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.

Skitch: having a quick sketch to improve history learning

Quite often in my class I want to draw on top of a source, or onto a bit of writing I have on my whiteboard. I cannot quite work out how the complicated interactive whiteboard pens work. That was where Skitch came to the rescue.

Skitch is a free iPad or Android app that allows you to draw or write on top of photos, webpages, maps and pdfs.

It’s so easy that I am not going to give instructions on how to use it as it is best if you just have a play. But for the technophobes amongst you here are the briefest of brief instructions. Continue reading Skitch: having a quick sketch to improve history learning

Hot Air Balloon Disaster

Helping students to make judgements about relative importance

All of the important figures in history are in a hot air balloon whose engine is broken. Who do you throw out first to ensure the rest survive?! History is full of people and a key skill is to get our students to think about the relative importance of these individuals. Who is more important? Who is less important This (silly!) activity gets your students to use their historical thinking to make judgements about importance by imagining a fictional situation.

Copy from a student's book. (Richard Kennett)
Copy from a student’s book. (Richard Kennett)

Example: End of the year revision activity

  1. At the end of the year I reintroduce my students to ten of the most important figures we have studied that year. I give them a sheet of paper with their images.
  2. They draw a hot air balloon in the top corner of a big bit of paper.
  3. They then decide who is the least important (they would get thrown out first) and the most important (they stay in the basket).
  4. They stick down all the individuals in order.
  5. They then draw speech bubbles from the mouths of the individuals where they explain their position.

Thanks to my students at Redland Green School, Bristol whose work I have used here.

Using Arts and Culture to Overcome Barriers to Field Trips

Getting students out of school to visit historic sites is difficult. I teach in the UK and here we have to fill in loads of paperwork – risk assessments, parent permission slips. It’s all a bit of a nightmare.

But field trips to historic sites are a fundamental part of the magic of our subject. Students should have the opportunity to visit museums, castles, heritage sites. From these places, and by working with artefacts on site, they can make a proper connection to the past, feeling it’s resonance with the present.

So the question arises, how can we remove the barriers to getting our students to see historic sites? Well, the internet and Google in particular is giving us a helping hand.

The https://artsandculture.google.com/ is an ace website that allows you to virtually explore sites or items of cultural significance. Using their StreetView technology they’ve filmed sites all over the globe that allow you to sit in the comfort of your home and explore. They’ve used incredibly high definition cameras to film individual objects that allow you to investigate the tiniest detail.

Now obviously there is no substitute for the real thing, but if you also have a lot of barriers for getting the kids out of your classroom here are three suggestions for using the resources of the Google Arts and Culture. Of course, there are so many more ways it could be used.  Please do share your ideas.

Be like a tourist!

The Street View section of the site allows you to visit a plethora of sites around the globe from Stonehenge to the Colosseum, and from Cordoba to Angkor Wat. Using StreetView you can ‘walk’ around these sites and wander down their corridors. This is magical on its own but by adding a series of simple tasks you can also really engage your students with a site in the way that you might do if you were at the real place.

I teach Mughal India to my 11-12 year old class and run a virtual field visit to the Taj Mahal. In an hour the students have to visit the site and complete the following:

  • ‘Take a photo of the best view’ – this can be a screen capture
  • Write a postcard home – what did you like seeing? what disappointed you? would you visit again?
  • Look in depth at the materials used to make the site
  • Compare the front and the back of the site. What is the main difference?
  • Discuss how has the site changed or stayed the same by comparing it to photos of the site from the past.

Be the curator

Google has recently completed a project with the British Museum where they have filmed all the galleries and done in depth photography on a number of artefacts (more on that in a minute). Ignore the ‘British’ bit, as ex-museum director Neil Macgregor says this “was from its inception designed to be the collection of every citizen of the world”. There are galleries here on all the main periods of history – the Middle Ages, the Renaissance. You name it and the British Museum probably has a gallery on it.

This is a fab resource on its own to let your kids explore. But if you want them to really think put them in the role of the curator. Pick a gallery (below is the Anglo Saxon room –  to get there go to Museum View and the Anglo Saxon room is on the third floor) and tell them they need to bin five objects that they think are worthless and are to save five objects only for a special exhibition. This is a perfect activity to get the kids to grapple with significance as they will need to really think about what is worth keeping and what the objects tell us about a period. The best way to do this is to get the students to come up with a criteria in groups, e.g. an object that reveals something or an object that shows you about ordinary people at the time. Once they have chosen their objects give them lots of time to fully justify their decisions as it is this justification that will really get them to push themselves in terms of historical thinking.

Be the curator

Google has recently completed a project with the British Museum where they have filmed all the galleries and done in depth photography on a number of artefacts (more on that in a minute). Ignore the ‘British’ bit, as ex-museum director Neil Macgregor says this “was from its inception designed to be the collection of every citizen of the world”. There are galleries here on all the main periods of history – the Middle Ages, the Renaissance. You name it and the British Museum probably has a gallery on it.

This is a fab resource on its own to let your kids explore. But if you want them to really think put them in the role of the curator. Pick a gallery (below is the Anglo Saxon room –  to get there go to Museum View and the Anglo Saxon room is on the third floor) and tell them they need to bin five objects that they think are worthless and are to save five objects only for a special exhibition. This is a perfect activity to get the kids to grapple with significance as they will need to really think about what is worth keeping and what the objects tell us about a period. The best way to do this is to get the students to come up with a criteria in groups, e.g. an object that reveals something or an object that shows you about ordinary people at the time. Once they have chosen their objects give them lots of time to fully justify their decisions as it is this justification that will really get them to push themselves in terms of historical thinking.

historiana_labs_2

Be the archivist

Google have also begun digitally photographing significant items at a vast number of museums and galleries around the globe (there were 233 museums to choose from when I wrote this). At each site there seems to be about 100 items to choose from and all are photographed in incredible detail allowing your students to really investigate them. I pulled up the Jewish Museum of Berlin (one of my favourites) and found this amazing plan for the Theresienstadt ghetto from 1942.

historiana_labs_3

Send your students a link to the object and set them a series of questions to get them thinking like an archivist:

  • What is the object made of?
  • What does the object tell us?
  • What do we notice about specific details in the object?
  • What more would we like to know? How might I find out more about the object?

This is a fab way of really getting the students to develop a sense of period – a clear understanding of the context of the time. From a single object like the one above you can brilliantly get your students to put themselves in the minds of the people in the past. You can see what they were thinking, what their values were.