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SketchUp in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Ed. Note: We’ve long been fans of Matthew Nicholls and his incredibly honed SketchUp chops that have been put to use modeling THE ENTIRE CITY OF ANCIENT ROME! Below, Matthew takes you through his modeling processes and talks about an exciting new MOOC he has created and that almost 10,000 people have signed up for so far. This is solid gold, folks. Read on.

SketchUp in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Digital modelling in SketchUp is a great way for researchers and teachers to visualise historic environments, and transmit their ideas to peers, students, and public audiences. Putting the two together seemed like a good idea, so this week the University of Reading launched a new, free 5-week MOOC on ancient Romeusing my large digital SketchUp model of the city. I’m a Roman historian in Reading’s Department of Classics. In this course, I take learners through different themed tours of Rome’s architecture, illustrated by film footage we shot in Rome blended with digital model imagery.

3D reconstruction can really bring archaeological sites alive for people, especially those not used to black and white ground plans or interpreting ruins. I wanted to push this process of discovery and exploration as far as we could in the MOOC, so we also included 360 panorama photos shot in Rome and – in what I think is a first for a MOOC – 3D models of ancient buildings which learners can explore live in Kubity, a free desktop or app viewer that allows walkaround and tour modes, has a sun slider to adjust the lighting, and so on (like so many of the great tools and products I’ve encountered for 3D work, I first came across Kubity at a SketchUp Basecamp).

I’d be delighted if SketchUp users wanted to give the course a look – it’s all free, and though there’s a nominal three hours of content per week there’s no set timetable or obligation to take the content in any particular order.

I’ve presented on my Rome modelling project at past SketchUp Basecamps. It’s taken around a decade to complete (though it will never really be finished), and shows the city as it appeared around AD 315 (well, sort of; many of the structures in it appear simultaneously brand new, which opens up a whole other set of questions. But the quickest answer to the ‘when is it set?’ question is the early 4th century AD, a period when the greatest range of surviving structures all existed simultaneously).

Almost all the architectural content in the model was made in SketchUp, which has been a really excellent tool for digital reconstruction. Along the way I picked up various different workflows, depending on what type of building I was making and what sources of evidence I had.

SketchUp Basecamps

Plugins automated or speeded up some tasks enormously, and made impossible operations possible: Chuck Vali’s Instant tools (especially Roof), Fredo’s Tools on Surface for insetting elements like roads into curving topographies, and more. I made myself a little sample set of Roman textures, doors, windows, hedges, stairs, fountains, etc. and swapped those in and out as components. Where possible, structures are made from archaeological evidence and on the basis of other sources like literary testimony, pictures on ancient coins, and a 3rd C AD marble map of the city that survives in fragments. There’s lots more on this source material in our MOOC.

SketchUp Basecamps

SketchUp Visiting Professional

The overall result is a very large model. When setting out to make it I had no very clear idea of how I would use it beyond showing students pictures or flythroughs, but now so many more options exist to help bring the model to life – and new ones keep on appearing.

For a start, having found SketchUp such a fun and engaging tool to use, I have developed ways of bringing it into my own university teaching. As a SketchUp Visiting Professional, I now lead workshops on 3D for education in universities and schools in the UK and overseas, and am always enthused by the potential it offers in many academic disciplines and contexts.

Rendering software allows me to assemble the whole city into one file and produce animated flythroughs. For some years I used Cinema 4D for this, and at the last Basecamp I discovered Lumion. Seeing what this elegant and powerful software could do was a real aha! moment for me, comparable to the day I first downloaded and played with SketchUp and saw how it could be useful to me as a historian. We used Lumion for most of the renders in our MOOC – more on that below – and I am delighted with some of the cinematic effects we achieved. We’re also adapting my Rome model in Unity to make an MMORPG called Life of Romeset in a historically accurate model of the city. Other outputs from the model include Kubity, as we’ve seen, and sharing platforms like SketchFab which enable 3D content to play a real part in teaching contexts; here, for example, is a collection of 3D models of Greek ceramics from Reading’s own university collection that can be ‘handled’ in 3D; the originals, of course, live behind glass and can’t be picked up and handled by students.

3D models of Greek ceramics


I’ve also enjoyed using tools like DVerse’s viewer, Unity, VRSkope, and Iris to create VR walkarounds of Roman buildings. Walking around ‘inside’ a Roman theatre in VR, for example, is surprisingly different to viewing it on screen in an effectively scale-free environment. The proprioceptive and vestibular senses involved in physically looking around an immersive model – actually craning your neck to look up, and so on – add a whole new level to your awareness of scale. You should give it a try if you haven’t done so yet!

Do join me and 9.5k others (so far) on our MOOC. And I’ll see some of you at the next Basecamp!

About the Author

Dr. Matthew Nicholls is a Roman historian at the University of Reading, specializing in the 3D reconstruction of ancient spaces. He also directs the University's Open Online Course program and is one of SketchUp’s go-to pros in our Visiting Professionals Program.

Profile Photo of Matthew Nicholls