Why We Need More Tech in History Education

There is a crisis in civic education. An alarmingly small number of people is aware of their nation’s history. An ACTA report found that only 24% of American university students had a proficient understanding of their nation’s history. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, goes as far as calling Britain’s self-serving view of its history “dangerous”.

History is not just about the past: We study it to make sense of our present and to be able to build a better future. In times of rising nationalism and xenophobia, understanding our history is more important than ever. A nation is built upon its past; its interactions with other nations, its triumphs and also its mistakes. A good foundation in history allows today’s students become informed citizens tomorrow, able to better navigate our media landscape filled with “fake news”.

But there are several challenges facing history education today. In schools, history is usually taught as a both linear and fragmented progression, usually focused on a single country. This can easily give students a false impression of national self-determination; in truth historical events across the world are highly connected, and no nation makes history alone.

Nine years ago, we took the first step to solve this issue by launching Ancient History Encyclopedia, delivering history information in an interconnected way. Unlike books, websites are able to present history as a global web of events, making it easy to discover and understand related events across time and space. Online resources are much cheaper than traditional textbooks, and they are regularly updated as new research comes to light.

Ancient History Encyclopedia, is now the world’s most-read history encyclopedia; we publishes thousands of history articles to over 20 million readers every year. The website provides in-depth information on popular subjects in the curriculum, delivering not just what students need to know but also the stories and facts that make history interesting and engaging. As a UK non-profit company, our editorial team goes the extra mile, promoting lesser-known cultural heritage around the world to a wide global audience. Everything is strictly reviewed for academic quality prior to publication, which is why thousands of schools use the site regularly. Stephanie Coviello, a teacher from Chatham, New Jersey, calls it “extremely useful tool in my classroom”.

Another major problem is that historical events, characters, and periods are often taught in an abstract way, making them hard to grasp for students. This often causes students to become disengaged and giving history a “boring” and dusty flavour. Teachers and educators worldwide have been working on solving these challenges for a while, and edTech, now becoming indispensable in schools, offers a solution to a lot of them. The gamification of classrooms with tools like Classcraft is helping educators engage their students. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are also increasingly bringing life to educational content. Companies like JigSPACE, Google Expeditions and zSpace are working on that. However, a lot of the interactive content currently available is related to STEM fields, while humanities, which are naturally less “hands on”, are lagging behind. Many solutions are also expensive while budgets for non-STEM subjects are being cut across the world, leaving history departments struggling to make ends meet.

Wanting to bring our expertise to the field and to bring history education to the next level, we partnered with Time Passport, an AR studio that specialises in historical “time travel” through the lens of a mobile device. With their team of designers, 3D artists and historians, the Canadian studio creates historical learning experiences that allow users to experience first-hand places and events from the past. These experiences work both in the home or on a historical site. With Augmented Reality, students can experience places that they would never be able to visit, transporting them back in time to deepen their learning experience.

Time Passport have just launched their demo Seven Wonders AR app, in which anyone can virtually visit and explore the greatest architectural achievements of antiquity, from the comfort of their living room. Inside the app, the learning experience is completed through easily accessible articles from Ancient History Encyclopedia that explain each of the wonders, as well as their historical context. Being available on iPads and iPhones, the app allows students from all over the world to learn about ancient history in an engaging way. As a next step, we are working on an AR app which will let you see ruins come back to life as you visit them.

The most exciting part of this partnership is that our duo is also working on an education platform for history teachers, which will make it easier for educators to teach history, engage students with the past, and connecting it to our present day. It will use a variety of media (online and offline), trusted materials (including AR), and course planning tools to serve as the teacher’s right hand, drastically reducing preparation time. Course planning is one of the biggest time sinks for teachers, which has not only been identified by the UK government but also confirmed by teachers we work with hand-in-hand to develop the platform.

In 2019, the results of this partnership will lead to a History Education Lab touring schools internationally, working with teachers who want to use technology to improve history education. Not only will educators learn about edTech, but their feedback will guide further development of the digital resources.

Don’t throw away your history book yet, though! While education technology can transport students into the past better than any book could, it’s a comprehensive approach using both classical and modern methods, guided by the teacher, that will teach students the skills they need. Our goal is to help history educators navigate towards their new and improved classroom.

Thanks to Carina Poulin, PhD in Remote Sensing

Jan van der Crabben

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