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Author: Mark S. Newmark
Title: Getting beyond the West: The Internet and World History
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 2000
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Source: Getting beyond the West: The Internet and World History
Mark S. Newmark


vol. 3, no. 3, November 2000
Article Type: Computing in the K-12 Levels
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0003.305
PDF: Download full PDF [12kb ]

Getting beyond the West: The Internet and World History

Mark Newmark

The paper begins with an examination of why neither the interest of school teachers in integrating the non-western world into our courses nor our sensitivity to the language of Euro-centrism has yielded much in the way of truly non-western history courses for our students.

The paper then argues that if people wish to start having our students learn non-western history in the immediate future of the next twenty years, two related developments will need to occur. First, it argues that people will need to modify their expectations of those who teach history at the K-12 level. In particular, they will need to shift away from seeing history teachers primarily as deliverers of content information. So long as people insist that teachers serve as information providers and teach only what they know, there is virtually no immediate prospect of having world history courses that embrace much outside the western canon. Given the preparation that real teachers have today, such insistence would impose- a death sentence for world history courses in the schools. Second, the paper argues that if world history is really to be taught, teachers need to teach classes which rely broadly on the Internet for information delivery. The advantages of such content delivery over the Internet are numerous. The Internet is a truly multi-media resource, providing students with the sorts of audiovisual, and textual resources that enliven the learning process. Using the Internet for information delivery potentially helps students develop their ability to track down information on the Internet efficiently and their ability to distinguish accurate from inaccurate Internet materials. And relying on the Internet for information delivery seems to liberate teachers from the very expectations that make it difficult to "teach" material that they do not know. This portion of the paper includes a case study of one teacher's experiences with having his students rely on the Internet for information delivery.

The paper concludes by noting that the Internet seems to offer an acceptable means of having students learn about parts of the world that we could not otherwise teach them. The real impasse to truly global world history classes is the fossilized belief that to teach educators must provide students with facts and figures. By allowing teachers to relinquish their traditional roles as information providers, people ultimately effect a number of changes for the better. First, teachers gain more time and energy to devise interesting, meaningful engaging assignments, assessments, and mechanisms to keep students motivated and on task. Second, teachers help make the shift from having teacher-centered classrooms to delivering more effective student-centered learning environments in which we provide students with the questions and skills, and students teach themselves the answers and thereby take greater ownership of their educations. Third, and perhaps most pertinently, teachers make good on a promise, the promise of a truly global curricula not just in theory, but in practice.

There has been much discussion in the last few years about the impact of computers in the classroom. That discussion has focused on the impact of technology on how students learn. Often ignored has been the impact of technology on what students study.

Since the Second World War, the American experience has been an increasingly global one. American society has become more markedly multi-cultural and our political sphere and economy have become distinctly global. In response to these social, political, and economic transformations, there has been a strong push for the abandonment of the purely Western canon in history classes and for the adoption of more inclusive global curricula. As a result of this push, Western history and Western Civilization have disappeared from course listings, their places having been taken by courses in World History and World Civilizations.

As most of us who teach world history at the K-12 level know, a significant disparity exists between course titles and course content. The great sub-Saharan civilizations may be in our students' textbooks, but how often do we have students read about those civilizations and how often do we skip those pages of the textbook because we feel out of our element with the topic? Products of educational systems that focused almost exclusively on the western, the reality is that many of us find it difficult to teach the histories of regions about which we know next to nothing.

To be sure, many of us who teach history at the K-12 level attempt to integrate different parts of the non-Western world into our courses. When we do have our students study non-Western regions, we usually have them do so from a Euro-centric perspective. Thus, when we have our students look at Asian, African, or Latin America history, we generally have them do so only within the context of the so-called voyages of discovery and the so-called process of decolonization. Oh, some things change. Increasingly self-conscious of our Euro-centrism, many of us no longer frame the material around the voyages of discovery and the process of decolonization, but rather frame the material in more politically neutral terms such as the voyages of exploration and the process of national liberation. Our increased sensitivity to the language of Euro-centrism is commendable. That said, neither our interest in integrating the non-western world into our courses nor our sensitivity to the language of Euro-centrism has yielded much in the way of truly non-Western history courses for our students.

Many of us who teach history at the K-12 level attribute the disparity between course titles and course content to the fact that most of us who teach were educated almost exclusively in the Western canon. Unversed in non-Western history, we feel incapable of teaching much truly non-Western subject matter and allow our courses to remain largely western-looking.

In the long term, the situation will probably change and teachers will have the subject matter expertise to teach non-Western history. Many colleges are already requiring students to take significant numbers of non-Western courses to graduate. The new crop of history graduates from university will be so familiar with non-Western subject matter that they will naturally incorporate non-Western subject matter into their teaching. Most of us in the teaching profession have at least another twenty years in the classroom, though, so it will be some time before this new crop of teachers comes to affect what is taught in most classrooms.

If we wish to start having our students learn non-Western history in the immediate future of the next twenty years, two related developments will need to occur. First, those of us who teach history at the K-12 level will need to modify what we see as our proper role in the classroom. Second, we will need to teach classes which rely broadly on the Internet.

Traditionally, administrators, teachers, parents and students have seen it as the responsibility of the K-12 teacher to: 1) provide students with information, 2) help students digest that information, 3) help students develop their abilities to analyze and synthesize that information; and 4) meaningfully assess students' work and abilities. People have seen information delivery as a particularly important role of teachers. My early experiences in teaching might serve as a case-and-point. When I first began teaching, I provided my students with a series of questions and helped them learn how they might track down the answers to those questions in secondary sources such as their textbooks. This teaching method aroused considerable criticism, with many parents, students, and even my own department chairman complaining that I was not teaching the students the requisite material. For these critics, good teaching was didactic teaching in which the teacher tells students what's what and serves as an information provider, sharing some of what he knows about a given subject.

Not so long ago, we lived in a period when books and other sources of information were scare. Under such conditions, it made good sense that one of the responsibilities of the K-12 teacher would be to provide students with information. But we now live in an information age in which vast amounts of information are but a mouse-click away. Having the teacher serve as a key provider of information in the information age is not only antiquated, it is destructive.

Defining teaching to require that a teacher provide students with information is destructive for two key reasons. First, such a definition of teaching will fail to equip our students for success in the Information Age. We need to provide students with vast opportunities to search for information on their own. Without such opportunities, students will not sufficiently develop the combined ability to track down information and evaluate the accuracy of that information. Second, as pointed out above, most of us at the K-12 level do not know much about non-western history. So long as people insist that teachers serve as information providers and teach only what they know, there is virtually no immediate prospect of having world history courses which embrace much outside the western canon. Given the preparation that real teachers have today, such insistence would impose- a death sentence for world history courses in the schools.

The immediate hope for truly non-Western history courses rests in large part on teachers' willingness to embrace a role for ourselves in which we no longer provide students with the information necessary to answer particular questions, but rather help them track down the information necessary to answer those questions. If we are willing to go this route, then it is to the Internet that we should look as a source of that information. The Internet contains a vast collection of interconnected resources of sufficient breadth and depth to support any K-12 world history class.

Relying on the Internet for information delivery has other advantages over more traditional printed materials. The Internet is a truly multi-media resource, providing students with the sorts of audiovisual, and textual resources that enliven the learning process. Further, using the Internet for information delivery potentially helps students develop their ability to track down information on the Internet efficiently and their ability to distinguish accurate from inaccurate Internet materials. Finally, relying on the Internet for information delivery seems to liberate teachers from the very expectations that make it difficult to "teach" material that they do not know.

For several years now, I have been teaching a web-enhanced course in which I pose questions to students and send them to the Internet for the answers to those question. Interestingly, since having students use the Internet to track down information, the complaints that I am not teaching students have virtually stopped. Accurately or inaccurately, people seem to associate a technology-rich history course with a quality education. This association makes them amenable to a modified view of the proper role of student and teacher.

Many of us believe that it is the limitations of our own educations that hold us back from being able to integrate non-Western history into our classes. The Internet seems to offer an acceptable means of having students learn about parts of the world that we could not otherwise teach them. The real impasse to truly global world history classes is our fossilized belief that to teach we must provide students with facts and figures. By relinquishing our traditional roles as information providers, we ultimately effect a number of changes for the better. First, we gain more time and energy to devise interesting, meaningful engaging assignments, assessments, and mechanisms to keep students motivated and on task. Second, we help make the shift from having teacher-centered classrooms to delivering more effective student-centered learning environments in which we provide students with the questions and skills, and students teach themselves the answers and thereby take greater ownership of their educations. Third, and perhaps most pertinently, we make good on a promise, the promise of a truly global curricula not just in theory, but in practice.

Two sites I have found particularly helpful for the general study of world history at the high school level have been http://www.execpc.com/~dboals/boals and http://www.hyperhistory.com/online_n2/History_n2/a.html. The Boals site entitled "History/Social Studies for K-12 Teachers" has a whole section for Non-Western History Sites. The Hyperhistory site is a beautifully organized collection of materials on world history, usefully categorized under the following headers: People, History, Events, and Maps.

Mark Newmark