“The new education must prepare our students to thrive in a world of flux, to be ready no matter what comes next. It must empower them to be leaders of innovation and to be able not only to adapt to a changing world but also to change the world. That is the core requirement of the new education. All the rest is merely elective.”Cathy Davidson, The New Education.
Over the past thirty years, educators and academics have considered the role of the internet and digital technologies in education. In response to the highly interactive qualities of content on the web and the perceived expectations of Millennial and Gen Z students, writers in the thematic field of digital media and learning appraise the perils and possibilities of integrating the web, visual media, and gaming into the classroom. Scholars of historical thinking have not queried the impact of the digital age as consistently as education scholars, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and data scientists, but their analysis of the sociocultural influences that shape historical thinking aligns closely with the concerns of their peers in other fields. Like family stories, collective memory, identity, and nationalized curriculums, the internet, social media, and digital media are vital strands of students’ webs of understanding.
Participatory Culture Research
“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices.”Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.
On the World Wide Web in 2019, almost everything is open to comment, sharing content across platforms is easy, and finding like-minded people only requires a quick Google search or click on a hashtag. On its 30th anniversary, the world wide web is characterized by instantaneous access to information, an ever-expanding array of social media platforms, and an increasingly blurry line between consumers and producers.
Henry Jenkins defines the web in the 2000s and 2010s as
Despite the unevenness of participation, the participatory nature of the web has altered the creation and distribution of media, social relationships, and expectations of education. Media is meant to be shareable and spreadable. Jenkins, Ford, and Green note the rise of embed codes and short links that make content easy to share via websites, messaging apps, and social media. Creators also seek to make media “sticky;” the primary goal of many games, listicles, and polls is to capture and keep users attention in a single for as long as possible.
Sherri Turkle and danah boyd consider the impacts of media’s shareability and stickiness on interpersonal relationships. Turkle critiques the increasingly widespread expectation of constant connection via social media in Alone Together. While networked communication promises “to give us more control over human relationships,” Turkle wonders whether the opposite is actually the case. She writes: “Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”
In It’s Complicated,
The Goals of Education in the Digital Age
Education scholars, like participatory culture researchers, question the impact of participatory cultures and social media on education. Writers concerned with education in the digital age query whether and to what extent new technologies and media necessitate changes in teaching and learning strategies. In general, education scholars call undergraduate instructors in all disciplines to focus on both content and digital literacies. They propose educators attend especially to fostering students’ abilities to find information, discern the credibility of information, and create significant connections between the content of their education and their day-to-day lives.
George Siemens’s article, “Connectivism,” and Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacies for Student Fact-Checkers represent two influential arguments for shifts in educators’ perspectives. Rather than focusing on content communication, Siemens and Caulfield suggest educators develop students’ “know-where” skills. Millennial and Gen Z students might be comfortable with technology, but the idea that they are “digital natives” who innately know how to navigate the internet’s abundance is a myth. Digital literacies, like all literacies, are learned. Educators must help foster students’ abilities to find and quickly evaluate information is more valuable than memorization skills. While Siemens work is largely theoretical, Caulfield offers practical exercises for educators and students to grow their “know-where” skills in an age of “alternative facts,” photoshop, and faux-academic journals.
Contributors to David Cohen and Thomas Scheinfeldt’s edited volume Hacking the Academy and Cathy Davidson, in The New Education, likewise argue for major changes to higher education. In both volumes, the authors tie new educational needs to existing educational concerns. Contributors to Hacking the Academy and Davidson argue that seemingly new issues, like distractions from mobile phones, are indicative not of decreased attention spans, but of educators’ failure to engage students. Students will not stay tuned into a class when that class does not offer them opportunities to participate in their education in creative and meaningful ways. When the significance of their education is opaque, students turn instead to technologies and media that are more obviously connected to their interests and sense of self.
Historical Thinking to Foster Digital Literacies
Cohen, Scheinfeldt, and Davidson caution against the impulse to include more technology to compete with technological distractions. Instead, they call for collaborative pedagogies and purposeful learning:
“New modes of engaging students in the classroom with digital media are, at heart, less about the flashiness of technology and more about the need to move past the stagnation of the lecture into deeper, more collaborative—and ultimately, more effective—pedagogy.”Introduction to Hacking the Academy
Rather than including social and digital media in the classroom out of a hazy desire to engage so-called “digital natives,” history educators should use the participatory capacities of the web to build students’ historical skills. Unlike earlier studies of historical thinking, however, the goal of historical thinking is no longer to help students “think like historians.” Instead, social and digital media serve as a venue for teaching students historical skills that will help them develop the digital and social literacies championed by Siemens, Caulfield, Davidson, and the authors of Hacking the Academy.
The first step toward using historical thinking skills to promote digital literacies is to navigate the sometimes misaligned priorities of social media and the historical discipline. James Goulding notes that social media environments favor “brevity, centrality, and affiliation” while traditional historical research involves lengthy investigations across multiple archives and no innate promise of personal relevance. T. Mills Kelly likewise observes that historians’ approaches to research are vastly different from those of undergraduate students when
- What happened?
- When did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
- Who was responsible?
- And a corollary question: Will that be on the exam?
Kelly attributes students’ “instrumental” perspective to the high-pressure, standardized tests frequently used as a measure of historical knowledge. (He cites the United States as an example, but the same could be said of Singapore.) In order to align students’ thinking and processes with the goals of historical thinking, Kelly encourages educators to create innovative, web-based projects that engage students’ talent for writing for a public audience. Public writing projects, he suggests, help students develop the skills necessary to source, interrogate, and present historical narratives.
By way of example, Kelly describes the hoax-history project he and his students completed on Wikipedia. To create the Wikipedia article, Kelly’s students created false primary sources, a fake researcher, and YouTube videos to support the existence of Edward Owens, “the last American pirate.” While some critiqued the project as unethical, Kelly and his students defended it as a worthwhile endeavor that demonstrated both digital literacies and historical thinking. The project addressed the social life of information, credibility issues on the web, the nature of historical evidence, the expertise of historians, and how to tell a compelling historical narrative.
Like Kelly, other historians see digital technologies as a boon to history education. William Turkel muses about the possibility of creating multi-sensory historical experiences on the web; Mark Sandle views online forums, social media platforms, and wikis as enhancing students’ awareness of how to credit the ideas and works of others. Perhaps most creatively, Kevin Kee and the contributors to Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology suggest the benefits of gamifying history. In “Tecumseh Lies Here,” for example, Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall describe their use of web-based primary sources and Twitter to create a global game. Compeau and MacDougall presented students with a mystery, occasionally misled them using false witnesses and documents, and seeded Twitter accounts with helpful hints about where to find more information.
Compeau and MacDougall argue the game effectively helped students grow critical historical thinking skills and some of the savviness required to navigate information on the internet. The game did not explicitly teach participants to use evidence wisely or attend to differences between past and present. Instead, it developed these skills by engaging players’ interest in a mystery and delivering pleasure as each layer of the game was uncovered. They concluded:
“Playful historical thinking is, or can be, critical and engaged. It recognizes limits on our ability to fully know other peoples and times, yet makes the effort to know them just the same. It wears its certainties lightly and takes pleasure in the whimsy, mystery, and strangeness of the past.”Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall, “Tecumseh Lies Here.”
Ultimately, scholars of historical thinking in the digital age echo the concerns and hopes of researchers of participatory cultures and education in the 21st century. They view historical thinking as a valuable skill set that fosters students’ abilities to find, evaluate, and synthesize information. The web and social media are sociocultural influences on students’ learning, but these technologies also can be tools to develop students’ skills. Using social and digital media in the history class meets students where they are, allows scholars to discern students’ starting points, and offers a dynamic environment for developing historical and digital literacies.