Using Deep Nostalgia in the classroom

By: Jaime Donally

What parents and educators need to know about the Artificial Intelligence technology that’s building a bridge to the past.

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Growing up, my mother would regularly share stories of my grandfather. She talked about his upbringing as a Choctaw Indian living on a reservation and how he loved building homes as a carpenter and built my great grandparents’ home in Richmond, California. Unfortunately, she was repeating stories that she was told as a child because he passed away when she was a toddler. We only have the stories and a few pictures to bring back the memory of my Grandpa, and until recently it was difficult to imagine more of who he was when he was alive.

Then I discovered the “Deep Nostalgia” technology that went viral in early 2021 as people uploaded historic photos of family members and watched them seemingly come to life. In my eyes, as a virtual reality and augmented reality edtech consultant, this “viral moment” is a “teaching moment” for educators and parents, as tech like this is now as easy to use as uploading a photo to social media. Access to AI tech like this is becoming more readily available to everyone—not just big-budget Hollywood-type films. Now educators can convert still images of historic figures into realistic animated videos.

It’s timely access, too. We’re at a pivotal point in education where even students demand that we change the way we teach history. And educators are challenged with finding new ways to teach the gaming generation with often outdated tools. But the pandemic and hybrid learning environment have been a catalyst of creativity as many schools, parents and teachers found creative, digital ways to make lessons come alive. More companies will create this type of experience, and I expect this to be a first step in using more AR and AI in our photos and in the classroom.

For example, within a minute of uploading a photo of my grandfather, the image of his face started moving, and his eyes looked from left to right. When I shared this video with my mother, she was speechless because she’s never had a video of him. For my mom, the Deep Nostalgia technology provoked a deeper connection with her father. The same could be true for students.

What is “Deep Nostalgia?”

The technology used to animate these photos has been around for a while now, but the term “Deep Nostalgia” was recently introduced through an app called MyHeritage. The app uses AI to identify the specific face structure from an image to recreate expressions and facial movements that look natural. Many AI-powered applications turn images into animated videos by putting your face in a meme, GIF or video. The applications primarily focus on entertainment, as they make an image lip-sync with popular songs or imitate a celebrity from a movie. Still, this powerful technology can provide many more benefits than just playful fun.

What it means for educators in the classroom

Meredith Newlin is a 10th grade English teacher and author in Denver, Colorado. After first seeing a Deep Nostalgia treatment of a Frederick Douglass photo, she says she could use the tech in her lesson during a reading of Douglass’ speech in 1852 when he talked about the meaning of the Fourth of July to Black enslaved Americans.

“There is so much in that clip, just in his eyes. It’s brilliant!” Newlin says. “I could see pausing during a reading of an excerpt from the narrative, showing this clip, then asking students to imagine Frederick Douglass’ point of view, analyzing his facial expression, what his eyes are saying. Then the prompt would be to continue writing the narrative from his point of view.”

“This technology amplifies his voice in the narrative,” Newlin says.

Interacting with significant people throughout history is educationally beneficial. Imagine a photo of Albert Einstein or Amelia Earhart magically move and give the illusion that they are looking at you. Using Deep Nostalgia, students are more likely to want to learn about people that are relatable and realistic looking. Building a connection to people throughout history will develop a deeper understanding of the world, others and ourselves.

Building an edtech bridge to the gaming generation

Being raised in the digital age, kids’ expectations for immersive learning is higher than ever before. Many new virtual reality avatars include realistic facial expressions based on a person’s voice. In fact, facial expressions represent emotions, which in turn brings a powerful opportunity to connect using technology. With so much digital animation available everywhere, it can be challenging to help students connect to works that were written in a different era.

“What might be considered idle play with tech by some actually brings new ideas and stories to life and helps a student connect with more enthusiasm to the writing task,” says Lyn Fairchild Hawks, an author specializing in young adult literature. She’s also a college essay coach and graduate student in writing for children and young adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vermont. “I have several lessons that use Thinglink, Canva and other digital tools to help kids dive into the era or the characters or plot and do visual representations.”

Hawks is also writing books about teaching the classics in new ways, including “Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach.”

“I would pair this app with a dialogue writing assignment, where the student is interviewing the historical person and, if possible, matching animation to dialogue,” Hawks says about using the AI technology to make historic characters and authors come to life in the classroom.

“I seek to partner works across the ages,” says Hawks, who is currently writing her thesis on the topic and how using technology like AI can help to build that bridge.

What it means for parents

Parents want their children to be connected to history. Seeing the image of my grandfather come alive inspired me to look deeper into the history of the Choctaw Nation. Past chiefs track back to the early 1800s, and the first visuals of our chiefs are A-Push-ma-ta-ha-hu-bi, commonly known as Pushmataha (early 1800s), and chief Alfred Wade (1857). Using Deep Nostalgia with these two images, I immediately felt more connected to these historical leaders who were part of the tribe’s transition from Mississippi to Oklahoma (historically known as The Trail of Tears).

As with any new technology, the more you receive, the more you give. The entertainment and educational benefits may still not override the privacy concerns many new apps are pushing. Always check to determine the legality of data collection of facial structure, features and expressions and how that information is stored or shared.

Where to get involved

The augmented reality experience provides flexibility to move from 2D to 3D displays. There are currently many different platforms and hardware to make history come alive beyond Deep Nostalgia. The CoSpaces platform has many objects to tell a story to set up the scenery, offering more engagement with the content. I can easily hyperlink the images to learn more about my grandparents or great-grandparents connected to a page about them. Using the Merge Cube, I was also able to tether each video to the sides of the cube to hold the experience in the palm of your hands. Test out this experience on a computer by clicking here.

Connecting to the past may seem insignificant for many children because the images are unrelatable or difficult to make out. When a vintage photo comes to life using the technology of their time, a child will be eager to find the connection to their life. Whether you’re looking to continue a legacy that resembles those of a past family member or you want the memory of a historical figure to live on, using Deep Nostalgia and augmented reality will be a rewarding and enjoyable experience for the whole family.

Does the teacher in your life know about Verizon’s discounts for educators? Learn more here.

About the author:

As a former classroom teacher turned educational technologist, Jaime Donally has inspired innovative teaching strategies to schools and organizations around the world. Driven by her passion for augmented and virtual reality in education, she supports learners and ed-tech companies to effectively implement immersive technology in the classroom. Donally is the founder of ARVRinEDU and Global Maker Day.


The author has been compensated by Verizon for this article.

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