Technology seems to be developing at a break-neck pace and everyone wants a ride on the bandwagon. Many historians are very excited about the promises technology offers to improve history education. I have met few historians that resist the allure of technology in their classrooms (in fact just one, an elderly Roman history professor who didn’t even make use of the white board) and many seem to be early adopters.
Digitization projects seem to be the first foray into the digital world for most historians. Nearly all remark on the incredible convenience and analytical power of online databases and archives. Finding useful primary sources has never been easier. They are organized topically, something even hyperlinked together, and accessible from home. The large response from historians to this amazing access to nearly everything was most enthusiasm and hesitance. It seemed with every document of rigorous historic scholarship there were ten sites of dubious authority their students could access. The response was to educate students on how to authenticate digital sources. Some teachers are better at this than others. The most successful do more than just pass out a hand out with a brief lecture, they explore databases with their students.
Not long after historians started coding. TEI (the Text Encoding Intuitive) helped preserve important metadata about documents that might otherwise be lost in the digitization process. Mills Kelly reminisces fondly of coding his first syllabus for use on the web. In partnership with data analytics and coders, historians adopted data mining. For all these early adopters, however, were detractors. While data-mining produced interesting scholarship, there was concern that students might miss the skills of close reading.
In general, history educators have embraced technologies in their classrooms. With over twenty years of data, I think educators have enough data to assuage the Luddites’ fears that technology in the classroom is just a gimmick to get kids to pay attention in class. McClymer shows ample evidence that integrating technology into his teaching has enhanced his students historical understanding. By showing students how to use online data and preform their own digital scholarship, history educators are inviting students to grapple with difficult concepts in new ways.
The limitation of the general embrace of technology in history education is in assessment. Wineburg has very convincingly argued that not only is standardized testing a poor measure of student understanding, but that the tests are designed to fit students into a bell curve. Due to national standards, content teaching has long overshadowed procedural learning. Technology might provide a solution between providing students with the information they need to succeed in standardized testing and teaching them historical thinking. Databases, online exhibits, and other digital tools present both type of knowledge. Rather than depending on textbooks for homework, educators can rely on students having access to a computer. So instead of procedural knowledge limited to classroom time, students can now take it home with them.