Towards a history education for the 21st Century: An interview with Dr. Jochen Hung

EuroClio had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Jochen Hung about the challenges and opportunities for history education at university level in Europe. Dr. Hung is Assistant Professor of Cultural History at Utrecht University and a specialist in the cultural and media history of 20th-century Germany. In his role with the history department of Utrecht University, he is also leading the coordination of the project Teaching European History in the 21st Century, a collaboration between seven European research universities (Utrecht, UA Madrid, HU Berlin, Sheffield, Prague, Budapest, Lille) and EuroClio. 

Q: What is Teaching European History in the 21st Century and what are the challenges you seek to address? 

Dr. J. Hung: The idea for the project started 6-7 years ago as we here at Utrecht University set up an English-language Bachelor’s programme in History. As far as we know, this was the first such programme on the European Continent with all three years of study offered entirely in English. As we were setting this up, we connected with several other European universities who had similar plans or who were already offering much of their history education in English. We really set out to build a network with universities elsewhere, also for our students through Erasmus exchanges, and we were quickly convinced that this would be a much more normal thing in the future: that with Brexit in particular, there would no longer be a need to go to Britain or Ireland to get your English-language degree but that this could be done in Continental Europe. 

While talking to our partners elsewhere we noticed a quite practical problem connected with this development: that the usual entry-level textbooks used in English-language undergraduate teaching were all written by British, Irish or American authors. As a result, they portray a very specific view on European history - essentially the view of European history as seen from Britain and the United States. This is of course entirely normal and expected, but we felt that it did not accurately reflect the European experience: that lots of different nations and countries are connected to each other through various points of interactions and processes. 

Concretely, if you have an Italian student going to study European history in English at a Dutch university, what should then be the national perspective? Our view on that is there should not be any one national perspective, but rather a multi-perspective approach to our shared European experience. 

Formally speaking, the project is now a collaboration between seven different European universities, plus EuroClio, that is being funded through the Erasmus+ Key Action 2 programme of the European Union. We received a three-year grant and the project is designed for creating innovative, multi-perspective teaching material. When our project started, online lectures with a digital platform were still something quite innovative. With the pandemic, this has now become the new normal for universities. In that sense, we see that our project now fits within a larger trend and that we no longer need to convince people that this is the way forward.

Q: What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities facing history departments at European universities at the moment?

Dr. J. Hung: There are of course challenges, but also clear opportunities, particularly connected with Brexit. I expect that students that were planning to go abroad will be going to Britain in much fewer numbers and that we will see a big influx of students coming to Europe, including Utrecht, wanting to study in English. While this is great for us, it does also entail some practical challenges - some of which we are addressing with our project. We also see a larger discussion around the merits of this development. Here in the Netherlands, for instance, there are questions about what will happen to the specific Dutch view of European history. Does this internationalisation mean we are losing something in the process? Personally, I see it as an opportunity. 

An additional challenge is connected with online teaching. Even as the pandemic is less of a concern, it is here to stay. This presents us with some clear opportunities for internationalisation: it might be both easier and cheaper to study abroad with some parts of your degree being offered online. Having said that, we see of course the usual problems with technical challenges and the lack of direct interaction with students. I do think these are challenges that will be solved in the coming years, however. 

A final thought on the challenges we are facing now is the new nationalism that we see rising all across Europe. As far as I see it, it will be good to teach our students that it is totally fine to have national perspectives. It is normal and it is what has made Europe, in a way. What we need is, however, to get to know all of these different national perspectives, acknowledge that there is no hierarchy between them and, in a sense, try to bring them together and teach students how they interact.

Q: Coming back to the project that you are leading from Utrecht University. What are the current plans and when can we expect to see some of the tangible results coming out of it?

Dr. J. Hung: Well, there are three big outputs of the project. That is a handbook, co-authored by the universities involved. It is our magnus opus and will be finished by the end of next year. Additionally, we are at the moment recording a number of online lectures. We hope to make some of these available in the coming months. Finally, EuroClio is working on an online portal where you can find these texts and use them together with primary sources to construct teaching plans and syllabi. 

Q: Do you see any uses for teachers at secondary level education? 

Dr. J. Hung: The aim was to produce a handbook for first and second year undergraduate students. That is really close to high school level and it was always the aim for us that the texts that we author are very accessible, so I do hope that secondary education teachers can use the platform, the texts, and the sources, giving their students an idea of what awaits them at university. It is also a great opportunity to make use of our multi-perspective approach. If you for instance teach in high school about the history of, say, inequalities in Europe, you could pick up these texts produced by authors from four different countries and their corresponding viewpoints. The same topic can be understood and taught in very different manners and these contrasting perspectives can, I hope, be really valuable also for history teachers.

Five tips for online history teaching

Currently hundreds of million of children are not attending school due to COVID-19 that is holding Europe and large parts of the world in its grip. More and more countries decided to close their schools and take their learning online. There are many possibilities in teaching online, if students have access to the internet and a device to use for their school activities. Unfortunately not all students have the same access to these vital resources, which is something that educators are struggling with all over the world. The presented tips in this blog post are written under the presumption that students have internet access and a device to use for their learning. This article briefly explains the different modes of online learning and provides five free resources useful for history educators in particular. 

Synchronous versus Asynchronous

There are two ways in which online education can take place: Synchronous and Asynchronous. The former means that students are engaging with a learning moment at the same time, while the latter means that students learn the same but not at different times. Thus synchronous learning takes place when the students are at the same time active and online, while an asynchronous learning activity can be done over a period of time. The International Baccalaureate (an international educational foundation with thousands of schools world wide) published a guide to support educators in teaching their courses in online environments. The following chart is taken from the guide to indicate the different activities that are possible based on the prefered learning mode. 

Some schools have their own learning management platforms. If your school does, then the following websites can offer an addition to what you already work with. If you are working at a school without an online learning platform, these apps can be helpful. 

#1 Sutori (Asynchronous learning) 

Sutori is a great way to easily share materials with students, as you can decide what framework you want to use to present your information. For history educators, the timeline option will most likely be the easiest one. Students can collaborate with each other, respond to the teacher, and retrieve information from there. Teachers can insert youtube videos, images, and other files. Students can respond to the assignments set by the teacher and also work together on assignments by inserting things into the timeline. Therefore, this tool is an excellent way to provide students with a clear overview of the topic and opportunities to collaborate. 

#2 Online forum (Asynchronous learning)

One online method that is especially beneficial for history educators is a forum on which 

students respond to a question or statement posed by the teacher. One of the characteristics of history education are of course the debates. By creating an online forum, the debate still takes place but online. Bonus: this is an excellent opportunity for students to develop their digital citizenship skills.

#3 Collaborative Writing (Synchronous and Asynchronous learning)

Another thing that history educators are teaching their students is formulating an argument and supporting that argument with a well-written essay. A way to have students practice their writing skills, while working either synchronously or asynchronously, is through a collaborative essay. There are several tools one can use, for example Google Docs, which you can easily share with the students who then collaborate on a question or thesis. As a member of the document, you can easily keep track of changes and see what work different students are producing. 

#4 Nearpod (synchronous learning)

This fabulous free platform lets you create presentations that students see on their own device. Thus students join your presentation by filling out a code on their screen and then see your presentation. This app is ideally used for live lessons, because it does not allow for voice sharing. Thus students see the information on their screen and the activities that you planned for them, as you can incorporate multiple choice questions, open questions, and collaborative assignments. However, it only works when a presentation is live, thus this only works as a synchronous learning activity; everyone has to be online and looking at the presentation at the same time. 

#5 Padlet (Synchronous and Asynchronous learning)

This is another free platform that makes it really easy to have students collaborate and show their learning progress by adding on to an online board. You can decide the design of the board, e.g. in the example shown here the design was four different columns (see image below). Students can post their response to a question in the form of text, picture, or video. Besides, students can comment on each others’ answers or give a thumbs up if they agree. 


Another way to get online teaching ideas is by following some threads on Twitter. For example, one teacher elaborated on the idea of having students keep a diary during the period of self-isolation; for history teachers the keeping of a diary can conceptually be linked to the diary of Anne Frank. Other hashtags with tons of teaching ideas from other educators in similar situations all over the world are #teachingremotely,  #teachingonline, #elearning, or #distancelearning. Educators are sharing best-practices for online learning in the form of infographics, pictures, or Google Slides


Of course, there are many more possibilities and opportunities. However, these five seem to have a good connection with history education, easy access, and limited challenges regarding data protection like some apps that work with video calling. For teachers working in Europe, the GDPR rules is something to keep in mind, especially when working with minors and an account needs to be created to access a certain tool. For all the online learning facilities described in this article (except for Kialo), no accounts need to be made by students and the basic features are for free. Besides, Twitter is offering many great insights into the ways teachers globally are taking up the challenge of remotely teaching. Hopefully students will be able to attend their regular schooling soon and these digital features can be used to support face to face teaching. 


Written by Maayke de Vries, History teacher at International School Almere & PhD Student University College London