HistoryLab: Czech app aims to foster historical literacy among digital generation

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

A group of historians, educators and archivists – including from Czech Radio – has rolled out a digital app designed to stimulate students’ interest in using primary sources. The overall aim of the HistoryLab project is to develop students’ historical literary and critical thinking, and help teachers craft interactive, multimedia lesson plans.

Kamil Činátl | Photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes

The HistoryLab app is still in development, with the formal launch set for 2021. But project leaders are encouraging teachers to download the beta version since their involvement and their students’ feedback is crucial in getting it just right.

Among the organisations behind HistoryLab website and app are the Institute of Contemporary History, pedagogical and technical faculties of several universities, archives and textbook publishers, Czech Radio, and – leading the effort – the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR), which oversees communist-era files and other materials. Kamil Činátl, a historian at ÚSTR specialising in didactic methodology and sites of memory, explains the overall goal.

“As you can see, it’s a very wide consortium behind it. The aim was to get a real consensus about what direction the application should take, and so teachers would know that a range of institutions agree the approach is a good one. HistoryLab is an interactive, digital tool for working with sources which teachers can use in creative ways. That’s the basic principle.”

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

A recent poll found every second young Czech lacked even a basic, surface-level overview of 20th Century history, including seminal events in this nation’s history – such as the Munich crisis of 1938 or Communists coup in 1948. Students knew basic facts about the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, but not necessarily the wider significance.

Kamil Činátl says the HistoryLab project will encourage teachers to move away from fact-oriented lessons and passive note-taking towards research-based exercises, using multimedia, that make history more relevant – and therefore more memorable – to today’s students.

“History is not just about knowledge; it’s about asking questions. The real asset that a historically literate person has is not a collection of facts they have amassed. It’s having a historical overview and conceptual framework, allowing them to pose relevant questions, understand that history is open to interpretation, and respect others’ views.”

Czech Radio is also contributing to the HistoryLab project. Tomáš Dufka, head of the Research Department and Library, notes a wealth of material is already available to the public.

Czech Radio is also launching a new user-friendly audio portal in December called Můj rozhlas – My Radio – that will concentrates all the programme archives in one place.

“Czech Radio’s audio archive is about 95 percent digitized, and it’s quite easy for the public to access and use anything that’s not copyrighted. We often focus on key anniversaries around which there’s interest in doing large-scale projects.

“But we have a lot of material on everyday life and social history to offer schools. It makes sense to work with people in closer contact with teachers, which is why we joined the project.”