Digital Victorians

Paul Ward, Professor of History at the University of Huddersfield, outlines an imaginative new course – Digital Victorians – introducing second-year students to online technologies and learning in the real world and the digital world but also enabling Paul and his co-teachers to enhance their own digital skills. Please share your experience of developing digital learning in the comments or contact Helen Rogers ( if you would like to write a blog post for us.

I’ve got a book to write on the Beefeaters at the Tower of London since 1826. I never seem to find time, because like most academics I’ve got too much going on. When History at the University of Huddersfield reviewed its whole curriculum I decided it was time to give up my module on Britain in the 1970s (called Punks, Pigs and Prawn Cocktails), an indulgence based on my liking of The Clash, and thought about a module related to this new book that refused to write itself. I also wanted the chance to develop my own digital skills beyond Twitter and searching nineteenth-century newspapers online (and googling myself). Buoyed up by the support of my colleague Martin Hewitt, we developed a new module called Digital Victorians, for second year History students, which would make use of our department’s brand new collaborative learning suite. This had four tables with their own screens, PCs and cables to link tablets, smart phones and laptops.

Martin Hewitt lecturing
Martin Hewitt asking whether the Victorian period makes sense

We split the students into learning groups of six – one group to each table and divided at random to give them the opportunity to work with new people. We suspected that groups of friends might duplicate skills and so we wanted to try to give them the opportunity to discover what their peers did and didn’t know.

But this wasn’t intended as a module solely to develop digital skills. We wanted the students to think like historians. We wanted them to undertake research and make historical interpretations. At the same time, we wanted the students to move beyond texts, using the digital technologies as tools for learning and dissemination of their interpretations.

To achieve this, they had to connect the digital techniques with primary sources from the start. We wanted them to link the real world and the digital world, as many of them do in their lives outside university. This was, therefore, a module with three field trips. The first was a walk around Victorian Huddersfield. The students went in their groups and had to go in search of prominent Victorian buildings, including the eighteenth-century Cloth Hall that would have dominated the town until it was demolished in 1930. I wanted them all to look at the Byram Arcade, a very small shopping arcade housing independent shops, and I wanted them to navigate the Victorian streets –using the familiarity of Google Maps underlaying the less familiar Victorian Ordnance Survey maps available digitally via the National Library of Scotland. We also visited Leeds Art Gallery and then used its online shop to analyse the Victorian paintings once we were back in the seminar room (we also had a flash visit to the Victorian army barracks next door to the University to see the plaque unveiled by Lord Roberts of Kandahar in 1899 – an example of the imperial connections of Victorian Huddersfield).

Digital Victorians students selfie – Fabio Greco, Amy Potter, Sarah Starkey, Eve Rudge and Alex Sutherland – walking Victorian Huddersfield
Digital Victorians students selfie – Fabio Greco, Amy Potter, Sarah Starkey, Eve Rudge and Alex Sutherland – walking Victorian Huddersfield

We benefitted enormously from being a team of teachers – as well as Martin and me, Allegra Hartley, an English Literature PhD student taught on the module, using Pinterest to explore Victorian gender in some of her seminars.

The module assessment was designed to combine academic and digital skills. The students were asked to write a ‘biography’ of a person, place, object –anything at all Victorian. They had a free choice and were encouraged to think personally about their reasons for their choice, to enable them to ‘reflect’ on their own relationship with the past in a private blog called ‘Victorian Fieldnotes’. They had to think about this ‘biography’ as a piece of writing suitable for a website but based on their historical academic skills.

Students were also allowed free choice of digital element that would accompany their ‘biography’. Across the module, they were introduced to a range of digital tools, from the very simple such as Google Books Ngram Viewer and Wordle to the more complex such as Google Maps and WordPress. We used social media such as Twitter and Pinterest. At the same time, they used existing digital historical resources, such as 19th Century Newspapers (I made them seek out Beefeaters for me) and Dickens Journals Online.

Two students used Vine, which allows users to create six-second long looping video clips. One performed a Robert Louis Stevenson quotation and the other used it to show three buildings in Victorian Bournemouth. Another student combined digital photography with walking a disused railway line near her home, using Pinterest to provide broader context. Another student used Slidely to display her digital photographs of Saltaire. Another interviewed her mother about the importance of Victorian primary sources for family historians. Another constructed a Dipity timeline of when Millais’s Ophelia was exhibited from 1852 to 2013. There were twenty-two students on the module and their creativity shone through. We are going public with their work – we featured some on Twitter, with a Pathé newsreel of the fire that destroyed Crystal Palace in 1936 being retweeted nearly fifty-times – and the rest will go on to a dedicated website.

A marriage certificate from 1838

There were problems. Our collaborative learning suite played up all the way through the module. We were short of time for content. We taught in three-hour blocks, which were too long. Our module evaluation is conducted online. It is digital but only one-third of the students filled it in. This is an example of what happens when digital methods are disconnected from the students’ real lives. But one student evaluated the module as follows:

This module was great – when the technology in the room worked! I have learnt a lot about how to use various internet resources such as Pinterest and have enjoyed learning about the Victorian period though different methods other than just reading books. The field trips made the module interesting and Unilearn [Blackboard VLE] was set out really well, in weekly blocks which made it really easy to follow the seminar work for each week. The support received was great, particularly in regards to the final essay…. I liked being put into groups at the start as it meant I have got to know other students on the course better rather than sitting with those I already knew well. Overall this module has been really fun and I have learnt a lot not only about the Victorian period but other useful resources which I can use in the future. Thanks!

Now, back to that book about the Beefeaters.


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