Computer Mediated Learning Environments: How Useful Are They?

Orville Vernon Burton, Ian Binnington, David F. Herr, and Matthew Cheney, January 2003

Editor's Note: We publish below a summary report of the results of a study conducted by the authors with support from the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Click here for a detailed version of this report.

Computers and their digital environments continue to enter the history profession, but the benefits are unclear. The variety of uses confounds long-term evaluation, as does the lack of essential information regarding the effect of computers on teaching and learning. In an effort to begin a clarification, we conducted a survey of historians. Rather than narrowly defining the terrain of historical computing, we inquired about computer-mediated learning environments (CLEs); this term encompasses any computer site, program, tool, or presentation employed in the distribution or creation of historical information and resources. The survey was not random, but sought responses from the leaders in historical computing. We reason a constructive dialogue should begin with those most involved. While future efforts should consider a broader canvassing of the profession, we were pleased to find that the 81 historians who responded are, as one scholar noted, "not wild-eyed enthusiasts; they are seriously critical and have mixed feelings." There is much careful consideration regarding the costs and benefits of historical computing, but as we toil with the issues, we also struggle integrating this concern among our professional priorities.

What Difference Does Historical Computing Make?

Respondents were divided: some believe historical computing has and will transform the nature and practice of history, and others believe these technological innovations offer little beyond improved access to materials. Although many thought CLEs merely continued current practices rather than opening up new ways to teach history, one leading light in support of computing innovation stated, "the possibilities are limited only by imagination, resources, and time."

Can Students Take Advantage of Computing Environments Effectively?

Scholars indicated a conflict between the desire to adopt computing environments in their teaching and a pessimism about the abilities of students to use them. Respondents recognized the promise of digital media in their familiarity to students and in their democratizing potential. One scholar wrote, "This generation of students is a digital generation and they will naturally expect learning to be visual and fast." At the same time, respondents disapproved of the facile and uncritical way that current undergraduates engage electronic multimedia. The positive contributions of speed and ease of use become negative features when students use computer environments as the shortest distance to completing an assignment.

What Is the Impact on Library Skills and Research Methods?

Some responses saw great possibilities, "the ability to do so many things so rapidly and to store data and articles on servers cheaply, should help free historical scholarship from the criticism of being 'unmarketable.'" Digital information provides new access to historical materials, which is particularly important to faculty teaching at non-research universities and colleges. Some also noted computer technology promoted better communication among scholars through e-mail and listservs. Overall, however, respondents concluded that increased access to material on-line has had a dramatically negative impact on the reliance on traditional print sources for research and teaching. One argued that "younger students expect to do too much of their research online and let their other library skills lie undeveloped." If historical computing does not motivate students to go to libraries or consult archival collections, then teachers must continue to do this.

How Do We Teach Students to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff on The Web?

Many respondents expressed the concern that quality control on the web is a serious problem. As one scholar noted, "although one of the major strengths of the web is easy access-for viewers and those wishing to post material, there is a huge problem with identifying reliable and helpful sites." Restricting the number of web sources often does little to change students' uncritical engagement. A respondent gauged the problem by noting it was possible to predict the search engine rank of a bibliographic entry: the higher the result on a search engine list, the more likely it would show up in the bibliography. Rather than being a problem of quality, respondents believe such problems reflect students' preference for speed over effort.

What Is the Place of Historical Computing in Teaching and Research?

This is a critical question facing the academy in the twenty-first century. Have our paradigms of professional advancement and recognition advanced sufficiently to meet the needs of the Internet-ready generation of scholars? Two of the leading figures in this generation think not; for one, the key is how to obtain "recognition at tenure and promotion time, most of all. The demand is there but bottled up by fears of professional suicide." For the other, "the nonsense of having colleagues who have no understanding or interest in CLE based research and teaching blocking the professional advancement of those of us who do, has to stop." Respondents questioned what the leading academic organizations, both established and emergent, can do to foster a change in the mindset of the profession.

Many among us have embraced computer technology as a primary mode of scholarship, and articles on various aspects of this discipline are a staple in academic journals and newsletters. Yet, this survey shows that most of the respondents wanted a better assessment of the potential benefits. They raise a wide array of questions that we have to face as a profession. What will be the overall transformative effect of computer environments on History? Who is in control of this transformation, our students or us? How do we reward colleagues who employ modes of scholarship that others might not understand or appreciate? How do we judge the quality of computer environments in comparison to more traditional and familiar forms of research and teaching? Ultimately, if we take away one conclusion from this survey, it should be this: CLE use is already certain; now we must determine how to invest our time and creativity into historical computing environments, guiding their applications in history research and teaching-respecting these digital forms as a medium, and not the message.

—Orville Vernon Burton is professor of history and University Distinguished Teacher /Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was selected as the 1999 U.S. Research and Doctoral University Professor of the Year (presented by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education).

—David F. Herr is an assistant professor of history at St. Andrews Presbyterian College. He is an editor of H-South. His research interests include computing in history as well as early 19th-century Southern community.

—Ian Binnington is an advanced graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on the iconography of wartime Confederate nationalism. He is also the book review editor for H-South.

—Matthew Cheney is an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include race relations and the Voting Rights Act. He is also the project manager of RiverWeb and the Web Editor for H-South.