Teaching History with Technology: Reflections on 16 Years & Counting

In a few weeks, I will be instructing the EdTechTeacher “Teaching History with Technology Workshop” for the 16th straight year.  Lately, I've been thinking about changes in technology since I first began leading the workshop and implications for teaching and learning. 

The most obvious difference is the sheer volume and diversity of technology tools that have appeared since I first taught the workshop in 2002. Back then, students were using laptops principally for taking notes in Microsoft Word, creating slideshows in Microsoft PowerPoint, and for research on the Internet. Popular at the time were “WebQuests,” essentially Internet scavenger hunts that offered no interactive possibilities. Today, students have access to a vast array of interactive tools that allow them to create, collaborate, share, publish, and more. 

Perhaps the biggest technological advancement I've seen over the last 16 years is in the realm of geographical resources. Back in 2002, students in my laptop history classroom could find two-dimensional historical maps on the Internet but could do little more than print them. It was difficult to annotate a 2D map, let alone imagine an interactive geographical platform that would allow us to embark on a virtual 3D historical tour. Today, students use Virtual Reality (VR) technology to fly over and enter historical and cultural sites all over the world. With Google Expeditions, students interact with historical landmarks in striking realism and teachers act as a virtual guide to lead student “explorers” through a series of 360° and 3D images. The technology makes me think back to 2005 when Google Earth first appeared and the striking impression it made on me and my students. We leveraged it to, among other things, fly over the Ho Chi Minh trail to get a sense of the terrain US troops encountered when they battled the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.  We flew around the Thermopylae pass in Ancient Greece to understand how 300 Spartans could hold off 10,000 Persians. We explored national monuments in Washington D.C. and even traveled Route 66 to see where the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath had stopped on their way to California. It’s a marvel to see the varied ways that students today can interact with the important historical and cultural sites that we feature in our history courses.

It’s also striking how students today can interact with primary and secondary sources. Back in 2002, my students and I read and printed historical sources but there were few ways of interacting with the content. Since then, a whole series of interactive tools and platforms have emerged that allow students to engage in historical inquiry and critical thinking. One of my favorites is DocsTeach from the National Archives, which features a collection of document-based activities for thousands of primary sources spanning the course of American history. Students can use ready-made DocsTeach activities to develop their chronological thinking, historical analysis and interpretation, historical research capacities, and historical issue analysis and decision-making. Teachers can create their own activities from the sources available at DocsTeach and share them with their students.

Yet, what's also striking -- and quite disappointing -- is how little teachers and students have advanced in their understanding of how to search the Internet and evaluate websites for authenticity and credibility. Even now, there are many teachers who believe that all .org websites are run by non-profits and who don't realize that many .orgs are commercial ventures biased towards selling a particular product or service. Moreover, rarely do I encounter a history teacher who knows how to search a .US domain to find authentic and credible resources and activities from public schools and districts across the country. And most are unfamiliar with WhoIs registry information.

Back in 2002, many teachers were paying particular attention to helping students identify fake or unsubstantiated Internet content over concern that much information was not coming from credible “experts.” For instance, many history teachers were so concerned about unsubstantiated Internet content that they were banning students from using Wikipedia. Yet, over the years, teachers have paid less attention to teaching students how to evaluate web content. As more online tools and applications have emerged, many history teachers have instead focused on sifting through them to find new and “engaging” tools to immerse students in curriculum content. 

Not unrelated, a 2016 Stanford University study found that many middle and high school students are quick to believe false information on the Internet and more than 80% of middle school students are unable to distinguish sponsored content from actual news. In many ways, our American democracy depends on citizens’ ability to discern credible information and our politics today is awash with allegations of “fake news” from previously venerable news sources. Fortunately, organizations such as CommonSense Media offer resources to help students information technology wisely and evaluate source credibility. In light of the explosion of social media content, we need to help students more than ever to devise effective online searches, evaluate the legitimacy of online sources, and identify misinformation in online content.

Teaching children about information literacy is certainly not the sole responsibility of history teachers. (Some would argue library-media specialists bear primary responsibility.) But history teachers repeatedly stress to their students the importance of effective research, critical content analysis, and authentic incorporation of primary and secondary sources. History teachers share a big responsibility to prepare students for navigating the treacherous waters of Internet search. My hope is that when I reach my 20th-consecutive year instructing the Teaching History with Technology Workshop we will have made considerably more progress in developing our students' information literacy skills than ever before. 

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