Public history Digital history & historiography

Digital Media and Technology in the classroom and beyond

Digital Media and Technology in the classroom and beyond
Digital Media and Technology has transformed how we teach, learn and present. In a transferable skills training of the doctoral school here at university, Robert Reuter introduced us to new media and tools that can enhance teaching and learning. Based on the eight learning events defined by Leclercq and Poumay at the university of Liège, we came up with several online tools that can extend and enhance teaching and engage the students or audience.

Learning and Teaching Events

Not all learning and teaching activities or events follow the standard model of reception and transmission where the lecturer stands in front of the class to transmit knowledge into a fairly passive audience of students who simply write down what they are told. Although this tried and tested teaching methodology has certainly proven its merit, it is simply not up to date anymore. The students, and in general the audience, expect more of us teachers and presenters nowadays. When we want to learn how to use a new online tool for example, we don't always ask our colleagues for help, we simply turn to the internet to find a good tutorial on YouTube for example. This second type of event is called imitation/modelling and is often skill oriented. The third learning and teaching event that centres around the teacher's initiative is called practice/coaching, also called exercise/guidance where specific skills such as writing or presenting require practice and feedback, trial and error.

Learning does not always start from the teachers, but can also be initiated by the learner in events such as exploration/procurement or documentation. In this case a teacher simply provides data or sources and lets the students explore the information. The experimentation/reactivity method works mostly in natural sciences where students are actually allowed to manipulate and modify the material at hand. Some museums also allow experimentation with tools from the past. One of the most known learning events where students take the initative is creation/confrontation where students write essays or create original presentations. Finally, debate/animation allows an audience to engage more fully into a presentation and stimulates interaction. The last and most central learning event is the meta-reflection of how you learn and this can be stimulated through writing about your personal experience, as we are doing now.

Digital Media and Tools

Directed Teaching

1. Reception/Transmission

Teachers and presenters nearly all rely on a presentation tool while talking to the audience. The most well know tools are PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Presentations and Prezi. Other digital media which can be used during a presentation are YouTube videos, images, and even cartoons. Sometimes the video you need to illustrate your talk does not yet exist, so you need video-creating and editing tools, such as PowToon. You can also design a presentation bearing in mind that the slides will be shared more publicly with tools such as SlideShare from LinkedIn. These tools also offer inspiration to create your own slides.

2. Imitation/Modeling

One main scenario comes to mind when thinking of digital media to support imitation/modeling. When students have to follow a certain procedure, clear instructions are key. Think of using the Learning Management System of this university, Moodle. The easiest way to demonstrate the use of this online platform are screenshots with additional explination and circles and arrows added with Photoshop. Another way to explain this procedure is through a screenrecording video where you explain while you are performing the necessary steps. Students can afterwards look at the video at their own pace and pause it if they can't keep up.

3. Exercise/Guidance

Sometimes the students or the audience needs to be familiar with certain key concepts before the lecture or speech even starts. In this case, they need to prepare at home so that the more interesting 'homework' or activity can be discussed during the lecture. This teaching method is called 'flipped classroom'. Certain online learning platforms such as Codecademy or Kahn Academy free up time for more important or advanced topics.

Inquiry-based Learning

4. Exploration/Documenting

If students need to take the iniative in their own hands, the teacher should provide the necessary sources and tools. Historical sources that are easily accessible online can be found on platforms such as Europeana and Voyant-tools can provide a preliminary look at certain metrics in text mining, and tools such as Coggle or Mindmeister allow students to create mindmaps containing links to other materials.

5. Experimentation/Reactivity

Experimentation often happens in the labs of natural scientists, but one tool digital historians can experiment with is Nodegoat (see Fabio Spirinelli's blogpost). Another impressive project that allows for experimentation with sources is Pelagios where students can annotate maps and discover the spatial dimension in their sources and get an introduction into the functionalities of the semantic web.

6. Debate/Animation

Debates can take place on Moodle forums, but also on other social media such as Twitter, Slack, and ResearchGate. Since debate allows participants to gain insight into each others views, this teaching and learning method should be used more often. It also means the teacher can understand how students interpreted the material or course. At conferences the Q&A sessions can spark discussion and lead to new research questions previously unexplored.

7. Creation/Confrontation

The best way to learn is through creation, as it requires higher order thinking, creativity and originality. In history the tool Timeline JS lets students create their own timelines, so that they need to think about the discrepancy between continuity/discontinuity, longue duréé and histoire événementelle, and macro- and micro-history. Tools for creative writing include OneNote and Scrivener, but creating a video using moviemaker takes creative writing to a new level. Often visualisations can communicate results and explore data, and in this process the creativity and decisions of students are central. Visualisation tools include Tableau and D3.js. Finally, coordinating team work in creative tasks requires a certain effort. A tool such as Trello allows teams to create online boards containing lists of tasks and links to material for inspiration.


In order to reflect upon courses students often need to write an essay and send it in at the end of the course. This material then ends up in a filing cabinet, never to be seen again. To engage the public, students could create their own blogs with tools such as Wordpress. Blogging makes students think twice before writing and allows for discussion with other readers as well.

Interactive evaluation: quizzing with Plickers

Sometimes the audience needs to understand a key concept before the presentation can continue. One way of testing whether students have actually understood, is to quiz them during the presentation. Several applications already allow people to 'vote' or answer multiple-choice questions online with tools such as Google Forms for example. Plickers on the other hand provides QR-codes that can be printed and even linked to the names of your students to be distributed during class. The presenter can show a question on the screen (using a screen cast method such as AirDrop for iPhone) and let studens hold up their QR-code in the right direction with their answer towards the top. The application then scans these codes and automatically compiles a small bar chart containing the number of students who answered correctly. Based on the results the presenter can either explain the concept again in case less than 25% understood. If 50% of people in the audience answered correctly, the presenter can ask them to explain it to each other. Only if 75% grasps the concept or idea explained, can the lecture continue.

Teaching as a PhD Student

Taking part in this course was also a great opportunity for us PhD students to get some theoretical training in teaching. It is expected from most of us to teach alongside our research activities, but we are often ill prepared for these kind of tasks. PhD candidates go into the classroom with little support apart from their own experience as students. Despite their personal experience fresh of the student benches, this is cleary not enough to ensure the best teaching expertise. Far from saying that PhD students give bad lectures, we could do better if only there was a real support from higher levels of academia. This lack of preparation might come from the assumption that PhD candidates are experts in their field, meaning that they can teach younger students. Nevertheless, this conception of education as simply transmission of knowledge is rather old fashioned and courses such as Reuter's one are challenging this stagnation. Unfortunately, these are individual initiatives rather than the result of a will to truly empower PhD students with teaching skills and the ability to tackle the challenges of Digital Media. Openly sharing ideas and experiences, opening dialogues between future teachers and university professors and challenging preconceived assumptions is crucial to form new generations of teachers. We certainly hope that more courses like these will follow to renew teaching habits and embrace new technologies that fully prepare new generations of teachers.

For more information on the eight learning events, see Leclercq and Poumay, 2005.