technology. It would be nice to create areas within the school to develop specific projects (robotics, 3D printing, AutoCAD …), where the technology is localized but dynamic. Obviously I’m not talking about totally replacing traditional teaching with technology. What I think it is fundamental is its use within a pedagogical frame that should so amplify learning and knowledge. During my ICT classes, for example, ICT, students have a hardcopy traditional notebook and any project is written on paper before being digitally realized.”

You have been much abroad where the state of the art in terms of new technologies is deeply different. What can you tell us and what differences did you notice about the educational and cultural approach?

“In Italy, the use of new technologies is a lot behind, there is not yet a 360 degree inclusion as it is in most of Europe, in the US and in some parts of Asia such as Singapore and Japan. However, I think that technology should be included from the first school years to educate children to these new languages. The problem we have today is that the children often have in their hands technological supports that they can not use properly and at their real best, because nobody teaches them how to do it. Thanks to the intuitive interfaces, actually the complexity and potential of technology are not fully understood. What I’m trying to do and what I believe is that we should teach kids that technology is one of the tools for understanding the world and that can help them develop new types of thinking. This is important if we think about the amount of information and stimulations that young people receive every day, especially from new media. It is essential to educate them in this, as to defend them from fake news and therefore to lead them to a healthy, conscious and responsible use of technology.”

Is virtual reality ready for Italian schools? How do you see a possible collaboration between the VR industry and school?

“Not yet, we are still far from the introduction of this new type of technology, also because I found a certain distrust in some teachers. I think that to work within the Italian school system we first need to understand how to include it, using a model that could be hybrid i.e. keeping it within the more American approach towards a project-based learning. In our school we are trying to create more projects of this kind. For example, with the Music teacher, some classes are developing a project on the value of the lute, which they will then have to present through the Pecha Kucha, a format of digital presentations. I think contaminations like these are necessary: the help of technology to talk about music.”

As a teacher, what types of experiences with the new technologies would you like to be developed? How do you imagine the future of education through them?

I believe both in the potentialities of augmented reality and virtual reality and I am convinced that, if consciously developed in the educational field, they can avoid that loss of contact with reality, which is the today’s risk for our students. I also think that new technologies can stimulate and generate creativity for the jobs of the future. In a certain way, I believe that we are now in a particular historical moment, almost a Renaissance of technologies. Technologies do not live apart from people who are extremely competent in their field and can not exist without a plurality of professionals with transversal skills: they can not exist without specialists in art history, in science or literature and this is therefore an amazing time for culture and technology.”


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An innovative VR experience to travel back in time

Excited about the idea of travelling in history? BEYOND the CASTLE makes it real! The project, started in March 2018, is the first VR Location Based Edutainment (LBEd) experience of Beyond The Gate, based in the Sforza Castle, Milan, that makes people travel back in time to the Italian Renaissance. After a walk on the battlements, inside the Falconer Tower, users wear HTC Vive Headsets becoming archers, to explore the castle from a new point of view.

An immersive experience to learn about History from inside

The project is a cutting-edge VR format that moves users from passive viewers to active participants, fully involved and immersed in the virtual environment. During the game, visitors are guided by the voice of an artificial intelligence, Eva, which tells them tips about the history and secrets of the castle. Here, as archers, they train their skills using different weapons, like the longbow or the bombardella, one of the most famous Italian fireguns of the period. The hands-on approach let visitors learn about weapons’ different features in a more effective and engaging way.

Our visitor is having fun

Furthermore, the high-level quality of the game design makes them live a deep immersive experience, feeling even the vibration of the bowstring while nocking the arrow.

The sound environment has, for this reason, a key role: in the game, players hear the cannon bursts, the bombardment shots, as if everything is really happening, living a deep and personal experience.

The research behind: philological reconstruction to connect past and present

What makes this project unique is the strong connection between real and virtual, as every detail in the game was created to recall the present-day castle, from inside to outside.

Today only few traces remain of what was the original Sforza Castle, as it was destroyed and modified during four centuries of foreign dominations and world conflicts.

Through the experience BEYOND the CASTLE, users could learn about how it was in the XV century, at the age of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan.

The project was realized in collaboration with the University of Milan, after a philological research on historical documents, ancient maps and sources.

During the game players move into the XV century Falconer Tower and lean from the battlements to see the massive outer defensive wall, the Ghirlanda, today mostly destroyed. Moreover, the project allows visitors to learn about places that have changed over the centuries in a way that would not be possible otherwise. In the final level, they explore the virtual reconstruction of the Laghetto of Santo Stefano, the area of the University of Milan, where in the past, through water canals, the barges left with the marble blocks for the construction of the Duomo Cathedral.

Accessible VR technology to rediscover the past

BEYOND the CASTLE was created to make people rediscover one of the most important cultural heritage sites of Milan, the Sforza Castle. The launch was very well received by the press (here a summary of our press release) and during these first eight months thousands of people tried the experience. Thanks to the edutainment nature of the content, the experience attracted families, couples and non-gamers and around 90% of the customers never tried VR before.

In order to reach different kinds of audience, it was important, during the development, to think about accessibility and technology ease of use, to create an experience suitable for all. For this reason, at the beginning of the game, a starting level introduces visitors to this new world. Here they can test their new virtual hands and move into the space, getting familiar with technology. Moreover, the voice of Eva guides them in every step of the game, providing information and suggestions to make them feel comfortable.

VR & Education: the school project

Nowadays it is necessary to find new channels to drive students contents and communicate with them, speaking their own language. The Millenials, born in the “experience age” are always connected and surrounded by technology. So, what about teaching with virtual reality?

Our school projects, started in September, give the opportunity to whole classes to try this innovative educational approach. In fact, for different reasons (i.e. costs, complexity of the technology and more…) VR is not yet widely used in schools. To make this technology accessible to every student, we developed ad-hoc projects, designing pre and post complementary in-depth activities and guided tours.

To ensure their quality, we tested them in summer with associations and summer schools, collecting really positive opinions from both educators and students.

Edutainment content is key for economic sustainability of VR experiences

Most of the VR experiences available in locations across the world are mainly focused on pure entertainment.

Summarizing, BEYOND the CASTLE experiment has shown that high quality content can add value to cultural locations such as castles, museums, cathedrals, allowing people to discover them from another perspective. In addiction, this project has highlighted that combining education and entertainment is key to attract new audiences to try VR.

On the base of these results Beyond the Gate is developing new edutainment experiences that will take users to learn and enjoy new worlds. What will be the next?


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