Digital Tools: Outfitting a Teacher's Arsenal
I have been promoted to head our school's technology committee and have a moderate budget. Are there any new tools that you feel would help promote the study of history?
I would not recommend spending substantial funds on software packages or similar resources to study history. There are so many excellent free resources available that the problem is not so much finding material as deciding what you should use and how to use it.
Of course, a good starting point is right here on Teachinghistory.org! But even with a great guide such as this it helps to start with clear priorities. As a teacher and subsequently as a researcher and teacher trainer I have been examining what technology offers history teachers since the mid 1990s. I think that technology can be very powerful, but I am not convinced that the answers are found by starting with either hardware or software.
To some extent, teachers have been the victims of a toxic combination of hype and hope generated by manufacturers, software developers, and sometimes by school managers looking for a fix with clear and attributable outcomes. But learning simply doesn’t work that way. Neither do young people. History is a sophisticated discipline that is so much more than reading information and answering comprehension questions. I have seen large sums of money spent on hardware, software, and content resources that are then largely unused because they turn out to be incompatible with the time constraints teachers face, or the nature of the curriculum they have to follow.
Where I would advise spending money if there are no restrictions preventing you from doing so, is on professional development opportunities for teachers. Buying time and space for teachers away from the classroom allows them to properly evaluate resources and ask how they could either enhance their existing classroom practice or facilitate a beneficial change. Too often, money is spent on resources that essentially replicate the textbook. Focus instead on professional development that teaches students how to find and use primary sources—materials that provide insight into the attitudes, values, thoughts, fears, and hopes of people in the past.
Teachinghistory.org has some wonderful teacher guides on making use of primary sources, as well as recommendations on collections of sources. Perhaps best of all, Beyond the Textbook presents strategies for using sources to question the versions of events in textbooks, or at least to consider whether the story told in the textbook might have a few missing pages.
Technology can make finding, collecting, and sharing primary sources easier (see websites such as Smithsonian Source). Technology can also help students marshal and manage the work they do and present their understandings of topics in ways that they find interesting and motivational. There are many excellent Web 2.0 resources available now.
The key is in the intellectual activity rather than the finished product. Dipity, for example, creates easy-to-use timelines. For me, getting students to create timelines is the beginning of the learning process. The really interesting discussions begin when we discuss whether particular events in the sequence are more significant than others or whether an event would have taken place at all if one or more of the preceding events had not taken place.
Invest in professional development that models using digital tools as tools. By doing so, you will help teachers learn that digital tools are just tools—tools should always serve the teaching, not the other way around! In the end, think first about the priorities for you, your teachers and students. Technology can be a powerful motivator, but it is better used as a facilitator. Encourage teachers to view teaching strategies and content as the motivator—one that can be enhanced, but not replaced, by technological tools.
My best advice is to direct funds into technology via people rather than the other way around.
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Learn more about digital tools—for free! See our Tech for Teachers section.