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Author: Mark Newmark
Title: Some Appetizingly Straight-forward Uses of Technology
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2001

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Source: Some Appetizingly Straight-forward Uses of Technology
Mark Newmark

vol. 4, no. 1, April 2001
Article Type: Computing in the K-12 Levels
PDF: Download full PDF [21kb ]

Some Appetizingly Straight-forward Uses of Technology

Mark Newmark

This paper examines how several history teachers at the secondary level have used a variety of digital technologies to transform their classrooms, their teaching styles, and their students' learning experiences. Uses of technology highlighted in the paper include the use of Internet-based simulations, the use of e-mail for research, the use of shared disk space for test reviews, the combined use of word processors and spreadsheets for content analysis, the use of message boards and chat rooms to encourage reflection and dialogue, the use of projection devices in conjunction with word processing software to improve writing skills, the and the use of electronic grading for content review. The paper suggests that such use of technology can develop students' interest in particular types of tasks such as writing, can lead students to come to more textured understandings of complex material, and can foster collaboration, both among students and between students and teachers.


This paper examines how several history teachers at the secondary level have used a variety of digital technologies to transform their classrooms, their teaching styles, and their students' learning experiences. The paper is organized around seven uses of technologies: 1) the use of the Internet for simulations; 2) the use of e-mail for research; 3) the use of shared disk space for test reviews; 4) the combined use of word processors and spreadsheets for content analysis; 5) the use of message boards and chat rooms to encourage reflection and dialogue; 6) the use of projection devices in conjunction with word processing software to improve writing skills; and 7) the use of online grading to help students master content. A couple of the examples discussed are drawn from my own classroom and several are drawn from fellow teachers at Cary Academy, the school in North Carolina where I teacher. The other examples are drawn from teachers in Arizona, Iowa, and England.


Historical simulations recreate the past and allow students to apply their knowledge and skills to real-life situations. At their best, historical simulations allow students to step into the shoes of others and to feel what it was like to live in another time and/or place. In the icy language of educational jargon, simulations help students connect abstract ideas with authentic activities that lead to real life applications. In rather more warm-hearted terms, historical simulations bring history alive.

As with so many educational activities, there's nothing to say that a historical simulation requires any use of technology. Rather, technology simply opens some interesting avenues for simulations. Simulations can be extraordinarily time-consuming to design. CD Roms and the Internet offer teachers access to simulations in which others have done the cumbersome design work.

A website based in England offers an example of the sort of thoughtful historical simulation that one can find on the Internet. The site provides students with all the materials necessary to conduct a simulation on the early nineteenth century debate over child labor. As part of the simulation, each student assumes the role of a participant in that debate. Acting in character, each student writes a brief autobiography and prepares a speech for a debate entitled: "'Parliament should pass legislation making it illegal for children under the age of twelve to work in textile factories.'"

The site provides teachers with a framework for carrying out the simulation. No less importantly, it provides students with core information about the various historical participants in the debate and the various historical issues. Thus, the Internet not only provides teachers with access to simulations, but also provides students with access to a fairly extensive set of information that might otherwise be difficult to obtain.


For some time now, professional historians have used e-mail to facilitate their research. Seldom do students make similar use of e-mail for research. I was particularly intrigued, then, to hear how several teachers at Cary Academy were having their seventh grade students use e-mail as part of their study of the nineteenth century. The teachers contacted Jeffrey Auerbach, a professor of history at Stanford and author of a recently published book on the Great Exhibition of 1851, and asked him if would serve as an informal advisor for their students.  Auerbach kindly offered to field questions from the students.  At the close of their study of the nineteenth century, the teachers invited students to formulate any lingering questions they might have about the Great Exhibition.  Students formulated more than two hundred questions.  Fifteen of the most probative questions were sent to Auerbach who in turn e-mailed thoughtful responses to each of these questions. The students' questions and Auerbach's responses may be seen at the question & answer section of a web site created for the students' study of the Great Exhibition.


I teach history in part of an interdisciplinary humanities program for tenth graders. There are a number of teachers involved in that program including several history teachers, several English teachers, a fine arts teacher, and a music teacher. Early on the program, the group decided that we wanted to hold students accountable for information introduced in each of our classes. To help students put all this information together, we e-mailed each student a fairly extensive list of terms and concepts for which they would be responsible on the final exam. We also provided them with several days in each of our classes for them to synthesize their understandings of the terms and create their own review sheets. The list was ambitious and proved to be awfully taxing for each student to do alone. Ever-resourceful, the students in one class hit upon the idea of working together to create one really high quality review sheet for that class. To make that review sheet work, they placed the list in a directory on our school's Intranet to which all the students had read/write access. Each student in the class volunteered to script a response to a few of the items on the list, to save those items in a separate Word file, and to read over and modify what the other students had written. Some students in another class soon heard about this joint review and asked to be a part of it. Next day, students in a third and fourth class were in on the deal. Each of these students checked, rechecked, and rechecked again one another's work. By pooling their talents, the review sheet matured, improving in readability, accuracy, and nuance.

On a number of occasions since, our tenth grade humanities students have used shared disk space on the school's Intranet to learn from one another. A night or two before an assessment, I merge the many student-generated review files into one master review sheet and place it online so that students may access that sheet from home. This site contains an example of a student-generated review sheet on Napoleon.


Last year, Russ VanWyk, a colleague of mine at Cary Academy, told me about an exercise in content analysis he was doing with his World History students. In that exercise, students examine a primary source text that is available in electronic form online. The Internet History Sourcebooks are a good starting point for getting such sources. After locating a text online, students copy and paste that text into a word processing file. By using the "Find" feature in a word processor, students may easily ascertain the number of times particular words appear in that text. By placing these numbers in a spreadsheet such as Excel, these numbers may then be better analyzed. To facilitate this analysis, VanWyk's students place their data into a spreadsheet and translate the data into a more graphical form. Thus, by comparing some speeches of George Washington, James Monroe, Dwight Eisenhower, and Nikita Krushchev, students learn quite a lot about the comparative importance of the concepts of nation and of liberty to these several leaders, and potentially their relative importance to the historical environments in which they were produced. Further details of such content analysis may be found in an article VanWyk wrote on content analysis for Midlink Magazine.


Chat rooms and message boards offer students and faculty alternative means of interacting with one another outside of the classroom. Mark Neal, a teacher in Iowa, has made interesting uses of both technologies. For one of his courses, Neal has constructed a course chat room where he keeps virtual office hours, times when he will be available online. Interaction in the chat room occurs in real time. On occasions, Neal invites his students to take turns moderating a live, real time discussion in the chat room.

Message boards provide another form of extra-mural communication, but they are set up to operate in an asynchronous environment where all the parties to the discussion are not talking in real time. I was not much of a fan of message boards until I heard a professor at a conference wax eloquent about the rich discussions that had occurred on his college-level course message board. On his recommendation, I created a number of message boards on different topics for my tenth grade students. This site contains a few extracts from a message board on fascism; these extracts are fairly representative of the sort of dialogue that occurred on my message boards.


One of the most frustrating parts of history teaching for me is getting students interested in rewriting their work. Several years ago I chanced upon a process that seems to engage students a bit more in the editing process. The process involves taking a piece of student writing that is on a computer screen and sharing it with students using some sort of projection device. Here's how it works. A student uses e-mail to send me a Word file containing an essay he/she has written. I open the document in Word and use an LCD projector to share the contents of the screen with the whole class.

From here it's simply a matter of teaching the students how to use two simple functions of Word: Track Changes and Insert Comment. The Track Changes feature makes a text look something like a manuscript after it has been marked up by an editor. The Insert Comment function allows one to add something akin to marginalia comments in a printed text.

To activate the Track Changes feature of Word, one should look under "Tools" and activate the "Highlight Changes" option. A dialogue box pops up. Check the box marked "Track changes while editing" and press "OK."

To add a comment to a text in Word, one should look under "Insert" and activate the "Comment" option.

Once versed in these features of Word, the class is ready to go. In my classes, I like to ask one student to sit behind the keyboard and be the class scribe and ask another student to serve as the moderator. The moderator's role is to work through the document line by line, asking the class for suggestion as to how each line of text might be improved. Employing the Track Changes and Insert Comments features, the scribe makes the changes elicited by the moderator. After finishing with the essay, the scribe e-mails the revised essay with the proposed changes to the original student author. The student who wrote the essay can easily review and modify the proposed changes in Word by using the "Track Changes" command under "Tools" and selecting "Accept or Reject Changes." This site contains an example of how Track Changes and Insert Comments were used to suggest improvements to a student's thesis for an essay on nationalism.

The editing process for a paper reviewed in this way is slow, but the collaborative element of the exercise somehow transforms the editing process from a chore into a game.


Online grading sites such as can be of enormous benefit in creating objective assessments that are then automatically scored, much like a ScanTron machine. While online grading may be used to assess student's understanding of content, they may also be used to help students review material and thereby master content. Andrew Field's superb site on the Norman Conquest illustrates how online grading can be used for review purposes. Field's site, based in England, not only provides students with a quiz about the Conquest, but also provides them with feedback on how they did on the quiz , feedback that will help them come to a better understanding of the material.

.09. LEARNING MORE . . .

Those interested in learning more about how secondary teachers are making use of digital technologies might wish to look at three online journals: Teaching History with Technology, a journal for which I serve as editor-in-chief; MidLink Magazine, a journal dedicated to featuring not only teachers' submissions, but also submissions of student work; and Teaching History Online, an immensely approachable journal produced in Britain.

Mark Newmark
Cary Academy