Clicking is Learning? Musings on Crafting a Holistic Digital History Pedagogy

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“Click here. Click once more. And once more…” As an educational technologist at an undergraduate liberal arts college, I hear these words frequently. I often call on my skills as a public historian when it comes to solving problems related to digital pedagogies and understanding the context of technology in the classroom and beyond. In many respects, my position is similar to my colleagues in museums, academia, and other sites, as I regularly find myself in the position of guide and teacher. It is my responsibility to encourage and gently focus students’ and faculty members’ attentions as they utilize technologies, develop and implement digital pedagogies, and explore the learning process in meaningful ways.

Learning in today’s digital environment should not simply be a “clicking game.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now, truth be told, even for someone who is a bit of technology junkie, it often amazes me how many clicks it can take to perform a task. I like to refer to this affectionately as the “clicking game.” It is a game that we have all played, sometimes daily, during our educational, professional, and personal lives. A recent experience called on my skills as a public historian more than ever.

After leading a workshop for students in a history course, this “clicking game” produced a question I was not prepared to answer as an educator, public historian, and technologist:

“So, I understand why you are telling us what to click on and why to click on it. But what’s the point? You know, the purpose?”

I doubt that I could contain my sigh or my wide-eyed expression as I stood in front of this student, trying to process this question. A million questions raced through my head. What was the purpose? Why did it matter that they learn it at all? By leading this single workshop, these students only received the basic instruction that they would need to complete their assignment at hand, but what about beyond this workshop? Would this workshop help them in their future careers? How did it fit into the larger student learning experience? In leading this workshop so that they could merely complete their assignment, had I failed as an educator and as a public historian?

All dramatics aside, though, these simple questions prompted me to contemplate more expansive questions and challenges in relation to digital public history for those undergraduate students involved in digital history or digital humanities-related courses and projects. It should not shock any public historian that digital projects are becoming the norm in humanities classrooms. However, from the viewpoint of educational technology, I witness daily challenges with regard to implementation and overall holistic thought about the student benefits gained from these types of projects and assignments. In doing so, these projects and assignments are in danger of being overshadowed in favor of the “doing” aspect of digital projects.

Now, this is not to discredit the “doing” aspect of digital projects, because even as an Educational Technologist, I understand the critical aspect of student exposure and of participating in completing the motions of “doing” the steps necessary in working with digital tools and methods during the course of a digital project. The danger comes, though, when students are expected to create and curate digital projects with little guidance or oversight towards the development of the skills to learn and understand the context of technology within their assignments. For example, my colleagues and I often find that we are consulted last in digital pedagogy and often receive less than 30 minutes to provide ample instruction and support. It is in such moments that, as a public historian and educator, I worry about students and other learners employing the use of digital resources and tools without fully possessing those skills for assessment and contextualization.

To be frank, the need for digital literacy training within and outside the academy grows with each technological development. Defining digital literacy has multiple meanings and objectives. Generally, digital literacy is a concept that helps individuals build the skills—and eventual fluency—to understand, comprehend, contextualize, and recognize the use of digital resources no matter whether one merely accesses content or develops it. In their 2017 Digital Literacy Impact study, the New Media Consortium examined how three different types of digital literacy—universal, creative, and literacy across disciplines—influenced students in the workplace. The study asked educators to think critically about how learners interpret, make meaning, and share information digitally, but to also “recalibrate expectations and applications” of digital literacy (NMC Horizon Report, 16). Many scholars and organizations are discussing digital literacy and strategies when it comes to education, both within and outside of higher education.  See, for example, Brandon Locke’s “Digital Humanities Pedagogy as Essential Liberal Education”; Shannon Kelley’s “Getting on the Map”; Museum, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills, and the AAM’s Museums and Digital Strategy Today.

With individuals absorbing and experiencing information through new technologies like virtual, augmented, and mixed realities, digital literacy takes on a whole new meaning beyond the scope of the classroom. If students are prepared to engage with and assess technology more fully, then our shifting society’s knowledge base and workforce will be further enriched. Furthermore, the work of museums, which are at the center of many issues facing higher education institutions, complicates the narrative about our relationships with technologies and digital literacy. We must understand not only how individuals receive training for these digital environments, but also how the museum situates itself within communities to ensure accessibility and inclusion within these digital spaces. One only has to look at the most recent Pew Research Center study on the use of mobile devices to see how the digital divide is still alive and well, affecting rural and minority communities disproportionately. As technologies continue to effect policies, we, as public historians and others within the information community, will need to redesign what it means to communicate and engage with growing and diverse communities, groups, and individuals.

If we return to that workshop, learning in today’s digital environment should not simply be a “clicking game.” Providing meaning and the foundational skills for learners continues to be reconsidered in the context of digital skills and evolving technologies. In order for digital projects and the fostering of digital literacy skills to move forward, the information community, which includes academics, museum professionals, educational technologists, and others, will need to come together to work towards crafting digital pedagogies that are holistic, inclusive, and diverse, no matter the discipline. In doing so, scholars, museum professionals, and others can provide learners with the best possible opportunity to understand, evaluate, and comprehend digital materials in an age that relies so heavily upon them.

~Megan Smeznik is the Educational Technology Associate for the Arts and Humanities at The College of Wooster. She is formerly the World War I projects assistant at the Massillon Museum. Her research interests include public history, digital history, women’s history, and accessibility.

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