In the fifteen years that I have been teaching history, the potential of using technology as a learning tool has progressed at a dizzying pace. In 1997 the cutting edge was Encarta and Microsoft Word, and opportunities were sorely limited. However, within a couple of years the internet had come into its own and I still remember the excitement of making materials available online for the first time on the site which eventually developed into www.activehistory.co.uk. Suddenly, the possibility of Interactive Historical Decision Making Games allowed for truly personalised learning in a way that had previously been inconceivable. The next big step was the emergence of Flash, which allowed for arcade-style animation and sound effects in game simulations. It took rather a leap in programming to learn Actionscript, which is why I created www.classtools.net to help other teachers design their own interactive resources simply and effectively for their students.
Then there was the leap into social networking, in particular Twitter, which has allowed for hundreds of history teachers to connect and converse in a way that was previously impossible (the hashtags #historyteacher and #sschat are indispensable for the History teacher using Twitter, and I have collated a full database of History Teachers on Twitter. Facebook too has proven to be immensely popular, and in order to latch onto students’ enthusiasm for this I developed the Fakebook Application which helps students create fake Facebook profiles of historical characters, for example these characters from the American Civil War.
However, things are moving on again, with mobile technologies such as IPhones and IPads in particular starting to become more and more prevalent in schools and homes. My first foray into their use in the history classroom was through the use of QR Code Treasure Hunts, which have proven to be immensely popular with my students. Crucially, however, this is the first time that new technologies are emerging partly in opposition to, rather than on top of, existing ones. By this, I specifically mean the fact that Apple mobile devices do not support Flash (which is owned by Adobe). As a result, teachers keen to develop innovative new resources need to find new ways of doing so. Necessity being the mother of invention, there are lots of exciting new possibilities available. “HTML5” – the new web browser standard – has all sorts of new features that can be utilised, in particular the ability to add animation and sound to web pages and thereby create effects that were previously only available in Flash (I am currently experimenting with ways to create a HTML5 mobile alternative for classtools.net users, for example). When used with a programming package like JQuery Mobile there are all sorts of things that can be achieved. Phonegap is also opening up the possibility of developing ‘native’ phone applications without having to learn a completely new computer language. And last but not least, the Apple IBooks author program is allowing teachers to create effective, interactive EBooks for use in the classroom.
All in all, these remain exciting and interesting times for teachers of all subjects who are keen to harness the enthusiasm of students for technology in the classroom, although it’s sometimes exhausting trying to keep up with the pace of change!