We know that our students are much closer to the cutting edges of the digital revolution than we are, but nothing I have seen in the past dozen years of close observation has altered my conviction that just because they are adept users of technology, that is not the same thing as being adept learners with the technology.¹
As someone who is “much closer to the cutting edges of the digital revolution” than many of my academic instructors throughout my life, the above quote resonated with me on a personal level. Reflecting on my primary and secondary schooling days, I can say that I was at the beginning of a generation that would come to see large scale introduction of learning technology into the classroom. Though I do not believe I experienced this to the degree that K-12 and undergraduate students do today, I can attest to how this technology was slowly becoming ubiquitous in various aspects of life.
While my elementary school still showed us documentaries with VHS tapes played on cart-mounted CRT televisions and conducted class math activities with a 3m overhead projector, we did experience the introduction of computer literacy. And though I wouldn’t experience my first smartphone until I was of freshman high school age, I had already been familiar with the internet and virtual games for a decade. Despite the amount of hours my teachers spent teaching me out of textbooks, the world around me was being conveyed beyond the analog.
I believe my experience embodies the introductory quote. While this kind of virtual-accessing technology had been present for the majority of my life, it was not implemented into my education in the way that it is utilized today nor how I use the digital technology of today to accomplish my current graduate level assignments. I truly was a user of technology as opposed to a learner with this technology. But of what consequence is this? Why does this mater today? These are the questions I hope to answer. However, I want to answer them by posing a different question: as an aspiring history educator, what are the challenges with presenting the past (and the study of the past) in the digital world? In a world filled with electronic communication, social media, and virtual interactions, this becomes a necessary question for educators seeking to stay relevant and who wish to reach their students in meaningful ways.
In a previous blog post of mine, I spoke about the utility of images and films for practicing historical thinking. A significant portion of that blog post was dedicated to the message that when it comes to images and films, we need to treat them with the same level of scrutiny we might give to a written source, a custom often established early on for history students. Because of the perception of images and films, comprised of their novelty and short existence as a potential source of knowledge, they often fly under the radar for many students (and general members of the public) as being potentially distorted sources capable of delivering inaccurate information or contributing to narratives deserving of more critical attention.
The digital tools and resources of today are no different. Just like written sources, images, films, the digital means we use to conduct research are deserving of scrutiny as well. Even something as seemingly harmless as a search engine should be thoroughly inspected, as a history of how search engines developed and rose to digital dominance suggests how their pervasiveness can influence the results we receive. The danger comes from the perception students (and the general public and even educators) develop about the nature of these items. Without a face, a named author, an observable character reputation–the very items we often account for when mentally assessing more analog sources of knowledge–we become distanced from the digital, the virtual, abstraction. Perhaps we even trump up a feeling of security, thinking that an item so removed from the normal human psyche is incapable of committing the faults that come along with a face, name, and reputation to uphold. But this perception is the very trap we are susceptible to.
The truth is that digital tools and resources are just as capable of misleading us as written texts with omissions or doctored images or “deepfake” videos (a pretty serious threat to source integrity). These tools and resources are created by fellow humans, after all. We all come with our own backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. We all bring our cultural framework to bear when committing ourselves to anything. Search engines, even those run almost completely by algorithms, are having operating decisions decided for them, either by the creators of the algorithms or by the users of the technology. Text analysis tools can only produce results based on what is made available to them–and that which is made available is likely not free from the red flags we typically search for with close readings. For the history educator today, we must be prepared to account for these mishaps and potholes that are apparent with other sources. We must not let our perception be clouded by an air of “neutrality” or “objectivity,” buzzwords attached to the digital and presented as truth. This becomes a difficult task when the aforementioned ubiquity of digital technology has created an identity for itself that is distanced from the closeness we are naturally accustomed to, the closeness we use to make evaluations of sources. When these items are normalized as the keepers of knowledge and guardians of deciphering the truth, we fall victim to the same traps we trained so hard to avoid. If we can avoid this normalization of perceived neutrality, we can begin to students (and ourselves) past the passive status of users of technology and into the active status of learners with this technology, for we can more accurately assess the utility and value of these digital tools without being beguiled by supposed promises that they ultimately can’t deliver.
When we present the past to students, we need to be wary of how we obtained the information we present. We need them to be aware of how they obtained the information they use to inform their conclusions. By being critical of the digital tools we use to conduct research, we ensure that the lessons of historical thinking are instilled into students for both the content they study and the methods they use to study it.
Another challenge history educators face when grappling with the digital world is the accessibility students have to massive amounts of information. Similar to the perception of digital tools and resources, bodies of information that students have at their fingertips must be approached with the elements of historical thinking, including bodies of knowledge that have an appearance of peer review. The most prominent example of this is, of course, Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is known for being a crowdsourced project in where the pages of information can be edited by the public to reflect a generally agreed upon presentation of the subject. Wikipedia has instituted guidelines for users to follow so the edits are structured in beneficial ways, such as by encouraging neutrality in writing. Unfortunately, this value does not always hold up, such as in the case of racial bias. This does not invalidate Wikipedia as a potential source, but the digital perception of this source complicates its use in the classroom and the presentation of the past. And unfortunately, its crowdsourcing is only as good as the crows that is sourcing the information.
For example, a page often in dispute (both for Wikipedia and as a topic in academia) is the impact of novel diseases on American Indian populations in the Americas during colonization. While this might seem like a factually based topic with little wiggle room for variance in opinion, it is actually a narrative informed by multiple disciplines, creating many approaches to the subject. The “Talk” page of this article reflects where editors diverge on the arguments, such as how diseases could’ve been weaponized or compounded by colonization. What needs to be stressed is that the perception of this source is reinforced by the cultural lens it was written from. As I have argued before in a post about combating American Indian genocide denialism, certain parties have a vested interest in using a disease narrative as a scapegoat for holding settlers accountable for their genocidal actions. But this stance is not clearly reflected in the article and the discussion of it clearly reflects conflict over how the best present the information. It is important that students be made aware of these intricacies if crowdsourced knowledge is to be truly beneficial.
As history educators, we have a duty to ensure that we are promoting historical thinking for both our students and the general public. The digital world has presented a multitude of challenges that did not previous exist in the analog world. It has also created many opportunities to advance our discipline and the teaching of history, if used wisely. If we hold true to the values and best practices of our field, we can ensure that we treat even digital tools and resources with an appropriate amount of evaluation and scrutiny so as to secure the integrity of historical knowledge and encourage our students to develop accurate narratives and informed conclusions.
1. T. Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), vii-viii.