Teaching history in the digital age is a great privilege and a great responsibility. The resources that I can access and share with my students are almost limitless. Curious about how the Vikings traded across the river systems of Europe and Asia? Let’s explore the Vale of York Hoard digitally. I can even pull up examples of other hoards with a few clicks of the keyboard, and students can compare the similarities and differences between the finds. Curious about how the idea of blue and white porcelain diffused from Europe to Asia as a result of Mongol invasions and those same river networks? I can pull up a BBC Radio podcast produced in association with the British Museum and give students access to a 3D model of a similar artifact made possible through the Smithsonian. Having access to these resources gives me the opportunity to help students learn to think historically by engaging with what the raw materials of the past help us to understand about possible narratives that explain their existence.
But, sometimes all this access has its pitfalls. As students in my class produce their own documentary films, they seek out images and other content that help them to tell their stories. In doing so they often struggle with wading through all of that abundance to find images that actually fit. Need a picture of a man on a boat? A Creative Commons search yields hundreds of images. Choose the first one that looks good and call it a day, never mind the fact that the difference between a Sunday yachting excursion is far different than an immigrant’s journey to the United States. Need information about the Hippie Movement? Click on the first blog post that pops up in a Google search despite ads for the latest fashion trends. But, even in these slips, these mistakes, my students are learning about what it means to think historically because they are actually practicing the skill rather than just learning about an event or memorizing information for a test. Even though they often fail, they are learning from their mistakes and have an abundance of resources from which to make better choices a second or a third time.
And, digital technology also provides new ways for students to do the work of history in how they manipulate information. Digital mapping, storytelling and even the Maker Movement have applications for students to create their own content and express their historical understanding in ways that would have been impossible less than a decade ago. For students who struggle with traditional forms of expression such as writing an essay or taking a test, these digital tools help bring a a higher level of engagement to a wider population of students.
As daunting as navigating this new age of digital information may be, I am hopeful that the opportunities digital resources provide may be the “iron that sharpens iron” in the toolkit of leaning how to navigate this age responsibly.