I have written previously on effective ways of teaching history, and what students should learn in a history course. It is important that students gain command over thinking historically, and learn content thematically. This investigation has been largely unidirectional in its focus on what teachers should offer and expect from there students. These explorations still impart most authority and knowledge with the teacher, leaving students in a position of passive learning. In Digital Humanities: Teaching History in the Digital Age, T. Mills Kelly writes about how students and their relationship to digital technology influenced him to rethink his approach to conducting a history class. Kelly noticed that digital technology offers unique opportunities for students to create their own content, and assert authority and involvement in interpreting the past.
One of Kelly’s most formative experiences occurred when one of his students created “remixes” of World War II era propaganda clips. The student took the same clip Kelly showed class, and set the clip to different songs in two remixes of the clip. Kelly played the clips for the class the remixed versions. One of the remixes was set to classical music, and the student created argued that this new version was more effective with this change in music. This remix embodied an authenticity that resonated with students. It became more relevant and powerful to students in its new version. While it took some effort on Kelly’s part to win students over, and convince them of the value of unadulterated primary sources, and the value of the propaganda film in its originally form, this did pose some important questions for Kelly. Was this remix a form of historical interpretation? Do students and their familiarity with digital technology create a potential to create interpretive content and become more active learners?
Kelly points to the emerging generation of college students and their relationship with the internet as evidence that students are prepares and would benefit from being historical content creators. In the early days of the World Wide Web, users’ interaction typically involved consuming content. If users interacted with the Web, their activity was limited to submitting to message boards. Now, people are increasingly creating their own content on the web. The vast majority of students enter the classroom having created content through social media like facebook and twitter. Students are increasingly comfortable and experienced in contributing to the Internet. Kelly advocates that history students have the ability to create new interpretations and historical content, through emerging digital technologies that they interact with on a frequent basis.
While professors at Middlebury college banned the use of the user generated content of wikipedia, Kelly sees a real and valuable potential for investing more authority in students. If students are accustomed to accessing content online, is it realistic or effective to demand they get information from more traditional print sources. If the world is rapidly changing, can History stay relevant to students if it is only taught in the lame lecture model that it has been taught in for the last 100 years? Kelly argues that there are serious gains to be made if students are given creative ownership in interpreting History. Wikipedia may make hesitant teachers nervous because it invests authority in the users, rather than the scholarly experts. Yet, wikipedia is how people in society gain overviews of topics of interests. Such a site provides opportunity to peak interest and curiosity by providing students with a starting off point, and also provides a venue for students to share their own knowledge, as policed by community standards that require citation and community review.
Even though Kelly has received a slew of criticism and rejection of his calls for change, he strongly advocates for the potential that digital technology has in making historians. Students can be invested with the authority and responsibility to create new and original historical content though digital media. Kelly notes, “If they make history using digital media, they are much more likely to understand history, and to embrace it as more than just a subject they are interested in. They will become historians themselves, some of them in ways we have not yet thought of.” If history wants to gain and retain relevance in changing society, it should engage in the endless possibilities afforded by technology. New technology can provide students the tools to make history, and take an active and creative role in learning. This approach allows students to approach history in terms that align with their life experiences as internet and digital technology users. Ideally, incorporation of digital technology in the classroom would facilitate a more invested and involved student.