Teaching & Learning History

Second Piece of the Puzzle

In my previous post I wrote about three technologies that will have an impact on teaching history. These include 1) Cloud based IT services, 2) the growth of APIs or application programming interfaces, and 3) Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning and searching. The widespread adoption of these technologies is transforming the field of Digital Humanities, and most importantly how we will be “thinking historically” in the future.

The COVID pandemic has had a significant impact on our lives, including the way we teach students. For example, asynchronous teaching and learning has proven itself. Remote and distance learning is here to stay. For history teachers, this means that they can now access a broad range of primary source material available through museums and their online digital collections. As a result, students can now be part of a non-stop learning experience, whether it is from the classroom or at home. Also, students are now able to collaborate and develop digital projects online. But more importantly, the emergence of machine learning based”cognitive searching” is going to change the way history students will be able to search for, gather, and store primary source material.

In the past only museums, historical societies, or higher level education institutions, could afford artificial intelligence or machine learning services. But in the not too distant future these technologies will be provided as a service, and accessible to all. But in the meantime, the goal is to teach students how to access and leverage centralized collections of primary sources.

These collections provide a great opportunity for teachers and students alike to gain experience with searching and discovering historical primary sources, like letters, diaries, images, and official documents. By already having access to a collection of these sources, students can than focus on asking the broader historical questions that are important to “inquiry based learning.” Teachers in essence become facilitators by helping students to learn how to “think” historically. The goal is to leverage these digital collections to encourage the students to answer these broader questions and develop their own historical interpretations.

In creating “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” it became self-evident that a centralized collection of local primary source material is a valuable teaching resource. However, to be a better resource, the site needs to provide an “educational” framework over the content. This framework will permit teachers to establish higher level historic themes and recommend the important and high level questions that the students will need to ask.

In Arlington, the Civil War curriculum, is taught to both 4th and 6th graders. Obviously there are some differences in age appropriate levels of historical thinking. So I will need to ensure that there will be sufficient questions developed for both groups.

In regard to the digital environment and how it is influencing the project, I realize that searching for primary sources is one of the most important functionalities. Most of the existing curated content data is structured. This is based on how Omeka supports the Dublin Core. However, with the inclusion of text based files, like letters and diaries, there is a certain amount of unstructured data. Since the site does not currently have any advanced cognitive searching capability, it will be important to aide students in this process. To accomplish this it will be necessary to review and modify the metadata, keywords, and tags of the curated items in order to support identified historic themes and student searches. By aligning the the sites searching functionalities with predetermined historic themes I can ensure that the student’s experience on the site will be optimized.

In reviewing the educational goals of the project, and how to develop the final pitch, I recognize that teaching students how to search for primary source material is an important project goal. “Mapping” will support Arlington’s history teachers “inquiry based learning” methodology and will be an important resource to support their Civil War curriculums. The site offers an opportunity to teach local history by researching an Arlington focused primary source collection. Since the collection is centralized and available to all students, the classroom experience will be a shared experience. And most importantly, students will be able to develop and share their own historic interpretations online.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *