Commentary by Kathy Cooke

Kathy J. Cooke
Quinnipiac College, Box 77
Hamden, CT 06518

American Historical Association
An H-Net Session, January 3, 1997

Note:comments prepared for oral presentation please do not cite or reproduce without the author's permission

As Bob Michael's paper shows, historian's reactions to technology tend toward one extreme or the other. While many historians have embraced digital media in the classroom, others reject it out of hand. I find I am ambivalent. For the purposes of this panel, I'd like to act as a critic, despite the fact that I myself am addicted to technology, at least in the form of email. In critically evaluating the "digital classroom," I think we need to ask what the digital classroom adds to our goals of encouraging critical thinking, good written and oral communication skills, along with a fundamental understanding of historical periods themselves. The digital classroom, it is clear, has virtues, but it also has drawbacks. The virtues in some ways seem obvious. Speed and ease of communication are, or course, two of the most clear benefits of the internet. Unfortunately, this increased efficiency cannot always overcome the inertia that often characterizes academic life. For instance, even for this session the discussants received only two of the four papers in advance, despite the availability of email and a sophisticated web page, not to mention snail mail. Procrastination, a trait shared by students and instructors alike, is not eliminated in the "digital panel" at the AHA, and unfortunately it won't erase that trait in the student population.

Brown and Michael have presented us with very different visions of the digital classroom. Michael's paper on the past, present and future of the internet highlights the communication function, email, that was developed as an afterthought to a larger military endeavor in the 50s. Michael also quotes the Swarthmore graduate Theodor Nelson, who predicted in 1960 that movies and writing would become "interactive and interlinked." He then skips to the 90s, and suggests interesting explanations for why historians use the internet so extensively. Explaining that historians need to spice up their lives by way of, of all things, computer technology, Michael also invokes historical desire to maintain a leading role as "high priests" of knowledge, and their need to "flock together" in organizations. The internet allows historians to further extend their collegiality over the internet and, more specifically, the Web. [My sister, who delights in teasing me, would attribute my own interest in the internet to another trait--geekiness. Even there, however, historians could find solace. Now, after all, the net is becoming "cool," and being at the forefront (if we truly are) makes us cool as well. : ) ] More relevant to the "digital classroom," Michael explains the "impact of the internet" more concretely, illustrating how it enhanced communication in his holocaust class, for his research, and with his dean (something we can all use, I'm sure).

Michael's classroom use relates directly to Brown and Bergen's paper, where they outline the specific role the internet played in Brown's class on early 19th century America. As in Michael's presentation, the themes include communication, using a web page along with email discussion, developing mapping skills, and research. It seems clear that his use of the internet was successful, especially for stimulating interesting research projects using census data.

Focusing on the theme of this session, however, "the digital classroom," both the Michael and the Brown/Bergen papers, I think, leave us hanging. Their use of the internet is, it seems to me, far from a digital classroom. This is not to criticize their uses of the technology, which clearly are useful, and likely enhanced their classroom experiences. But the internet, or digital, aspects of Brown's course, and Michael's celebration, strongly resemble the traditional classroom experience. Brown's notebook replicated other materials, albeit in a very useful way. Michael quoted Nelson from 1960 predicting the interactive future of movies and writing--but isn't that precisely what a classroom--digital or not--is? The research elements of the internet are wonderful advances for historians, but again, I'm not sure they lead to a digital classroom. Instead, "digital" research, as Brown so vividly explained in his paper, can lead to outstanding communication and exchange that, at least in this case, led to excellent discussions in a traditional classroom environment.

Friedham illustrated the usefulness of technology, by way of the "Who Built America" cd-rom, as an important supplemental source. These independent experiences, sifting through primary source evidence represented on a computer screen, were extremely beneficial to students, but they still needed to return to a rather traditional classroom environment to discuss and critically evaluate what they had seen. The cd-rom provides a "digital assignment," not a "digital classroom." As such it is, of course, very useful. Mel Page's experiences with H-Africa show another use of digital technology. Here students have the opportunity to see what historians do; as explained, H-Africa, and other such discussion groups, linked students "to a wider world of scholarship"--students can see that historians are not obsessed with memorizing names, dates, and places. They are solving puzzles.

Clearly there is room for innovation in the classroom, but to define a course as "digital" or even "technologically enhanced" does not, it seems to me, mean that the course that uses technology extensively is clearly superior to a traditional classroom environment. Oral communication, careful reading, critical thought, and good writing are important goals of teaching history and the liberal arts in general. The technology that is being discussed in this session can certainly help further those goals. However, there seems to be nothing inherent in them that makes "digital" tools superior to traditional discussion, lecture, and writing assignments. The students need to communicate, orally and in writing, they need to do research, and they need to think critically.

I favor the use of these technologies, but I do not think they can replace more traditional approaches. Furthermore, from today's papers, I can't determine what it is about the technology that enhances the educational experience so markedly (when it does). I suspect that the improvement in education does not stem from the technology, it stems instead from the enthusiasm of the instructor using it. Enthusiasm and excitement are contagious, and if we can use a limited "digital" approach to spread intellectual enthusiasm to our students, we should do it. We should, however, be careful not to mistake the tool, that is, the computer, or the internet, and its uses, for the larger goal of enthusiastic education and scholarship.

This view accommodates the historian who is ambivalent about the digital classroom experience. As one among many tools for historical education, we should embrace the technology. But the book, the spoken word, and classroom interaction maintain a crucial place in the process. Digital media can be a very useful supplemental source, but it cannot be a classroom.