Going digital? Try taking a tablet

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Technology can revolutionise your history lessons when it's used well, says Chris Higgins. His pupils used portable PCs with digital pens for exciting group work

Year 7 pupils at Invicta Grammar School in Maidstone began piloting the use of tablet computers in their lessons during the last academic year. Tablets employ all the applications of a normal laptop, but instead of inputting data via a keyboard, a digital pen is used to write directly on to the screen. Then text can then be stored as handwriting, or the tablet can be taught to recognise your handwriting and convert it automatically into text.

There are many advantages to this technology, not least that it is lighter and more portable than a conventional laptop, and students can annotate documents on the screen with a special digital pen called a stylus. The tablets also have an internal wireless connection, allowing access to the school network, email or the internet.

Our project involved all departments, including history, where there were some notable successes. Impressive as the tablet PC is, the school's foremost consideration was to use its unique facilities to produce advanced teaching and learning outcomes that would not have been possible using more traditional resources.

Electronic newspapers

One of the first tablet projects developed in the history department was to report on the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 as if it were a news story today. Pupils were emailed contemporary accounts of the murder, images from illuminated manuscripts and imaginary interviews with key players. Then, in teams, they put together a tabloid-style front page following a given editorial bias.

Some wrote for The Church Times, and so would have seen Becket's death as an act of martyrdom; others wrote for The King's Chronicle, and were obviously more sympathetic towards the royal family. The Knightly News approached the story with the medieval militia in mind. Finished front pages were then emailed to me and pasted into PowerPoint for presentations and display purposes. As well as giving the lesson a news feel, using email enables the teacher either to share information with the whole class or support the learning of some pupils individually with differentiated resources.

Drafting and editing

Even the simplest applications such as Word can be used to foster thinking and extended writing skills - benefits that were discussed in 1998 by Ben Walsh in Teaching History. Using their core textbook, Medieval Minds, pupils first learned about the causes and spread of the Black Death in 14th-century Europe, the remedies that were used and the social changes that followed.

Using an emailed task sheet for guidance, they then worked in pairs on a draft version of a short historical story about the epidemic. Pupils thought hard about making their stories look professional. Some included contents pages, acknowledgments, appendices and even a blurb with reviews from imaginary medieval newspapers. Once again, weaker pupils were sent separate emails containing supplementary resources to provide extra support.

Towards the end of the drafting process, pupils used the highlighter function to identify in different colours the key elements we were looking for in each story (references to causes, spread of the disease and so on).

It meant they were able to see clearly whether there was sufficient historical detail in their work, and go back to redraft it if necessary.

At any time pupils were able to email sections of their stories to each other or to me for suggestions. The resulting work was of an extremely high standard, largely because so much careful reflection on its content and appearance had been done in the drafting stage.

Talking manuscripts

Another project involving the tablet exploited its built-in sound recorder to record "oral testimonies" of the Peasants' Revolt. Pupils first did internet and textbook research, focusing on events and key players. They then looked at a manuscript illumination of the uprising and were asked to write an account from the perspective of one of the people involved. Once again, weaker pupils received specially differentiated resources to help them structure their testimonies.

As with the Black Death stories, pupils emailed me initial drafts of their work, which I checked and sent back with suggestions for revisions. When their drafts were completed, pupils selected a short passage to record as a 30 to 45-second soundbite. These were then emailed to me and attached as sound clips onto a PowerPoint slide of the image of the Revolt. When pupils arrived for their next history lesson they were thrilled to see a medieval illuminated manuscript come alive to the sound of their own voices transported back to the Peasants' Revolt.

The tablet PC project at Invicta has not been without its initial teething problems. We have had our fair share of frozen screens, lost files and "Error" messages. Happily, as pupils and teachers have become more familiar with the technology these problems have occurred with notably less frequency. The overriding reaction from all involved has been extremely positive.

I now use ICT in every history lesson and can have regular dialogues with pupils outside the classroom via email on relevant issues. Pupils are also helping me develop lesson resources. One girl from a Muslim family emailed me a map of medieval Jerusalem that she had found in an Arab archive.

Without question, this technology has improved the quality of teaching and learning in history - a point backed up in a recent Ofsted report on the school.

Main picture: an illustration of Wat Tyler leading the Peasants' Revolt in 1381Left: Victims of the Black Death in Norway are carried to burial below left: Thomas Becket incorporated into laptop technology


Invicta Grammar School used the RM Tablet PC. The project was funded by the school with the support of the LEA and involved buying 183 tablets at approximately pound;750 each, including additional keyboard and stylus.


* Medieval Minds by Christine Counsell et al, Longman pound;9.99.

Think Through History series: www.longman.co.uksecondaryhistoryindex.html

* Ben Walsh's article appeared in Teaching History, No. 93, 1998, published by the Historical Association Chris Higgins teaches history at Invicta Grammar School, Kent

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