Research News

Fan Forums Emulate (or Mirror) History Class

IPR associate Jolie Matthews charts "detective-like work" in online discussions


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Online fan forums allow fans the time and flexibility to investigate a variety of subjects, including Henry VIII (pictured) and the Tudors, IPR associate Jolie Matthews found.

Twenty years ago, when a student wanted to learn about a historical topic outside the classroom, his or her options were often limited to a library trip or the bookstore. Today, he or she can access vast amounts of digital content after a quick search engine result, or even join an online fan community of similarly interested individuals. But now that almost anyone can post historical fact (or fiction) on the web, has this jeopardized legitimate historical discourse? 

In a Journal of the Learning Sciences article, digital learning expert and IPR associate Jolie Matthews examines how people talk about history in an online fan community.

Matthews—whose interest in fan communities sparked when she participated in them before graduate school—analyzed 2,641 posts made over five months on a fan website for Showtime’s historical television series “The Tudors,” about the reign and many marriages of King Henry VIII. She looked at what sources its members used during their discussions and how they deployed them.

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Jolie Matthews

“Even though this is a fan community around a historical television show, in a lot of ways, members’ practices run parallel to the practices that we advocate in the classroom,” Matthews said. These include contextualizing and corroborating information, as well as drawing on reputable sources to back up one’s argument, such as “traditional, nonfiction, secondary sources” like books written by academically trained historians.

Matthews was also intrigued by the fan community’s “flexibility” to talk about different topics—from historically appropriate clothing to whether a television show portrayed someone realistically—when compared with a history class. Fans delved into all sorts of topics, engaging in time-consuming “detective-like work” to ferret out answers to others’ queries.

Matthews’s discoveries shed light on potential ways for educators to better measure student knowledge in the digital age.

“Students aren’t necessarily playing about online. These fan activities do lead them to thinking about traditional subjects,” Matthews said. “The format of their activities may not be identical to how content is presented in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean that if you don’t dig beneath the surface, you won’t find students exploring critical issues in a variety of innovative ways.”

Jolie Matthews is assistant professor of learning sciences and an IPR associate.

Photo credit: Lisby, Flickr.