VR in the History Classroom

Previous experiences of VR compared to VR today

I remember my first experience of virtual reality. It was in the early nineties and I’d have been about twelve. I went to a computer games arcade and they had a virtual reality machine. You had to put a ridiculously heavy helmet on and these weird smelly gloves. It was very exciting. And then the game began. It looked blocky, the movements were glitchy and it was frankly a disappointment. I wish I had spent my pound on another game of Daytona.

Now let’s move on to a more recent time. At Christmas I went to my girlfriend’s family home and her brother had a cheap VR set. It looked like a big pair of goggles and he slipped his smart phone into the back of it. Following my previous experience I was a little cynical but times have certainly changed. Rather than a big bulky headset this was a light small piece of tech. Where the visuals were blocky and glitchy it was now smooth. VR has clearly arrived. And what is really impressive is that it won’t cost you a fortune.

What do you need to get your virtual reality kit?

VR in the history classroom

    1. You need a headset. You can get them for about £6 for a cardboard one from Amazon (other retailers are also available!) by just searching for Google Cardboard. OR you can even make your own by following these instructions!
    2. On your smartphone download the Google Cardboard app. It is free and quite small.
    3. Open up the app and join the app to your headset – the instructions are in the app and took me 10 seconds.
    4. Whack your smart phone into the back of the headset.

You now have your own virtual reality headset. Honestly it is this cheap and easy. You can either download VR apps in the Google Cardboard app. Or if you want to use 360 degree videos go to YouTube and search 360 and then when you click play there is a little ‘Google Cardboard’ icon in the corner that if you click turns the video into a VR video.

Now the big question. How can it be used in the history classroom?

Well if I am honest I am not entirely sure! This is very new technology and clever bods are developing it all the time. But as soon as I began using it my head was full of potential ideas as it really is very impressive. This blog is really suggesting you all go out and get one and get thinking.

One initial idea – a virtual field trip to Auschwitz

One obvious use for the VR set is to run virtual field visits. There are a huge range of 360 degree videos on YouTube (the best ones I’ve found are from Discovery VR). There are a lot of videos of historical sites and more are coming up week by week. The joy of these 360 degree videos is they are truly immersive. You genuinely get as near a full experience of the site from this as being there as you can literally walk around and have a look. I keep repeating it but it is really impressive.

My Year 9s are studying the Holocaust at the moment so I did a little experiment. Whilst the class were working one by one I allowed students to take a 2 minute tour of Auschwitz thanks to this ace 360 degree video put up by the Krakow tourist board. The kids loved it and claimed they learnt more about the site than they would have by looking at a standard video or by looking at photos. After they had been on their ‘visit’ I got them to record their thoughts and feelings and they were really interesting:

VR in the history classroom 2

What was the impact of the VR headset?

My question is how much was this just a novel experience and did it lead to greater learning than a less technological method. My answer at the moment is I simply don’t know. But this technology is too good for this price to simply dismiss it.

Grab a headset, give it a go and let us know what you think about how you might use it.

Plickers for History Teachers: a Great Tool for Assessment

I have to admit in the beginning – I was not searching for Plickers! But now that I have found the app and tried it out with my students it’s going to stay with us. My students and I love it. To explain what Plickers is I will start by using the sentence from the official web page: “Plickers is a powerfully simple tool that lets teachers collect real-time formative assessment data without the need for student devices.” That sums it up! It’s so simple and fast. Just register on plickers.com and download the iOS/Android app on your mobile.

How do I set it up?

There is a one-off set-up procedure for each class. You have to create classes and add students to them. Each student will receive a unique card with a visual code (a bit like a QR code or a Rorschash test). When you share the cards with your students each card corresponds with a student number that you have already added to the Plickers system. They can use the card again and again.

Why do we have student cards?

The cards enable you to track a specific answer to a specific student. Students can see in live view if you have scanned their card. Also you can look at the ‘Reports’ link after a lesson and and then under ‘Question History’ you can see every individual answer on question. This enables you to check each student’s knowledge level and to intervene if there is a problem. You could even use this for grading.

What do I need?

You need an LCD projector to show the questions, one smartphone and WiFi connection for results in real time. You set up questions on the Plickers App. Students then hold up their card so that the letter they choose to answer the question with (multiple choice, a-d) is at the top of their card.  You then use your smartphone camera to slowly scan the room for the answers. The app recognises the cards, records who the teacher assigned them to, and captures the answer that the student chose. You can immediately see students answers on the smartphone display and project that onto the screen. I have printed the cards for my students and suggested that they paste them into their notebooks.

I need to see this!

Well sky is the limit (or your imagination)! For now I have used Plickers in three different parts of my lesson. One is to ask a question as an introduction or as a topic discussion starter. I ask a question with multiple answers or true/false and them show the results to the class. In a similar way you can use Plickers to check learning or understanding of concepts/sources/words during the lesson. You can also use the tool for a quick fact check at the end of a lesson. Students can answer each for himself or as a group during group activities. Because the letters of answers are so small students can show them to the class without being recognised. That is very useful when the question asked is sensitive, or if a child is shy. If you are even more masochistic you can ask them to assess your work in the end of the lesson.

How was this lecture? 16 students said it was excellent.
How was this lecture? 16 students said it was excellent.
Questions library.
Questions library.


Plickers is very powerful because you can prepare questions before the lesson and also in a couple of clicks on a mobile device during the lesson. When preparing questions you can sort them info folders and sub folders. From folders you can assign/add them to Live View during your lesson. In classes you can build up the class roster (you can also print them).
Try it out and send us some feedback and ideas! Thanks!

Using @Twitter to promote historical thinking and improve your teaching

For a couple of years now I have been using @Twitter to help my students get better at studying history and to improve my own teaching practice. The use of such an obviously social media may still seem odd to some of you, but I hope I can persuade you that it has a place beyond just adding a bit of spice to history teaching life.

Twitter is about raising a profile you care about

I have used Twitter with students as a platform for them to promote their work. In order to promote their work on Twitter it needs to be good. No student wants to look second best on social media. Suggesting that we tweet the outcome of projects directly to people of influence can have a powerful effect. Let me give an example.

This term some of my students have been trying to locate York’s missing Roman amphitheatre. Sadly, we cannot go out with trowels and dig, but we have been in class learning about other amphitheatres and putting together criteria as to the sort of piece of land we might be looking for. For example, it had to be up to 100m across, not flood, not be inside the fortress etc. Armed with our criteria and maps of Roman York we have used scaled shapes to put together our favourite ideas for sites where the lost amphitheatre could be. So where does Twitter come into this? Well, students were required to record their justifications and to make them of such quality that they were able to be uploaded and the link tweeted to the City Archaeologist. This raised the stakes of achievement and has honed their evidence-based arguments.

Twitter can create a story and bring it home

Earlier this year was the centenary of the first zeppelin raid on our city. Students researched the story from the archives and then wrote it up in a series of Tweets. These were then loaded onto @Twitter with a specially created @ZeppelinWW1York profile. It is possible to load up tweets on timed release in advance. Students and their families then followed the twitter feed release in real time exactly 100 years to the minute since the actual raid. If you look at the picture of the twitter feed you will get the idea. This memorial via Twitter has been taken into the City Archives with the www.historypin.org collection that we also made (search https://www.historypin.org/en/zeppelin-raid-on-york-2-may-2016/geo/53.951026,-1.088843,10/bounds/53.659076,-1.400895,54.240946,-0.776791/paging/1). (You can read about how to use historypin in an earlier blogpost.)


We created the zeppelin tweets ourselves, but look out for similar projects you can lift and use. For example, as I type this, we are approaching the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Each day at the moment there is a Twitter feed from various important characters of the time. My students are following this and feel engaged in the story. Once the Twitter feeds are complete, I will go into the profiles and print off each character’s Twitter feed. Students will then take different characters in groups. They will be able to put the story of the 1066 invasions together from the perspective of different key characters from the time. This will then lead into work about how the events have been remembered by different communities. Again, the screenshot here will give you an idea as to how the Twitter feed is currently appearing. You can see some different characters’ views.


Twitter to work with historical significance

This year I started a lesson on the Somme by asking students to search in @Twitter for #Somme 2016. They studied the feed and came up with views about the question: ‘To whom is the Battle of the Somme still significant?’ It is a really easy way for students to understand that this battle is still really important to many nations and to lots of different types of people.  You could do the same with any event that has, or has had, a specific hashtag.

Twitter for your professional development

Of course, one of the ways we help our students become better at studying history is by making ourselves better teachers. Twitter is a very powerful tool for helping you to connect to the history and history teaching world. Trial and error is the key to working out who to follow. If you pick someone who turns out not to be very interesting or helpful to you, you can always unfollow them. I suggest the following mix to start off with:

  • An educational journalist who is tweeting about policy and procedural announcements. You haven’t time to read all the media as a busy teacher, so find someone whose tweets will alert you to the fact that something has been said, or released, that you need to be aware of.
  • An academic historian who is working in a field of study that you teach. Some of them are very good at tweeting about the latest thoughts and resources in their academic sphere.
  • A fellow teacher who is a history twitter nerd. Follow them to pick up new resources, thoughts about what to teach, teaching gossip etc.
  • A museum with a very good education programme. Again, this is likely to help you to a rich seam of resources that you can mine.

To start you off I could suggest the following: @IWM_Centenary, @Europeana, @EUROCLIO, @kenradical, @Snelsonh, @eisenmed

And finally…

If you are worried about the age of students using @Twitter, remember that with younger students you can use an account that you have set up and manage. It is very easy to sign up to a Twitter account. You can have more than one. This is not the place to start getting into a detailed user guide; there are plenty of these online if you need them – or grab a younger person to help. Warning, it can become addictive!

I hope I have persuaded you that @Twitter can be used to help your students and yourself. As ever, please do share with us any ways that you develop these ideas in your classrooms. Why not write a blog for us about one of your own digital triumphs?

Using ThingLink…

…to help your students analyse historical sources and to revise for exams

Getting started:

It takes 5 minutes to sign up for the free version of www.ThingLink.com and the free version is quite enough to enable you to provide useful demonstrations and activities for your students, or for them to sign up and design their own resources.  Later in this blog I will give some explanation of how to work with the tool.  Firstly, I will provide some activity ideas.  There are various ways that ThingLink can be used and here are three suggestions:

  • Helping your students to use images as historical evidence

I loaded up this famous political cartoon of Hitler and Stalin for my students to analyse.


I asked my students to tag all the main details.  In each tag I asked them to:

  • Describe what they could see.
  • Use their historical knowledge to explain the meaning of what they could see.
  • Add a summary tag that explained the overall meaning of the cartoon.

You could also ask students to do the same sort of thing to annotate a portrait used as propaganda.  In this case the tags would identify a part of the portrait that was pushing a message and say what the message was and how it was being produced.

  • Helping your students to set a written text in its historical context

I loaded up the first clauses of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man for my students to analyse.

I asked them to read the document and to put tags on all the places were they could identify:

  • A connection to the ideals of the Enlightenment (for example, the link to the ideas of Voltaire in article and freedom of worship – article 10)
  • A connection to the needs of property owners (for example, the right to property – article 2)

They then had to do a summary tag to give a reasoned opinion as to whether the Declaration was more ideological than pragmatically serving the needs of the men who wrote it.

I then reviewed their work to assess how well they had analysed the material and the depth of their contextualisation of what they found in the source.

  • Helping your students to revise for their exams

It took me 15 minutes to produce this map of Eastern Europe under the Cold War to help my students to revise for their forthcoming exams: https://www.thinglink.com/scene/741354737709875200.

They have problems with the geography behind the events they have to know, so I decided to use a map of eastern Europe as my background image and then to tag events, dates and links to the different countries.  Each one of the white dots you can see in the screenshot is a tag containing basic information and a weblink where they can find out more.


Explaining the basics of ThingLink so that you can experiment with it:

ThinkLink allows you to add any background image and then to tag it (annotate it) with comments and links.  You could use this tagging to provide knowledge and to demonstrate thinking in a structured and interesting way.  For example, why not tag a political cartoon image to demonstrate to students how historians analyse their source material?  Or you could tag a painting that shows a historic event.  Or you could use an image of a timeline and then tag key moments in time onto it in sequence.

Across the bottom of the working screen are online tutorials you can take to help you get used to using ThingLink. On the top of the screen you will see a tab for ‘explore’ where you can search for material other people have created.  I found a pre-prepared activity on the US Declaration of Independence.  Then there is a tab for ‘students’.  In this area you can set up groups for your students.  Individual students then receive a code and can submit their completed work to you.  The ‘Me’ tab is where you find the library of all the ThinkLinks you have made so far.


The ‘Create’ button gives you the screenshot that you can see above.  You can upload images from your computer, a cloud, the web or Facebook, just click the appropriate tab.  Then click on ‘choose images’ in blue and upload your image.

The next stage is ‘click to add a tag’.  This takes you to a box on the left hand side where you can add text and/or a URL.  You then save the tag and go through the process again until you have all the tags you want. Next give your activity a title at the top. Finally save the image (green – right hand corner).  You can then go into the saved image and you have the chance to share the URL in a wide variety of ways.  Once your students are signed up they can also use ThingLink in the same way.

This free, simple to use tool has lots of potential for well-structured teaching and learning using images as a background.  Please do share any great ideas you have so that we can all learn more.