A pocket-size guide to local queer history

“It gets better” has become a rallying cry for supporters of LGBTQ youth, who want them to understand that their struggles to find a place in the world won’t last forever. Jason Harley, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education, is developing a mobile augmented reality (AR) app that he hopes will reinforce and extend this message by showing users the gains made by sexual and gender minorities in Edmonton through previous decades.

“Our goal is to help shape students’ understandings of how far things have come,” says Harley, who teaches in the Department of Educational Psychology. “This way, when they do encounter prejudice or situations where there’s still progress to be made in social and legislated rights, they can appreciate the big picture: that things have gotten tremendously better in a relatively short period of time.”

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The idea behind the app, as Harley sees it, is “to instill a sense of hope in students, to empower and enhance their resilience to adversity, and to potentially encourage them to be part of the process of change.”

Making historical learning fun

Unlike virtual reality, which immerses the user in an artificial environment, AR provides a direct or indirect view of a real-world environment which is supplemented by digital sensory input such as audio, video or graphics.

Harley, who describes his work as “a nexus where psychology, education and computer science meet,” has found that AR applications like the one he’s developing have the potential to improve engagement and learning by enabling interaction with the subject matter. Users seem to really like getting supplementary information in real time as they explore the history of a real or virtual geographic location.

“I’ve worked on medical simulations and virtual tutoring, so this is relatively simple technology by comparison, but I was blown away by how much people enjoyed these interactions,” Harley says.

“It just works. It’s a fun and effective way to improve history learning. So, as a next step, I wanted to apply it to a context that would have significant social and educational meaning and value, and that could potentially be translated into high school curriculum.”

Unearthing Edmonton’s LGBTQ history

While social movements for suffrage and racial equality are often covered in the classroom, the historical push for LGBTQ rights hasn’t been as well integrated into curriculum.

Harley’s research, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), involves compiling archival material and insights from experts and eyewitnesses to Edmonton’s LGBTQ history to virtually annotate geographical landmarks in the city’s ongoing progress toward equality. UAlberta educational psychology professor André Grace, Susanne Lajoie of McGill University and Eric Poitras of the University of Utah are co-researchers on the project.

Jason Harley
Harley hopes that his app, which will use augmented reality to bring Edmonton’s LGBTQ history to life, will “instill a sense of hope in students, to empower and enhance their resilience to adversity.”

“There will be newspaper clippings, interviews with people who were there,”’ Harley says. “We’re hoping to get varying perspectives ranging from local professionals and experts who are knowledgeable about sexual and gender minorities in a variety of contexts and, critically, people who have been involved in the LGBTQ movement in the city for decades. And it won’t just be text—there will be images, video and audio presented in different and user-friendly ways.”

Weaving personal perspectives and individuals’ stories into the supplementary digital information is part of Harley’s objective for the AR app, to take users beyond a sequential recounting of historic dates in order to cultivate empathy in LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ users alike.

“Thinking about things like nightlife and social life at the time—how did that work in the 1960s and the 1970s? Where could you go? What risks did something as simple as ‘going out’ involve? Topics like that comprise very revealing and interesting historical comparisons,” Harley says. “It’s getting students and other users to think about history in ways that are less formal and legalistic. We want to try to be comprehensive so we provide people with a more holistic and immersive image of what it was like to be a gender or sexual minority in the past and how that has changed.”

One app, many applications

For practical purposes, Harley says, his queer history app will most likely be used in conjunction with a Smart Board and Google Earth to allow students to visit points of interest around Edmonton without having to leave the classroom.

“In previous research my work has illustrated that using these kinds of apps in conjunction with a Smart Board displaying a large-screen and rotatable view of the location can be nearly as effective as going to the physical location itself. Although that’s a less true version of using mobile AR, it opens up potential applications for classroom use by giving teachers the option of heading out for a field trip or opening Google Earth. It creates exciting opportunities for curricular implementation and integration that would be great.”

The potential for touristic applications for the app—to annotate walking tours or museum visits using GPS data—is also great, Harley says. He’s also thinking about how the app could be used to impart lessons about queer history right across Canada.

“We’re hoping to connect this research to Canada’s 150th anniversary, because I think there’s a lot for the LGBTQ community to celebrate in Canada—and in Alberta, because Alberta was the province where the legal battle for equality rights for sexual minorities was fought during the 1990s, culminating in the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation. I think that’s something students can take a lot of pride in,” he says.

“And that can help build resilience. Rather than focusing exclusively on the current shortcomings in systems, it’s equally important to look at all the advances that have been made.”

Feature image: Educational psychology professor Jason Harley sees multiple potential applications for the mobile app he’s developing as part of his SSHRC-funded research.

For almost as long as there's been a Canada, there's been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, we're proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation. 

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