Digital Media and the Teaching and Learning of History

June 25, 2006

This entry originally appeared in my class blog back in November 15, 2005 and while it was written with history in mind I think its points are applicable to archaeology as well. Like they say on TV if you haven’t seen it, then it’s new to you!


P.S. By the way feel free to leave comments by clicking on the word comment just below all entries to this blog. I’d like to hear your thoughts on what we post.

Digital media has changed the way students learn in general and specifically in history but not in ways one might expect. The hype that surrounds the internet and the promise of rapid dramatic change has not occurred in the way Internet Visionaries had once proclaimed. Despite this, however, things have in fact changed at all grade levels.

At the time I finished graduate school in 1990 students (a handful) waited in the basement of the university library waiting their turn to get time on one of the two IBM PCs. Large floppies in hand we were thrilled to have the opportunity to edit our work, refine it, clear out the mistakes and then let the dot matrix printer sing. It spit out the results of our hours sifting through both the card catalog and the newly computerized version. One had to do both because the computer version only contained half of the library’s records. I practically lived in the stacks of Joyner Library but also shared my time physically at many other research facilities in Virginia, DC, and New York. Fifteen years later may seem like an eternity in computer years but it’s only 6 years older than my current vehicle and only one year older than my son whom I still consider a fairly new addition to my life. And yet we speak of those days as if they belonged in an ancient history course.

In that time the arrival, and beginning development, of new media has changed both teaching and learning. The changes however may seem to some slow and imperceptible. My children, ages ten and fourteen, have grown up and begun their school careers in this period. To them the internet and computers are old hat. The ten year old (fifth grade) participates in a computer lab every six days. Those lessons have involved search methods on Google for text and images, visits to historical websites such as Colonial Williamsburg, and research on everyday life in distant cities on far away continents. The closest I came to that at that age was a trip to a woefully under stocked library at the Catholic school I attended where I flipped through the pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica for a few paragraphs and a couple of photos. Today the student not only finds more abundant information but has to make decisions as to which items to collect. Teachers work with the students to guide them in evaluating which items are most appropriate for the task at hand. Fresh from that revelation I discovered that my fourteen year old and his cohorts were beyond that data collection stage and were focusing on how to synthesize it into presentations not on flat paper but through programs such as Power Point (admittedly this may not be a good thing). Certainly exposure to the vast array of data available has changed both teaching and learning. Teaching because of the increased responsibilities for teachers to add the latest modes information retrieval to their already full curriculum and learning because these young minds are exposed to the reality of an interconnected world that didn’t exist when I was young. Faced with such a different scenario where one can see they are not living in isolation, where choices are available, and even being informed, subtly perhaps, that there are dangers out there that teachers and parents must shield them from, there must be a difference in how their minds view the world and all the new challenges that come with it. Their first reactions to not knowing something isn’t to consider a trip to the library or to just move on and forget it, no their reaction is to go see for themselves (with mom and dad’s ok) on the internet. That awareness that most answers are within reach and much less mystical is certainly a result of a different type of learning. But to these younger students this is not a change as they are growing with the Internet and increased exposure to new media. That it should grow along with them seems natural and not a change at all.

For college history students such as myself who have been away for several years the changes seem dramatic but again not in obvious ways. I work in the Internet industry and so have been aware of the presence of new media, multi-sensory experiences, and the latest immersive technology. But what has been dramatic to me is the way that technology has been put to use in the field of history. Up until now I’ve had little exposure to massive amounts of archival material that has been put online. I can’t help but wonder how my MA thesis might be different were I doing that same research now. No doubt my bibliography would be twice as long and my arguments twice as informed. Sources inconvenient or unavailable back in the early 1990’s might have led me in new directions. Teaching and research aids and exercises found on the Center for History and New Media might have better prepared me as a researcher. Like my children I needed some instruction and guidance in evaluating the sources and websites now so readily available. By having to step back and say, exactly why should I trust this source, it has reinforced critical evaluation skills that perhaps are not as challenged when one picks up a book in the library. I don’t think we are quite as wary as we should be (of course in reality we should be, lots of garbage makes it into print).

I have seen my goal to be a university professor change dramatically since beginning this program. I was excited by the potential to teach archaeological research methods to historians should I be so fortunate to obtain a post. And while I still maintain that goal I am just as excited by the potential for using new media in the class room or perhaps more accurately in the dorm room. The increase in writing associated with blogs such as this one along with the chance to help students make sense of this behemoth known as the Internet is an exciting challenge. Just as younger students have learned that the world is far more available than they realized older students will discover there classmates are far more important to their own learning via collaborative study and discussion that is facilitated through publicly posted writing assignments. Articles such as For Better or Worse? The Marriage of Web and the History Classroom will no doubt continue to teach us what works best and how. Other articles such as Internet Teaching and the Administration of Knowledge by Tara Brabazon inform us of the dangers that teachers face through more interactive class rooms. Dramatic increases in time required to respond to student email and to create and manage class web sites places further strain on instructors. Dangers too lie in the poor use of new media and reliance upon it to replace face to face time and effective teaching skills.

In the end then we can see that like any change in technology there are over inflated expectations and grandiose claims that fall far short of reality. When the dust settles and natural selection has eliminated these failures what we hopefully will find are those techniques that have worked. Over time we will remember those when the others are long forgotten.


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