The hubris of a digital historian. . .

Writers spill way, way, way too much ink writing about the future of education as it relates to computers. I’m not going to rehash all debates or research on digital education except to say three things:

  1. Technology does not equal progress forward for humanity. Witness the history of weapons, or, say singing cats videos. If you’d like to read someone who understands this and writes about education, see Hack Education. (Hat tip @Trianglemancsd for sharing)
  2. Students demonstrate uneven penetrations of knowledge about technology. Older does not equal clueless, younger does not equal skilled.
  3. Technology skills do help get students jobs.

Given theses issues, how do I as a teacher work to ensure digital technology benefits my students, rather than act as barnacles on their career ships?

The answer, I think, lies partly in the emerging field of digital history. The best explanation for digital history comes from the leading book in the field, by Dan Cohen and Roy Rozenzweig. Dan and Roy call digital history “gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the web.” Aside from the fact that we call it the internet and not the web (the book was published in 2005), that’s as good a definition as I’ve seen. Digital history encompasses the creation online timelines, using geographic information systems (GIS) to overlay historical maps on current maps, coding applications to find and then analyze historical data, and using “big data” linguistic analysis. And that’s a short list of what’s been done.

Digital history sounds advanced, and it can be. Check out this syllabus by a leader in the field of digital history. If I were still in graduate school this would be a dream course.

But I’m not, and I have 130-180 students taking introductory world and Minnesota history courses. And many of these students won’t graduate, much less go on to graduate school in history. Yet, the skills learned doing digital history can be applied broadly, regardless of degree completion. A student who can pull data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau can work in public policy jobs. A little bit of GIS knowledge can make journalism a viable option. And everyone could use a little training on how the web gets baked before being served.

In the Minnesota State College and University System (MnSCU), we work to create stackable learning elements, say a certificate in Religious studies, that might lead to an Associates degree in history, that might lead to a Bachelor’s degree in international business. The idea is to create a ladder of credentials that are recognizable to the hiring world. We also know that students who feel they’ve accomplished something (ok, I’ve got a certificate in health care, I could do a couple more classes for a nursing degree) and have a stronger success rates.

Stackable learning is great, but for many students, the institutional certification is less important than the skill. I want students to be able to stack digital history skills unto knowledge from three nursing courses and work as website administrators for medical libraries. Normandale and MnSCU should create stackable credentials, but I’ve no control of most institutional changes. I’m the king of my classroom though, so here goes.

The third part of this project is to learn sufficient digital history that I can introduce it in meaningful ways that engage both their historical imaginations and their desire for skills that will get them jobs. I already swim pretty comfortably in digital waters, but this is going to be a deep dive. Right now I’m learning R using Swirlstats, teaching myself non-google maps engnine GIS, creating an Omeka website, and trying to learn how to scrape and present data using a couple different tools.

In keeping with my anti-poverty pedagogy course design, all of the tools I use with the students will be free, and I’d prefer they be OS agnostic and web based. Teaching myself a dozen digital history tools over a summer is likely hubris, I recognize. Still, the alternative is to let another year’s worth of students through my courses without helping them see the wider digital world, and that’s unacceptable.

Finally, as you’ve noted, my writing here isn’t pretty, carefully crafted, or brief. My post on textbooks, written in an exhausted state, included a huge, basic-math error. This blog is about process, and I know I’m going to fail. My hope is that if I fail publicly, I can fail better. As teachers, we need to fail better, especially when it comes to digital pedagogy.

Safe home.

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