British Studies Web Pages


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Website of the Month - May 2003

BBCi History      

If you are on the BBC homepage you will find History in the BBCi Directory on the right.

It is impossible to do a single review of the BBCi site as it is so huge and has so many useful things for the FL classroom. All the comments in the review presume an active interest in history.

Value for ELT: texts for advanced reading/ culture background/ culture projects/ general interest/ British Studies

Producer of site (and intended audience)

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) - the UK national radio and TV station whose policy is to “entertain, educate, inform, innovate and enrich”. It is funded primarily from the UK TV licence fee and from selling programmes, publications, expertise, merchandise and so on. It does not broadcast paid commercial advertising.

Its intended audience is increasingly global. The World Service on radio is long-established but with the advent of satellite TV it has promoted a number of new channels aimed at international audiences, while the change to digital broadcasting and the internet mean there are plans for many more. It sees itself as a major future player in the international market for English language broadcasting.

The BBC website, now BBCi, has built up a significant reputation in the last decade and BBCi History has had a prominent role in it. It describes itself in About this site

On this site you'll find in-depth articles, multimedia (like games, virtual tours and animations) as well as bite-size material like timelines and short biographies of historic figures. All is designed for you to get more out of your interest in History.

The BBC also publish a monthly BBC History Magazine which may be available in BC libraries. Information from

Description of site

The problem is where to begin … Most importantly it is written with a popular audience in mind, as if in a magazine. The BBCi History homepage has an extended (though not complete) contents list, programme guide, This Week in History and features some recent articles. Here are some of the more useful ‘sub-sites’:

Ø       For kids - - divided into primary (UK 5-11) and secondary (UK 11-18), and reflecting the UK national curriculum in content and approach

Ø       History trail -  - “articles, games, activities and quizzes that help you make sense of the past and the sources that made history”

Ø       Timelines - - brief sequences of major events according to topic e.g. Scotland

Ø       Reading room - -feature articles on key issues by expert commentators”

Ø       Your history - - including Local history and Family history - confusingly known as How to on some links, but this sums up the approach which is how to find out history for yourself

Ø       Multimedia zone - - see below

Others include Historic figures/ Scotland/ Wales/ Archaeology/ Oral history/ Science and discovery/ Society and culture and many, many more

In addition there is Talk history - for debates on message boards, a guide to Programmes - these may be available if you have the right satellite and internet connections, and a free Newsletter It does not have an external links page.

Accessibility ***

Once on the home page there are multiple entrance points but this has all the usual disadvantages too. There is a ‘Full Topic List’ link on this page but it is not as full as it could be. Many of the separate ‘sub-sites’ have links to other ‘sub-sites’ but not in a standard form. This leads to unexpected and pleasant surprises but also to some good things being missed. The search engine is fine but, as always, only if you know what you are looking for - but it does operate (usefully) for the whole BBC site. You will find BBCi History though an extraordinary maze with lots of fascinating diversions but easy to forget why you entered.

Range of themes covered ***

Very large - but then so is history. A strong emphasis on Britain (thoroughly covered), Europe and the anglophone world of the former empire. Increasingly ‘history from below’ and oral history are reflected while archaeology is also well represented. The BBC has a high reputation internationally for quality and impartiality and this should be reflected in the website. Check its reliability for yourself by looking up some Polish history and then judge the quality of the rest of the site. (This is if you can find any - e.g. Kościuszko produces no results from the search engine - and in fact Poland does not seem to exist before 1918.)

Special category - Multimedia

The Multimedia Zone is perhaps the most remarkable and interesting on the site as it uses the full resources of the web to do what a magazine cannot: Animation/ Audio and video/ Games/ Virtual tours and Galleries Explore to the full potential of your software. The video archive includes clips from TV programmes.

Special category - Audio This is a part of the multimedia zone of special interest to teachers as, in addition to their considerable historical value, a possible supplier of very interesting practice and test) listening comprehensions in authentic language. These living voices give a sense of the past much stronger than an image alone and provide a moving witness to the events they describe. You will find an extended discussion of other audio websites on the Useful links page of our Heritage edition.

Language level

Native proficiency - advanced - but written as if in a magazine with a popular (and often school-based) audience in mind

Value for students  

Age: 13+ **** 16+ ***** 19+ ***** Lang. level:  pre-int/ int *** upper-int/ adv ***** 

If guided to the appropriate ‘sub-sites’ very useful indeed - not easy for students otherwise unless experienced in both English and web searching. However the pages have plenty of accompanying images, are not individually large and designed with schools in mind, so can be valuable.

It is of value even to much younger children, if they have sufficient language skills, through its Walk through time - “A history website for 7-9 year olds” including Play interactive - games, Explore the people - time strips, Put things in order, Make your own history, Print out activities and last but not least a Teacher’s Guide.

Value for teachers *****

A great source of material, much of it supplemented with illustrations, presented concisely in accessible English. Much of it will be interesting to teachers themselves regardless of usefulness in the classroom. The availability of audio is a huge plus. Learners will need your experience to help them make the most effective use of the site. The multimedia ‘sub-site’ could provide a way of extending your own web awareness and skills and exploring its classroom potential while at the same time being confident of the content.

For those leading history courses in FL higher education (teacher training colleges) - an opportunity to considerably enliven sessions and provide a lot of challenging material both historically and linguistically. Useful too for ideas for training future FL teachers on how to add a history element to the FL classroom, or for history teaching in a school through the medium of English. Of limited value though for history undergraduates with its limited discussion of methods and sources and lack of debate.

Overall value *****

Its size, range, popular approach, quality and variety make it very valuable and probably unequalled. A very good standard starting point for investigating questions on history and for finding materials which can be directly used in the classroom. It does not try to substitute a book which can be a very good medium for storing a large amount of information but delivers what a book cannot.

On the downside it has very few external links - a serious limitation and reflects the rather self-congratulatory attitude BBCi has of itself. The reputation of being ‘Middle England’ online, where ‘balance and impartiality’ are seen as if they were themselves the truth, it has to be said also comes through strongly. Its approach to and selection of history will tell you a lot about cultural attitudes and values in the UK - the international audience has yet to be well served.

The popularising of history and archaeology is an undoubted aim, and one which is taken very seriously and achieved very successfully. This is very important for all who value history and BBCi is an excellent site for introducing its themes and encouraging further study. As a final point its practical audience-involving approach is summed up in an online quote from Prof. Simon Schama: you can’t do history unless you put yourself into someone else’s shoes.

Other sites

Channel Four - good for Black and Asian history but otherwise has much less range

On our Media edition you will find more on current changes to the BBC and the media in general

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