The View from Inside the Classroom: A Teacher Reviews IWitness

Tue, 09/03/2013 - 3:00pm

By Brandon Haas

Young people average 7 hours and 38 minutes consuming media on a daily basis, and during that time they are consuming a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes’ worth of content by using multiple types of media simultaneously.[i]  In order to foster 21st-century skills in students, teachers must find new ways to engage them in our global and digital world. The second generation of the World Wide Web, commonly referred to as Web 2.0, focuses on the ability to leverage online technologies for active participation, collaboration, and sharing. Web 2.0 technologies provide students in today’s classrooms with unprecedented opportunities to develop these skills and be connected. IWitness, the USC Shoah Foundation’s educational website, represents one of these opportunities.

The USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive contains in digital form almost 52,000 audio-visual testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust.  IWitness, which has been in development for three years and is now in Beta, makes almost 1,300 of those testimonies available in an interactive environment geared to middle- and high schools students. Given the archive’s visual nature, it was perhaps inevitable that the Institute would find an avenue with which to utilize Web 2.0 technology, as it has done with IWitness.  The combination of the accessibility of visual history, multimedia activities, and the ability to focus on a specific discipline, such as the Holocaust, places IWitness at the intersection of Web 2.0 and Holocaust education; it can be seen as an evolutionary step forward.

Over the past few years, I have had opportunities to work with IWitness in different capacities, including as a practicing secondary teacher and as a participant in the Master Teacher Program, which provides in-depth training on the use of the Visual History Archive.  I have also had the opportunity as a doctoral student of education at the University of South Florida to analyze various cutting-edge technological tools designed for classroom use and teacher education. IWitness was one of them.

Led by Dr. Michael Berson, the course Technological Innovations in Social Science Education engages in an examination of and dialogue about the changing technological environment and how those changes influence social science education.  Analyzing IWitness revealed that the platform, which is designed for student-centered learning and founded on constructivist principles, provides an exceptional opportunity for students to connect with Holocaust survivor testimony and construct their own knowledge, in a mediated environment. This applicaBrandon Haastion of learning theory demonstrates that interactive activities in which learners play active roles can motivate and engage students more effectively than passive learning activities. At a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to arrange classroom visits with Holocaust survivors, students can log into IWitness and interact with a set of testimonies and video clips that can be localized for their interests and assignments. Over the course of our semester, my cohort of doctoral students analyzed IWitness for various factors, such as usability, potential as a new technology in the classroom, and barriers to instruction.

In the climate of teaching 21st-century skills, it is imperative that students have the opportunity to utilize constructivist approaches to learning through the use of various resources, both primary and secondary; IWitness provides a learning environment to accomplish this goal. Technology for the sake of using technology is not an effective strategy in the secondary classroom.  Students are not interested in simply reading or looking at pictures on a computer.  There is educational value in having students engage more actively with technology than the more passive strategies of the past. Using Web 2.0 tools is a highly effective strategy, especially when used from a constructivist perspective. Allowing students to make sense of the information and to participate and develop their own learning is a necessary outcome in 21st-century learning.     

As a whole, we found that IWitness had a very intuitive user interface.  Searching was straightforward, as was saving clips.  The integration of secondary resources, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia and Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Resource Center, as well as links to outside resources, was recognized as an exceptional element.  This provides students with a clear avenue to other highly credible sources from which to build their knowledge.  At that time, there was a different video editor in the platform, which was difficult to manage. A new-and-improved video-editor tool has since been implemented in response to early-user feedback.

IWitness has endless potential for use in the secondary classroom, but there are some possible barriers to widespread integration.  Through the use of IWitness, students begin to learn and apply the principles of digital citizenship. Because much of our interaction now occurs in digital space, it is vital that students gain an understanding of ethical and moral digital practices.  Students must take care to preserve the integrity of the original testimony, which engages them on a level beyond simply consuming material. 

Students also become versed in digital literacy through the use of IWitness. When preparing to author a video essay, students must gather resources specific to their topic and assignment, while taking care to respect the original message, meaning and intent.  Through the process of searching and watching testimony, and combing through photographs and other documents, students and teachers are engaging in quintessential aspects of 21st-century skills. Herein lies the unrealized potential of technology in the classroom. In an age of education reform, activists are searching for lessons that invoke these types of skills and exercises for students.  IWitness provides an endless potential for creating the student-centered classroom sought by legislators and school administration, with the added benefit that students enjoy and thrive in the process.

The main barrier for IWitness is equal access, also known as the digital divide. In short, the digital divide is the notion that higher socio-economic schools have better access to technology, in either number of computers or network speed. Early studies into equitable access have shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have much less access to computers and the internet than high socioeconomic students[ii] and schools, and that the ability level of usage varies with students in lower socioeconomic environments using technology for less rigorous activities.[iii]  Here, the problem is compounded in that it is possibly the students who lack access to the technology who would benefit the most from the testimonies in IWitness. If a student is struggling due to a poor home life, lack of food, or even the uncertainty of where they will sleep each night, then what better role models in overcoming worse scenarios than these? Survivor stories await discovery in IWitness. These testimonies are a treasure trove of inspiration, and the limited access for some is a major setback in the full realization of the goals of IWitness. 

While there are obstacles to using IWitness in the classroom, the potential benefits appear to outweigh the potential frustrations. As we move further into the digital age, IWitness will continue to play a vital role in the classroom. Its constructivist framework and user-friendly design make IWitness an excellent cross-disciplinary resource for classroom use.  In my capacity as an educator, I look forward to the opportunity to use IWitness in the classroom. 

[i] Rideout, V., Foehr, U., & Roberts, D. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from,

[ii] Warschauer, M., & Matuchniak, T. (2010). New technology and digital worlds: Analyzing evidence of equity in access, use, and outcomes. Review of Research in Education, 34(1), 179–225.

[iii] Attewell, P. (2001). Comment: The first and second digital divides. Sociology of Education, 74(3), 252–259.


Brandon Haas is a high school teacher in Tampa, Fla. At Freedom High School, Brandon teaches holocaust studies and assists the school district of Hillsborough County’s Secondary Social Studies in matters pertaining to holocaust curriculum and teacher training. He is also pursuing a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Florida, through which he investigates holocaust education and pedagogy. Haas is a graduate of the USC Shoah Foundation’s 2011 Master Teacher Workshop.

This essay first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of the Institute's digest, PastForward.