Old Meets New: 3 Ways to Use EdTech to Make History Immersive

The three hardest challenges when I teach history is how to make it meaningful, relevant, and interactive.

I’ve now taught history for six years in a high school setting in Indianapolis, Indiana. For my students, ~70% of whom qualify for free/reduced lunch, history is a tough subject for many of them to connect to, if not THE toughest.

Real quickly, let’s break those three down:

Meaningful learning can mean--no pun intended--a lot of things. Learning be personally meaningful, such as if it’s based on local history or events, or cognitively meaningful, when it’s used to make accommodations in mental schema or connect to prior knowledge. The problem that history and meaningful learning has is that timelines aren’t getting any shorter. The further and further removed that our students get from the ideas, people, and events in our curriculum & standards, the harder it becomes to make connections.

History’s relevance for students is everywhere, but it’s sometimes hard for students to see, or buried behind loads of people, dates, and concepts. My recommendation to fellow history teachers is to NOT teach history. Seriously. If you’d like to read more about this idea, check out this blog post here (I'll hyperlink it when I’ve got it finished).

The summary of this idea, which I’ll explore more in that post, is that I've tried to make history in my classroom about the skills and bigger concepts embedded within the course. For me, "history" is a vehicle to other things such as:

Interactive history is just that--interactive. I want history to be “playable” for my students. Ideally, my lessons should promote agency (free will) and discovery (the possibility of unexpected or new outcomes). This is especially hard to do with history because of hindsight, the bias of knowing what has already occurred, but embedding interaction into my curriculum helps students with kinesthetic learning styles and promotes the idea that individuals’ actions can significantly affect historical outcomes (think of Gandhi or Malala).

I don’t use textbooks in my classroom, partially because of their inherent “dis-interactiveness”. There’s no chance for either myself or students to challenge, adapt, or enhance the words that are on the page. For more on how to “ditch” the textbook in your classroom, I highly recommend checking out educator and speaker Matt Miller via his blog at www.ditchthattextbook.com.

Together, I give meaningful, relevant, and interactive history teaching the title of "immersive history". It’s the idea that as much as possible, students are given the chance to feel like they are “in” the history themselves (especially visually) and can make choices and affect outcomes.

Below are my favorite apps, strategies, ideas, and examples that I use in my classroom currently to make it happen.

360 Cities, Virtual Tours, & 360° Videos:

This online site can provide 3-D virtual tours of sites from around the globe—highly useful for history courses, or even foreign language or geography classes as writing prompts or background knowledge for literature. What makes 360° especially dynamic is that it syncs with most phones’ gyroscopes, which means that the virtual camera in Singapore, for instance, turns wherever the user looks.

Speaking of 360 cities, did you know that some YouTube videos are 360° as well? These can provide an incredibly immersive experience for students with their own devices.

You have to experience one to see what I mean. Try these out:
Take these VR experiences to another level by combining them with differentiated levels of prompts and questions for students to discuss or examine. Here’s an example from a reflection piece I used after a VR experience on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Notice how I increase the higher-level thinking as it goes on:
  • Describe the land (terrain) around Gettysburg.
  • What advantages or disadvantages might this have caused for Union and Confederate forces?
  • Compare the three different sources: The VR of 360 Cities experience of Little Round Top the terrain map, and the army positioning map. If you were a Union or Confederate general, where would your primary concern be? And why?

    Choose Your Own Journey Stories:
    If you don’t remember these as a kid, these were the stories that you picked up and had you make choices like “go into the cave” or “explore the house” instead. I always remember that I seemed to have a knack for making the wrong choices :D. Nowadays, I love making these for my history classes because they promote critical thinking, embed content knowledge actively, and give students choice. Eventually, I have students themselves make these stories themselves as a project which:
    • Develops if/then thinking (big in the STEAM, programming worlds).
    • Provides opportunities for creative thinking/design (they can literally be made about any subject area or content).
    • Can easily assess students’ content and skill knowledge.
    If you’re going to be making one of these for the first time, word to the wise: it takes time. However, the good news is is that once they’re made, you’ve got them forever! They’re also scalable, which means that stories can range from the very simple (which don’t take too long) to the very complex (which take a bit longer). For instance, I eventually add in elements like non-clickable slides and even scoring systems.

    Links to resources:

      Creating a “hypermap” that follows the footsteps of a historical figure/event has never been easier--or looked so good! StoryMap essentially combines a GoogleSlide/Powerpoint with Google Maps, and it allows you to embed additional outside content such as YouTube, Tweets, pictures, primary sources, etc. 

      Check out these examples that I’ve made for my students:

      Two Perspectives on the Persian War: Perspective 1 and Perspective 2

      The Voyages of Zheng He: http://www.dontditchtech.com/zheng

      Just like I do with the CYOJS’s, I eventually have students develop their own StoryMaps as part of larger class projects. If you’d like to get to making some of your own, here’s a video that explains how to do it from start to finish (and it’s student-friendly too, so feel free to share it with students if you’d like them to use it as well!).

      And with that, happy immersing!

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