Bring the past into the present

Whether via newsreel footage, online census data or historical websites, technology can turn children into virtual travellers
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History is moving with the times. Today's history lesson is as likely to take place in an IT lab as a classroom and textbook study is being punctuated by virtual tours of World War I trenches, video clips of the Russian Revolution and analysis of online Black Death statistics.

History is moving with the times. Today's history lesson is as likely to take place in an IT lab as a classroom and textbook study is being punctuated by virtual tours of World War I trenches, video clips of the Russian Revolution and analysis of online Black Death statistics.

"History lends itself to ICT phenomenally well," says Ben Walsh of the Historical Association and author of Exciting ICT in History (Network Educational Press). "No other subject is as well resourced from an IT point of view as history."

Figures from Becta, the Government's education and IT agency, show that more history teachers, at both primary and secondary level, are taking advantage of these new resources. Last year 21 per cent of secondary school history departments were making "substantial" use of ICT, up by 10 per cent from 2002. There was a 2 per cent increase in schools making some use of ICT, while only 16 per cent were making little or no use of the technology, down from 28 per cent in 2002. These numbers are still far short of the "embedded" IT usage desired by the government but they do show a growing appetite among history teachers to explore new ways of teaching.

And the response from children is feeding that appetite. Stephen Drew, head of humanities at Passmores School & Technology College in Harlow, Essex, says that even in today's computer-saturated age, the technology still has the power to create a buzz in the classroom. "There's still an instant positivity about it," says Drew. "And the kids are still suitably impressed that Sir can use a computer." Interactive whiteboards and PowerPoint slides enlivened with multimedia video streams have changed the classroom experience at Passmores, where the numbers picking history at GCSE have doubled in the last three years. The Passmores' history department even has its own dedicated website with downloadable worksheets, articles, games and revision projects. "The students use it much more than if we were handing out those resources in a paper-based format," he says. "You can deliver really good lessons without using IT but to get a decent number of students picking the subject and studying it at home you need to recognise this is the medium that really interests them." Even so, the new technology complements, rather than supplants, more traditional teaching methods. "The technology is part of the overall package," says Drew. "We still use books and write essays."

The new technology does have some advantages over old school methods. The ability to get up close and personal with a vast array of source material is a key attraction. Students can decipher important historical documents, access census records and examine online art, photography and film. CD-Roms that can be loaded onto a school's network are also proving popular, particularly those that allow pupils to watch and interact with newsreel footage of events as they happened.

Channel 4 Learning's Clipbank History, for example, is a CD-rom catalogue of archive news clips. "It's an opportunity to present children with a historical experience," says Barry Sherwin of Channel 4, which charges £250 to licence 250 clips for one year. "Children can develop historical skills by sifting the evidence and inserting clips into their presentations to build and illustrate their arguments." This ability to interact with different sources helps students gain an insight into image manipulation, weigh the veracity of the material and develop the questioning mindset required of any good historian.

And rather than narrowing the focus of historical study to the film-literate 20th century, Walsh believes the technology can be a force for pushing some of the boundaries by offering new perspectives, new sources and new angles on familiar topics. It can also open up new subject areas. "It's a bit like the chicken and the egg," says Walsh. "Teachers are interested in new areas but find there are no resources to teach them. Publishers won't produce resources unless people are teaching it. ICT can play a role in opening up new areas of history at a relatively low cost for teachers."

One thing the technology doesn't appear to have changed is the teacher workload. Creating websites, building online games and sourcing archive material more than takes up the time saved in drawing up and photocopying paper handouts. Stephen Drew of Passmores School, who admits to spending "hundreds if not thousands of hours" building his department's website is, however, convinced it's worth the effort. "It doesn't give you any more time but you can do more with the time that you have," he says.

'The technology helps the pupils interact with source material

The history department at Weatherhead High School in Wirral has made real progress with its IT resources, which include interactive whiteboards, laptops and projectors. "The girls come up and interact with the whiteboard, which they seem to really like," says history teacher Nicola Boughey. "They make presentations on the interactive whiteboard, including sound effects and Mpegs of film clips."

The technology helps the pupils interact with source material. "The girls can come up to the whiteboard, circle things and annotate the images. For example, we've been studying the symbolism in the Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I. We put up modern photographs of Tony Blair, showing him being the family man, out campaigning and at the G8 Summit, and we discussed what he's trying to show in the different photos. Then we put up the Rainbow portrait and talked about whether portraits can lie and how the image had been manipulated. When we do the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, we can study all the photographs and we can set up the whiteboard to show the domino effect from the assassination to the war. They can see it happening in action in front of them and it just makes it more real for them."

On the web

A selection of some of the best online resources for history teachers

Learning Curve ( is part of the National Archive. It provides in-depth exhibitions, including primary material and activities, on a wide range of subjects from crime and punishment in the Middle Ages to the end of the British Empire. Channel 4 ( and the BBC ( both offer popular history websites. run by history teachers, includes revision guides, quizzes and links to useful websites. Spartacus (, the online history encyclopaedia, remains a firm favourite with many teachers. Portcities ( is a gateway to different websites where pupils can learn about Britain's role in war, trade, empire and slavery.