What can your students expect to learn from the historical Facebook profile assignment?While the use of Facebook as a learning tool is slightly unconventional, the pedagogical philosophy of this assignment is firmly rooted in educational constructivist theory and emerging ‘best practices’ in digital pedagogy.[1] The assignment is designed to engage students and allow them to take responsibility for their own learning.At the most basic level this assignment will improve student’s understanding of the national, regional and local context of the First World War in Canada. Students will learn how to write short concise arguments. It introduces students to archival research, and methodological approaches to historical scholarship. The use of Facebook is meant as a lure to entice students into a more complex understanding of history, but it is also meant to make history more personal and meaningful.The students we talked to while constructing this assignment all made one similar comment; they wanted a way to relate to history. They all felt it was important to know history, but often couldn’t explain how it related to their everyday lives. By using Facebook as a medium from which to explore the past we believe this assignment provides the bridge to make history meaningful to today’s students.If we consider that the average eighteen year old spends seven and a half hours a day on Facebook[2] then using Facebook as a tool to engage students almost goes without saying. But, more than engagement, the historical Facebook assignment allows us to connect curricula and with students’ lives outside classroom.

Facebook has become almost an essential ingredient to identity in today’s world. In some cases employers will not look favorably on people without Facebook profiles.[3]

Facebook has become an intersection of the real and digital worlds. For example, Angela Thomas’ “major area of Internet research” has discussed, “the semiotics of online identity” which are made concrete in her study through personal narratives and descriptions of Facebook practices.[4] We believe that by combining Facebook with an historical assignment we have the ability to relate to a student’s sense of self thereby making history meaningful to their lives.

Humans are a social species. We must live in groups; our behavior can only be understood as a result of our relations with others. By encouraging students to engage with an historical person’s social relationships we gain a better understanding of the complexities of history.

The idiosyncrasies of Facebook are important to the assignment, but so is the integration of digital tools to augment or enhance traditional teaching. Educational researchers have indicated that integrating technology; especially web based technology; into the history and social studies classroom has the potential to encourage active student inquiry.[5]

The assignment assumes teachers have reviewed the basics of the First World War with their students and is designed to build on this basic knowledge by providing concrete examples of the major themes of the War. By allowing students to take ownership over their historical Facebook profile it enables them to construct their own understanding of the War and encourages them to construct a personal understanding of the past.

‘Construction’ is another key component to this assignment. Early adoptions of Internet technology in the classroom spurred a debate on how to best use technology in the classroom. A growing body of literature suggests that the practices of researching, teaching and learning history are affected by developments in technology.[6] Out of this debate emerged a consensus that Internet technologies in the history and social studies classroom should be understood within a constructivist framework.

The constructivist perspective has variety of characteristics, but we believe these are the most salient for our purposes:[7]

  • learning is collaborative and occurs in social settings
  • knowledge is tangible and authentic
  • learning is active

Following Calandra and Lee we promote the idea that students should create “tangible, authentic artifacts assembled from primary sources among other elements of digital media to construct historical content knowledge.”[8]

  • technology should be used to create authenticity within the classroom
  • technology’s flexibility should allow students to pursue ideas of personal interest
  • technology should be used to build on prior knowledge and not as a replacement for it
  • technology should be used to foster autonomous, creative, and intellectual thinking.

One theory of cognitive learning in multimedia environments suggested the learner ought to be viewed as a knowledge constructor who actively selects and constructs pieces of verbal and visual knowledge in unique ways.[9] This position stems from Wittrock’s 1974 theory that meaningful learning occurs when learners select relevant information from what is presented, organize those pieces of information and integrate the newly constructed representation with others.

What we take from all of this is that learners are not passive recipients of information; the learner should be an active participant. The student ought to be given the means to construct knowledge through experience, thus in this assignment we shift control of learning to the student.

The historical Facebook profile allows learners agency and control over their learning process. For example, by constructing “posts or status updates” students create concrete tangible evidence that reflects their understanding. These artifacts are shared collectively so that not only is the learning process introspective, but communal. In other words, the creation of an historical Facebook profile lends both personal and shared relevance to a given historical event or interpretation.

Learning products which are shared often create a motivation for students to learn the subject matter. In the shared environment there is an implicit built in ‘test’ of their knowledge. Puntambakar and Kolodner suggest that when students are engaged “in cycles of designing, evaluating, and redesigning, they also have the opportunity to confront their own understanding and misunderstandings of… concepts.”(185). This type of learning provides self-motivation and a peer-supported environment.[10] This means the learner is the designer, not just the receiver of designed materials.

History is often characterized as ‘boring’ by students either because it is not relevant to their daily lives or because it is taught as a passive list of events and dates. This assignment reinforces the dynamic process of history. It allows students the opportunity to connect with their research in a personal and meaningful way. It provides students the opportunity to take control of their learning and it does all these things while reinforcing basic historical knowledge of the First World War in Canada and teaching good historical research practices.

[1] See Brendan Calandra and John Lee, “The Digital History and Pedagogy Project: Creating an Interpretative/pedagogical Historical Website,” Internet and Higher Education 8(2005); 232, 232-333.

[2] Victoria J. Rideout, Ulla G. Foehr and Donald F. Roberts, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (Menlo Park, CA & Washington, DC: A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. January 2010)

[3] Kasmir Hill, “What Employers are Thinking When They Look at Your Facebook Page,” Forbes (3/6/2012):

[4] Angela Thomas, Youth Online: Identity and Literacy in the Digital Age (New York: Peter Lang, 2007) 6.

[5] John Lee, “Digital History in the History/Social Studies Classroom,” The History Teacher 35:4 (2002): 503-518, John Lee, “Principles for Interpretative Digital History Web Design,” Journal for the Association of History and Computing 5:3 (2002) and P. VanFossen “Degree of Internet/WWW use and Barriers to use among Secondary Social Studies Teachers,” International Journal of Instructional Media 28: 1 (2001): 57-74.

[6] Edward Ayers, The Past Present and Future of Digital History (University of Virginia: 1999); Barlow, J. G. (1998). Historical research and electronic evidence: Promises and practice. In D. A. Trinkle (Ed.), Writing, teaching, and researching history in the electronic age (pp. 194–225). Armonk, New York 7 M. E. Sharpe Inc.

[7] Constructivist approaches to learning has a massive volume of literature. For a good introduction to digital products see: P. Doolittle and D. Hicks, “Constructivism as a theoretical foundation for the use of technology in social studies,” Theory and Research in Social Education, 31:1 (2003): 71-103.

[8] Brenda Calandra and John Lee, “The digital history and pedagogy project: Creating an interpretative historical website,” Internet and Higher Education 8 (2005): 323-333.

[9] RE Mayer, Multimedia Learning (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 13.

[10] A Bruckman, “Community Support for Constructivist Learning,” The Journal of Collaborative Computing 7 (1998): 7, 47-86.