The Future of (Teaching) the Past

by | May 28, 2021 | General, Guest Posts | 0 comments

What happens when a university lab-based Digital History module goes online due to lockdown? You might think the imposed digital switch would be straightforward for ‘born digital’ digital history students.

But as Dr Jessica van Horssen of Leeds Beckett University explains, experimenting remotely with digital tools for historical research and communication poses its own challenges. Thankfully, they’re ones her Leeds Beckett students have overcome to excellent and innovative effect.

In 2020 Jessica was a recipient of the RHS Innovation in Teaching Award, which acknowledged her original use of digital practices in the classroom. 


University teaching will never be the same in a post-Covid world, and I think overall that’s a good thing. Much of university teaching and learning is rooted in nineteenth-century understandings of how information should be communicated and understood; and the pandemic has signalled the beginning of a revolution in how we teach and how students learn in the months and years ahead.

Embracing the digital is one of several pathways forward. In my second-year Digital History module, students engage in participatory lectures, task-based seminars and creative assessments that enable them to explore aspects of the past alongside digital platforms of the future in playful, experimental ways. Bringing creativity into the classroom — alongside the freedom for students to explore, fail, and succeed as they develop new skills suited to their personal ambitions — forms the basis of my teaching practice.

This is the flipped classroom in action, and it sustains an air of engagement and excitement throughout the semester.

Our ‘born digital’ students often lack confidence in their digital proficiency, but they also have a keen desire to gain these skills not traditionally associated with History graduates. The co-creation of my modules is the backbone of their innovation and resulting success. Indeed, that co-creation continues in the classroom, with students sharing readings, ideas, and new software to experiment with, ranging from platforms for 3D modelling to e-zine publishing. This is the flipped classroom in action, and it sustains an air of engagement and excitement throughout the semester.


3-D work for historians includes photogrammetry to create manipulable models, and 3-D printing to create digital surrogates of otherwise hard to obtain or handle historical artefacts. Here, for example, the Queen from the Lewis chessmen: The British Library, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Click on the image to generate the 3-D image, via Sketchfab.


This co-creational approach was disrupted in March 2020 when teaching suddenly moved online. Gone was the computer lab and gone were the visual clues indicating whether a student was struggling or succeeding. The first lockdown happened just as the lab-based seminar tasks were increasing in difficulty, and I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out. It was then that I realised the full benefits of a new way of active teaching and learning. Over the course of the module, my students had gained an incredible degree of confidence, and they now completed each seminar task at home on their laptops, tablets and phones, creating interactive maps, Augmented Reality experiences and more. They were empowered to keep playing, keep experimenting, keep failing, and, importantly, keep succeeding. I remain in awe of these students.

Preparing for another disrupted year, in which teaching would be delivered online, I revisited the module’s content and objectives. A central component I kept was the trust I have in my students: they can do this. Adapting to technical issues, lockdowns and isolation, this year’s cohort is just as impressive as the last.

Students appreciate a break from the now standard recorded PowerPoint presentations lectures, and so have I. They also appreciate hearing the humanity of their lecturer in the current disembodied world.

Asynchronous lectures struggle to foster a participatory atmosphere, and the computer lab remains closed, but I’ve adapted my teaching style to keep students engaged, curious and confident. This includes delivering a series of podcast lectures for our week on podcasts, and creating a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ lecture with Twine 2.0 for our week on gaming.


Start page for ‘Gaming the Moon Race’, a Leeds Beckett-designed interactive experience that juxtaposes the Apollo 11 landing with the civil rights struggles taking place at the same time in the US; built using Twine 2.0 — a platform for constructing nonlinear interactive stories, including histories. Click on the image to start the game.


Throughout these new lecture forms, I openly and honestly narrate my process, and highlight my mistakes, challenges, and solutions. Students appreciate a break from the now standard recorded PowerPoint presentations lectures, and so have I. They also appreciate hearing the humanity of their lecturer in the current disembodied world.

Digital History is only one example of the innovative offerings on the History course at Leeds Beckett, and at other post-92 universities across the country. In a few weeks, my students will submit their final ‘un-essays’ and I’m so excited to see what they’ve created. Importantly, so are they. There’s value in creativity and play, and it forms an important foundation for the future of (teaching) the past.


About the author

Dr Jessica van Horssen is now professor of History at McMaster University and a winner of the RHS Innovation in Teaching Awards, 2020. Jessica’s research focuses on the history of environmental health in North America and the wider world.

Her Digital History module which teaches students an array of important new skills — such as data mining and how to produce video games and 3D models for reconstructing historical sites — has already been recognised by Leeds Beckett University, as well as by the RHS.



The RHS Teaching Awards: 2021 competition now open (deadline for applications: 4 June)

Applications are now invited for the Society’s annual awards for the teaching of History at UK universities, 2021. Two prizes are offered: the Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching and Supervision in History, and the Royal Historical Society Innovation in Teaching Award. Further details of the awards and how to apply are available here: deadline Friday 4 June. The 2021 winners will be announced in July as part of the Society’s annual awards ceremony.


Further posts on teaching are available via the RHS Teaching Portal, and include recent articles by Professor Marjory Harper (Aberdeen), winner of the 2020 Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching on ‘Creating an Online Community: A Pre-Pandemic Initiative’ and last year’s runner-up, Dr John Cooper (York), on ‘Teaching the Tudors on a Two-Way Street‘.



HEADER IMAGE: 3-D model of an abandoned university lecture theatre by Malkaviana, CC BY 4.0 on Sketchfab



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