Work with the web

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Russel Tarr suggests time-saving ways to tap the internet's wealth of history resources.

The internet provides teachers and students of history with marvellous opportunities, although the anarchic nature of the web means that there is no vetting of either the quantity or the quality of the material. It is crucial to find the most relevant and reliable sources. Fortunately, this is relatively straightforward, but here are a few tips for getting the best out of the net.

Cutting down on the quantity: A good search engine - a tool which trawls the entire web for you - is invaluable. is the current market leader because of its speed and uncanny ability to pick out the most relevant websites. You just type in your query and press enter. However, to get the best results you must think about exactly what you want. "Weimar Germany" will throw out thousands of results; "Weimar Germany hyperinflation crisis" will be much more focused.

Preserving quality: Although Google will provide you with sites that are most relevant to the given search query, it cannot guarantee that those sites will contain material of a high standard. For sites that have been hand-selected for their quality use a web directory.

Probably the best at the moment is
From this, you can select the "History" option and then search by topic or key stage.

Using the information to teach: Provide students with structured questions. Simply locating the best material provides an interesting and valuable lesson in itself, but with time constraints you will probably find it more practical to direct the attention of your students to given websites and provide them with a series of structured questions.

This is particularly useful when the websites being used are providing cutting-edge commentary which no textbook could match. For example, provides a wide range of lessons based around current newspaper articles which deal with such issues as racism, censorship and the holocaust.

Ensure students interpret the material: They should type rather than handwrite their answers to develop their keyboard skills, but make sure they do not simply copy text from the webpage and paste it into a document. Ensure they change the nature of the text that they are dealing with. For example, they could be instructed to produce a diary outlining events as they unfold; in this way they will have to translate the text into the present tense.

Similarly, they could produce projects on key historical characters in which they answer questions in role as that character. Or ask them to insert or delete bias in a given document which they have pasted into their wordprocessor, or reverse its perspective on the events described.

The net as an interactive medium: Although in its early stages the net was primarily an online encyclopaedia, it is increasingly fulfilling its potential as a truly interactive medium, with quizzes, decision-making games and simulations based on historical themes. The exciting thing about these resources is that they provide practical differentiation in the classroom, allowing students to work at their own pace.

The departmental website which I am developing at Wolverhampton Grammar School currently offers more than 50 freely accessible, original online activities that give a good taster of what is possible:

* Interactive quizzes are particularly valuable as extension activities or as revision exercises. Students can attempt multiple-choice, short-answer or cloze tests and then have them marked automatically, in many instances with the computer giving feedback and clues.

The website includes topics covering the peace treaties after the First world War, the Wall Street crash and Nazi Germany.

* Decision-making games are more involved, with students acting in role as a historical character - King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and Charles I in the lead-up to the English Civil War are currently on offer. Alternatively, students are asked key questions about their beliefs so that the computer can present them with a profile (Are You a Protestant or Catholic? What are your political beliefs? What electoral system should the UK have?).

* In-depth investigations. In these activities, students analyse various interpretations of a key event to come up with a balanced interpretation. Activities in this vein currently include: What was life like in Tudor England? What Caused the Bolshevik Revolution? What was life like in the trenches during World War One? and What caused World War Two?

* Sourcework exercises. The interactive nature of the net allows students to tear sources apart brilliantly. For example, in "The murder of Becket" students can learn to detect bias and therefore evaluate reliability by turning a factual report into a judgmental one.

In "the first death on the railways" I encourage them to compare and analyse sources by cutting and pasting information into appropriate categories; and in the Tudor portrait mystery, students are asked to make inferences from a source rather than merely describe them.

Teachers are welcome to contact me directly via

Russel Tarr teaches history and politics at Wolverhampton Grammar School


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