Wednesday, September 10, 2008

(Inter)Connecting the Past: Digital History

I recently came across an article in the Journal of American History that discusses the future of digital history.

In the round table discussion titled "The Promise of Digital History," William Thomas describes "digital history" this way:

Digital history is an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems. On one level, digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collections. On another, it is a methodological approach framed by the hypertextual power of these technologies to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past. To do digital history, then, is to create a framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem.....Digital history possesses a crucial set of common components—the capacity for play, manipulation, participation, and investigation by the reader. Dissemination in digital form makes the work of the scholar available for verification and examination; it also offers the reader the opportunity to experiment. He or she can test the interpretations of others, formulate new views, and mine the materials of the past for overlooked items and clues. The reader can immerse him/herself in the past, surrounded with the evidence, and make new associations. The goal of digital history might be to build environments that pull readers in less by the force of a linear argument than by the experience of total immersion and the curiosity to build connections. (Versus the narrative anticipation of what comes next, this is a curiosity about what could be related to what and why.)

This is a very thorough and helpful definition I think. In essence digital history uses computer and Internet technology as a tool to more quickly disseminate information about the past even as it exists as a participatory medium. The fluidity resident in it is an important variable in this equation, as it helps educators to (perhaps) more critically address the different learning styles that exist in our classrooms.

Steven Mintz is another participant in the digital history round table. Formerly at the University of Houston (but now at Columbia), Steve is a wonderful human being, kind soul, and innovative and critical thinker. Two years ago he graciously gave of his time when I organized a technology seminar for history graduate students at UH.

Whereas Thomas defines digital history above, Mintz chronicles the history of digital history brilliantly:

Digital history has evolved through a series of overlapping stages. Stage 1.0 consisted of communication and course-management tools, such as e-mail, online syllabi, Web-CT, and Blackboard, supplemented by content-rich Web sites (like History Matters, Lincoln/Net, and my own Digital History site) that made a treasure trove of high-quality primary source documents, music, historic images, and film clips available to instructors and students.

Stage 2.0 involved the creation of hands-on inquiry- and problem-based history projects designed to allow students to "do" history. Thus in Richard B. Latner's Crisis at Fort Sumter, students read the information available to President Abraham Lincoln from the time of his election on and compare the decisions they make with those that Lincoln made at critical junctures.

We have now entered Stage 3.0, in which the emphasis is on active learning, collaboration, and enhanced interaction. Wikis, blogs, mash-ups, podcasts, tags, and social networking are the buzz words. These technological innovations offer opportunities to students to share resources and create collaborative projects.

Stage 4.0 lurks just beyond the horizon. It includes three-dimensional virtual reality environments, which allow students to navigate and annotate now-lost historical settings. A stunning example is Lisa M. Snyder's reconstruction of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Stage 4.0 is informed by a "constructivist" understanding of learning, in which students devise their own conceptual models for understanding our collective past. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a colleague in instructional technology, Sara McNeil, and I, are completing MyHistory, which will allow students to create online history portfolios, in which they can develop multimedia projects, and construct timelines, annotate images, and keep notes.

While Mintz's Digital History site is cutting edge (I've used it tons in my U.S. history classes), I'm intrigued with his latest venture: MyHistory. Looks interesting.

This post could go on and on, and there is just loads of great material in the article for discussion. What have been some of your best experiences with "doing" digital history? Your most challenging? Why do you think digital history is important?


Nathan Barber said...

In 2008, we have to start moving away from requiring our students to memorize endless facts, names, dates, etc. Our students can have any amount of data at their fingertips instantly thanks to the Internet and other technology. I believe that students need to be given the facts, the primary sources, etc., and then be challenged to solve problems or make criticaal decisions based on the facts they've been presented. In the years to come, storing information, I believe, will be less a function of the brain and more a function of the digital tools of the 21st century. Our students must be able to think criticially when given information, to discern which information is important and relevant, and to synthesize using the information. Digital history should allow us, as educators, to move in this direction. Digital history should allow us to devote classroom time and homework time to analysis and synthesis rather than to memorization and organization of data. The discerning educator will take advantage of digital history in this way and his/her students will be better prepared for college, graduate school and the "real world" because of it.

Nathan Barber said...

I would like to add one additional thought. Our school will be moving to digital portfolios before the end of the school year. Our goal is to provide ways for students to create, often collaboratively, and then to archive and share their creations. Digital learners thrive when presented opportunities such as these and using digital history, digital portfolios, blogs and wikis will reach and impact digital learners in ways that textbooks and lectures can't.

Phil said...

You write: "Digital history should allow us to devote classroom time and homework time to analysis and synthesis rather than to memorization and organization of data." I couldn't agree with you more--the "why" and "how" questions are given much more time, thought, and care.