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Inventing the Future: What Does Increased Technology Use Mean for “Doing” History in the Classroom?

Posted by Katherine Ireland
2 May 2013 - 11:52am

At a 1971 meeting between the Palo Alto Research Centre and Xerox, Alan Kay uttered the famous statement: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” This isn’t the full quotation of course, and taken out of context it could be viewed and used in various ways. When I read it I thought of history education, and that understanding the past is key to seeing a future for oneself. Keith Barton and Linda Levstik (2004; 2011) as well as Peter Seixas (1993) emphasize this in some of their research. One of my favourite quotations on this topic comes from Amy von Heyking’s (2011) chapter in New Possibilities for the Past:

Children’s active and thoughtful participation in a pluralistic democracy requires the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that only a meaningful study of history can provide. Thinking historically does not just mean thinking about the past; it involves seeing oneself in time, as an inheritor of the legacies of the past and as a maker of the future (p. 190).

A major theme in this line of thought is teaching multiple perspectives, so that students have access to different sources and different narratives rather than one prescribed story. They get to make informed decisions about what happened in the past, whether it was significant, and how it resonates in the present. To my mind, while the increase in technology use in history education opens up opportunities for learning, it also has the potential to limit the development of historical thinking by narrowing the options students have for investigating the past.

In her Master’s thesis, Gillian Hennessey-Macfarlane (2013), traced the development of technology discourse in New Brunswick curricula, and found that current discourse treats technology as an integral and inextricable aspect of students’ being. Not only is technology use being presented as the optimal way for the “digital” generation to learn, it’s also presented as a component of their very selves, as though we are neglecting some core aspect of their beings by being so old school as to ask them to visit a local museum rather than to google the artifacts they might find there.

The more technology appears in schools, the more it is seen as a preferable alternative to traditional methods of learning. In some cases, I agree that it is. However, I wonder about the implications for doing history in the classroom when students can increasingly spend more time in the classroom, using fewer resources, and still access sites, artifacts, and documents. Why plan a field trip when you can take a virtual reality tour of a historic site? Why visit the archives when all of the documents you need you can access electronically? More time online, less time interacting with one another, and fewer opportunities to do history outside of the classroom. My concern is that this push for technology use, because it’s assumed to be a better learning option in and of itself, may encourage administrators and teachers to use these approaches to the exclusion of others.

In his chapter in New Possibilities for the Past, Stéphane Lévesque (2011) emphasizes the importance of students doing history, doing the work of historians, because they will not learn to think critically about the past if they don’t know how knowledge about the past is created, evaluated, and disseminated. When I no longer have to step away from my laptop to collect historic documents or visit a historic site, this means that the way knowledge about the past is being created, evaluated and disseminated has fundamentally changed. And it means that the way we view and value historic documents and sites is also changing.

Is there a fundamental difference between mining internet archives rather than visiting archives in person and handling documents? Is there some value to interacting with primary sources and historic sites that is being lost through increasing technology use? Using technology to do history isn’t a bad thing. It can help us open windows into the past for students that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to peer through. The cases developed by The Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project, for example, are wonderfully complex and engaging. As Kevin Kee and Nicki Darbyson (2011) suggest in their chapter in New Possibilities for the Past, “Creating and Using Virtual Environments to Promote Historical Thinking,” developing new ways for students to interact with the past can engage learners who have previously been excluded or uninterested in history. Such options can also offer students ways of looking at the past that text-based inquiry cannot (Kee & Darbyson, p. 276). There is also research suggesting that youth can develop “virtual empathy” through online interactions which translates to increased empathy in their face-to-face interactions (Rosen, 2011).

As Hennessy-Macfarlane (2013) notes, when technology is presented as an unbounded, limitless entity that is the sole answer to future needs, it’s problematic. And in history education, where the way we treat our past is inextricably linked with how we shape our future, a force that has the potential to limit our ability to explore the past is one to be questioned. As eager as I am to try out new resources that can increase access to information and teacher professional development, and offer new methods of investigation, I wonder in what ways increased technology use will affect how we view and teach about the past, and what students’ historical thinking will look like as a result.

What are your thoughts about using technologies to teach history?

Photo: Printing Press, 1811. In the public domain, Wikipedia Commons: / CC BY-SA