The Internet and the History Classroom: Introduction
Robert B. Townsend, May 2003
Just a few years ago, authors in Perspectives were debating strategies for holding the attention of history students raised on MTV. Connecting with students through the Internet seemed to provide a fresh avenue for building bridges to a generation brought up on the pervasive flash and thunder of the modern media.
As the authors of the articles in this forum attest, the problem of attracting and holding student attention persists, but teachers face a new challenge in the history classroom. Teachers and students alike find the Internet a vast and treacherous sea. The web now provides access to a wealth of data that extends well beyond the limits of many of the best research libraries. But it is a library in which only small pockets of material are properly catalogued, where documents and evidence are often deposited with little care for archival integrity or scholarly authenticity, and worse still, where cranks and ideologues are free to peddle falsified evidence.
Many—if not most—students now start their research on the Internet. This challenges us as scholars and educators to teach students to use these materials wisely, and teach ourselves how to critically assess their use of these materials. The articles that follow offer three approaches to these questions, providing assessment tools for the teachers and perhaps some useful guides for students as well.
John McClymer's essay sets a useful framework for reading the other two essays. Citing his own experience in the classroom, he suggests strategies for providing "structured access" to the abundance of materials on the Internet. He walks us through the process of developing a course syllabi that sets parameters on the ways students use the Internet, and demonstrates some useful strategies for developing a student's understanding about how to access and read materials on the web.
However, he advises us to see the abundance as an opportunity, as well as a problem—providing a fresh means to read deeply and see works in a larger context.
Of course, doing this places an added burden on those leading the class, as teachers need to be able to see the larger picture and differentiate the good from the bad in the wide range of materials available. The next two articles describe projects to assist in that process of discernment.
Kelly Schrum describes the work of the Center for History and New Media, which provides a rich base of materials, as well as analytical guides for students and teachers interested in using online materials.
William Paquette takes up some of the choices involved in establishing such an evaluative site—describing his involvement in the Merlot project based in the California State University Digital Learning Center. At the same time, he reminds us of some of the excitement that those earlier authors were seeking as an antidote to the competition from other media.
It is still too soon to tell whether the marriage between history and new media will be a long and happy one. But the early signs are promising.
—Robert B. Townsend is AHA assistant director for research and publications.