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H-Net and Multimedia Teaching

Steven Mintz, Co-Editor, H-Film and Member of H-Net Executive Committee
University of Houston

Any historian who ponders the future of multimedia in teaching is sure to shudder because the history of new technologies in the classroom has been largely a record of failure. From the film strip onward, each new technology has been hailed as a way to "bring history to life," enhance learning, and build student skills. Yet while the costs of technology have risen, the classroom experience has remained largely unchanged.

Today, colleges and universities are investing unprecedented sums to introduce multimedia and electronic technologies into teaching. It is not uncommon for institutions to spend $8,000 or more on an LCD-projector to display images on a screen; $3,500 on a "visual-presenter," which uses a color camera to display pictures or three-dimensional objects; or $1,000 on a laser disc player. Setting up a multimedia media cart or making a classroom multi-media ready can easily cost half an assistant professor's salary. As historians we would do well to ask whether the payoff from such investments will be greater than in past technology expenditures.

We at H-Net believe that previous educational technologies failed for two fundamental reasons: first, they sought to use technology to assume the teacher's role and replace lectures and discussion with predetermined lessons; and second, these technologies transformed students into passive recipients of knowledge. Not surprisingly both teachers and students regarded the new technologies as "high-tech" babysitters. So far, the new electronic and multimedia technologies have been used in limited ways. Faculty members have used "presentation graphics" programs like Powerpoint or Freelance Graphics to display lecture themes. E-mail discussion groups have quickly become commonplace. A growing number of faculty have set up Web Sites containing links to historical documents or useful research resources. A few of the most innovative sites have made census materials, election returns, maps, and artwork readily available to students. I have made lecture supplements, including charts and quotations from primary sources available on-line, to reinforce themes and allow students to pursue ideas in greater depth at their leisure.

One of the most exciting historical sites is Edward Ayers's "Valley of the Shadow" project which focuses on Virginia and Pennsylvania during the Civil War era. It provides students access to the kinds of historical sources that few undergraduates ever encounter, including personal papers, original newspapers, and a wide range of contemporary visual images. Resources like this allow students to familiarize themselves with primary sources and learn how to conduct serious historical investigations. Yet for multimedia technologies to fulfill their full promise --to transform the learning experience into a much more active process and to augment student-faculty contact--the history profession needs to encourage a great deal of experimentation. One of H-Net's fundamental goals is to use new technologies to support instructors who are trying to use electronic and computer technologies to improve the quality of their teaching.

If multimedia technologies are going to enhance the educational experience, we believe it is essential that they be used to "empower" instructors by giving them ready access to a wide variety of teaching resources, ranging from primary source documents, maps, charts, and visual images to various kinds of sound files; as well as simulations, interactive exercises, and novel databases designed to engage students in their own education. Further, if multimedia teaching is going to be superior to traditional lectures supplemented with overhead projectors and inexpensive tape recorders, it is essential that faculty members receive training, support, and models of successful new teaching techniques. H-Net is committed to assisting classroom instructors in developing resources and improving the training they obtain to use new instructional technologies effectively.

Currently, H-Net has embarked on two major efforts to promote the development of multimedia teaching technologies. One highly ambitious project, led by Patrick Manning of Northeastern University and supported by Annenberg/CPB, will create multimedia teaching modules on "Migration in Modern World History." Combining the energies and expertise of Northeastern, WGBH-Boston, and the University of Houston, this project has already developed interactive exercises that allow students to analyze the impact of the slave trade on West African societies; the causes and extent of mortality on slave ships and European emigrant ships; and the transfer and transformation of musical patterns between the Old World and the New. Among the most innovative features of the project is a component that allows students to "deconstruct" a historical narrative, identifying problematic assumptions or conclusions, and constructing alternative narratives consistent with the historical evidence.

Meanwhile, with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, H-Net is organizing a major conference, "Creating the History Classroom of the 21st Century," to be held at Michigan State University. In conjunction with this project, H-Net has set up a national center at Michigan State University and regional centers at UCLA, the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, the University of Texas-San Antonio, the University of Houston, and the Chicago Historical Society--to evaluate new software, train faculty to use new technologies in teaching, assist in the development of multimedia-ready and computer-equipped classrooms, and develop on-line multimedia instructional resources, including maps, charts, visual images, databases, primary sources texts, and sound archives.

We regard these initiatives as only a modest beginning in efforts to facilitate cooperation among universities, forge links between higher educational institutions and K-12 schools, and bridge gaps between historical societies, historical museums, and other educational institutions. Multimedia will fail as earlier technologies have if we view it simply as a way to make education more entertaining. It can, however, greatly improve the learning experience if we regard it in a different light: as a way to bring primary sources into the classroom, underscore major course themes, promote discussion, and actively engage students in historical inquiry and analysis.

Steven H. Mintz is in the Department of History, Universirty of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-3785. hist4@jetson.uh.edu

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