April 13, 2009
By Matthew P. Romaniello
In recent years, increasing attention has been given to the possibilities of digital history. New resources and tools have proliferated, seeming to promise a stream of new opportunities for teachers and students. Overlooked by the migration toward the digital classroom is the important issue of access to technology. Quite simply – do your students have access to computers and the internet? In my own experience, the answer is no.
I plan my classroom assignments by considering a long set of questions concerning my goals for this specific lesson and its role in the overall course. For example, are we focused on primary or secondary sources? Do I want to make this an active learning exercise? What resources will I need for this? If I plan to use digital resources, how will my students access this material? Is this going to be an exercise completed in class, on campus, or at home?
I answer these questions long before I enter the classroom. Planning for the long term is a way for me to incorporate digital resources – I would not feel comfortable telling my students to view a video on the web for the next class, but if I wrote that assignment into my syllabus at the beginning of the semester, I can expect them to complete it. It might not be the most flexible method, but it does work. Another option is simply to make time in class to use it.
The best solution for digital resources is to provide multiple avenues of access to the material. In many ways, this is a low-tech solution to a high-tech resource. I have established a class web page to centralize all of the course material to simplify student access. In addition to providing the link to resources on my syllabus, I also download the material and print several copies. I leave these copies by my office door for students. Whenever possible, I skip these steps and sometimes just print and bring copies to class. Digital resources are just one tool in the teacher’s toolbox, but there are many others and some of them may be much better suited to your students.
I am not challenging the notion that all students do (or should) have access to technology on campus. Libraries and computer labs continue to fulfill this vital role for students who cannot afford a computer or internet access. Students’ families, work obligations, and extracurricular activities only create further restrictions. Computer access is hardly universal, and should never be assumed to be so.
The lesson is clear. Technology might provide new resources and opportunities for the students, but it hardly makes the job of teaching any easier. Adding a link to a syllabus does not replace the quality time spent in the classroom working with the students to increase their understanding. This is not to imply that I do not make use of material from the internet in all of my classes, just that technology has not resolved the time-consuming work of teaching history. Finally, it bears repeating that, as with all teaching tools and strategies, one must never expect that one type of source meets the needs of all students. The more you understand your students and their lives, the more likely it is that you will find the methods of instruction that best serve them.
Matthew P. Romaniello is an assistant professor of history at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. We invited him to write on this topic for the blog after seeing his presentation, “Tales from the Trenches: Wired History on an Unwired Campus” at the Center For History and New Media’s “Teaching History in the Digital Age” session at the AHA’s 123rd Annual Meeting in New York. For more on digital history, see the upcoming May issue of Perspectives on History.