Last week I met Emma Kiselyova, Executive Director of the UNESCO Chair in E-Learning at the Open University of Catalonia. Somehow we got talking about the historical reenactments Marion Jensen and others have been doing at TwHistory.com. Today I am thrilled that we have been invited to present the project at the 6th Annual International Seminar of UNESCO Chair in E-Learning next month in Barcelona. The focus of the seminar this year will be Open Social Learning, and I think TwHistory will provide a nice example of what can be done with relatively simple, social tools. Here is the proposal:
Tom Caswell and Marion Jensen
The TwHistory project began in early 2009 with the first Twitter reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg over a period of several weeks. While history is considered a boring subject by some, others find a great deal of satisfaction in reenacting important moments in history, dressing in old uniforms and marching on preserved battlefields. TwHistory is based on the idea that historical reenactments can take place online and have the same positive effects for volunteer participants and virtual onlookers.
Twitter provides all the necessary elements for a recreating a historical event: actors, communication, and relationships. Followers of Twitter reenactments get updates in real-time as the characters of a particular historical event communicate, or “tweet” about what is happening. Each historical character has a Twitter account with a username that conveys who the character is. The content is researched beforehand and entered into a shared spreadsheet to be reviewed by the project leader. This ensures that volunteers have written appropriate tweets that work well together with the other Twitter characters. Tweets must be 140 characters or less, so abbreviations are often used. Once the length has been checked, the tweets are scheduled with a timer program so they are sent at a specific time. The idea is to match the date and time of the events as closely as possible so that the tweets are an authentic reenactment. All this is organized in an online group and carried out by volunteers.
In any historical reenactment it is often the actors who get the most benefit, and this is no different with Twitter. And just like traditional reenactments, TwHistory projects have the potential to draw a large audience. Part of the fun is the contrast brought by the medium. It is hard to think of General Custer texting a tweet at the Battle of Little Bighorn without smiling. Spectating Twitter followers often retweet favorite messages, drawing additional followers to the reenactment. Interest has grown steadily, attracting historians and hobbyists alike. The project also attracted the attention of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, interested in its value for outreach efforts. The TwHistory model is also being used to teach part of a Cold War History class at a high school in Missouri.
Research is needed to understand what effects historical reenactments using Twitter could have on student engagement and learning, but anecdotal evidence point to positive outcomes. Open social learning may be a challenge to harness or control in a formal learning environment, but it is an area that is highly relevant today and should be explored.