For Better or Worse?
The Marriage of the Web and Classroom


Copyright, T. Mills Kelly, 1999

Paper given at the American Historical Association, Chicago, IL, January 2000

T. Mills Kelly
Department of History
Texas Tech University
Box 41013
Lubbock, TX 79409-1013

When we think about the future of teaching history at the college level, one thing we know for sure is that the hypermedia revolution of the past decade is changing irrevocably the ways we teach our students about the past.(1) Recent surveys indicate not only how rapidly this transformation is taking place, but also that historians are rushing at what is, for us, an almost incredible pace to make the new technologies our own.(2) Almost half of those responding to a 1998 survey by the American Association for History and Computing indicated that they had already created course sites on the web, 80% reported using technology in teaching, and just under half require their students to use e-mail for course purposes.(3) Our students are in almost as much (if not more) of a hurry. Another recent survey, this one of college students age 18-24, reported that almost three-fourths go on-line at least once per day, up from only half just one year ago. Of these "wired" students, nearly 40% reported having their own web pages.(4) Such rapid changes in history teaching and student use of technology, are merely part of a nationwide push to bring our educational system into the digital age. Starting right at the top of the funding pyramid, government and private agencies, as well as individual educational institutions are throwing unprecedented amounts of money at teachers at all levels, in hopes of bringing to fruition the goal articulated by President Bill Clinton, of building a "bridge to the twenty-first century...where computers are as much a part of the classroom as blackboards."(5)

Too often, the discussion about how these new technologies are changing what we teach and how our students learn take on an either/or quality that ultimately does not prove very helpful. Critics such as Sven Birkerts and Neil Postman like to cast the consequences of the hypermedia revolution in apocalyptic terms. For example, Birkerts argues that hypermedia will forever change the relationship between the historian and his or her audience: "As the circuit supplants the printed page, and as more and more of our communications involve us in network processes-which of their nature plant us in a perpetual present-our perceptions of history will inevitably alter."(6)  In Birkerts's view, this change will be for the worse, rather than for the better, because he believes hypertext breaks down the reader's capacity to think deeply about history.(7) On the other side of the coin, even the most academically rigorous techno-enthusiasts such as George Landow and Jay David Bolter are often given to optimistic pronouncements about how the web and its associated technologies will lead our students to insights about their classroom subjects unobtainable from good old fashioned books.(8)

I stand before you today as an admitted enthusiast for the incorporation of hypermedia technology into history teaching. But, my perspective is perhaps a bit different than your average promoter of technology in history instruction, because I am not convinced that we yet know enough about how students learn about the past to draw any definitive conclusions about how hypermedia influence this process. To date, only the University of Washington historian Samuel S. Wineburg has done much serious research on this particular question, and one of his more interesting conclusions is that historical thinking is a fundamentally "unnatural act [that] actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think."(9) This phenomenon, which Howard Gardner says is a consequence of what he calls the "unschooled mind," rests on the premise that as children we develop certain ways of thinking that become so firmly ingrained that they are rarely shaken off in high school or college.(10) In history classes, an excellent example of how the unschooled mind operates is our students' unwavering devotion to presentism. No matter how hard we try to convince them that unless they set aside their presentism they will never gain a deeper understanding of the past, they cling to it with an almost vice-like grip. Just when we think we've beaten it out of them at last, we turn our backs for one minute to write something on the board and it's back, just as strong as ever. Wineburg argues that frustrating as this experience might be, we should not be surprised because "We, no less than the people we study, are historical beings. Trying to shed what we know to glimpse the 'real' past is like trying to examine microbes with the naked eye: the very instruments we abandon are the ones that enable us to see."(11)

So, given that we (meaning historians) do not know very much about why or how our students actually "get it" in our classes, it is challenging to assess just what influence the use of hypermedia technology is actually having on their learning. My own research project, which bears the same name as this panel, is a first attempt to get at this vexing question, and, like most research projects that historians undertake, it began with an innocent question. Several years ago I was teaching at Grinnell College in Iowa and was fortunate enough to work with the great Russian historian Dan Kaiser. Over coffee one day, Dan, who is also quite enthusiastic about the possibilities posed by the hypermedia for teaching history, asked me a question that changed my entire outlook on what we are engaged in as we become one with information technology. That simple question, seemingly so straightforward, was how I knew that directing my students to my website, giving them on-line access to primary sources, forcing them to do research on the web, and even having them construct their own websites, was changing for the better the way they learned about the past?(12)

Until that moment I had been so intent upon the creation of my site, posting my on-line syllabi, scanning and marking up texts, inserting useful URLs into assignments--in other words, focused entirely on changing my pedagogy--that I had given little thought to what these changes meant for my students' learning. Badly afflicted with FDS (Field of Dreams Syndrome--"if you build it, they will come"), I had lost sight of one of the most essential goals of the teacher, namely, designing my courses in ways that improved student understanding, rather than simply making the course more interesting, fun, or just easier to teach.(13)Certainly, not all the blame can be laid at my own door because my students were themselves partially guilty in this enterprise. All the feedback I got from them was how much they loved what I was doing with the web and how much they wished their other professors were doing similar things.(14)

The research project that has grown out of the problem Dan posed to me two years ago is also deceptively straightforward. I want to know how student understanding of the past is changed by the interposition of hypermedia into their educational experience. To date most of the arguing on either side of this question has focused on hypertext (and images fed to the screen along with that text), rather than hypermedia as a whole-sound and video files to go along with the text and images-and until our campuses are sufficiently wired with multimedia workstations, most of our questions will have to revolve around the more limited text/image delivery systems of the web. Because my own institution, despite the "Tech" in its name, has very limited capacity to deliver the full range of hypermedia to students, in all fairness to those students who do not own their own computers (about 40% at Texas Tech University) I cannot require hypermedia assignments that use sound or video. As a result, my research project is strictly limited to how students use hypertext and images.

When it comes to student use of hypertext and images, the web-enthusiasts argue that when students are confronted with an intellectual problem, heading to the web opens up the possibility of embarking on their own unmediated intellectual quest. In other words, once they go surfing off into the distance, they are pursuing answers to their questions rather than mine and therefore are more likely to arrive at original insights into the subject material under consideration. Those less enamored of the web argue conversely that when students embark on this quest, their thinking is just as likely to become disorganized as they flit from one hyperlink to another and that before long they will have forgotten the original question. Moreover, even if they can stay focused on their original question, they are just as likely to find themselves at a site of dubious provenance and so may end up writing a paper or answering a question in class with information that is anything but reliable. If these arguments sound a bit familiar, it is because one could simply substitute "library" for "web" and find that with the proper skills our students can do very good work or that without those skills, they can find themselves in real trouble.

Although it is certainly impossible to forge an agreement among historians about what content students should learn in any particular course, it is very possible to agree on a set of competencies that students should acquire and develop as they progress through our introductory courses. Among those that we tend to agree on are the ability to construct essay arguments with the appropriate use of historical evidence, to differentiate between fact and opinion and to discern the interrelationships between the two, the comprehension of continuity and change over time, the understanding of what historians do and the sorts of questions they ask, and so on.(15) Using a variety of measures such as these, I am evaluating student performance in my two sections of Western Civilization (the second half) at Texas Tech University. During the fall semester both sections of the course were taught via the class website and in the spring semester one section will use the same website, but the students in the other section will have all of their sources provided to them in print and will be blocked from the site. In addition to my own evaluation of student performance, I recruited a panel of outside evaluators who are reading selected student essays for me. Finally, a variety of surveys and interviews are being used to elicit from my students not only what they learned, but how they learned and what role the hypermedia available to them on the class website played in their learning.(16) Using all of these various measurements, I hope to come to a clearer understanding of exactly how students actually use the technology and what role the technology plays in their learning about the past. I am creating a course portfolio for this project which makes it possible for those interested in what I am doing to peek over my shoulder as the project progresses, and I hope you will take advantage of the opportunity to do so and to give me your feedback.

Given the current debates about how the web influences student learning, for good or ill, one of the questions I am especially interested in answering is whether at later points in the semester students returned to primary source documents assigned earlier in the semester. Good historians return to the same pieces of evidence over and over again, considering many possible meanings of their sources before finally committing themselves to one interpretation. Therefore, we hope that our students will learn this skill, not only because it is an example of what we like to call "critical thinking," but also because it is one very important way that they develop a stronger sense of the interrelatedness of historical evidence and of change over time. In my surveys with students I asked them very specifically whether or not they had gone back to primary sources used earlier in the semester and, as Table 1 indicates, approximately three-fourths of them said they had done so. The final papers turned in by my students bear out their answers because the essays reflect a fairly high level of recursiveness. In the interviews I conducted with a selected sample of the students in each class section, I explored their work patterns in more detail and all of the students interviewed said that because the documents they looked at from earlier in the semester were "just a click away," they were much more likely to use them. When I asked if they would have done the same thing with documents supplied in a course pack, all but one demurred, saying that, as one student put it, "having all that paper to sort through" would not be as immediate as a hyperlink. Or, as another student said in her interview, the web "is just easier to use than a book." Thus, one interim conclusion I draw from my research is that having source documents available on a web site does encourage and facilitate the quality of recursiveness that we try to instill in our students. From this finding, it is not hard to believe that their awareness of continuity and change over time increases as they attempt to make connections between the sources they read earlier in the semester and those they are working with toward the end of the term.


Table 1(17)

All Students


Section 1 Section 2 Combined
Yes No Yes No Yes No
Did you return to earlier sources? 66% 33% 80% 20% 74% 26%
Did you leave the website to venture out on your own? 28% 72% 60% 40% 45% 55%


Table 2

History Majors Only


Yes No
Did you return to earlier sources? 66% 33%
Did you leave the website to venture out on your own? 66% 33%

I also found that students hardly used the textbook at all during the semester, instead focusing their efforts on the primary source documents available to them on the website. Two aspects of the course design certainly facilitated their avoidance of the textbook-I do not give any quizzes or examinations in my courses, and all of their assignments (writing, preparation for discussion) emphasized the primary source documents. However, when I asked students why they did not make much use of the textbook, what they said was that not only was the website easier to use, but, as one student put it, the textbook was "heavily factual" and so did not help you understand what had "really happened." Now, while I might be pleased with the fact that students who felt this way wanted to spend more time with the primary sources than with the textbook, not surprisingly, I also found that many students were unable to set the primary sources they were reading in the appropriate historical context. For this reason, another interim conclusion from my research is that we must figure out ways to design our assignments that take advantage of the potential of the web to stimulate student interest in primary source documents, while still connecting them to secondary literature that will help them make sense of those documents. Hearing that students with access to a website all but ignore the textbook might sound like another nail in the coffin of the book. Those of you who, like me, love books, will be relieved to hear that the vast majority of my students printed out most of the documents they had access to on the website. When I asked them why, most of the responses I got fell into three categories: the student did not own a computer and so needed hard copies to take home; the student wanted to bring the documents to class for our discussions; or the student just wanted to hold the paper. As one student put it, "It's just easier for me to think that way [holding the paper]."

A second question that I was very interested in answering was whether or not my students left the class website and the links it includes to go poking around on the web. After all, if no one actually embarked on that unmediated intellectual quest, the potential of the web would remain just that, potential. Significantly fewer students (45%) reported having gone beyond the links I provided for them on the website and the vast majority of those who did leave my site did so while working on the last two assignments of the semester. These two assignments were the only two where I specifically directed students to start their research at an archive site (the website for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. or the Marx-Engels Internet Archive) rather than with a list of links I provided.(18) Once they got to these meta-sites, they typically followed links that led them to a variety of different sources out on the web. In my interviewing, I asked the students why it was these assignments that led them off on their own and all who did so answered one of two ways: either they were not sure "what you were looking for" and so had to find answers to their own questions; or they simply felt empowered/liberated by the non-specific nature of the assignment to go forth and find. As one young woman put it, "It helped me to learn what I found interesting." In only a few rare cases did students report going beyond my site for resources on assignments other than these two. My own evaluation of the essays written by students in response to these final two assignments is that as a group they demonstrate a somewhat higher level of originality, especially when it comes to weaving together a variety of primary and secondary sources. Of course, one would expect (or at least hope) that later in the semester students would be better historians than they were at the beginning. However, it also seems to me-I am still waiting on the reports of my outside evaluators-that as a group, those students who went beyond the course site generally did better work.

What then are we to conclude from my initial findings in this project? On the positive side of the ledger, I would argue that using the web encourages students to focus on primary sources, especially what they mean and how they relate to one another, rather than simply memorizing some fact about them. Of particular benefit in this regard is that having the sources available to them on a website facilitates recursive reading of those sources, with the benefits I discussed earlier. A second positive finding is that exploring on the web does seem to encourage original thinking about the past, thereby helping students to make more sophisticated connections between various sources, events and people than they generally do with a textbook or monograph. When the full potential of hypermedia becomes available to the majority of students, we can expect that their explorations will result in even more interesting conclusions on their part.

On the negative side of the ledger, one thing that is very clear from my research is that students, even the very best students, not only do not know how to judge the quality of what they find on the web (despite having gone through an exercise aimed at developing this skill), they do not even think much about the potential risks of bogus, or simply sloppy, websites. We should expect that with each passing semester our students will privilege information they find on the web over what they find in books, so unless we teach them, right at the beginning of their academic careers, how to judge the quality of a website, we are doing them a grave disservice.(19)   Another obvious problem that we are all aware of and my findings simply bear out, is that the web discourages our students from using the library, or even books at all. If they can find what they want on the web, they tend to stop there. Of course, this finding does not mean the end of the library as we know it, but rather, points to the need to teach our students how to combine the resources they prefer (on the web) with those in the library. A course such as the one I delivered this past semester actually discourages them from using the library and therefore I have helped set them up for trouble later on in their academic careers when they must use the library for research.

In addition to these several implications for the future, I want to mention one other that arises from what I have learned thus far. While the hypermedia revolution does not herald the end of the book, I believe it does herald the end of the coverage model introductory history survey course. Because the web encourages recursiveness and self-directed research, our students will become increasingly impatient with the traditional model of the introductory history survey. If we continue to charge them with making sense of the western past from Plato to NATO in just 28 weeks, they are going to become increasingly frustrated with us and our courses. The careful consideration of topics and underlying sources that hypermedia encourages is simply not possible if one covers the French Revolution on Monday, Napoleon on Wednesday, and Congress Europe on Friday. Therefore, I believe that in the not too distant future, the survey course as we know it today will disappear completely from our curricula.


1. The project described in this paper has been made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and also of Texas Tech University. I would also like to thank my colleagues in the Carnegie Scholars program, most of whom contributed in important ways to shaping my thinking about this project.

2. A useful overview of how the historical profession itself is being changed by the new technologies is Stanley N. Katz, "A Computer is Not a Typewriter, or Getting Right with Information Technology in the Humanities," Lecture in the Digital Directions Speakers Series, University of Virginia, 4 February 1999.

3. David Trinkle, "History and the Computer Revolutions. A Survey of Current Practices," Journal of the Association for History and Computing, II/1, April 1999, p. 2.

4. Greenfield On-line Pulsefinder On-Campus Market Study, Westport, CT (July 8, 1999),

5. Quoted in Todd Oppenheimer, "The Computer Delusion," Atlantic Monthly, July 1997, p. 1.

6. Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies. The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994), pp. 3-4. Among Postman's many works dealing with these questions, his The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) is probably the best example.

7. An excellent overview of the arguments for and against using technology in teaching history is Graeme Davison, "History and Hypertext," The Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, August 1997,

8. George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), especially pp. 219-66. See also: Jay David Bolter, Writing space: the computer, hypertext, and the history of writing, (Hillsdale, N.J. :L. Erlbaum Associates, 1991) and by Bolter and Richard Grusin Remediation: understanding new media, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999)

9. Samuel S. Wineburg, "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts," Phi Delta Kappan, March 1999, p. 491. Other works by Wineburg on this subject include: "Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History," Phi Delta Kappan, September 1998, pp. 50-58; "Reading Abraham Lincoln: An Expert/Expert Study in the Interpretation of Historical Texts," Cognitive Science, 22/3, 1998, pp. 319-46; [with Janice E. Fournier] "Picturing the Past: Gender Differences in the Depiction of Historical Figures," American Journal of Education, 105, February 1997, pp. 160-85; and "Probing the Depths of Students' Historical Knowledge," Perspectives, 30/3, 1992, pp. 19-24.

10. Howard Gardner, "Educating the Unschooled Mind," The Science and Public Policy Seminar Series, American Educational Research Association, May 14, 1993, p. 5. Gardner's larger works on this subject include The Unschooled Mind, (New York: Basic Books, 1991) and The Disciplined Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).

11. Wineburg, "Historical Thinking," p. 492.

12. The relevant URLs for my website and one created by students in a course of mine are: and

13. On the use of hypermedia in undergraduate history classes, see the entire February 1998 and February 1999 issues of Perspectives. Particularly relevant for this paper are: Charles T. Evans and Robert Brown, "Teaching the History Survey Course using Multimedia Techniques,"Perspectives, February 1998,; and Patricia Seed, "Teaching History With the Web: Two Approaches, Perspectives, February 1998, On teaching for understanding, see Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, (Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998).

14. For example, in my most recent end of semester survey, 90% of the students reported that they preferred a course taught using the web to one taught using printed sources.

15. This particular list is part of competencies comes from a longer list in use at Temple University. For another view of competencies that students should acquire in an introductory history course, see Tim Keirn, "Starting Small: The Creation of a Year Fourteen History Standard," Organization of American Historians Newsletter, (November 1999), pp. 9-10. Thanks to Bill Cutler of Temple University for calling my attention to both his department's approach to competencies and to the Keirn article.

16. The URL for the course site is:

17. The response rate to these end of semester surveys was just over 80%.

18. The relevant URLs are: for the Holocaust Museum and for the Marx-Engels Internet Archive.

19.  One approach to teaching students how to evaluate websites is described in Laura L. Phillips, "Student Evaluation of Internet Sites, AAASS NewsNet, November 1999, p. 9.