I just returned from an excellent workshop, “Teaching History in the Digital Age – International Perspectives,” organised at the German Historical Institute in Paris in cooperation with the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH). Over two days, a nicely balanced group of twenty historians, from PhD candidate to professor emerita, discussed their experiences with teaching digital history at universities in Britain, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. Many shared an experience of being their department’s Mme Numerique (Mrs. Digital, yes for once, most of the presenters were women), the go-to person for all things digital, allowing colleagues to remain splendidly ignorant and disinterested in teaching or research matters that involve digital tools and methods. The workshop thus provided a great venue for discussing things we really ought to discuss on an everyday basis with our colleagues: what tools and skills should we teach our students – tomorrow’s professional historians – and what best practices do we identify as we are becoming more seasoned teachers of digital history?
The answer to that question of course hinges on who “our students” are: teaching a compulsory skills course on digital history as part of a 3-year history programme is very different from teaching an elective course to students with a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds. The general impression was that even if MA and PhD students might be intrinsically motivated to take a skills course, skills should not be taught in isolation. For students to understand the relevance of a tool or a method, context is necessary. In his keynote, Dan Todman (Queen Mary University London) presented a long-running course in which undergraduates learn digital source criticism and database management without losing focus of the actual topic: Britain and the Great War. The course title doesn’t even indicate that the course contains “digital history” and hopefully this is the future we’re heading towards. All participants in the workshop seemed to agree with Gerben Zaagsma’s argument that digital history is not a subfield but a key ingredient in all historical teaching and research. As it stands, however, digital history is a useful phrase that helps us emphasise “how data and tools are changing historical knowledge production” (Zaagsma 2013, p. 16).
This leads me to my next point. Although we might be living in a digital age, this does not mean that all students are tech-savvy digital natives. Almost two decades after the term was popularized (Prensky 2001), the workshop participants still encountered students who didn’t know how to right-click and said they were “afraid of computers”. This comes as no surprise: a critical review of the “digital natives” debate showed that variation within the “digital native” generation is likely to be as high as variation between the natives and the so-called “digital immigrants” (Bennett, Maton, Kervin 2008). Only one participant at the workshop, an undergraduate student assistant, identified as a fully-fledged digital native. A key question for the design of courses in digital history must therefore be: how do I organise the course so students with poor computer skills can catch up while the tech-savvy remain interested? The presentations offered several ideas. Caroline Muller (Rennes 2) gave examples of low-stake exercises based on the students’ everyday experiences with social media and Google that work well to get them started. Christiane Sibille (Basel) and several others often divide students into smaller groups and spread the tech-savviest between them, thus facilitating peer-learning. The workshop’s hand-on discussions of pedagogical practices was greatly appreciated and ideas were floated about continuing the exchange, for instance through the sharing of course curricula and examples of student work. Hopefully this workshop was just the beginning of a sustained discussion on how best to teach digital history.
Full workshop programme available here.
Bennett, Sue, Karl Maton, and Lisa Kervin. “The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence.” British journal of educational technology 39.5 (2008): 775–786.
Prensky, Marc. “Digital natives, digital immigrants.” On the horizon 9.5 (2001): 1–6.
Zaagsma, Gerben. “On digital history.” BMGN-Low Countries Historical Review 128.4 (2013): 3–29.