Investigating the past

The Virtual Historian allows students to research and analyze historical documents and footage on key events in Canadian history to draw their own conclusions.

The “Google Reflex” is the enemy of deep critical-thinking, according to Faculty of Education associate professor Stéphane Lévesque. Students of history need to be more like detectives, forensically examining original archives instead of relying on search engines.

Ten years ago, Lévesque invented the Virtual Historian, an online library program that houses hundreds of digitized documents, photographs, newsreels and other archival materials. Instead of listening to a lecture, students can follow the timelines themselves to discover how events unfolded. Today, the bilingual site includes packaged modules about the War of 1812, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the residential schooling of Native peoples, the Halifax Explosion, the life of European Jews in Nazi Germany and more. Teachers can share lessons through social media such as Twitter.

Lévesque, the director of uOttawa’s Virtual History Lab, uses sophisticated methods such as eye-tracking analysis to study how students acquire information, helping to provide teachers with new tools to develop digital literacy skills. He says he developed the site because education literature shows that students learn and retain more when lessons are interactive.

“This is a fundamental shift in the cognitive process,” says Lévesque. “We want students to uncover the answers. They cannot just google it. History is like a compass in time but history is messy.”

Lévesque also does some sleuthing of his own, declassifying and digitizing Canadian and British cabinet minutes on the 1970 October Crisis that have not been publically accessible until now.

 

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