Teaching & Learning History

Teaching History in the 21st Century

Grant Wood; “Parson Weems’ Fable”; 1939; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; 1970.43

In the early 19th century students were taught the story of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. When confronted by his father Augustine, Washington quickly confessed, saying something like “I cannot tell a lie.”  Well, so said Parson Weems who published a book entitled The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington in 1800.  This book was sold as a biography of Washington, but in truth, it was a book of fables, meant to use the great Father of the United States as an example of moral behavior.

This example represents the challenge facing history teachers today. Technology on the one hand has provided new venues for research and access to information. But unfortunately, like our entrepreneur biographer Mr. Weems, there are many people posting “fake history” or skewed interpretations that need to be carefully reviewed before accepting them as fact.

During the past twenty years the field of Digital Humanities has been witness to a steady introduction of information technologies that is empowering both teachers and students. 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 availability of the public Internet, and mobile devices, now makes online historical collections ubiquitous. Teachers are no longer bound by the classroom. In fact, the recent COVID pandemic demonstrated the need for more asynchronous learning. All at a time when the “Internet of Things” or IoT has become so commonplace that classroom teaching will never be the same.

At the core of this new shift in teaching methodologies are the introduction of a few important technologies. First, all IT services are now in the cloud, this especially includes the hosting of databases and applications. This means that historical research is available anytime, anywhere, and for anybody. Second, APIs or application programming interfaces, are easier to use and integrate with stored data, both structured and unstructured. Finally, AI or Machine Learning as a service, is improving the way people search for information. It is called “Cognitive Searching.”

The rapid development of all three technologies will dramatically change the future of historic research. But more importantly the growing availability of online collections are providing students access to primary historical sources, including photographs, drawing, diaries, and letters. This is dramatically changing the way teachers are able to get their students to “think historically.” In addition, the the adoption of these technologies is now providing a new way collaborative way to learn by creating “digital projects.”

According to Allison Robinson in “Narratives and Counternarratives”, through collaboration, students can create their own community of scholars. Ms. Robinson advocates that getting students to design and implement digital history projects instead of writing traditional papers, serves a dual purpose. Not only does the new media require students to conduct their own original research, but teaches the students to how to see the bigger historical picture by developing their own interpretations.

The adoption of digital technologies in the classroom, is changing the way students are taught and think about history. Now everyone can learn history by trying to be a historian. But like the stories of George Washington, historic myths are still around. In fact the Internet makes it only easier to spread them. However, teachers and students now have the tools and resources to challenge them.

The role of a teacher is changing. Instead of just trying to get their students to memorize a volume of names, dates, and places, they can now encourage them to think like a historian. In fact, by encouraging students to get involved with digital projects, teachers are becoming more like guides. Helping their students to navigate both the positive and negative aspects of the emerging information technologies of the 21st century.

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