In the past two decades historians have entered the digital age, designing a host of exciting projects that use technology to better understand, analyze, and visualize the past. These projects offer outstanding avenues for instructors at every level—from kindergarten to graduate school—to engage their students in the study of the past. This series will examine a wide range of digital projects on subjects that span both the globe and three millennia, and discuss ways to use them in the classroom.
Why teach with digital history? It powerfully engages students by building on their experience in the digital world. It can reinforce, and often broaden, their understanding of a concept. When used properly, digital history can decenter the classroom and shift focus away from the instructor and onto the material. It can provide novel ways for students to interact with a host of primary sources and expose them to voices not heard in their textbooks or source readers. Critically examining digital projects can also teach students the critical thinking and interpretation skills they need to succeed in a digital age. For example, analysis of a data visualization, like Gapminder, can push students to interrogate the validity and completeness of a source base that, when presented on a screen, appears irrefutable. Building off of Lara Putnam’s recent article, discussions of search engines and crowd-sourced transcription projects can encourage students to reflect on the power structures inherent in digitization and the ways that hidden biases structure the availability of some sources versus others. I push students to ponder how the digitization of previously unavailable material, so often assumed to be inherently good, hides the hidden labor and inequities of data collection. These kinds of questions and activities can give teachers another tool in the continuing fight over the relevance of history education. Critical pedagogy via digital history is one way to demonstrate that in our classrooms students learn the tools of digital and data literacy that they need for the 21st century.
In spite of their many pedagogical uses, the sheer quantity of digital history projects, their disparate placement around the web, and the seemingly high technological barriers to entry, make it difficult for many teachers to effectively use digital history projects in their classrooms. I know that sometimes when first logging into a digital project I, like Samuel Adams nearly 200 years ago, “stumble at the Threshold.” Digital projects often employ unfamiliar user interfaces, or interfaces that look similar, but function differently. This can be especially intimidating for overextended instructors who are unsure whether they can invest the time to learn a new tool with an uncertain pay off. Acronyms such as TEI and GIS seem to be yet another thing teachers must learn before presenting digital projects to their students. Nevertheless, it is possible to effectively use digital history projects.
My goal in this series is to ease that learning curve and give instructors a guide to a wide variety of digital history projects. Each review in this series will begin with a brief overview of the project that introduces its subject and format. Next, it will briefly discuss the project’s scholarship and place in the discipline. The bulk of the review will explore how the digital project can be integrated into the classroom and provide examples from secondary and higher education classrooms, as well as two ready-to-use assignments using the project.
For more discussions on digital history and the classroom, see
National History Education Clearinghouse, “Teaching History,” http://teachinghistory.org.
Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, eds., Writing History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2013), especially the chapter by Thomas Harbison and Luke Walzer, “Towards Teaching the Introductory Course Digitally.”
Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2013).
Many specific projects have suggested lesson plans attached. One example is “Colored Conventions,” http://coloredconventions.org
Before closing, I would like to share some general advice for integrating digital history projects into the classroom. These are drawn from a session I led for the “Getting Started in Digital History Workshop” at the AHA’s 2016 annual meeting in Atlanta, and 10 years of experience using digital projects. First, as with all aspects of teaching, know your students. Do not make assumptions about their familiarity with digital tools, their access to technology, or even their comfort level with mapping, graphing, and basic data analysis skills. I have been guilty of assuming that my students, because most grew up with the Internet, can easily navigate a website, or are familiar with Twitter and Google maps. Ask students how often and in what ways they get online.
This brings me to step two: differentiate. Although a common word in education departments, we often lose sight of its importance in higher education classrooms. Recognize the differences in our students’ abilities, background knowledge, and, as mentioned above, access to and familiarity with digital tools. Tailor your use of digital history projects to your students, recognizing that a “one size fits all” does not, in fact, fit all. Differentiating with a digital history project may look like an extra individualized walk-through for a struggling student, an adapted assignment that gets to the heart of the project, or shifting the site of one class meeting from the lecture hall to the computer lab. One of the goals of this series is to demonstrate how instructors can use digital projects in a wide variety of ways, and offer students a wide range of ways to access them.
I firmly believe digital history can be a valuable part of 21st-century history education. Over the coming months we will explore projects ranging from a “Google map” for classical Rome to an archive of the transatlantic slave trade to a century-plus guide to American restaurants. Have any suggestions for a project to review? Please send suggestions for any projects to review or any other comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.