Web-based video in the history class: A qualitative Inquiry

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Web-based videos in the history class: A qualitative Inquiry

Olivier Nyirubugara (December 2011)


Pupil reacting to a statement made in a Web-based video from the Canon of the Netherlands

Figure 1: Pupil reacting to a statement made in a Web-based video from the Canon of the Netherlands (Video recording:ON., 14 April 2010)

In this paper I sketch the place of online cultural heritage video clips in the history class, based on my January-May 2010 field research in one class of Het Baarnsch Lyceum, in Baarn (The Netherlands). During that research – for which I used ethnographic methods, including participant observation and interviews – among others, it appeared that online videos had a peculiar impact on the 13-14 year olds. Online videos integrated into the lesson seemed to have the power to keep the pupils attentive and engaged. Most interestingly, the pupils would interact directly with the clips, through their reactions, either vocal or gestural. In this paper, thus, I want to give an ethnographic account of that interaction between educational web-based videos and pupils, focusing on how the latter’s reactions and gestures reflect deeper, inner historical thinking.

Keywords: history education, historical thinking, deductive thinking, creative thinking.



Discussions about new media and education have been taking place for more than two millennia now. The same pattern observed at the time of Plato can still be observed in the 21st century, with on the one hand the pessimists and sceptics and on the other hand the optimists and enthusiasts. Many of the main actors in these discussions have not always based their arguments on experiments but were mostly driven by a nostalgic feeling about the old medium that they had embraced and cherished. This paper takes up the discussion in its latest phase and explores ways in which Web-based videos influence history education in the lower cycle of secondary school. It is based on empirical research conducted in one class at a Dutch secondary school. I selected that particular class because the teacher used both new Web-oriented teaching methods and traditional, textbook-based ones, hence providing an ideal situation to compare the impact of each of the two approaches.

Since I started with a claim about the historical character of this subject, I will first provide a brief historical overview of the media-and-learning debates, before delving into my case study. There, I will discuss some of the ways in which Web-based videos seemed to make the history class livelier while at the same time giving rise to previously unheard-of forms of historical thinking.

Debates on Media and Learning – A Historical Overview

The debate on media and learning is very old. Plato was the first to frame it when he warned about the disastrous consequences of writing. He asserted that writing would create forgetfulness in the souls of learners who would no longer use their memory.[1] The invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century was the next major medium to provoke major debates. Although it made it possible to learn from the glories and errors of the past, and to make ‘new additions to mankind’s stock of knowledge’,[2] the Church fought it with all its strength. This new medium was credited not only for bringing about new ways of interacting with knowledge, but also for bringing that knowledge to masses,[3] outside any Church-controlled institutions.

When photography was invented around the 1820s, it was described as a ‘precious discovery [is] useful to sciences’,[4] but Charles Baudelaire would not share this praise. For him, it was the ‘enemy of arts [which] pretended to apply to all the arts’,[5] and which ‘ruined the sole remaining divine gift in the French spirit’.[6] He regretted that school-going children had embraced the ‘silliness’ that photography had brought about.[7] A few years later, the coming of the telegraph would push Henri David Thoreau to reject it as ‘an agent of trivialization’.[8] Ralph Waldo Emerson would follow his mentor and state that ‘The truly wise man waits for no mails, reads no telegrams’.[9]

Following a similar line of reasoning, historian Johan Huizinga blamed film and radio in the 1930s for ending active participation in cultural activities. He regretted the increasing prominence of the ‘outwardly visible’ and the relegation of ‘the spoken word…to a place of only secondary importance’.[10] New ways and skills of acquiring information and knowledge included ‘rapid appreciation and understanding of continuously changing visual images’.[11]For Huizinga, ‘This novel bent of mind…means the atrophy of a whole series of intellectual functions’.[12]

It was from the 1970s onwards that these debates focused more specifically on the impact of media on education. On the one hand, Richard Clark maintained that ‘media will never influence learning’, and that ‘there are no learning benefits to be gained from employing different media in instruction’.[13] For him, media are ‘mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition’.[14] On the other hand, Gavriel Salomon and, above all, Robert Kozma,[15] strongly defended that ‘different modes of packaging information create different experiences’, [16] and therefore generate different meanings and knowledge extractions. For Salomon, ‘The technology of a medium affects the modes of interaction with users…and the transmitted content affects the knowledge acquired’.[17]

The latest medium, the Web, has also been extensively discussed. The early enthusiasts included Nicholas Negroponte, who predicted that ‘Being digital is the license to grow’,[18] because the future is driven almost 100 percent by the ability of products or services to be rendered in digital form.[19] Translated into educational terms, Negroponte’s point would mean that the digital age school has to take their pupils into the new space without a place, where there is no limitations of geography and time.[20] Describing herself as ‘a neo-luddite’, Gertrude Himmelfarb, represented the skeptics. She considered the Web to be more bad than good, and students learning with it to be ‘miseducated’.[21] In the next part, I want to focus on Web-based videos and their impact on history education

Case Study: Online historical videos and adolescent learners

From January until May 2010, I observed one history class at the Baarnsch Lyceum, in Baarn, the Netherlands. The second year class was attended by pupils aged 13-14 years and was in the trajectory known as pre-university education (VWO)/general secondary education (HAVO). They were having history for a second consecutive year. To collect my data I used participant observation – that is, attending and taking part to some extent to routine activities in order to have an insider’s view – and non-structured and semi-structured interviews. During the research period, I would sit among the pupils and attend the class once or twice a week. Two of the claims I had set out to explore were that [1] the Web makes the history class more attractive, and [2] fosters historical thinking. In what follows, I want to describe the way Web-based videos emerged as one of the most attractive and most thought-triggering aspects of the Web during the period of my research.

Making the history class attractive

The notion of ‘attractiveness’ as I used it in my research refers to the state in which the learner finds him- or herself following some external factors, and in which he or she is inclined to undertake a certain action or behave in a certain way with interest and engagement. Those external factors are said to be attractive if they create pleasure, interest, concern, and engagement. John Dewey conceptualized the notion of interest as expressing

(i) the whole state of active development, (ii) the objective results that are foreseen and wanted, and (iii) the personal emotional inclination….To be interested is to be absorbed in, wrapped up in, carried away by, some object. To take an interest is to be on the alert, to care about, to be attentive. We say of an interested person both that he has lost himself in some affair and that he has found himself in it.  Both terms express the engrossment of the self in an object.[22]

One day, the pupils entered the class while the teacher was getting ready with his laptop computer and the overhead projector. From a Microsoft Word document with his course planning showing ‘Around the Golden Century (1600-1700)’, he clicked on a hyperlink and opened a Historical Canon of the Netherlands[23] page with a video clip dedicated to ‘Eise Eisinga 1744-1828. The Enlightenment in the Netherlands’.[24] By that time, the pupils were still noisily talking about the latest political and sports news. The noise finally stopped when the teacher requested them to watch the clip and take notes, drawing their attention on the concept of Enlightenment, on the age of Eise Eisinga, and on the latter’s achievements.

The video began, full-screen. A male voice began telling the story about Eise Eisinga: ‘Since the Middle Ages, scientists relied on the Bible and on the Church Fathers, but as from the 18th century, rationalism emerged with the idea of inquiring into everything’. It went on: ‘The Friesland-born Eise Eisinga is the child of the Enlightenment’. The commentator then introduced and commented on the early works and achievements of Eisinga, including a book on arithmetic at the age of 15 and a planetarium showing the solar system hanging on the ceiling of his living room. He also commented on the Enlightenment thinkers Rousseau and Voltaire, while their pictures were showing. Near the end, a black screen appeared with this question both in text and audio: ‘Science is rational while faith is emotional. Do we nowadays live in a rational or emotional society?’ ‘EMOTIONELE!’ said the pupils loud, in unison.  The question was not directly posed to them but to two young girls and one boy interviewed in the clip. They all said the society they lived in was more rational than emotional, and explained why. These answers triggered discussions among the pupils, some agreeing, others disagreeing. Then came another black screen and another text with a voice: ‘Are you [yourself] rational or emotional?’ This time, the class was divided. Some said RATIONEEL! and others maintained EMOTIONEEL! The teacher asked why the answer was now ‘rational’ for some while it was entirely ‘emotional’ for the first question. When discussions ensued again among pupils with conflicting views, the teacher asked each to write their argument on paper and submit it in the next session.

Two things are worth stressing here: firstly, that when the video started playing, the pupils stopped their noisy talks and focused on the video; secondly, that, this video prompted ‘live’ and relevant reactions from the pupils. It could be suggested that the pupils were attentive because the Web and the video were more attractive to them. It appeared that each time that the teacher shifted from the Web-based video to the textbook, pupils lost their concentration and engagement. The teacher recognized that the Web-based videos made a big difference, which justified their frequent uses in the class. The teacher added however, that videos could not exclude other less captivating aids such as textbooks. It can then be deduced that

a particular medium can be described in terms of its capability to present certain representations and perform certain operations in interaction with learners who are similarly engaged in internally constructing representations and operating on these.[25]

As for the ‘live’ reactions, they showed that the pupils were fully engaged and absorbed. Theorists have suggested that this state of full engagement and absorption constitutes a fertile soil for the learning process in general and historical thinking, in particular. According to psychologist Lev Vygotsky, ‘Thought is not begotten by thought; it is engendered by motivation, i.e., by our desires and needs, our interests and emotions’.[26]

Fostering historical thinking

I used the concept of historical thinking from the perspective of cognitive, development psychology, which deals with children thinking, rather than from that of professional or academic history.[27] Psychologists Robert Siegler and Martha Wagner Alibali defined children thinking as involving ‘the higher mental processes: problem-solving, reasoning, creating, conceptualizing, remembering, classifying, symbolizing, planning, and so on’.[28] The adjective ‘historical’ adds the fact that the object of problem-solving, reasoning, creating and other mental processes is [in] the past. Thus, historical thinking in this sense includes, or is interchangeable with, other concepts used to describe this type of mental activity such as historical reasoning, historical literacy, historical consciousness, among others.[29] These concepts imply that the learner goes beyond ‘names and dates’, to engage with, and question, historical texts [in the larger sense] in search of sub-texts.[30] Thinking or reasoning historically consists of reading historical texts not with a ‘receptive spirit’ but ‘with a question in [his] mind’,[31] whereby the thinker often has recourse to, among others, associational, analogical, comparative, deductive, inductive, and creative thinking.[32] In what follows, I shall explore and answer the following questions: How did pupils engage with, and question, the Web-based historical videos? How creative was their thinking while dealing with Web-based videos during class lessons? How did the Web-based videos inspire their discussions and argumentations?

Deductive thinking: Hearing and seeing something else

Being with someone I love and thinking about something else; that’s how I manage to have the best thoughts, to invent the best of what is necessary for my work. The same is true with the text: it provokes the greatest pleasure in me when it manages to let itself be listened to indirectly; when, while reading it, I am often pushed to raise my head, to hear something else.[33]

One day of January, the teacher asked the pupils quite from the beginning: ‘What does water have to do with the Golden Century?’ While the pupils were still thinking, he went on to say: ‘before answering, let us watch a clip from the Canon’. He asked them to take notes, taking into account five aspects: economy, politics, science, the social aspect, and culture. Then came the Canon clip on De Beemster.[34]The narrator announced: ‘Four centuries ago the Beemster Lake was drained using windmills. [More] Land was needed for food supplies for Amsterdam’. Most pupils were already writing in their notebooks. Dirk,[35] the pupil beside me, wrote the following at this precise moment: ‘Economy: farmers will sell food items’. Next to him, Stan wrote: ‘the decision to drain the lake was [a] political one’. The clip went on, giving the details of this 1612 project: 38 kilometer-long dike, 43 windmills used to drain the lake, and so on. At one moment, the narrator said that ‘the Beemster project was conducted following a mathematical schema’. This time too, almost all the pupils wrote something down. Dirk and Stan wrote respectively: ‘sciences’ and ‘Mathematics = science’. The narrator further indicated that the Beemster draining had a big impact both inside and outside Europe. This time, a few pupils, including my two neighbours, jotted something in their notebooks. Dirk wrote: ‘VOC???’[36] - the Dutch East Indies Company - while Stan wrote: ‘Commerce-economy’.

At the end of the film, the teacher narrowed his initial question down to each of the five aspects. ‘Who noted something about economy?’ he asked. Jennie said: ‘The land obtained after draining led to the increase of agricultural production and thus to the growth of economy’. The teacher acquiesced. A few desks away from her, Tess added: ‘I think that the draining meant the end of a fishing-based economy in the area’. The teacher approved. The teacher then commented that the draining had led to specialization and more productivity that resulted in exports abroad. Dirk promptly and excitedly said: ‘Yes!, I noted it! The VOC!’ The teacher acquiesced and moved to the scientific aspect. Braham, sitting on the front, said: ‘The draining followed a mathematical plan’. Niels added: ‘To make windmills powerful enough to drain a lake also involved scientific knowledge’. The teacher acquiesced for both answers.

These images and statements prompted thinking processes that resulted in different conclusions. For instance, the statement ‘Four centuries ago the Beemster Lake was drained…’ led to at least four conclusions: Jennie perceived economy in it, as farmers would have more land and produce more food items which they could sell in Amsterdam; Stan perceived politics in it, as such important, nature-transforming a decision could but emanate from political authorities; Dirk, Stan, and Niels perceived science in it, as envisaging such complex a project required technical and scientific knowledge both in making windmills and in placing them in strategic places to get the best out of them. As for Tess, she looked at it from the social perspective, since draining the lake implied the change of social status for fishermen and their communities.

Tess’ social perspective is worth commenting upon because it exemplifies ways in which pupils engaged in deductive thinking. When the narrator announced that the Beemster had been reclaimed in order to obtain arable land, Tess heard something else,[37] and flowed into a world different from the one described by the clip – which Huizinga called ‘historical sensation’[38] – and realized that fishermen were forced by the new situation to convert to other trades. This media text provoked a sort of ‘ecstasy’[39] when it managed to let itself be listened to indirectly. The narrator never mentioned the fate of fishermen directly or explicitly but the pupil heard it indirectly, because the Web-based video provoked ‘the greatest pleasure’[40] in her and pushed her to listen to the parallel, indirect, voice. The Web-based clip, with its maps, paintings, and pictures, triggered conditional reasoning, the sort based on ‘if p then q’ reasoning,[41] both before and after the reclamation. In this case the reasoning took a deductive form, since from the premises provided in the clip – that the water was completely pumped out – the pupil drew a logical conclusion,[42] namely that no further fishing activity would be possible. It could be suggested that the presence of water on some maps and images and its absence on others were central to this syllogistic reasoning, but this was only possible mainly because the medium managed to get the pupil engaged and facilitated her deductive thinking beyond the images provided. In other cases, historical thinking was even more creative.

Creative and analogical thinking

Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad.[43]

Another day of April, the teacher played a clip on the ‘Patriots’ [1780-1795][44] from the Canon page on the Patriots. The narrator briefly sketched how State Holder [Governor] William V emerged as an authoritarian leader. At one point, the narrator mentioned the citizens’ complaints about their leader: ‘Moreover, the State Holder was acting as if he were a king …’. At this moment, Braham, sitting two desks in front of me, said [aloud but to himself]: ‘Guillotine’. Then, the narrator mentioned the pamphlets that the angry citizens, the Patriots, were distributing to express their opposition to William V: ‘The State Holder controls the army, that is why the citizens have no power. They cannot undertake anything against William V. He can do what he wants’ [Italicization is mine]. As soon as the italicized passage was pronounced, Braham spontaneously said [to himself again]: ‘Echt niet!’ [No way!, meaning, ‘that is impossible, unacceptable!’]. He completed his reaction with a revealing gesture: with his right hand, he turned his fingers into a pistol – the index and middle finger forming the barrel and the ring finger and pink the grip – and ‘shot’ himself in the side of his head (Figure 1).

This verbal and gestural reaction shows that Braham had processed the information conveyed by the clip, weighed it against his prior knowledge about the French Revolution [where the Guillotine was invented and first used], and, in a fraction of a second, had come to a conclusion: William V – who behaved like the Ancient Régime aristocracy – deserved, like that aristocracy, the Guillotine or, at least, a shot in the head.

The clip brings once again Huizinga’s concept of ‘historical sensation’ back to mind. In this particular case, historical sensation is prompted by ‘one historical detail’ that normally would leave one ‘indifferent’.[45] That detail [the italicized passage in the pamphlet quoted above]

suddenly provokes an immediate contact with the past, a sensation as deep as the purest enjoyment of art, an (do not laugh) ecstatic sensation of no longer being myself, of flowing in the world outside myself, in contact with the essence of things, with the experience of Truth through history.[46]

The resulting ‘historical perception’ and ‘historical sensation’ provide a favorable ground for historical thinking and puts the one experiencing it in a position to construct his knowledge of the past.  The video clip facilitated the historical thinking process not only by capturing and holding the pupil’s attention, but also by ensuring speedy and smooth information-processing. The information captured by the sensory memory – through the eyes and ears – was quickly processed in the working memory, in which on the one hand associations were made with information already stored in the long-term memory, namely the story about the Guillotine,[47] and on the other hand connections were established with the prevailing popular culture among pupils – hence the shooting gesture. It could be assumed that a piece of information that goes through such a process is likely to be stored in the long-term memory where it expands the prior knowledge reservoir for future information or events that the sensory memory will encounter.

The verbal and gestural reactions described above are similar to what Henry Jenkins et al. termed ‘improvisational performance’, a major feature of role-playing activities that is also observed in interaction with digital media:

Performance brings with it capacities to understand problems from multiple viewpoints, to assimilate information, to exert mastery over core cultural materials, and to improvise in response to a changing environment.[48]

In role-playing activities pupils adopt fictive identities and ‘think through scenarios from those characters’ perspectives’ (Italicisation is mine).[49] The ‘shooting pupil’, who also ‘sentenced’ William V to the ‘Guillotine’, had obviously mentally assumed the identity, and was playing the role, of the French revolutionaries. He assumed the identity and role of the Patriots[50] when, like them, he said ‘Echt niet!’ [No way!] in rejection of the alleged abuses. This example shows two important aspects of historical thinking, namely ‘the moral response stance’ and ‘the identification stance’.[51] Sentencing William V to the ‘Guillotine’ is a way of condemning him and his deeds as described in the clip. Exclaiming ‘Echt niet!’ is identifying with the morally good side.


The findings described and discussed above do not claim to be generalisable. They are about the particular class observed and the period of the research. However, given that cognitive and adolescent psychologists have established certain thinking and information-processing patterns among early adolescents,[52] some tentative conclusions could be drawn that historical Web-based videos have a considerable potential to capture pupils’ attention and facilitate their historical thinking process. Based on the findings discussed in this paper, it can even be asserted that ‘if a medium is attractive, then it triggers historical thinking’, because one thinks efficiently about the subject matter when one’s attention is captured by the medium being used.


Notes [PDF]