Why use the VH?
“Intellectual activity anywhere is the same, whether at the frontier of knowledge or in a third-grade classroom...
The difference is in degree, not in kind.”
— Jerome Bruner, The process of Education (1977): 14.
Historical thinking and practice
Building upon a rich literature in history, education, educational psychology, and computer literacy, the Virtual Historian(tm) presents an innovative web-based approach to teaching national history that shifts the focus from passive learning of historical content to active practice of historical inquiry. It places students in the engaging role of apprentice historians conducting guided investigations on pivotal issues in history (what we call "historical challenges").
Why should I use the Virtual HistorianTM?
1. Active learning and doing of history
Historical understanding is more enduring and meaningful when students play an active learning role – by asking pertinent questions and seeking creative and defensible answers. In history education, this discovery and constructivist approach to the past has been referred to as “doing history.”* The notion of “doing history” involves a progressive engagement in historical inquiry, or purposeful historical investigation about the past based upon established goals, standards, and procedures.
2. Colligated historical challenges
The approved content of provincial school history programs has been adapted, converted, and grouped together (colligated) into engaging “historical challenges” that students investigate online. Each challenge is unique and structured around a significant theme, synopsis, and thought-provoking question that require historical discovery and appropriate critical thinking and communication skills.
3. Authentic multiple-perspective digital sources
Each historical challenge is based on rich, yet not overwhelming, set of conflicting historical sources presenting multiple perspectives on the subject-matter. These primary and secondary sources are always presented in their original (digital) form to familiarize students with historical evidence, as well as in electronically-edited and translated forms to facilitate literacy and render the content more intelligible to students. These texts, which include visuals, audios, videos, and 3D artifacts, can be manipulated online and used directly in students’ own assignments.
4. Guided investigation and analysis (scaffolding)
Because there is a fundamental difference between what can be accomplished in a history classroom and what professional historians do, students need sustained development and direction in “doing history.” This pedagogical process of introducing progressively students to disciplinary goals, standards, and procedures is referred to as “scaffolding.” Students learn more effectively and enthusiastically when they take part in joint activities and performance tasks with teachers who support and guide them in a conducive environment – a “community of historical thinkers.”
The guided investigation of historical challenges is achieved through a scaffolding process of structured reading, analysis, and comparison of sources – referred to as “heuristics.” These heuristic steps fall under four specific categories in the Virtual Historian™:
- Identification: Knowing about the type of source and its origins. Identifying a source helps selecting and classifying historical evidence (notably in terms of primary and secondary sources).
- Attribution: Knowing about the construction of the source (author) and its original purpose(s). Attributing a source to its author helps understand the construction of the source, as well as the historical perspective and reason for the argument presented.
- Contextualization: Knowing about the social, political, cultural, and historical context and meaning of the source. Contextualizing a source is an empathical task essential to “think from the inside” of the sources, and avoid imposing naïve present-day meaning and values to historical actors.
- Corroboration: Knowing about the value, authority, and authenticity of the source. Corroborating a source with other sources helps establish its reliability, perspective, and ultimately use as historical evidence.
5. Performance assignments and critical literacy skills
All historical challenges engage students in authentic performances adapted to their course work and school-level. Starting with source analysis and historical painting design, and moving up to compare-and-contrast activities, to essay writing, the Virtual Historian™ helps students understand that historical knowledge always entails certain historically-contextualized interpretations of the past.
The performance assignments also promote digital and critical literacy skills. In every case, students are required to read, analyze, compare, and communicate their ideas in novel ways based upon domain-specific concepts, methods, and vocabulary. Students learn to investigate conflicting sources of the past using key concepts of historical thinking such as “evidence,” “empathy,” “progress,” and “historical significance”.
6. Genuine virtual environment
The reality-like environment of the Virtual Historian™ places students in the online context of authentic historical inquiries. The organizational design of the library, the interactive learning objects, and the digital sources all serve to replicate a genuine atmosphere and engaging learning milieu for students’ historical experience. The dynamic virtual environment enhances students’ engagement, self-motivation, and cognitive processes. It draws directly from their computer literacy skills and familiarity with the digital domain.
7. Integrated evaluation rubrics and secure teacher's portal
With the Virtual Historian v.2.0, teachers have access to a secure portal that allows them to: create their virtual classes, edit and change mission objectives, develop assignements or lessons, communicate with their students, supervise students’ progress, and mark assignments and enter evaluations directly online. The teacher's portal also provides the options to share lessons among teachers. Community resources can also be integrated via the teacher's portal.