Presenting the Past Using Digital Tools for Teaching

Digital tools offer teachers of history several challenges in developing assignments for students that reflect historical thinking. If we consider the Internet a digital took, a basic challenge arises from the instant accessibility of Internet sources upon which students often rely for historical information. A source’s accessibility has become a measurement of its credibility, and even its relevance, to historical research questions. This is a problem almost entirely a product of the Internet age, because research in a school or university library, with its heroic librarians’ due diligence to acquire and make available only generally reliable books, has been rendered obsolete. Undergraduate students instructed to use at least a couple of recent scholarly books, unavailable on Google Books, as research sources are likely unable or unwilling to do so.

An effect of the digitization of access to information, equally reliable and unreliable, on the Internet has caused or contributed to a rethinking among some scholars and teachers about what it means to study history. Traditionally, studying history meant acquisition of historical knowledge, whether for purposes of cultural literacy or formation of citizenship. Immigrants seeking U.S. naturalization must pass citizenship tests that quiz them largely on knowledge of America’s political history, e.g., “How many original states were there?” “What was something Benjamin Franklin was famous for?” and “What did Martin Luther King, Jr. do?” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). The nearly instant availability of answers to these questions via the Internet has informed arguments among reformers in the historical profession to de-emphasize knowledge of facts as a measurement of historical knowledge, and instead emphasize knowledge of and practice in ways of thinking as a measurement of that knowledge.

This re-definition of what it means to study history has, or will have, the effect of diluting the information content in college and probably high school history courses, which continue to be known for their topical, geographic, or chronological focus – “the Renaissance,” “Gilded Age America,” “art in the Cultural Revolution.” Indeed, the logic of this reform is to make a course’s content instrumental or incidental to its emphasis on historical thinking skills. In such a situation, students, to the extent they would use the Internet at all, would do so not to learn, say, who drew the “Vitruvian Man” or who muckrakers were, but to learn how to corroborate the accuracy of an historical website’s information, or to find out how popular an historical website is, who made it, and who uses it (Wineburg). This need to verify Internet websites’ credibility is not necessarily limited to the study of history in the age of the Internet. It would be equally important in any field in the social sciences, and possibly others, which claim to play a role in helping develop a person’s capacity for citizenship, when citizenship is defined as critical thinking skills, not knowledge of the national past.

To focus, therefore, particularly on what opportunities the digitized age may afford teachers of history, this emerging emphasis in history pedagogy suggests that the Internet’s probable most valuable resources are open-source digitized collections of information previously sequestered in remote or even inaccessible physical archives. These resources’ usefulness to scholars is probably the most obvious. But they are also the Internet’s real enhancement of what happens in history classrooms. Ironically not that different from what could happen in a pre-Internet, critical thinking skills exercise, teachers may design research exercises that get students to find and interrogate primary sources in ways that teach historical thinking. Different from answers to questions that students find directly by Googling, database primary sources often do not immediately yield answers, and require further analysis to contextualize them and infer their significance. An additional attribute of digital archives that was not available to students in the pre-Internet era is their possibility for independent research, using the skills they have acquired but with the encouragement to experiment and investigate a database in ways not dictated by the instructor. This is an aspect of digital sources’ usage that databases’ websites often note anecdotally (“Our website has been used for some cool research assignments. The following is only a partial list….”)   although it is not something that literature on historical thinking skills has really emphasized or investigated. Is there a way to measure how digital sources enhance students’ curiosity to conduct independent research and explore their own questions?

Sources:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Learn About the United States Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test (2019), online.

Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71(2016).

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