Digital History: It’s Child’s Play

I know my blog has gone really geeky (well, tech-geeky) of late. It’s the inevitable result of trying to wrap my head around WordPress, PhP, MySQL, SFTP clients, and about a dozen other things simultaneously; more strictly historical posts will be coming soon. I have a little piece on choice and identity formation in Jacksonian America that’s already in the pipes. (Read: it’s currently sitting in my “drafts” file, needing to be finished and polished up.)

BUT. That said. Another Digital Humanities post.
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National History Day has recently included web sites as an acceptable type of presentation.

Or, I probably should put it, they’ve recently included “web sites” as an acceptable type of presentation. The sites are required to be on a single CD-Rom– something I find somewhat problematic, as it doesn’t allow students to link to outside sources, use APIs or third party hosting… So putting Youtube videos in the site, or using the Google Maps API are out. In forcing the students to create sites that can’t have elements from other sites integrated, you’re taking a step back and forcing them to make very strictly Web 1.0 material. Actually, by creating sites that are completely self-contained– by putting them on CD rather than hosting them online– you’re actually killing part of the point of web 1.0… hypertext should be expansive, not self-contained.

I understand that they’re trying to make the project more inclusive, by removing the barriers presented to poorer students by not forcing them to pay for hosting services… but it kind of defeats the point of making a web page, if you ask me.

But this is all just a digression. National History Day puts together books about each type of presentation, introducing students to best methods, tricks of the trade, how to exploit the medium to its fullest, what have you. A friend of mine is helping to work on the new book for websites. A group of us were sitting around recently, with her, brainstorming about what should or should not be included. How do you explain to an audience of middle and high school students the real potential of digital history– especially with the limitations of making a web site with a limited word count that has to fit on a single disk? How much do you talk about HTML, CSS, etc, or do you assume that they’ll be using WYSIWYG design programs?

When the issue of how much to talk about coding came up, the group was pretty divided. How much can you explain? How rudimentary should you get? Personally, while I thought a “basics” section was relevant and important, I felt that design and theory should take prominence. There’s hundreds of pages offering HTML tutorials and “how to” guides for basic web design.

Moreover, I argued, they already use code. Anyone out there who has a relative in the 12-17 age range can tell you this– look at their MySpace pages. They’re all customized.

Another person in the group interjected: but they just copy and paste that code, for the most part. They’re not producing it. To some extent this is true. But if they’re spending any time on LiveJournal, Xanga, bulletin boards, or even, yes, MySpace, they’re learning the rudiments of HTML. It will look familiar to them.

What’s more important is to teach them what makes a web page look good, what makes it work well, what it does well as far as looking at history. Again, to look at MySpace: the kids are learning some code, but the design and functionality is horrible, and it doesn’t create a narrative. THESE are the skills that are more important to impart.

Of course, I’m not entirely informed on the topic. I keep in touch with a couple of my friends’ teenaged siblings– not surprisingly, via MySpace and Facebook– but it’s not like I hang out with fourteen-year-olds on the regular.

But today I stumbled upon a really cool project that shows how younger students can be engaged with digital scholarship. A teacher who I can only identify as Mr. Armstrong is doing a lot of really impressive stuff with his 8th grade US History class. His students are creating history podcasts, he’s got a class wiki, and the students are blogging class reviews.

The material is impressive. Armstrong makes use of a variety of different online tools available to limit cost and required technical knowledge, and the kids are really running with it.

Pushing thirty, I’m one of the oldest people you’ll meet who really grew up with a computer in the home. My father taught high school computer classes, and we were lucky enough to have one in the house before I began elementary school. I’ve been typing, rather than writing longhand, since I was eight. And there’s a real comfort gap between me and people a couple years older than me, when it comes to computers. Things that are intuitive to me are abstract to many people who are only five or ten years older.

In the next couple years, students are going to start coming into colleges whose parents had AOL before they were born. This new age group has a much higher comfort level with technology and networks. They may not have all the technical know-how, but it’s much less of a steep learning curve for them than it has been for someone like me. They’re going to be comfortable, also, using cheap and free on-and-off-line applications to fill in the gaps of their technical knowledge.

While making sure they get net literacy and the skills to work best with new media is important, I think we need to be a lot more worried that their teachers– unlike Mr. Armstrong– won’t be up to the task than worrying that they can’t figure out how to Google around and find some HTML code.