How have external expectations constrained teaching and learning in history, and how might the digital turn disrupt those constraints?
The digital turn has the potential to create a more durable, widening, and damaging gaps between those who create information and those consume information. When history consisted of writing papers, access to technology proved limiting, but could be mitigated with public goods. Students without typewriters or computers/printers could use school resources. A single textbook, for all its pedagogical flaws, is a 1000 year-old technology that offers access to all who have it in front of them. With the digital turn, the number of content areas to master before engaging the content of history and then creating history have expanded.
For example, students must secure regular and speedy access to the internet for my course. Students must be able to navigate between multiple browsers and security settings to access articles I’ve posted. And students need private viewing space and fast internet to view videos that have been posted. And that’s before we get to making, mining, marking, and mashing.
Let’s say there were seven types of social capital a student needed to possess to write a paper in the pre-digital era. For example, locating and reading a textbook, taking notes, understanding genre expectations for historical writing, locating and using a device that prints, incorporating feedback into writing, and writing to meet assignment guidelines. Today, a student might have 25 to 40 types of social capital needed to produce the same paper, including how to locate and use suitable hardware, software, websites, printing technologies (why won’t my student ID print from this station?!!!), navigating Content Management Systems, and using email– to name but a few categories.
As teachers of history, we must be attentive to the challenges of the digital turn that go beyond mere access to content or production. I had a student who had an iPad for her only computer, only to discover the file system of iPads wasn’t recognized by our LMS, so we had to create a back door for her to submit her assignments. Access matters, but clearing a trail once does not make a clear path to success.
As teachers, we face multiple stakeholders, such as parents, legislators, accrediting bodies, and disciplinary organizations, that have uneven understanding of the increased burdens the digital turn creates for students. People remember their history course, and imagine today’s history is analogous, but “with computers.” Yet it’s not. Our challenge as educators is to provide the support students need to succeed with the digital tools while at the same time advocating to our stakeholders for recognition of the work we are doing. We teach history to students and then pivot to teach the value of historical methods to the wider world.