This weekend I was part of a panel for the OAH in Atlanta with the zippy title “The Future of Teaching History: Using Technology to Make Teaching More Fun and Effective.” Fellow panelists David Trowbridge (Marshall University), Russell Jones (Eastern Michigan University), and I wanted to spark actual conversation (not just blah blah present to a silent room) about what to do with the dilemmas that certain technologies present to history educators. I think all three of us are enthusiastic teachers who want to engage students in meaningful learning that involves digital tools, but we are also attentive to why this has to be a very individual process, and why technology sometimes creates problems instead of solves them.
On the one hand, digital realms open up exciting new possibilities and opportunities for students to use and produce authentic history. On the other, instructors across the K-16 educational spectrum are increasingly expected to “use technology” without always being told why, or without being given the parallel power to define for themselves which technologies make sense for their own pedagogies. Digital technology is undeniably reshaping higher education, and historians need to be in on that conversation – if for no other reason, because the interwebs are a built human environment worthy of our study and our contributions. We packed the room and got a good discussion going about tools and reasons to use them, but also some very honest comments about constraints and obstacles during the Q&A and I appreciated the audience’s candor.
I kicked off the session with some broad thoughts about what I think is changing with regard to history teaching and learning and technology. I see several profound and related paradigm shifts in history teaching: from passive absorption and memorization to active learning; from “what I teach” to outcomes-oriented “what they learn” (i.e. from coverage to uncoverage); from the scale of the single course to thinking holistically about history programs and the function of history teaching in the academy; from history learning as individual to collaborative (which is actually truer to how professional historians really do work); from analog to digital; and from limited sources to massive access and a vast sea of content. What I think is not changing is that history teaching always has been more than just content delivery. Technology enables larger economies of scale in content delivery, sure, but it cannot automate truly excellent history teaching – which is, and I think should always remain – at its root, a human relationship of apprenticeship and empowerment.
As I put it in my talk, improved teaching is not just bigger, with more seats filled. For technology to assist in making history teaching more fun and effective, it would need to mean “fun” in the sense of classrooms that are memorable, engaging, and students want to be there. And “effective” in the sense that the teaching accomplished the learning we designed it to – which is, disrupt the common misconception that history is a finished packet of knowledge to be handed off, passed on, received, retained. And most of all: “effective” in the sense that it permanently, irreversibly turns on in students the switch that history is a constructed, contestable argument in such a way that they can never unlearn it. Not tools for tools’ sake but making students more adept tool users, maybe even tool makers, tools to develop historian’s habits of mind, even at the novice level.
My slides are posted at tonahangen.com/teaching/oah14, along with short descriptions of the tools I briefly highlighted from my own classroom experiences. I tried to showcase things that have worked in a variety of settings, since I teach lots of different kinds of history courses: first-year seminar, surveys, electives, methods course and senior capstone seminar. Each of them uses “technology” integrally, but in very distinct ways. I hope to add more to that page, it’s a bit rudimentary, but for now I think captures the collegial spirit of sharing in our session.