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The Role of Technology in World History Teaching

T. Mills Kelly
George Mason University

    When we think about the role of digital media in the teaching and learning of World History it is appropriate to begin with some historical context. The challenges inherent in teaching a broad historical survey course have been well recognized and debated for more than a century at least. In a report issued by the American Historical Association in 1906 on the first year college history course, Charles Homer Haskins wrote, "The most difficult question which now confronts the college teacher in history seems, by general agreement, to be the first year of the college course."1 All of us who teach (or have taught) introductory survey courses know that few truer words have ever been written. How one presents hundreds or even thousands of years of factual content, while at the same introducing students to historians' many methodological approaches to the interpretation of these facts is difficult enough in a survey of the history of one state or national culture. Instead of trying to make the problem more manageable, we have made the task more difficult for ourselves by broadening or focus to include the entire world.
    As the digital media wave began to roll over history classrooms in the mid-1990s, it seemed that the new technologies would substantially and rapidly transform the ways we teach the survey course. In just a few years, previously unimaginable amounts of historical information—texts, images, music, video—became available to our students (and us) at the click of a mouse. As just one example, the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress alone now offers more than 7 million digitized primary sources drawn from 100 different archival collections. And sometime in the mid 1990s administrators and many faculty members became convinced that infusing information technology into a course would improve learning outcomes. With that conviction came the inevitable pressure on teaching faculty to "ramp up" their courses.
    This compulsion is not new. Charles McIntyre, writing in the Journal of Higher Education, argued:

It should not be necessary at this time to elaborate the reasons that the effective integration of technological developments into educational practice may be highly desirable, if not essential. They apparently provide the means, if we have the will and the wit to use them appropriately, of making significant improvement in the efficiency of our instructional procedures…I do believe that there is evidence that by the use of [new] media (a) the effectiveness of the superior teacher can be extended to more students with little or no diminution; (b) instruction can be systematically structured, revised, and improved in the light of measured student achievement toward agreed-upon goals; (c) the time of teachers can be diverted from lecture, demonstration, and drill and put to better use in instruction requiring the interaction of teacher and student, and (d) teaching can be enriched with a variety and depth of experiences not otherwise available to students. These, I suggest, are conservative claims.

As new technologies are adopted on a wider scale in higher education… the need for extensive equipment, additional staff, and substantial operating funds generally mounts. The grant funds which may have helped at the beginning are no longer available for day-to-day operation, and the full implication of the cost of operating [such] new facilities may, for the first time, become clear to the university administration.2

    As au currant as these words sound to our ears, McIntyre's article appeared in February 1963 and he was writing about the newest media to invade the classroom—television. 4
    For all our anxiety to use more and still more technology, caution is in order. Take for instance, the growing ubiquity of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations in our classrooms. What evidence is there that such slide shows actually improve learning? Could it be, as Edward Tufte argues in his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, that "Slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations…usually weakens verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis"?3 5
    This is not all to say that the arrival of digital media in the teaching and learning of World History is a bad thing. On the contrary, carefully constructed digital media can give our students access to immediate multimedia experiences that conventional teaching cannot provide—encounters with still and moving images, music, data, and text more or less simultaneously. Common sense tells us that these media have the potential to change both teaching and learning in substantial ways. This prospect alone offers a genuinely revolutionary possibility for the teaching and learning of World History, especially if students might actually be pursuing different lines of inquiry simultaneously and interactively in an increasingly networked environment. What we still lack is research to substantiate what our common sense tells us is likely to happen. 6
    I would submit that one reason it is likely that student learning is being transformed by digital media is that the use of networked information transfers control over the exploratory aspect of learning from the instructor to the student. When our students pursue their own lines of reasoning, rather than just trying to answer a question posed by their professor, it is possible that they will arrive at new insights that neither they nor we anticipate. I emphasize the word "possible" here, because my own research on student use of the Internet indicates that a substantial majority of students in the history survey do not embark on what George Landow calls their own "unmediated intellectual quest."4 Instead, they call up a search engine such as Google, type in some likely keywords for their search, peruse the first websites that appear in the Google rankings without much critical analysis of those websites, select some reasonable sounding information that seems to answer their question, and then they move on to the next assignment. How problematic can this approach to research be? A recent Google search on "Latin American history" and "primary sources" turned up 3,130 hits when the terms were delimited. The good news is that the first site to come up in such a search is the Modern History Sourcebook—a reasonable, albeit imperfect choice. The bad news is that the next ten possibilities are all library sites offering useful links (to more sites with links).
    A diligent student will move beyond the first ten results of such a search, but as we have all experienced, even the most diligent student often ends up at a site of questionable quality. For example, if one types "Adolf Hitler" into the Google search engine, the fifth website to appear in the rankings is the Hitler Historical Museum.5 This website can seem like a reasonable choice for research. After all, it appeared in the second position in the Google rankings, its production values are fair, and the site offers visitors:
a non-biased, non-profit museum devoted to the study and preservation of the world history related to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party. True to its role as an educational museum, these exhibits allow for visitors to understand and examine historical documents and information for themselves… No biased judgments, slanderous labels or childish name calling exist here as they do in most of the writings on this topic.

    Only a careful reading of the website indicates that it is clearly a production of those who believe that Hitler was on the right track and has gotten a bum rap over the years. This simple example demonstrates how desperately we need to train our students to use the resources that are available to them on the Internet. At the same time, it must also be said that a minority of our students are doing very interesting work in the vast online archive we are creating for them—producing essays, multimedia presentations, weblogs, and other results that are quite impressive.
    Given the many challenges and opportunities we face in bringing digital media to the World History course, I'd like to focus on three main points that I think will guide what we do in the coming five to ten years as we infuse more and more technology into our courses.
    Most faculty members would agree that our students are incredibly intermediated, by which I mean they are wired to one another in ways none of us would have imagined just ten years ago. Most will also agree that when our students are given a new assignment, the first (and too often only) place they look for answers is online, going to the library only in extremis. This problem raises the question of what, exactly, we know for sure about how students learn using information technology. The answer is very little when it comes to higher education and only a little bit more when it comes of secondary education. We do know a fair amount now about how our students use the technology, but that is not the same thing as research into what kinds of learning takes place when they are using that technology. Because we know next to nothing on that front, all I can say for certain today is that this remains one of the new frontiers in the scholarship of teaching and learning. As Esther Dyson pointed out in a recent radio interview, access to information should not be confused with education.6 Given this situation, until we know more about how the actual learning takes place online, we need to be very explicit in designing resources for our students that promote the kinds of skills with technology that we think are essential to their success in our courses. In the same way that a generation ago we gave our students library skills building assignments, we now need to create similar exercises that take advantage of what the technology offers us.
    A second important issue that must be addressed if we are to tap the full potential of digital media for World History teaching is the training of faculty. As far as I know, only my department at George Mason University includes mandatory new media courses in our training for doctoral students. Only a tiny minority of historians has the skills necessary to produce sophisticated digital media presentations and, I would suggest, this situation is not going to change much in the coming decade. The pressures of professional practice are already such that only a few historians will ever have the time or energy to devote to learning how to produce Flash movies or write MySQL/PHP code. Instead, what is more important is that our colleagues be trained in how to use the resources that exist.
   Most of us are pretty adept by now at searching for information online and are more critical consumers than our students of the information we locate. What we need is training in how to use the resources that exist to train our students to engage in historical research and analysis, and how to teach our students to find and use appropriate resources. At present, such training is largely non-existent. Not one of the many NEH-funded summer seminars for faculty in 2005 provided this sort of training. In the American history survey course the number of syllabi posted online has doubled each year between 1997-2004, but we are doing next to nothing to train our colleagues how to make appropriate use of the materials they direct their students to.7 As evidence of how reluctant faculty teaching history survey courses are to use online resources, Daniel J. Cohen's analysis of U.S. history syllabi posted online shows that only 6% of 2004 syllabi posted online included links to online resources other than the website associated with the course's textbook. At a moment when our students' first (and often only) inclination is to seek additional information online, Cohen's data speak to a clear disconnect between students and their professors. 13
   The third issue remaining to be addressed on our campuses is the continuing lack of sufficient technology infrastructure for those faculty who do want to make full use of digital media to do so without having to cart their own projectors and laptops with them from class to class, or for their students to have sufficient access in the classroom. Despite a massive investment in infrastructure, most campuses in the United States still have only a few classrooms, relative to the total number on campus, that are fully enabled for students and faculty to maximize their experience with new media. Because the share of new students on our campuses who come from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds continues to grow, many of these students find it difficult to access technologically-enhanced learning opportunities in the same ways that their more advantaged peers can. These are familiar challenges, all of which are primarily administrative in nature and all of which can be overcome by increased investment in curricular change, technology infrastructure, and the equalization of student access to technology. The path to their solution may be expensive, but is not especially complicated. 14
  Thus far this essay has sounded like a lot of bad news. Fortunately, there is a lot of good news to balance the bad. Most encouraging is the growing number of high quality websites that provide researchers—whether students or faculty—with sophisticated access to large libraries of primary source material. As more and more of these websites place their source materials into databases rather than folders of flat html files, powerful searching software makes it possible for visitors to these websites to manipulate the information they contain in ever more sophisticated ways. New resources like the Web Scrapbook, created by Daniel Cohen, allow users of these websites to capture and organize what they find there with increasing ease.8 Tools such as these allow students to create and pursue their own lines of inquiry and to engage in the kind of research previously reserved for advanced graduate students and faculty. Seven years ago Randy Bass wrote about these "novices in the archive" to describe what the availability of a vast library of primary source materials online meant for our students.9 Access to large collections of primary sources is a potentially wonderful thing, Bass wrote, but having access to the sources is not the same thing as being able to work with those sources effectively. Here, I think, is one of the other great promises of technology in the years ahead—making visible to novice learners the often-mysterious cognitive processes of expert learners. 15
  One example of how new media can address this need is from a project I co-direct with my colleagues Roy Rosenzweig and Kelly Schrum at the Center for History and New Media. World History Matters ( provides students with multimedia case studies of scholars detailing how they analyze a particular primary source and giving students specific guidance on how they can engage in the same kind of sophisticated analysis of sources. For example, in one of these case studies, Smith College art historian Dana Leibsohn walks students through the analysis of two complicated images—a post conquest map of Mexico City by an Aztec artist and the painting "The Mulatto Gentlemen of Esmeraldas" by Andrés Sánchez Gallque (1599). Leibsohn tells students how she decodes each image, giving detailed instructions on how they too can decode images they find in their research.10 16

Figure 1

Codex Mendoza (c. 1543)

Figure 1

Andrés Sánchez Gallque, The Mulatto Gentlemen of Esmeraldas (1599)
  Our project also addresses the problem of students not finding appropriate websites for their research. World History Matters and its new companion website Women in World History offer visitors a database of more than 225 website reviews written by teaching historians, each of which includes suggestions for students and world history teachers as to how best to use the resources found at these sites. Students who begin their research in this database, rather than Google, will start at the best websites, rather than blundering around on the web looking for something worth using.11 17
  This database of reviewed websites also provides a model for how one might teach students to pay closer attention to the websites they find as they "Google around" on the web. Two years ago I created a database for students to use in my survey course (at George Mason University we are required to teach Western Civilization rather than World History). This "Webography Project" ( requires students to locate websites containing primary sources, write reviews of those websites using a standard rubric, and then deposit those reviews into the project database, thereby making their thinking visible for all students in the class. The most important result of this simple teaching intervention is that my students no longer turn in essays citing strange or simply bad websites as sources. More than 40 teaching historians in North America and Europe now use this project in their courses and the project database contains more than 700 (500 of which are public) student reviews of websites ranging from those deemed to be excellent sites to those to be avoided. 18
  Digital media are also transforming the way that students write about the past and participate in collective knowledge production. Since the late 1990s various forms of the discussion forum (WebCT, BlackBoard, etc.) have become common on college and university campuses. Already we see evidence that these "older" forms of online collaboration are being pushed aside by the expanding blogosphere and the surging popularity of tagging at websites such as and Where once students had websites of their own and used discussion forums and chatrooms to exchange information, now they link their lives—personal and academic—through weblogs, "live journals," tagging, and other forms of digital communities. The website counts more than 2.5 million active users, most of whom are between the ages of 15-23 and more than two-thirds of whom are female.13 This one example demonstrates how comfortable our students are expressing themselves online. At the same time, online writing is transforming the way they write. Catherine Smith argues that students "take real-world writing more seriously when it is done on the web, where it might actually be seen and used."14 My own research on student writing in my survey course validates Smith's. In addition to taking more care with their writing when it is posted online, they also show increasing signs of integrating new ideas from other students' and scholars' work into their own. I and other researchers have seen evidence that this sort of integration of ideas occurs more often in weblog writing than it does in postings to discussion forums such as those in WebCT or Blackboard. For World History teaching, which relies so heavily on students being able to think across time and space to draw together examples from disparate cultures, this integrative style of writing seems especially important. 19
  The final big question when we think about the integration of digital media into the World History course is perhaps the most difficult to answer. When new media are added to a course, do our students learn better, more, or differently? In other words, is there some sort of measurable beneficial outcome from all the time and money invested in ramping up a course? After all, if we cannot point to improved or different learning, then it seems to me that we have wasted both our time and our students'. The World History survey seems a particular apt laboratory for this sort of research because in World History we demand that our students cross national, regional, methodological, and temporal boundaries on a daily basis and the digital world facilitates this sort of boundary-crossing. Fortunately, a growing number of researchers spread across a range of disciplines are inching toward answers to this vexing question, and their answers are rooted in their own epistemologies, rather than being solely the property of cognitive psychologists and schools of education. Historians, literary theorists, chemists, mathematicians and many others are engaging in more and more assessment of the impact of technology on learning in their courses. While some of this research is being conducted by individuals working in isolation, a substantial portion of the inquiry into what is really different about teaching and learning with new media is occurring in collaborative endeavors like the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) and the Visible Knowledge Project based at Georgetown University.15 20
  As a participant in both of these efforts over the past several years, I can say that the researchers affiliated with both projects have made significant progress in the framing of the right questions to ask about technology and learning, and some have even begun to offer interesting, albeit tentative conclusions. In my own case, I have been able to demonstrate that web-based assignments can induce greater recursive reading of sources. Similarly, Sherry Linkon's students at Youngstown State University have demonstrated a deeper understanding of the interdisciplinary concepts central to American Studies as a result of certain exercises in new media that she created for them. In both cases, and in most I am familiar with, these small successes were not the result of the general adoption of technology in a course. Rather, they were the result of carefully designed assignments that were rooted in specific learning objectives and were also the result of several trials (with accompanying errors along the way) spread over multiple semesters. What has not appeared from any of these efforts—individual or collaborative—is a consensus about what we know, as opposed to what we hope or suspect, about the real impact of technology on student learning. Much more research is needed before such a consensus will emerge. 21
  I believe that we are on the brink of something genuinely different when it comes to the teaching and learning of World History. Because digital media have such promise, and because they are so readily adopted by our students, we have many opportunities before us to transform what we are doing in the survey course. At the same time, taking full advantage of these opportunities is not going to be inexpensive. It remains to be seen if our institutions will invest sufficiently in the infrastructure and training that will make it possible for us to harness digital media to our learning goals, or whether we will continue to nibble around the fringes of what is possible. 22

1 "Report of the Conference of the First Year of College Work in History," in The Annual Report of the American Historical Association for 1905, 1 (Washington, 1906): 149.

2 Charles J. McIntyre, The Journal of Higher Education, 34:2 (February 1963): 85-86.

3 Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint (Graphics Press, 2003).

4 George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0:The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): 183.

5 Hitler Historical Museum, Accessed March 21, 2006.

6 The Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU-FM (Washington, D.C.), February 14, 2006. Podcast available at

7 Daniel J. Cohen, "By the Book: Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses," The Journal of American History (March 2005). (21 Mar. 2006).

9 Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, "Teaching Culture, Learning Culture, and New Media Technologies: An Introduction and Framework."  Intentional Media: The Crossroads Conversations on Learning and Technology in the American Culture and History Classroom.  Randy Bass, Teresa Derricksen, Bret Eynon, and Mark Sample, eds.; Works and Days 16.1-2 (1998): 42-50.

11 "Finding World History," in World History Matters, Accessed March 21, 2006. Women in World History is available at

12 See and "Tagging" is the process whereby visitors to a site add their own meta-data to the information they are viewing. So, for instance, a visitor to the Hurricane Digital Archive ( and spend some time looking at the photographs there of the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina. If this site allowed tagging, that visitor could add her own meta-data to an image of a house turned sideways by the wind, such as "house" or "wind damage." Subsequent visitors to the website could then sort through the images either according to the meta-data supplied by the site's creators or by the site's visitors.

13 Accessed March 21, 2006.

14 Catherine Smith, "Nobody, which means anybody: Audience on the world wide web," in Sibylle Gruber ed., Weaving a virtual web: Practical approaches to new information technologies, (Urbana: NCTE, 2000): 241.

15 The Carnegie website is: ( The VKP website is:


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