News and Views

Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching History Online Through Material Culture

In the next in our series of #PandemicPedagogy posts, Leonie Hannan (Queen’s University Belfast @leoniehannan) and Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln, @sclongair) – authors of History through Material Culture (Manchester University Press, 2017) – discuss the challenges of teaching History through material culture online.

In March of this year, from one day to the next, universities across the world dropped long-established patterns of teaching and learning to meet the strange circumstances of a global pandemic. Historians of all stripes worked fast to find new ways of sharing and discussing topics, literatures and primary sources with their students. The rapid transfer to online learning, presented numerous technological and pedagogical challenges, none more so than for those of us teaching history through material culture. Whilst the global crisis offered an opportunity to radically re-think the way we teach, it also delivered caring responsibilities, home-schooling and serious illness to many academics – making normal working life impossible and squashing the space and time required for our best work. However, as the immediacy of lockdown eases and we move into a much-changed teaching environment in the longer term, making the time for reflection and ensuring that we are able to test new methods, with the possibility of failure, is more crucial than ever.

The most significant difficulty posed by our new circumstances is the distance that is placed between ourselves and our primary sources. Despite the transformation of digital resources in recent decades, many historians both need and want to work with manuscripts, artefacts and buildings in person, in the flesh.  As historians of material culture, we have regularly extolled the virtues of handling objects – a process we believe can unlock their meanings and change our interpretations of a past almost exclusively understood through text. Of course, we cannot always have objects in the classroom when we teach, and we often rely on museum websites and other sources to explore this subject with our students. Nonetheless, transferring object-led history into an online learning environment was yet another way in which we had to adapt rapidly. We had to try to engage our students in understanding the significance of the material world at a time when so many aspects of our lives became virtual. Here, we will reflect on some examples of online learning through material culture and some of the opportunities and challenges encountered.

In a Level 3 (3rd year undergraduate) module that Sarah teaches on ‘Objects of Empire: Material Worlds of British Colonialism’, there was an established seminar model of students researching and presenting objects they had located on a particular theme and this structure transferred well to the online environment. As has been noted by others elsewhere, the online seminar rooms and chat functions often brought students who had been quieter in the classroom into more active participation. After a group of three students had presented their objects, the group were then shown the three objects together on a single slide and asked to consider connections between them. This strategy worked effectively as they drew out both visual and ideological links as well as bringing the whole class into the discussion. In preparation for another class, the Talis Elevate  annotation tool was used which enables students to add comments and questions to sources, including text and images. After uploading the Singh Twins EnTWINed painting, students were invited to analyse the figures, events and language to which the artists were referring.

Image of the Singh Twins EnTWINed painting in Talis Elevate

Image: The Singh Twins EnTWINed painting in Talis Elevate (Sarah Longair)

This painting drew on numerous topics we had studied in the module as well as contemporary figures, so students had to undertake close observation of the image as well as conducting research to unpick all the numerous messages of the painting. They could then drop pins on the point they wished to comment upon and so alongside the image we had a series of discussion points for our seminar. In terms of planning, this tool is ideal for asynchronous activities and provides a student discussion space which can then inform seminar themes. It also enhances students’ skills of observation and annotation of images. This painting was chosen because it is particularly rich in detail which, with a class of 22 students adding comments, is critical.

Another Lincoln module where we had to adapt our teaching and assessment quickly was the Level 2 (2nd year UG) module ‘Material Histories: Objects, Display and Analysis’ which took place in our Conservation labs and used teaching collection objects for seminars and assessments. The second assessment preparation took place just after lockdown started and, as a close object description, had to be rethought. Here, my colleague Jim Cheshire, decided that we could reconfigure the assessment by asking students to study objects on the Sketchfab database. These 3D models allowed students to zoom in closely and move objects around, allowing them to analyse materials, production techniques as well as form and decoration.

Image of Sketchfab interface

Image: Sketchfab interface (Sarah Longair)

Sketchfab also provides the opportunity to study construction as well as damage on fragile objects. We selected a long list of objects from which students had to choose – they needed to be objects with some historical context and ideally from museums where students could follow up with further research on the museum website. The results of these assessments were very encouraging. We saw how students applied the knowledge they had acquired about different materials into these studies, for example studying a Roman lamp and using evidence from its form and marks upon it to establish how it had been shaped, fired and decorated. Others were able to use visual evidence of how a wooden cabinet had been made and how the grain of the wood had been used to aid the production process but also as decoration. There are also scanned interiors of historic houses on Sketchfab which could be used effectively for considering material culture in space.

Material things have qualities which can be hard to convey online – weight and scale in particular. These are issues that we are used to dealing with in classrooms where we cannot easily access original objects. These issues are not new – we just need to keep our students aware of the advantages and limitations of studying objects via images and 3D models. While the online environment might encourage a shying away from material things, there are no reasons why objects cannot be used just as easily as texts as primary sources – the tools may differ slightly, but the skills students learn remain the same. And these skills are as important as ever.

As the recent public outcry over police brutality, racism and the continuing commemoration of slave owners as civic statues reminds us, history is political and the material world is at the centre. Amidst the urgent and growing demands to de-colonise our universities and our curricula, to face the legacies of Empire and to repatriate the multitude of artefacts, specimens and human remains that were looted in that era, historians of material culture must step up. By examining the non-textual expressions of human experience, material culture historians have established a tradition of studying the subjects rather than the arbiters of power, bringing diverse voices into our study of the past. Helping students learn the skills of analysing objects, their provenance and their contexts has never been more important. As we find ourselves trapped within domestic settings, we can use our altered relationships with familiar spaces and possessions to guide students to think afresh about the material world and its many meanings and manifestations. From a pedagogical point of view, disjuncture can be intellectually generative, but the challenge of creating communities of learning in virtual space is something that will take time. In this moment of close-focus and long-range re-imagining, material culture history surely has an important role to play.

We hope that you have enjoyed this post. Please add any comments below or on Twitter @History_UK.

We’d love to hear from you if you’d like to contribute a post on your experience of teaching History online, so do drop us a line!

Pandemic Pedagogy – Using discussion boards to boost student engagement

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing series of posts that build on our work on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook to keep the conversation around innovative online teaching in History going.

In this first post in the series, Cath Feely (History, University of Derby), shares her insights into using discussion boards across the curriculum. Please share your comments at the foot of this page or on Twitter @history_uk. If you would like to share your experiences of teaching online during lockdown, please drop us a line.

At the University of Derby, our History programmes are taught by a team of nine staff in a larger Department of Humanities, meaning that we work closely, and share practice, with English, Creative Writing, Publishing, American Studies and Popular Music and Society.  History and English Literature, in particular, have developed a number of modules with seminar participation – including leading a seminar discussion in a small group – as a significant element of assessment (30-50%). We then faced the challenge of how to replicate this online. The History team decided that we were not going to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, the recommended live synchronous software accessible via our VLE, for assessed participation at first- and second-year undergraduate levels due to problems with accessibility, broadband problems, etc. Drawing on experience with the University of Derby Online (we launched an entirely online MA in Public History and Heritage in 2019), we turned to discussion boards but decided to use them in a way that would more closely mirror the seminar experience.

The second-year module ‘Triumph of the Dark: Europe Between the Wars’ is a popular module, partly because the mass technologies that were developed in the period – radio and film – make for varied and fascinating discussions about primary sources. This module also asks larger historiographical questions about whether, for example, historians should make moral judgements about topics like appeasement. We tend to have lively debates and it was important to me that this was maintained online in a way that would be accessible to all. We also had seven French exchange students who were not able to join live synchronous sessions due to internet connectivity in the French countryside. So I decided to use discussion boards in two main ways: to facilitate activities around primary source material (films sourced from YouTube; links to documents, etc.) and for student led seminar discussion. We decided as a team that while discussion boards are asynchronous, we would make it clear that we would be ‘live’ on the discussion boards in our usual timetabled slots and would encourage students to contribute in this slot if they could, while being clear that they could post to the forums at any time.

In ‘Study Materials’ a folder for each week would include a relatively short introductory Panopto lecture, two or three clearly titled primary source activities (‘Source Exercise 1’, Source Exercise 2’) and a discussion forum with threads started by me with corresponding titles. Each activity, whether it involved watching a short film, reading a document, etc. was accompanied by clear questions and directions on how to contribute to discussion (see screen shot below), with each activity building on the last.

image of a discussion board in Blackboard

These primary source activities, set my be, would then be followed up by student-led discussions. The leading seminar group each week was asked to formulate four discussion questions based on the reading and asked to each create a discussion thread before the time of our normal seminar. They then, as a group, replied to and encouraged their peers in their discussion of the topic during the slot, if they could.

Emails to the whole cohort gave very clear directions, as in the email below:

In the module Course Resources site, please go to Study Materials and click the folder titled ‘Week 8: Race and Nation

In here you will find:

  1. A short recorded lecture on Race, Nation and theBody (watch this first before doing anything else!)
  2. Source Exercises – these are short film sources that I’d like you to look at and answer a question on. You can do this in the discussion board that you will find below them, in the appropriate thread.

On Thursday at 5pm, the group leading the seminar will post some additional questions in threads in the discussion forum drawing on the reading. Please try and answer these and respond to the unfolding discussion in our usual time slot (5-7pm) – if this isn’t practical for you, though, don’t worry and you can continue to post later. I will be there involved in and responding to the discussion, along with the seminar group.

Please continue to record your thoughts about the reading, how this was connected to your participation (discussion forum posts) and your reflection on the discussion in your seminar participation form weekly as usual.

This arrangement worked surprisingly well, with discussions mostly higher in quality than the face-to-face equivalents. Some students did find the discussion boards alien at the beginning but consistent format/layout each week meant that most did get used to this (and students are also often overwhelmed by face to face seminars until they get used to them). Most students did engage with the boards, partly perhaps down to the participation element of assessment but their reflections in their seminar participation logs also suggest much more thoughtful engagement.

This was most marked in a number of students who were quite quiet in face to face classes, but who found it easier to contribute to the discussion boards:

“The transition from face to face teaching to online teaching has enabled me to expand more on my ideas than I would have originally done in class, as this platform gives us more opportunity to expand on our points and evaluate them before committing to them. As the comments are written down it is easier to see the overview of the discussion making it easier to learn from and contribute to. This has developed my adaptability skills and communication skills as I have been participating more in discussion and responding to my peers’ ideas.”

Perhaps more revealing were the reflections of their peers who were more confident in the classroom, who realised that they were taking more notice of other people’s contributions:

“Although the circumstances surrounding the move to online learning were not good, the outcome by using the discussion boards was that I took more time to think about and read other people’s views.”

“… one of the benefits was the ability to consider my responses and type out something that did justice to my opinions. I also took the time to carefully read through the other responses and I was struck by a few of the perhaps quieter people and the incredibly insightful points they made. That seems to me another benefit to the switch to digital as there is the opportunity to hear from everybody.”

It is clear that both groups of students benefited differently from the structured use of discussion boards. They are only one of many tools – both asynchronous and synchronous – that can contribute to an online ‘session’. But they are versatile and can be used semi-synchronously while having the access benefits of asynchronous materials.


Here’s Cath’s staff profile at the University of Derby. You can also follow her on Twitter @cathfeely.

Panic Not: The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook

In 2020 History departments suddenly had to think seriously about how to move teaching online. For most, this ‘emergency phase’ was a daunting and challenging time, but for some historians, there was also a sense of cautious excitement.  As a subject-area, we have tended to prefer physical settings and interactions over digital ones. The Canadian historian Dr Sean Kheraj has observed that COVID is making us use tools that are unfamiliar to many historians and forcing us to upskill to work within a digital landscape that we have often overlooked.

At History UK, we recognised a need to support the history community during this time of transition. From late May 2020, a group of Steering Committee members have been meeting to discuss how to do this. Our Pandemic Pedagogy subgroup have run a series of Twitter chats to see what colleagues have learned from the new role online learning has come to play. As part of this process, we have written a series of short posts (on learning design, lectures, contact hours, assessment, accessibility, and community building in the classroom and in wider cohorts) and gathered feedback from the wider community.

As a result of this work, we have produced a short guide to help colleagues in thinking about what it means to move our teaching online – The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook. You can access it at the The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook webpage, where you can also download the full Handbook and each of the individual sections in PDF format. 

We framed the Handbook around a number of questions:  

  1. What happens to our students’ experience of learning, in and out of the ‘classroom’?
  2. What happens to accessibility?
  3. What happens to community?
  4. What happens to seminars?
  5. What happens to primary source work?
  6. What happens to lectures?
  7. What happens to assessment and feedback?

This is not the end of our commitment to creating a space for collaborative conversations around pedagogy in the time of a global pandemic. We invite colleagues to write short posts that we can share on our blog in order to keep the conversation going. Topics could include (but are not limited to): practical case studies of teaching online, think-pieces that address any aspect of the move online such as equity, diversity and inclusivity, community building, teaching and learning. technology, digital humanities. Please share your insights into any of these areas, especially if you have practical examples of approaches to teaching History online, and encourage colleagues to do the same. 

We are also interested in receiving feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook itself. Please do let us know if it has informed your practice using the comments section on the Handbook webpage and/or @history_uk.  

We would like to thank everyone involved in putting together this guide. The project was led by Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway/ @kateantiquity); steering committee contributors were Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores/ @luciejones83), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton/ @y_pringle), Manuela Williams (Strathclyde/ @ManuelaAWill), and Jamie Wood (Lincoln/ @MakDigHist). We were joined by Louise Crechan (Glasgow/ @LouiseCreechan) and Aimee Merrydew (Keele/ @a_merrydew) as Pandemic Pedagogy Fellows.

Pandemic Pedagogy: From Cohorts to Communities

Aimee Merrydew (PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in English Literature, Keele University)

Creating a sense of community for students is an integral part of the learning experience; it helps students to gain a sense of belonging and is linked to student success and retention. But building communities requires building relationships. How can this happen when the opportunity for students to socialise in person is limited due to COVID-19 precautions?

Community-building is especially important for new starters, since the transition to university life can be a challenging process and many students do not know anyone on their course. And it continues to be important across the degree, to tutor groups and departmental cohorts, as well as in a classroom setting. How can students meet fellow historians and gain a sense of belonging when studying online?

This post will focus on strategies that help students to gain a sense of belonging, build their identities as historians, and manage feelings of isolation when working remotely.


For new students, one of the best strategies is a buddying scheme. Keele University’s Student Support Buddies scheme provides a useful example. Keele Student Support Buddies are trained to provide friendly and informal support and guidance to incoming students via email and other forms of communication (e.g. Microsoft Teams and/or social media).

Peer mentoring relationships usually begin pre-arrival and continue throughout the academic year, providing ample opportunity for new and returning students to forge connections with fellow historians. What is particularly useful about ‘buddying’ from a community-building perspective is that it encourages links across year groups, in the process enhancing the community of students studying History.

Additionally, you can share this Historical Association resource with incoming students to support their transition to study history at university.

Virtual coffee mornings:

Virtual coffee mornings provide opportunities for community-building by enabling students to socialise with one another in a relaxed and low-pressure online environment.

Community-building is at the heart of Coffee@Home, a one-hour virtual coffee meeting organised for academic and student historians at the University of Lincoln (though you could also have a student-only coffee morning). The purpose of Coffee@Home was, as Dr Michele Vescovi (History, University of Lincoln) explains, ‘to have a conversation about our studies, our lives, and what we were doing while in lockdown. Through this, we wanted to maintain the strong sense of community that our students built in the classroom and beyond’.

Virtual coffee mornings are relatively easy to set up and can take place on various platforms such as Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams. These platforms provide students with the option of choosing their preferred method of interaction (e.g. by video-calling or instant messaging).

You could host a virtual coffee morning as part of the induction week and continue running it throughout the academic year. You could even open the coffee mornings to all History students, as this would enable students to make connections across cohorts. In either case, virtual coffee mornings would provide students with a space to meet fellow historians and feel part of a community.

image of coffee and computer

Image from Freepic

‘Ice-breaker’ activities for tutor groups:

Learning is often a social experience, so it’s important that students feel comfortable learning together. But creating shared experiences and supporting memorable connections between students can be challenging in an online environment.

Ice-breaker activities can aid students in getting to know one another when working remotely. Some activities you could try include:

  • Show and tell – Ask students to share their favourite historical photo or quotation and explain why they think it’s interesting.
  • Who am I? – Students must try to figure out which historical person they are by asking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions to gain clues about the name assigned to them (you could circulate names in advance of the game).
  • Pictionary – Ask students to draw and then circulate pictures about what they like to do, a recent event in which they partook, and/or their reasons for enrolling on the course. Other students can then guess what each student drew, in the process getting to know a little more about each other.
  • Medieval personality test – Students can take the test and then share their results with the rest of the group. Provide students with the opportunity to compare and agree or disagree with their results in discussion with one another, as this will get them speaking to each other and identifying any common interests (or differences).

Each of these activities can be conducted over email, on a Google Doc, on a digital bulletin board (such as Padlet), and other types of communications software (e.g. Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and Zoom).

See here and here for more inspiration on virtual ice-breaker activities.

Historical role-playing exercises:

Historical role-playing is a fun way to create an interactive community of learners. The ‘Our Mutual Friends Tweets’ project is one example of a role-playing community that took place digitally. Each month, participants would read the latest instalment of Dickens’ novel and then take to Twitter to record the latest plot developments from the perspective of one of the characters. To add to the fun and community spirit of the project, participants were also encouraged to ‘air their responses to the unfolding plot, as well as responding to the other characters’ tweets’ (Curry & Winyard 2016, 568).

facebook post about historical role playing

Image: Screenshot of @OMG_Rogue’s tweet

This activity would work well for History students across all levels of study. Students could assume the roles of historical figures and stage debates on issues from a given period. Or they could rewrite history by considering historical events from multiple points of view.

Participants can role-play on Twitter, as was the case in the ‘Our Mutual Friend Tweets’ project, or they can use online bulletin boards such as Padlet (which can be integrated into the Virtual Learning Environment). See this blog post by Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones (History, Liverpool John Moores University) for another excellent example of community-building through online historical role-playing.

Note that while historical role-playing offers an exciting opportunity to bring students together, it is important to establish ‘ground rules’ for respectful participation, especially when topics are of a sensitive nature.

 Virtual escape rooms:

Virtual escape rooms have become something of a phenomenon in recent years. They are fun and educational team-building exercises that encourage players to work together online to complete tasks across a series of locked rooms. Students need passwords to ‘unlock’ these rooms, which they can gain by working collaboratively to solve puzzles, retrieve clues, and gather other information found throughout the game.

Virtual escape rooms can be designed around historical themes. For example, in a Cold War themed escape room, you might have one room titled ‘Secret Bunker’, another titled ‘Space Station’, and so on. To add to the fun and create friendly competition, you could develop two opposing escape rooms: one for the Soviet Union team and one for the United States. Whichever team ‘escapes’ their virtual room first wins the war, so to speak. Escape rooms are usually against the clock, so you can always add a link to this YouTube clock for added pressure.

Virtual escape rooms can take place on various platforms, including Microsoft OneNote, Google Forms, and Classtime. Click here for some ideas about the kinds of history-themed activities you can include in your virtual escape room. Click here for a step-by-step guide on how to make your virtual escape room (using Google Forms).

For more info on supporting online learning communities see this History UK blog post by Aimee Merrydew and this infographic by Dr Sophie Nicholls.

Get involved and share your experiences

We are delighted to invite you to join us on Twitter (@history_uk) at 2pm on Thursday 16th July, where we will invite you to share your thoughts and experiences of supporting online learning communities in History and the wider Humanities. Use #PandemicPedagogy and/or #SocialLearningHUK.

Aimee tweets at @a_merrydew and blogs (about her research and teaching) at You can find out more about Aimee’s work here.

Pandemic Pedagogy: Building Online Learning Communities

Aimee Merrydew (PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in English Literature, Keele University) 

Working collaboratively online is different to face-to-face group work in a physical classroom. Students may not know others on the course or how to work as part of an online team. So how do we get students working together and gaining each other’s trust outside of the familiar seminar setting?

This post will focus on strategies to embed community-building activities throughout modules and programmes. Each of the following community-building activities can aid students in building academic relationships, gaining a sense of belonging as historians, and dispelling feelings of isolation when working remotely. Virtual community-building activities have been linked to student success and retention.

1. Weekly virtual coffee mornings 

Virtual coffee mornings are a great way to bring students together on a regular basis so they can socialise and relax outside of work. Historians at the University of Lincoln have used virtual coffee mornings as a means of building an online community for Art History and History students in the wake of COVID-19. Dr Michele Vescovi (History, University of Lincoln) explains their rationale for organising weekly coffee mornings:

When teaching was moved online, we decided to create a virtual platform (Coffee@Home), a one-hour weekly virtual meeting for staff and students over a cup of coffee or tea. The purpose was just to have a conversation about our studies, our lives, and what we were doing while in lockdown. Through this, we wanted to maintain the strong sense of community that our students built in the classroom and beyond.

Coffee mornings can take place on various platforms (e.g. Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts) and students can choose to interact with one another via video-calling or instant messaging.

A virtual coffee morning can be effective for building community within a small unit such as a tutor group, or you might also consider opening the virtual coffee morning to all students in a module, cohort, or programme. In either case, it will help students to build connections that can pave the way for future collaborative learning experiences, as well as helping to socialise the student group in a context in which they won’t have many opportunities to meet in person. Virtual coffee mornings can also help to create a sense of belonging which, in turn, can help to make students feel more comfortable when engaging in more formal group work on and offline.

2. Social annotation

Social annotation is a good way of getting students interacting with one another (and sources!) when working remotely. In this interview, Anna Rich-Abad (History, University of Nottingham) talks about how her students used a tool called Talis Elevate to engage in social annotation and ‘recreate’ the classroom environment.

As we can see from the below image, the tool enables students to annotate primary or secondary sources, respond to other students’ comments, and develop discussions. This activity promotes critical dialogue that may otherwise be ‘lost’ outside of the familiar classroom setting, as students form a community of scholars working together to annotate a source.

screenshot of Talis Elevate

Image: Natalie Naik from Talis

Here are some strategies for engaging students in social annotation:

  • Begin by getting students to practice using the tool by completing simple tasks, such as adding questions or comments to sections that they found particularly interesting or challenging (or just don’t understand), then ask them to respond to one another’s posts. Dr Jamie Wood (History, University of Lincoln) discusses this strategy here.
  • Once students are more familiar with the annotation tool, encourage them to work together to take a short passage from a source and find as many possible meanings depending on what context they are supplied.
  • You could also instruct students to identify the social and historical contexts at work in a specific passage. By working from the same document, students can build on each other’s interpretations and engage in knowledge creation.
  • Another option is to assign different interpretive strategies, e.g. one group of students reads for ‘Whig History’ interpretations, while another poses as ‘Namierite’ readers. Students can then comment on how closely their peers have mimicked the reading strategies of a different historiographical school.

3. Digital scrapbooking

Digital scrapbooking is great for collaborative working and community-building. Students and educators can co-create a ‘virtual learning wall’ by posting content and comments on online bulletin boards such as Padlet (which can be integrated into the VLE).

This blog post by Professor Lucy Robinson (History, University of Sussex) provides a useful example of how digital scrapbooking might work in practice. Robinson divided her seminar group into sub-teams and instructed them to create their own open access educational resources on a topic of their choice. Each of the groups used Padlet to share and store links and resources; one group also set up Padlet as a public space where users could post comments and feedback on the wall. Padlet was the chosen tool because, as Lucy explains here, it ‘was easy to use, pretty much anything could be added to it, it could be edited by multiple users at once, and had various privacy settings’.

See here and here for more inspiration on digital scrapbooking.

4. Online book club

Book clubs are a great way to promote group cohesion and learning outside of the formal classroom setting. The Historical Association (HA) provides an example.

HA Book Club members meet on Twitter and/or Facebook every other Wednesday for an hour to discuss a given text, though the meetings have been expanded during June and July from an hour to a full afternoon. This set-up enables conversations to emerge asynchronously, as people ‘can dip in across the afternoon and evening, leave messages, “like” other people’s thoughts and get caught up in conversations if they wish’. Students can engage in collaborative learning and debate about an assigned book by liking, retweeting, and commenting on each other’s posts, as seen in the screenshot below.

Twitter thread about book club

Image: screenshot of @histassoc Twitter thread

To ensure accessibility, you can distribute set readings on a file sharing platform, such as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or Google Drive. It goes without saying but it’s important to be mindful of copyright regulations when uploading and distributing material (this is less likely to be an issue if you use services supported by your institution).

Once you’ve shared the material, you can then tweet discussion questions and/or statements for students to respond to and debate as a group. Click here and here for some practical tips and ‘watchouts’ for using Twitter in the virtual classroom.

Alternatively, you can use telecommunication applications (e.g. Microsoft Teams), digital bulletin boards (e.g. Padlet), or annotation software (e.g. Talis Elevate) to facilitate book club discussion. Some services, such as Talis Elevate (see above) and will allow annotation and discussion directly on resources, which makes it easier for students to engage in conversation about specific moments in the book.

5. Online film club

The book club format can be adapted for a film club. Students can watch films individually and then engage in group discussion and debate. #Covideodrome is one example of an online film club that brings students together on Twitter and Zoom to discuss Netflix films during the lockdown period.

Note: Film clubs provide a fun way to foster collaborative learning through a shared and interactive learning experience, but they may not be accessible to all because they require higher bandwidth technologies in order for films to be watched online (they may also require entertainment subscriptions which can be costly). Note also that all videos should be captioned for accessibility purposes. History UK Fellow Louise Creechan provides useful tips on making videos accessible here.

6. Virtual writing retreats 

Virtual writing retreats provide opportunities for community-building and collaborative learning by enabling students to join a community of researchers, share goals for accountability, and progress their writing in a structured and supportive environment. Virtual writing retreats can create a sense of being in ‘this’ process together.

The David Bruce Centre for American Studies uses virtual writing retreats to foster a sense of community and promote collaborative learning amongst historians and humanities researchers. The Centre uses low bandwidth communications software (e.g. Google Hangouts or Slack), which enables more people to participate.

While the David Bruce Centre retreat runs across a full day, shorter time-frames might work better for student groups.

David Bruce Centre Virtual Writing Retreat

(6.5 hours)

Shorter Writing Retreat for Student Groups

(90 mins)

09:00 – 09:15: Introduction 09:00 – 09:05: Introduction
09:15 – 09:30: Planning and goal setting (share with group) 09:05 – 09:15: Planning and goal setting (share with sub-group)
09:30 – 09:35: Writing warm up 09:15 – 09:20: Writing warm-up (e.g. freewriting)
09:30 – 11:00: Writing (1 hr 30 mins) 09:20 – 09:40: Writing (20 mins)
11:00 – 11:20: Break and discussion 09:40 – 09:50: Reflection and sharing
11:20 – 12:35: Writing (1 hr 15 mins) 09:50 – 10:10: Writing (20 mins)
12:35 – 12:40: Stretching session for writers 10:10 – 10:30: Tips on setting goals for how to take work forward


12:40 – 13:30: Lunch break and discussion
13:30 – 15:00: Writing (1 hr 30 mins)
15:00 – 15:05: Stretching session for writers
15:05 – 15:30: Reflections and feedback on the day

These schedules encourage students to set writing goals and share them with one another to achieve a common goal: to progress writing projects in a supportive online environment. The regular planning and discussion slots provide opportunities for collaborative learning and community-building, as students can discuss their writing topics and share tips and resources with each other. See here for more tips on organising writing retreats for students.

Get involved and share your experiences

We are keen to hear from you and invite you to join us on Twitter (@history_uk) at 2pm on Thursday 16th July. Here we will invite you to share your experiences, reflections, and resources to help us develop an effective approach to supporting online learning communities in History and the wider Humanities. Use #PandemicPedagogy and/or #SocialLearningHUK.

Aimee tweets at @a_merrydew and blogs (about her research and teaching) at You can find out more about Aimee’s work on her university profile and personal website.

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.