When the Covid epidemic hit, most of us teachers were forced to develop different forms of online learning. Being stuck at home made the use of online tools, such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom a necessity. Other tools were also used. Some of the experiments worked out well and created new and more engaging learning environments. Others did not.
After the Covid restrictions were lifted, we were happy to return to their classrooms and have physical contact again with our students. Yet most of us took some valuable experiences with online tools with us, without discarding classroom-based strategies, such as classroom discussions and interactive activities. The combination of those strategies with online or digital possibilities is often referred to as blended learning. Historiana’s online activities provide educational materials that strengthen good history teaching and best used in such a blended educational context, not a completely digitized one.
The value of online tools
Our classroom teaching may benefit from incorporating such online possibilities. Online working has of course been a part of (history) teaching for many years now. Most students, for example, start their search for information on Google, and yet they encounter a vast amount of information just with one Google-search. Although that amount brings with it problems of its own, students feel more comfortable using these tools than they would in a traditional library. When studying history, students have access to more historical information and narratives than those presented by the school and their teacher; as teachers we need to explain to students how they can best use online tools.
Other online tools, such as Socrative of Mentimeter, allow teachers to use online classroom quizzes, in which all students can participate at the same time. As a teacher, you can see students’ individual answers and get an idea of everyone’s understanding and knowledge of a subject. This could be their prior knowledge or to assess what they learned from earlier classes. You could even present the quiz as a game, which may often motivate your students to participate. Similar tools would allow students to give input for classroom discussion, again enabling all of them to contribute.
There are examples of teachers using games as an addition to a classroom. The lively depiction of the past, combined with the agency of the player inside the game might improve historical empathy and understanding. You can get some experience as an actor in an historical context by playing the game.
Some platforms even allow you to create complete digital lessons. An online application such as LessonUp (mostly in the Netherlands) would be a great example. Students would then use their own device, if possible to follow a more individualized lesson plan. Such lessons would however no longer be called blended learning.
The limitations of online tools
Reflecting on the Covid crisis and their experiments with online tools, teachers. noted that online learning and tools also had some major disadvantages. Not only did direct, personal interaction prove to be a necessary part of the learning for young people, online learning also seemed to pose more specific didactical challenges.
In good history teaching, student interaction and collaboration is essential, for example through their critical evaluation of sources students’ historical reasoning is improved. Such activities are hard to organize through online tools. Teachers could, for example, create so-called break-out rooms, in which students could discuss online in smaller groups. However, teachers find it more difficult to guide students in these rooms to make sure everyone contributes to the work, since it is difficult to prompt students as they would in a classroom.
Furthermore, they found only a few online tools explicitly designed for training historical thinking skills. Teachers used material meant for working offline, such as existing assignments and discussing the outcome online. However, the same problems with the organization of the discussions, as mentioned above may occur.
Historiana: a tool for blended learning
People familiar with Historiana know it provides different educational resources that could be used online (ELearning) and offline. The website offers a great number of activities that can be downloaded and printed to use in the classroom without an online connection. For online teaching, the Historiana E-activity builder has been developed. This builder provides different tools, or building blocks, that have specifically developed to support the training of historical thinking skills of students. It also provides blocks that would ask students to formulate an answer or allows teachers to embed other tools for evaluation. Using the builder, teachers can create engaging E-learning activities.
By working with these activities students work mainly with primary sources, trying to find their own solutions to historical problems. Such activities do not attempt to transmit a single truth about the past, but instead they help develop historical competencies.
Although these activities are done online, the E-Learning activities are not developed to replace classroom teaching; they are meant to add to them. We propose to use the E-Learning activities in a similar way as a text when students prepare their answers individually and then compare them with others. They help students to study and work with sources to find their own answers to questions. Of course, the introduction to the problem and the discussion of students’ answers could be done offline.
If you want to let your students to study history through analysis of sources, formulating their own answers to relevant historical questions, Historiana would be of value. Off course, even here both may be combined. A good lecture could also explore a historical question of a problem by providing context and different historical opinions. The subsequent analysis of sources would provide students with ideas that are discussed in a classroom discussion.
How would you combine Historiana materials with offline, classroom teaching?