Challenging history with digital media

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Martin Bazley

A conference focusing on Understanding aims, audiences and outcomes in work with difficult and sensitive heritages was held in February 2012 at City University and the Tower of London.

Amy Ryall and Martin Bazley helped deliver one of the sessions on the programme, dealing with the use of digital technology.  The session was highly subscribed and participants had access to computers on which they looked at a number of online examples, including  Lives at War is the product of an intergenerational project in Brighton involving students from Longhill High School and a group of older Brighton residents. It uses a virtual reality world which is populated with the products of the project – films, stories and memories.

Screenprint of Lives at War

Screenprint of Lives at War

During discussion of this and several other online resources, a number of points arose regarding the effectiveness and appropriateness of the use of digital technology for learning about difficult histories. One advantage of using digital media is that it can help make material more engaging; but in dealing with difficult and sensitive subjects a game-style approach may not be appropriate. Making something ‘fun’ can distort the learning outcomes originally intended, and does not necessarily lead to an understanding of the subject. Making it engaging, interesting, challenging and immersive are all realistic aspirations when employing digital media, and can be achieved without reducing the impact or understanding of challenging subjects merely to a bit of fun.


Using digital ‘characters’ can make participants forget that history is about real people and turn it into a cartoon in which nothing is genuine. If we achieve one thing when teaching history, it is to convey the understanding that history happens to real people, the good things and the bad things.  It is also important for those using the digital media to feel that their input and interaction matter. We cannot expect young people to learn about history if they are invited to interact as if they have a say in the outcome, only to be told at the end that it didn’t happen like that: far better to engage young people with actual decisions that were made at the time and then explore why those decisions were taken.  Reflecting the consequences of such decisions is not always best done via the sort of game logic that is typically of digital learning activities, which tend to impose over- simplified models in order to make them workable in purely functional terms.  


For example, one game set in a military situation involved making decisions about logistics, which were tricky to engage with and also made no reference to the human side of conflict. The group found this lack of understanding frustrating and it led to them moving through the scenario quickly, without engaging with the history involved. It was a good example of digital methods not leading to historical understanding. Others, which involved a ‘reward’ style system – participants answering a question in order to make a character do something – caused similar issues. For both these two examples, interaction focused more on the digital interface, rather than learning about and understanding the subject material involved. This would not be considered helpful in any learning scenario, but with subjects involving difficult or sensitive histories it seems particularly problematic. In any situation, the key to dealing with subjects in history is to treat them with respect. By reducing them to a series of click-throughs to get to the end, we risk actually causing respect for the subject to be lost by learners using the resource.


In short, digital methods of engaging learners in challenging histories have to start with the history and keep the focus on it. As for any learning engagement method, a strong focus on intended learning outcomes should guide development of the resource.  Learning outcomes must be decided and agreed engagement at the outset and must also remain the driving force behind the resource throughout, informed by evaluation and testing with members of the target audience. Ultimately a digital learning resource is only effective if it fulfils the desired learning outcomes, and getting this right is an iterative process, as summarised in the diagram below.


Diagram summarising iterative nature of resource development



 We would welcome any comments on the above or suggestions for other points to consider when planning use of digital technology to support learning around challenging histories.

Amy Ryall, Professional Development Manager, Imperial War Museums

Martin Bazley, Digital Heritage Consultant, Martin Bazley & Associates




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