Interview with Stéphane Lévesque on the Virtual History Lab©
Network Manager Anne Marie Goodfellow conducted an interview with Executive Board Member Stéphane Lévesque to learn more about a grant he received to further his research on “Learning by Playing,” described in our March 2010 e-Bulletin.
Congratulations on being awarded a Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant for over $500,000 to build the Virtual History Lab© at University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education. I understand that this is the largest grant that has been awarded at the University of Ottawa in areas other than science and medicine. Can you talk a little bit about this, and the implications for research in the humanities and social sciences?
The Canadian Foundation for Innovation provides funding for acquiring major infrastructure and covering operation costs to conduct cutting-edge research in various fields of study. While science and medicine have been the lead beneficiaries of the program, notably because of the high costs associated with their technologies, domains such as history education are now recognized as strategic to Canadian research and a knowledge-based society – and for good reasons. For today’s students, ICT plays an integral part in their learning experience. The EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) survey for 2008 indicates that 93 percent of undergraduates use computers for university/college research and over 80 percent of them own personal laptops. Respondents also reported spending an average of 19.6 hours per week doing online activities.
With the advent of the internet, Canadian museums, libraries, archives, and publishers, to name but a few, have all ventured eagerly into the domain of digital technology to reach out to the public. Their applications transcend the traditional history textbook and provide users with dynamic animations and authentic sources as never before. Whether it is a World War I trench warfare simulation or a virtual exhibit on residential schooling, these learning objects engage learners differently and respond to students’ multiple intelligences and varied learning styles. But while millions of dollars are spent annually in Canada on computer animations and digitization, little is known on the pedagogical value and learning impact of such technological developments on students.
The Virtual History lab will be the first infrastructure to conduct scientific research on computer-user behaviours in history. Using such technology as eye-tracking and audio-video recording systems, it will become possible to monitor and study in real-time situations how computer users (classroom students, museum visitors, online archivists, etc.) engage with digital sources and computer applications.
Please explain what this lab will consist of and what kinds of testing you will be doing in it and with whom.
Virtual history is the study and use of the past with digital technologies. From preserving and sharing family photographs on social networks to searching online databases, to visiting virtual exhibits or playing history simulations, 21st century students are engaged in a plethora of activities about the past using technology. Traditional studies on computer-users’ interactions are exploratory in nature and focus on pre-test and post-test experiment, retrospective self-assessment and questionnaires, and quantitative data analysis on web access and click-through. While these methods are still valid, they do not offer complex, authentic assessment in the digital world. In order to know more accurately what computer users pay (or do not pay) attention to, how they engage with virtual history objects and ultimately what they learn from such engagements, it is necessary to track and analyze learning behaviours in situ – that is in real-time learning situations.
The latest technology in eye-tracking will record accurate measurements relevant to the study of virtual history. Ocular behaviours on web pages, scanpaths of online text reading, and eye movements and fixations in completing computer tasks are key in understanding users’ motivations, perceptions, and cognitive processes. For instance, the total number of eye fixations on a screen text or visual is used as an indicator of processing difficulty, with fixation density related to the complexity and informativeness of the visual stimulus. Pupil dilation coupled with fixations are frequently used in eye-tracking studies as corroborating measures of cognitive workload, especially for reading comprehension. Data from video-recording will complement the measurements generated by the eye-tracking system. They will provide additional recorded evidence of user actions and thinking processes when performing online history tasks and will be used to triangulate findings from the eye-tracking.
By combining findings from these scientific instruments, it will become possible to document more thoroughly computer-user behaviours, adapt or change current and developing online applications, and respond more specifically and effectively to the various needs of history students and teachers, Ministries of Education, and historical organizations dedicated to education.
Can you please describe your research in this area and its findings in some detail?
For the last five years, I have been researching how history students learn with technology. With a grant from the Western Innovation Fund, we developed an online learning program called the Virtual Historian© (www.virtualhistorian.ca). The VH was used in a number of exploratory and experimental studies, financed by the Canadian Council on Learning and SSHRC, to assess the role and impact of such technology on students’ history learning and literacy. Consistent with other studies in Canada and abroad, the findings reveal the potential but also limits of technology in delivering content and promoting historical and digital literacy competencies. On the one hand, our studies offer empirical evidence that using an online learning program to teach history can significantly increase students’ interest, their understanding of the subject matter, their ability to write historically and their critical thinking about the past. One grade 10 student put it in these terms: “Learning Canadian history in the computer lab is better because you can learn it your own way.” On the other hand, however, technology in its current form is no panacea. Many students with advanced computer skills have limited competencies – and patience – with complex digital history tasks. They often adopt a “path-of-least-resistance” approach, looking for the simple right answer as in an online trivia game. More than this, they continue to rely extensively on the knowledge and expertise of their teachers. Reasons for this given by students range from the familiarity with the teacher’s style, the unchallenging nature of classroom lectures, the difficulty of navigating and analyzing multiple texts (even with scaffolds), deep confidence in simplified textbook stories, and finally classroom interactions with the teacher, students, and learning objects.
Our studies with Canadian schools suggest further research in the field. Urgent questions need to be addressed: Why are historical organizations and publishers vesting more interest and resources into virtual history but not classroom teachers? What impacts do computer literacy skills have on students’ performance in digital history? How do users engage with online learning objects and serious games? What progress, if any, do students make in learning history with technology? Are there particular ways of designing digital applications for various history learners?
With the Virtual History Lab, we hope to attract a number of graduate students as well as experts who will help us tackle some of these fundamental questions. The campus lab is strategically located for conducting research in virtual history. Several partnering organizations dedicated to digital history learning, such as the War Museum and Library and Archives Canada, are within geographical reach and can collaborate on research projects and new initiatives. The distance, online component to the lab (with its videoconferencing device and portable lab) will also allow for communication and research with organizations such as THEN/HiER outside the geographical region so as to nurture a wider Canadian community of research and disseminate results across the country and in both linguistic communities.
Where can our readers learn more about this approach to history education? Please provide some references to published materials in this area, either by yourself or other researchers.
Although there is a growing interest and investment in virtual history in Canada and abroad, there is surprisingly a dearth of relevant resources and studies in this emerging field. Even in the U.S., where technology is at a cutting edge, studies and publications in history and technology remain marginal. Scholars publish in journals such as Text Technology; Journal of Computer-mediated Communication; Computers in Human Behavior; Technology, Pedagogy and Education,;Journal of Research on Technology in Education; Journal of the American Association for History and Computing; and the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. More specifically, research communications in virtual reality and eye-tracking are presented in conferences such as the Eye Tracking Research and Application Symposium, the American Association of History and Computing annual meeting, and the Society of Digital Humanities/Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs annual meeting. A number of blogs and websites are also dedicated to the subject, including Digital History Hacks and the Virginia Center for Digital History.
There is no laboratory in Canada dedicated to virtual history education but related research sites at Brock University, such as the Centre for Digital Humanities and the Simulating History Project, offer complementary expertise in computer interactivity and serious games. The VH Lab is thus a unique infrastructure to bring together provincial, national and international scholars and stakeholders in the growing field of virtual history. Research experience and findings show that the current local networks and infrastructures do not respond adequately to the needs of innovation. Applications are regionalized and inconsistent across the education domain and rarely acknowledge field-related findings, particularly between provinces. The VH Lab will pay careful attention to digital history learning and behaviours across age groups and linguistic communities and offer a new research platform for students, scholars, and partners in the field.