In a post on Future of the Book, Ray Cha reported discussion among a group of history educators using New Media* to help teach and study American history. These are people who have pushed the envelope; some for many years. At least one of them has helped invent the field of Digital History.

“Almost immediately, we found that their excellence in their historical scholarship was equally matched in their teaching. Often their introductions to new media came from their own research. Online and digital copies of historical documents radically changed the way they performed their scholarship. It then fueled the realization that these same tools afforded the opportunity for students to interact with primary documents in a new way which was closer to how historians work …”

“… They noted an institutional tradition of the teacher as the authoritative interpreter in lecture-based teaching, which is challenged by active learning strategies. Further, we discussed the status (or lack of) of the group’s new media endeavors in both their scholarship and teaching. Depending upon their institution, using new media in their scholarship had varying degrees of importance in their tenure and compensation reviews from none to substantial. Quality of teaching had no influence in these reviews. Therefore, these projects were often done, not in lieu of, but in addition to their traditional publishing and academic professional requirements.”

These themes confirm for me that New Media are not broadly accepted or well understood, suggesting they still need to be defined, refined, and carefully marketed before most historians will reap benefits. This was not the main point of the discussion they met to talk about born-digital textbooks, in particular but it tripped me to wondering aloud about it.

Interactive video, cdroms, “educational software”, and other New Media technologies have been around for at least 20 years. The practical, universally accessible InterWeb has been delivering vast resources and global interconnections for more than ten years. Web tools and techniques provide amazing power to even slightly aware historians and educators. The raw material of history is online in great huge heaps. Yet I see very few large scale digital history projects by academics or other professional historians online. I gather classroom application is rarer still.

It isn’t like we’re just learning how to do digital history. Two examples: the famed Valley of the Shadow (UVa, c. 1994) and the groundbreaking History Matters (CUNY/GMU, c. 1998) projects. These have been around a while.

I don’t see much progress.

Why are the interactivity of the web, data mining, shared/open source software, instant publishing, collaboration, and the other tools of the last decade not yet part of the routine in serious history?

I’ve heard some of the reasons. Most historians lack the fundamental skills to use the technology, so they can’t. Many just won’t. They still don’t see the potential, I guess. Organizational budgets don’t include training, facilities or toolsets. Many educators don’t trust the Web as a valid resource, let alone as an interactive community of learning. Publishing in print counts – online doesn’t. There’s no money it it. It’s not peer-reviewed. And on it goes.

Innovative, thoughtful individuals and teams actually doing digital history today are glorious exceptions to the rule of the mainstream. I hope some are also doing amazing work I can’t see online, and moving the field forward undercover.

The potential for this technology is too great for it to remain on the fringes, dependent on a few brave and visionary geeks.**


* Proponents of various computer-based technologies useful in education often call these “New Media”. I’m using the term in a somewhat snarky way here.

** Pronounced “technically savvy persons”.

A side illustration: the high school in my little town has a poster prominently displayed in the library listing 10 reasons why a library, with its books, is a better resource than the Web. There is valid caution here, but also unreasoning fear and a narrow, short-sighted perspective. Thank the ALA.

Related subject for another day: building an undergraduate (yup) Digital History program.

3 Responses to “How long til New Media isn’t?”

  1. Dave Kelly says:

    This deserves a long answer, but a long answer would itself serve as an object lesson of the problems of going digital.

    Yep, no argument that digital media is a great bridge for anybody to weigh into some serious resource mining, at least conditionally as to when somebody pays the logistical freight for putting source data into a digital library. (ie the Library of Congress, or things like the Avalon Project etc.)

    I get somewhat leary of the logistical aspects of creating and maintaining these massive electronic archives. Who does the leg work? Who pays the bills? Who’s compensated for the intellectual properties.

    I know it works. Use the stuff all the time. But I sometimes think that it isn’t permanent, and exists on the goodwill of slave suckers who lavish spare time, uncompensated, to make these things realities.

    We can get rid of the written word. But some new paradigm for apportioning compensation needs to be figured out, so that the scholar doesn’t wind up an input for 8.50 an hour, while the programmer gets his six figures for the system.

  2. Brian Downey says:

    Thanks Dave.

    I agree about the logistics and the “slave suckers” (is that a complimentary term? I fear I might be one, on a small scale …). There will need to be reward before more people will bother.

    The material in large archives and databases is critical, but there is huge potential more generally for cooperating on, writing, and teaching history digitally, too.

  3. Brian Downey says:

    Even as we speak, another piece on if:book is discussing this very issue, in this case specifically about electronic publishing by academics: how to reward people for their work.

Please Leave a Reply