Bridging the Digital Divide: Reflective Essay on "Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age"


During the past decade there has been considerable discussion about the "digital divide," the widening gap between the technological "haves" and "have nots" in the US and globally.1 Many have predicted that this gap will become ever wider over the next decades, and that significant numbers of poor peoples and nations will be left behind in the revolution in information technology that is sweeping the globe. It is indeed disquieting to think that the global technological transformation now occurring will only serve to intensify disparities and inequities among peoples, however, my observations of this project in relation to recent trends, I am optimistic that over time, the "digital divide" in the US will be narrowed, and that most sectors of society, domestically and globally, will partake of the new technologies and utilize them towards their ends. While digital divide issues have played a role in the experiences of the Southern California cluster in this project, I believe that the conditions that created them are rapidly changing and that the spread of new technologies will shortly lead to an outburst of creative development in higher education, and possibly towards the emergence of a new paradigm in teaching and learning.

Historians and The Digital Divide

My role in "Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age" as Southern California cluster leader has largely been that of coordinating the efforts of six historians to develop web-based teaching materials for the world history survey course, and to identify and work with a small group of historians to review and "field test" those materials. Our objective has been to see ways in which web-based materials can facilitate the use of active learning strategies using primary sources in the survey course, so that history survey courses can also be used to enhance the teaching of critical thinking skills in the general education curriculum. Through all, our objective has nurture a small "learning community" of historians who span the gap between two and four year institutions and who engage in constructive dialogue on the nature of the project and the teaching and learning issues it embodies. Although "digital divide" issues have played a role in the unfolding of the project during the past two or more years, these will cease to be as critical as the new educational technologies become more commonplace, easy to use, and as more computer-literate persons enter the historical profession in years to come. When the technologies become more familiar, we will be able to reflect on the teaching and learning issues with greater assurance than we are at present.

Many history faculty express some reluctance to incorporate Internet-based assignments into their classes because of the problem of access. On my campus, for example, a recent survey indicated that 30% of our students do not have Internet access at home. Thus, if we assign our students web-based materials, many will have to work on the project at one of the computer labs on campus. Additionally, some colleges have very limited student computer facilities, further complicating the problem of access. As many students are juggling their education with work and family obligations, problems of access are sometimes viewed as a hardship. Many instructors have worried about this problem. Are we discriminating against our students if we mandate that they complete computer and Internet-driven assignments? At the same time, we know that to be competitive and functional in their world, they must be computer literate. Paradoxically, are we discriminating against them if we do not require them to do computer-based assignments.

Although this has been the first question raised by faculty with respect to this project and hence has become the de facto framework guiding discussion, I believe there is often a deeper reluctance at work. The fact is that many faculty members in history and other fields in the humanities are only minimally computer literate (simple word processing and, increasingly, email). In my small History department, which consists of eight tenured or tenure track faculty and a cadre of approximately 4-6 part-time instructors, three of the eight full-timers do not have Internet access from their home office computers and are only now getting office computers that will enable easy Internet access.

Moreover, and more to the point, most of my colleagues believe that the Internet has little to offer them as a research tool, as either they work with textual materials not presently available on the Web or they specialize in types of research (e.g., close reading of texts) that makes the Web irrelevant. They have little incentive to explore the use of the new technology in their teaching, nor any particular interest in the use of technology for its own sake. It is a hard sell to convince them that they should try something new and technologically different from what has been tried and true both in their classes and in their experience as professional historians.

Thus if my department is not atypical, although the reluctance of history faculty to explore the new teaching technologies may be framed in terms of concern for students, the "culture" of the historical profession is an equally significant or even greater factor. In a subtle way, I believe these factors have also emerged in the work of our core group. Completing our projects has required far more computer literacy than we had anticipated, and for a majority of the core faculty, the technological dimension was the most challenging aspect of the project.

While at present use of the Internet is largely "transparent," i.e., easy to access and user friendly, at this time in the history of the technology, construction of web-based sites is not so transparent, although it is becoming easier all the time. That is to say, construction of web-based lessons requires much more than minimal computer literacy, as well as use of fairly expensive equipment such as fast and large computers, scanners, digital cameras, etc. While many people in the US do have such equipment for their personal use, the struggling academics I have worked with by and large do not, nor do they have lots of disposable income with which to purchase them. This equipment has not yet become part of their repertory of home consumer products the way that television sets and other appliances are, for example.

For most of the Southern California core faculty in this AHA project, the technology has been the most daunting aspect of our charge. Except for Nancy Fitch of CSU Fullerton, who easily was the most advanced among us in terms of her experience with the technology of developing web-based materials, the others were inexperienced and had varying degrees of understanding of the enterprise as a whole. Again, most of us had little or no experience engaging in our own research using the Web and no experience at all in using computer-based technologies in our teaching. Although Professor Jan Reiff of UCLA helped to orient us to the issues implicit in the project, most of us have had to learn by doing-evidence for the constructivist learning model?

For most of us, technical support from our institutions ranged from non-existent (Bill Jones at Mount SAC and Tom Reins at Fullerton College) to partial (Dave Smith at CSU Pomona and Lael Sorenson at CSU Los Angeles). For myself, I relied upon a colleague who teaches computer-based instruction courses at my university. Without Nancy Fitch's personal one-on-one assistance to several core faculty, we all would have had a far more difficult time. Thus our institutions reflected the digital divide in American higher education--between two and four year institutions and between teaching institutions and research-focused institutions--in terms of computing capability and especially in terms of technical support. In this respect, the participants in this project have been on the other (wrong) side of the digital divide during the time the project was underway.

Problems in the History Survey

As our charge in this AHA project was to focus on the role of new educational technologies in the teaching of the world history survey course, it is of interest to see ways that the core faculty considered the use of technology to address the problems inherent in the teaching of the survey course. These problems are: 1) the problem of student motivation; 2) the problem of "coverage" and, 3) the problem of integration of skill development with content delivery.2 Although these problems are interrelated, we will consider them separately here.

With regard to student motivation, the survey course is primarily designed as a venue for students to learn basic historical information as well as basic historical concepts. The former often consists inevitably and unavoidably in the retention of historical facts, such as names of historically important people and dates of historically important events, while the historical concepts are most commonly comprised of notions such as chronological thinking or cause/effect sequences. It is probably fair to say that in our assignments and exams for the survey courses, retention of factual information is emphasized at least equally as understanding of basic historical concepts, and probably more so.

We have a basic contradiction with regard to history survey courses, in that we focus on historical facts but we are reasonably certain, based on anecdotal evidence that students offer, that the majority of these historical facts will not be retained in the students' memories for very long after the class has ended. We must teach our students the historical facts if the students are to achieve any of the other skills and insights associated with historical knowledge. In particular, analysis of documentary materials, interpretation of historical events, and construction of historical narratives all require knowledge of the basic historical facts, and the survey course is where this knowledge, precursor to higher forms of historical understanding, is introduced at the college level.

Yet we know that many students find the memorization of names and dates to be onerous and boring. How many of us have heard from students that they "hated" history in high school because "all we did" was memorize names and dates? A student will likely be turned off to the joys of historical investigation because the names and dates that have to be learned have little or no intrinsic meaning.

By and large, our core faculty did not directly address a technology-based solution to this problem, although it was an implicit element in their projects. A technology-neutral approach to the problem of motivation of students in survey courses generally focuses on three types of classroom assignments or activities: 1) those that personalize history through examples; 2) those that study a certain number of events or topics in-depth ("post-holing"); and, 3) those that emphasize active learning, or "doing history" through investigation of primary sources.

The first solution, personalizing history, is often attempted through lectures and readings about persons who lived in the past, but can also be linked to autobiographical or family history assignments. The second solution, in-depth focus, is usually modeled in lectures and then accomplished through assignment of a term paper based on secondary sources, or through a series of shorter writing assignments based on additional reading of secondary sources. The third, active learning through historical investigation based on primary sources, is less frequently employed in the survey courses but often provides the basis for discussion sections or full classroom sessions devoted to discussion of primary sources from readers that often are companions to world history textbooks.

All of the web-based projects developed by the Southern California core faculty can be used to implement one or more of the solutions to the problem of motivation. All of the projects use primary sources in conjunction with discussion questions developed by the lesson designer (active learning through primary sources); all lend themselves to production of one or more specialized writing assignments (post-holing); and at least two (Fitch and Pomerantz) provide the basis for biography and family history projects (personalizing history).

However, in general the core faculty themselves did not overtly address the issue of the role of technology in dealing with student motivation. As a rule, each instructor develops and refines solutions on a dynamic, on-going basis through the process of teaching, and generally these solutions are achieved by relying more on in-class discussions, either whole class or in small group format, and through refining the selection of assigned materials. These solutions have been made, for the most part, without having thought about technology as an aspect to the solution of a teaching and learning problem, and most of the core faculty simply reproduced the structure for in-class discussions and group work onto the web. A basic question that needs to be asked, and which has not yet been asked, is: what do these web-based lessons add to the solution of the problem of motivation that is unique, that cannot be solved effectively through non-technological means?

The second problem, related to the first, is that of "coverage." The greater the chronological and geographical scope of the survey course, the harder it is to cover all the material, and the more critical the problem of student motivation becomes. If what I have noted above is true, then students become more interested when there is time to stop and smell the flowers, so to speak, rather than "viewing flowers on horseback," as the Chinese expression goes. I think it is fair to say that none of the Southern California core faculty in this project consciously considered the role of technology in addressing this problem, although it was implicit in their choice of lessons to develop in the web environment. As with the first problem, a next step is to consciously ask the question of whether technology can provide a different or better solution to the problem of "coverage" in the survey course. Is there some new or different way that computer-technology can assist us in addressing this problem?

Finally, we have the problem of the integration of basic skill development with course content. All of us fret about how to organize our courses so that all the relevant periods of history are covered in sufficient depth, while at the same time using the opportunity afforded by the course to teach or reinforce basic skills such as critical reading, writing and analytical thinking. While in theory this interface should work smoothly, in practice it often involves a constant juggling act in the allocation of instructional time between skill development and content coverage. Many faculty members express frustration at what they perceive as their students' low level of basic skill mastery and resent having to "take time away" from the content of the course to spend time working with the class on writing effective theses statements or topic sentences, for example, or ways to develop a good paragraph, or how to read for the main idea.

As with the issues described above, each instructor develops his or her own individual solution to deal with the problem of integration of basic skills, and in general, as in the cases described above, these solutions have generally been made without regard to technological solutions. Indeed, some faculty may feel that adding technology to the mix poses additional problems for the instructor. Not only does one have reading, writing and critical thinking skills to take time away from the course content, but now one has to deal with problems of computer literacy! Rather than being an enhancement, therefore, technology may be seen as a burden by faculty struggling with the problem of covering a great deal of course material.

The task of the Southern California cluster in this AHA project was specifically to see how we could use the new technologies to facilitate the development of critical reasoning skills of students in the survey courses through use of different types of primary sources. The focus on critical thinking derived from our view that history as a discipline lends itself to strengthening of critical reasoning skills, especially by teaching students how to read texts closely and evaluate their utility as historical sources. While historical habits of mind may differ somewhat from critical reasoning as defined in the general education curricula, there is still considerable overlap, and this is where our group of historians wanted to focus their efforts.

As in the case of the other problems delineated above, however, there was some ambiguity in the ways we dealt specifically with the role of technology in addressing this problem. At least three of the six projects (Fitch, Sorenson, Pomerantz) sought to integrate pictorial sources with written texts, and in one case also began to experiment with incorporation of audio-based source materials as well, thereby utilizing one of the important features of the new technology. We have yet to address the question, however, of what is different about using these sources in a computer and Internet-based environment from using multimedia resources in an in-class environment.

Similarly, we did not address ways to use hyperlink technology to specifically focus on basic skill development. For example, we have become accustomed to using spell checkers and sometimes grammar checking software to improve writing and expect our students to use these word processing features. Dictionaries and multimedia encyclopedias are yet other examples of hyperlink reference functions that aid in writing, as is software specifically designed to help students organize essays and develop generalizations. Are there ways we could have used hyperlink functions to aid in critical reasoning skills? Perhaps, this must remain for further research and exploration.

Thus, the Southern California historians who have participated in this project have varied in their approaches to the questions posed above. For all of us, I think it is fair to say that the web-based projects we developed have served as "extras" rather than as "staples" in the survey course "diet." For most of us that diet consists largely of lecture/discussion format, with some emphasizing the former over the latter. For example, one core faculty member, Dave Smith, has developed his own survey teaching method that emphasizes group projects oriented along structured comparative categories for analysis ("Doing World History"); this method was developed for use in an in-class environment and has not been expanded to consider its functioning in a web environment. Others are eclectic, incorporating group work as aspects of class discussion time. As our classes vary in size from about 40 over 100 students, there are different choices instructors make about how to structure in-class as well as out-of-class time.

One further point needs to be noted about the experiences of the core faculty in developing their materials, and that is the problem with fair use of copyrighted materials. For in-class use, instructors tend to be very informal about their use of Xeroxed materials and rarely perceive the need to obtain permission of the author or publisher. For our web-based lessons, however, we had to be very cautious in this regard and could utilize or link only to materials in the public domain. This necessitated considerable searching in some cases, and considerable hand-wringing. In one case, that of Lael Sorenson's lesson, the web-based lesson differs considerably from its printed version because of the constraints the project observed with regard to copyright regulations.

In general, the core faculty approached the problem of their "assignment" in this project by thinking about topics and assignments they were already teaching, and seeing how those topics and assignments could "translate" to the web environment. This is a reflection of our current level of understanding of technology and its impact on learning. If we consider teaching, especially the integration of new technologies into teaching, as a developmental process, then this project has served to provide each of us with a "snapshot" of our stage of development at this particular point. I think that as the technologies become more familiar and more transparent, we will become more sophisticated in our thinking about their role in the teaching and learning process and more adept at using them to inform our work.

Towards a New Paradigm?

In November 2000 my campus (relatively small and underfunded, beset with many of the same problems experienced by other small, relatively poor colleges nationwide) celebrated its first ever "Technology Day." This day-long program provided an opportunity for the campus community to learn about the technological infrastructure that has been put in place during the past few years on our campus. In the past ten years, approximately $2-$2.5 million has been spent (in campus, CSU system, and federal funds) to upgrade the campus "backbone" and to purchase up-to-date desktop PCs for each faculty office. Starting next year, the University plans to provide each class and each faculty member with individual web sites, so that on-line discussion groups, class sessions and examinations, in addition to web-based lessons and assignments, will be feasible. Additionally, in the next couple of years, "smart" classrooms will be constructed throughout the campus, giving faculty instant access to our multimedia resources in their classrooms, including digitized films and videotapes. Faculty will be able to access Internet sites directly in the classroom as well, and students will have enhanced Internet access from campus computer labs and from terminals at student housing facilities.

One may think that even the relatively modest capital investment made by my university is beyond the means of many struggling colleges and universities in the US, but on the contrary, it is within the resources of many more. My university is about in the middle of the nationwide curve technologically. It is also worth noting that the rapid expansion of wireless technology may soon lower even these relatively modest capital outlay costs. The wireless revolution is presently enabling the "have nots" to leap directly into a wireless-based technological transformation without much capital outlay at all. This means that what I have described above either has happened already at your institution, or will be happening soon. We in higher education will soon no longer be able to think of ourselves as "have nots" with respect to the "digital divide," and it is time to examine the possibilities embodied in the new educational technologies and to think about what implications they hold for the teaching and learning process in our field.

We are in the midst of an era in which many changes are occurring in higher education, some but not all of them fueled by new communications technologies. In particular, Internet technology is facilitating an explosion in distance learning or mediated instruction courses and programs. The web-based projects developed in the AHA's "Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age" are ambiguous as to the ways they might be used by instructors. They might be used as an adjunct to the traditional survey classroom, or they could conceivably form part of a course taught entirely through Internet-based distance learning. Both non-profit and for-profit educational institutions are experimenting with the use of synchronous and asynchronous instructional modes that allow students to take courses "anywhere, anytime," at their own convenience, a phenomenon that may be a fad but more likely is not.

From teacher-centered instruction, the focus shifts with computer-based technologies, subtly or not so subtly, to student-centered learning. The student's active learning is facilitated in that the computer-using student is in a better position to direct his or her own access to information through use of the Internet. This possibility carries with it enormous potential for shifts in the teaching and learning process.

The changes in the "teaching" part of the "teaching and learning process" as a result of the new educational technologies are more readily apparent than are those in the "learning" part. As we undergo transformation from a teaching-centered to a learning-centered model, from passivity to activity on the part of the student, and from information-centered to analysis-centered as to course content, it appears that the role of the instructor is diminished. From master of the classroom, quite literally dominating the classroom from the lectern, the instructor now becomes a guide or facilitator. It is a more modest, and perhaps a more passive role than that to which we are accustomed, and instructors may feel that they have less control over their student's learning. The outcomes seem even more intangible and transient than in the conventionally taught class, because at least in the traditional classroom we knew that something had happened, because we made it happen. As noted recently by Lloyd Armstrong in Change, the publication of the American Association of Higher Education, the role of the instructor in the new educational technology is now "unbundled," with potential that poses many problematic issues for us as faculty:

The knowledgeable professor defines the material to be taught; experts in multimedia pedagogy create the structure of the course, technical people implement it; and assessment experts evaluate the course's success in enabling students to learn. The resulting course may contain lectures by the professor who defined the course, a multiplicity of experts lecturing on specific points, or lectures by a hired presenter to reinforce the course's concepts, or it is also possible the course may have no "talking heads" at all.3

It is more difficult to get at the changes we might anticipate in the "learning" part of the "teaching and learning process" under this technological transformation. Instructors who have taught recently using asynchronous Internet transmissions report anecdotally that they feel their students are more actively engaged in the class material through the virtual discussion groups and greater opportunity for student-instructor interaction.4

But to date the research on student learning in distance learning or mediated instruction environments is generally unhelpful in addressing more concretely the question of how or in what ways the student learning differs from that in the traditional classroom. Much of the research has framed this issue in terms of whether or not the learning in distance learning is comparable with that in on-campus classrooms, by looking at various equivalencies, e.g., whether the student is receiving the same level of quality in instruction and services, and by examining student attitudes towards their educational experience in the distance learning environment. Although a great deal of effort is going into the study of these questions (by accrediting bodies and funding agencies, for example), to date the research is inconclusive.5

The "Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age" project has provided us with the opportunity to reflect upon these issues as we developed our materials and began teaching with them. It think it is fair to say that we are still at the stage of framing questions for research and reflection. Because we as a group have been at such an early stage in our understanding of the new instructional technologies, our formulation of these questions is still tentative. There are two areas of particular interest and concern to historians, however, with regard to the impact of computer technology on student learning. These are, first, the implications for short-range versus sustained examination of materials and concepts, and the second concerns the distinction between linear and associational thinking.

In her thoughtful reflective essay, Nancy Fitch has speculated about the inherent distinctiveness of texts in their printed and electronic forms.6 In the latter, text is limited by the size of the computer monitor rather than by the size of the printed page, and the thrust of the technology leads to fewer lines, fewer words, and a more distinctive graphic arrangement of text on the screen. Readers become accustomed to taking in text a screen at a time. We can speculate on the unhappy implications of this mode of reading for historical thinking skill and critical reasoning skill development, but these speculations remain just that at present. This is clearly an area of research that historians will find of great interest.

The second area of interest concerns the distinction between linear and associational modes of thought. At least part of the package of "historical habits of mind," particularly chronological thinking development, is linear in nature, as is what we commonly think of as "logical" thought patterns stressed in critical reasoning. Yet we are all aware that hyperlink technology facilitates associational thought, wherein the way links are structured on the Internet enables the student to break out of the instructor's proscribed linear progression into a vastly wider world of associations.

The implications of this shift in thinking modes are yet to be analyzed from the perspective of the historian's craft. Should we be celebrating the creative possibilities of associational thinking, of the prospect of ranging through vast fields of knowledge by means of a few mouse clicks? Should we rethink our goals in the light of this technological shift? Where do linear thinking modes intersect in this new domain, or do they?

These are but two of the types of significant questions around which to frame pedagogical questions in the future. It will take years of experimentation and reflection to arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of how to define or redefine our pedagogical goals in the new era, and how to accomplish our pedagogical goals with the new means at hand. We have made a good beginning, thanks to the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but it is only a beginning.


1. See, e.g.,

2. These problems, in my opinion, boil down to the essential problem of attempting to incorporate a constructivist learning model into the structure of the survey course. They seem antithetically opposed, and what emerges is an uneasy hybrid.

3. Lloyd Armstrong, "Distance Learning: An Academic Leader's Perspective on a Disruptive Product," Change, 32.6 (Nov.-Dec. 2000) 20-27.

4. Ronald Bergman, November 14, 2000.

5. "What's the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education," Institute for Higher Education Policy, April 1999.

6. Nancy Fitch, "Reflective Essay."