Using Technology to Teach Historical Understanding: The Digital History Reader Brings the Possibilities of New Technology to the History Classroom

Article excerpt

WHILE SOME TEACHERS may believe that certain websites or software applications simply add "bells and whistles" to entertain without educating, the proper use of technology can significantly enhance teaching and learning--the key is identifying the ways that teachers can best teach and students can best learn. (1) Faculty in higher education can contribute to this process by designing digital history projects that integrate technology with substantive content and effective pedagogy Teachers can contribute by shaping these projects to meet their own objectives and circumstances. A development process that involves historians consulting with teachers about classroom applications and curricular content and teachers consulting with historians about methods of historical inquiry and source analysis can contribute to successful digital history projects.

Today's students are generally accustomed to seeing timelines of events, lists of names, and bulleted items, yet they lack an understanding of the complexity of historical analysis. (2) Learning to read historical information from charts, for example, teaches students to evaluate the significance of change. Comparing related primary sources can enhance understanding of historical patterns. Having students consider changes in terms of options, choices, and consequences, helps them develop a sense of history as a process shaped by individuals and communities. This article describes three models for developing these skills in an online format: a cost of labor calculator that allows students to compare slavery and identured servitude in colonial America; an animated graph that charts European unemployment during the Great Depression; and a dynamic analysis of photographs of a student protest in 1968. In each case, educational technology makes it possible to provide students with innovative ways to understand complex problems in history, while addressing national and state standards for the social studies.

The three models described in this article are part of a larger technology-based teaching project, The Digital History Reader (DHR). (3) A collaborative effort involving historians, educators, and technology specialists at Virginia Tech, the DHR provides a content-rich, inquiry-based, and instructionally-proven online resource for teaching European and United States history. The project contains components that integrate the most valuable elements of classroom environments and primary source analysis with the possibilities of new technology. Because the digital environment creates new opportunities by manipulating images, constructing interactions, and demonstrating sequence, educational technology can teach more complex forms of historical understanding.

Using an Online Calculator to Study the Decision to Enslave Africans

Why English colonists chose to adopt slavery in America and to enslave Africans rather than Native Americans is a question that continues to fascinate historians. (4) Some experts maintain that English colonists rarely enslaved Indians on the North American mainland because to do so would have incited attacks of revenge by the kin of such slaves. The colonists did, however, occasionally sell the survivors of tribes they had defeated in war into slavery in the West Indies.

The module, "Unthinking Decision? Why Did Slavery Emerge in Virginia," describes the economic, religious, demographic, and political factors that shaped this decision. (5) A brief narrative essay explains that tobacco plantations in Virginia initially relied on white indentured servants for labor and only switched to African slaves during the final decades of the seventeenth century; the module then presents students with documents illustrating the racist attitudes of early English settlers, the highly exploitative nature of indentured servitude, and the links between tobacco cultivation and unrest among Virginia's Native Americans, poor white settlers, and wealthy tobacco planters. …