Thoughts on CH 2013

As I am writing this, the final talks of the Canada’s History forum 2013 are coming to a close. Earlier I was watching talks by Stephane Levesque (Universite d’Ottawa) and Dave Cormier (University of Prince Edward Island) on the subject of “How Technology is Changing the Way we Teach History.” “Watching” may be a strong word, since the live video feed was almost intelligible at times, but thankfully the audio was clear. Levesque and Cormier talked about two somewhat different subjects, but both are relevant to the question of technology and historical pedagogy.

In particular, I thought Levesque’s observation that “access by itself does not engage the user” was a welcome one. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that just because you put content online, people will automatically be drawn to it. Not so. Many teachers have made the important step of recognizing that technology can be an asset in today’s classrooms, and have made efforts to incorporate it into their courses. Now we need to make the next step, which is even more important: to learn how to incorporate this technology effectively. This technology can be internet-based, but does not need to be. Roy Rozensweig and Dan Cohen also speak to this in their book, Digital History. I personally believe that technology  is changing so fast, and much of it is so new, that it will be a long time before we really discern how to use it most effectively. Of course, this exploration of new media is what makes the present time so exciting!

Cormier offered a possibility for effective use of technology in historical study in his short talk on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These free courses can draw thousands of people together to form new communities which are passionate about the subject in question. He rightly points out this is an opportunity for people who want to learn more about an “obscure” subject to meet like-minded people. I love the fact that such courses allow people to share their perspectives and ideas. However, I remain somewhat skeptical about this as an ideal use of technology in the classroom. Some questions that have been running around in my head: how do you engage individuals in a MOOC? How common is it really for people to continue their correspondence with “classmates” after the course is over? How do these temporary online communities affect the world offline? How can such a course be designed so that, as Cormier says, students are co-creating the material rather than catechizing? It’s something that I’ll need to think more about and see examples of.

Sidenote: this was also one of my first experiences in live tweeting. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. I enjoyed the fact that I could participate in the discussion even though I wasn’t able to attend the conference. However, the need to keep on top of incoming tweets, give timely responses, and send out my observations before the speakers changed direction did detract from my ability to actually take in what I was listening to. Just more proof that humans were not meant to multitask. And also…those 140 character limits are the bane of my existence!

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