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Author: Adam Friedman
Title: Using Digital Primary Sources to Teach World History and World Geography: Practices, Promises, and Provisos
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2005

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Source: Using Digital Primary Sources to Teach World History and World Geography: Practices, Promises, and Provisos
Adam Friedman

vol. 8, no. 1, May 2005
Article Type: Article

Using Digital Primary Sources to Teach World History and World Geography: Practices, Promises, and Provisos

Adam Friedman

University of North Carolina at Charlotte


Primary sources that are in electronic format are referred to as digital primary sources, and hold the potential to change the way in which secondary world history and world geography is taught and learned. This paper presents a review of the literature concerning current practices of primary source and technology use in the K-12 social studies classroom, as well as reflects experiences of how digital primary sources were used in a post-secondary United States history course. Both the promises that digital primary sources present, as well as their potential downside are discussed.

A "primary source[s] give[s] the words of the witnesses or the first recorders of an event" and leaves interpretation up to the individual. [1] Primary sources enable a person interested in investigating a historical event the opportunity to analyze the causes and effects of a past event based on the accounts of a person who was present at the time the event took place. The Library of Congress has divided primary sources into five categories: artifacts, documents, oral histories, sounds, and visuals. [2] While each of these is distinct in their properties, they all fall under the umbrella of the definition of a primary source, as they are original in nature and can be interpreted differently by different people. Digital primary sources contain the same qualities as primary sources, but as Lee and Clarke (2003) put forth, are "stored as electronic collections in formats that facilitate their use on the World Wide Web". [3]

One of the major tenets of world history and world geography is the broadening of students' perspectives, which is simply defined as teaching students about cultures other than their own. Traditionally, the use of primary sources has been reserved solely for historians, as they were the only people who had access to such information, and students studying history in public schools were left to memorize historians' findings as facts. Primary sources are now widely available on the Internet, and have made it possible for secondary social studies students to learn history in the same manner as it is practiced by historians. A method with great promise for broadening perspectives is the inclusion of digital primary sources in the world history and world geography curriculum.

Current Practices

Primary sources of all types can be beneficial for the teaching and learning of history. They foster the active investigation of history, which involves the analysis of different sources and the extraction of conclusions. Although it is the work of historians to review differing sources and combine them into a narrative of what transpired during a particular event or time period, this type of discourse need not be limited to the work of professionals. It can also be accomplished by students in middle and high school social studies classrooms; Kobrin (1996) [4] and VanSledright (2002), [5] for example, argue that secondary students possess the ability to engage in historical thinking, which is the practicing of history in the same manner as historians.

A growing body of research examines current practices related to using primary sources in the K-12 classroom, specifically focusing on the notion of teaching students to think historically. [6] Kobrin, (1996) Levstik, (1997) and VanSledright (2002) argue that elementary and secondary students possess the ability to analyze and interpret primary sources in order to make meaning of historical events. [7] Levstik (1997) describes an elementary class in which students were taught history through a model in which the teacher guided collaborative investigations on a history of Columbus. [8] The class was divided into groups, and through simulations and large group activities, students were charged with answering the questions of whether or not Columbus was famous and if he should be considered a hero. Through analysis of different sources, students arrived at various conclusions about Columbus, and thus demonstrated a beginning ability to think historically.

In order for students to analyze primary sources effectively, they must be active learners, as the process of engaging in historical thinking requires seeking out answers rather than absorbing them. [9] To do so, students must be intrinsically motivated, and buy in to the idea of studying history actively. When students are receptive to primary source use, the results can be quite rewarding, as Kobrin (1996) describes: One student said that he "really liked working with a group, because what I don't understand, someone in the group can help me;" and another, "learned that we also have a say in history," while another felt as if he "went back in time and stopped at each place." [10]

World History and World Geography

The discussion of primary sources and their implications for teaching social studies demonstrates the need for students to use their imaginations and think creatively. By evaluating different primary sources and engaging in historical thinking, students will be forced to consider different points of view before coming to a final conclusion on a topic. Teaching students to think historically fits particularly well with the study of world history and world geography, as a "[b]roadening perspective enables young people to engage meaningfully" in the study of foreign lands and cultures, and by reading accounts and studying artifacts of the past, students will be better able to understand the present. [11] If a goal for world history and world geography teachers is to teach a curriculum that fosters historical thinking through the use of primary sources, a question of logistics becomes paramount: Can teachers access resources and materials that will allow them to carry out this ambition?

Using Technology in the Social Studies Curriculum

The National Council for the Social Studies has clearly stated its support for using technology in instruction, as its curriculum standards state that "integrated social studies teaching and learning include effective use of technology that can add important dimensions to students' learning." [12] What is considered a state of the art, emerging technology is dependent on both time and viewpoint, [13] as a blackboard was certainly considered a technology when it came about, as was an overhead projector. According to Moore's Law, the technology that is available doubles every 18 months, and its price is reduced in half over the same time period. [14] The result of this phenomenon is that the technology available at one point in time may be drastically different from another, and as technology becomes more sophisticated, its definition, function, and use are continually changing as well. As more technology is introduced and its price is lessened, it is likely that both teachers and students will have more opportunities to access technology, and its promise as an instructional tool for social studies will therefore be heightened.

Berson (1996) identifies seven general ways in which students can use computers in social studies: "simulations, drill and practice, educational games, tutorials, database management, word processing and writing, and graphing." [15] While he makes note of students using databases in order to engage in inquiry learning and problem solving, it is a strong endorsement of Moore's Law that Internet and World Wide Web are not mentioned throughout the article. Four years after Berson's piece, an Internet connection could be found in 98% of public schools. [16]

Clearly, teaching can be enhanced by using technology. The Internet, World Wide Web, and Digital Resource Centers are significant resources and digital histories and digital historical inquiries are promising methods for improving teaching practices.

The Internet and the World Wide Web

This nearly ubiquitous access to the Internet is an area of great potential, promise, and premium for social studies in general and, more specifically, for teaching World History and World Geography. Braun and Risinger (1999) offer high praise for the Internet's use in social studies, as they refer to it as a truly revolutionary development in the production and distribution materials…It offers access to library catalogues and historical archives; viewings of exhibits in art and historical museums; material from the latest editions of popular magazines and newspapers; audio and video recordings of social studies-related content; and portfolios communication with like-minded individuals about a topic of mutual interest. As a repository for student portfolios and similarly as exhibition space for student multimedia projects, the Internet is an ideal format. [17]

Among the library catalogues and digital archives listed by Braun and Risinger (1999) are many sites that offer a plethora of primary sources. While these resources allow exploration and interpretation of the past in the same manner as any other type of primary source, they are not touched or felt; rather, they are displayed on a computer screen in an electronic format. Such "digital primary sources" can include images, letters, diaries, maps, and artifacts.

The implications for student learning through digital primary sources are tremendous. Not only do they offer an opportunity for instruction to be individualized as each student can study different original resources, but the Internet literally opens up the world with vast amounts of information that students can access from their own computer. In terms of studying world history and world geography, because the Internet has "transcend[ed] geographical distance, political boundaries, and chronological divisions to become genuinely 'worldwide,'" it has the potential to be an excellent learning tool as it can foster perspective taking by allowing students to search for and instantly examine viewpoints and ideas of other peoples and cultures that would otherwise be unattainable. [18]

Researchers argue that in the past, teachers did not use primary sources in instruction due to a lack of access. [19] Now, however, primary sources can be found on Web sites in "prepackaged" or freestanding formats that have a particular theme and include sample lesson plans and activities that can be modified to any individual teacher's classroom. [20] Examples of these include AFRICA and the Vietnam Passage, both educational Web sites created by PBS, and the Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust developed at the University of South Florida.

It is also possible for teachers to create their own primary source teaching "packets" on different subjects. [21] This can be done through the use of search engines in which teachers can type in the key words of whatever they are looking for (such as pictures, letters, maps, music, propaganda, or video or audio recordings) along with the specific subject that they would like to study. Stemming from his in-depth study of one middle school social studies teacher, Slekar (1997) argues that this increase in availability of resources on the Internet will result in social studies teachers that are more apt to teach history by exposing students to multiple perspectives rather than the remembrance of facts. [22]

Digital Resource Centers

Digital primary sources do not just appear; instead, they are put on Web sites often with the intention of educating the general public about a specific historical time period or event. This type of service is known as a digital resource center, or DRC. The Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia defines DRCs to be "Internet based academic collections that include the following elements:

  • The resources have the potential of transforming university teaching and learning.
  • The resources can stand the test of peer review.
  • Each center has a connection to K-12 education.
  • The products are relevant for K-12 education. [23]

Many DRCs contain different types of primary sources in digital format, such as "letters, diaries, newspaper articles, public records, images, as well as audio and video files." [24] The digital primary sources that are presented on DRCs make it possible for students to discover details of the past and to engage in historical thinking. [25] In addition to presenting content that was in the past very difficult to find, another advantage of a DRC is that they allow users look at their collections from anywhere with an Internet connection. Furthermore, these sites can often be searched by typing key words, and the results are instantly displayed. [26]

Digital History

There is a distinct difference between reading a manuscript that is printed on paper and reading it on the Internet. Internet sites in their most basic form are written in html, an acronym for hypertext markup language, and it is the word "hypertext" which differentiates the reading of printed text from reading on the Internet. When reading a printed page, in order to find out more in-depth knowledge about a particular topic that is written, a user would have to find another book on that particular topic. The Internet's "hypertextuality" allows the user to simply click on a hyperlink and be brought to a new Web page that contains additional information. [27] In terms of teaching and learning history and geography, this feature of the Internet allows history to be told as a story, as it has the potential to "involve and reward more engagement on the part of the reader than a book requires or permits." [28]

Digital history is more than the simple posting and retrieving of information from primary sources on the Internet or the ability to read a reference with the click of a mouse. While this is an element of digital history, and something that digital history does well, [29] there is much more to the field than what VanFossen refers to as "glorified information gathering." [30] Because digital history materials are put on the Internet for the world to see, they "democratize" history, as not only do they allow anybody who would like to conduct historical research the ability to do so, but they have the potential to reinvigorate the study of "new" history-the study of history from different perspectives. [31] In carrying out this historical research, the Internet provides a low-overhead space for people to post their interpretations of historical resources. [32] This ability to find resources and offer interpretation is at the crux of historical thinking.

Besides democratizing history for its audience, digital history democratizes history for its participants. As common people become entries on a searchable database on the Internet, rather than becoming a "number" and disappearing into the oblivion of cyberspace, they become more alive, as their stories can now be heard. Thomas (1998) emphasizes history's desire to include "everyone" in its story-and in so doing, users can find information about "soldiers as well as civilians, generals and privates, merchants and farmers, blacks and whites, [and] men and women"-stories which would not ordinarily come to light. [33] By encouraging students to analyze the stories of these common people, they are engaging in historical thinking, and at the same time will be able to broaden their perspectives.

Digital Historical Inquiry

The advent of digital history has made possible the notion of digital historical inquiry, which is essentially a combination of digital history and inquiry learning. Molebash, Hicks, and Lee refer to digital historical inquiry as taking full advantage of current and emerging technologies to support conceptualizations of learning history that stress developing inquiry, perspective taking and meaning making over the current transmission textbook-driven model. [34]

When students engage in digital historical inquiry, they are acting like historians by offering their own interpretations of primary sources. These primary sources are in an electronic format on the Internet. Therefore, they are at the same time able to take advantage the Internet's "hypertextuality" not only by choosing links that they would like to explore, but by referring to links that can serve as evidence that can validate their argument or interpretation. [35] Teaching history in this manner offers the opportunity for students to engage in historical thinking, as the focus of instruction can shift from being a teacher-centered diffusion of facts to a method in which students discover their own knowledge. [36]

From their observations of an undergraduate United States history course, Milman and Heinecke (1999) argue that students use historical thinking skills when they are exposed to digital history resources and engage in digital historical inquiry. [37] In this course, the students were assigned to work in groups in order to design an Internet site that contained their interpretations of various digital history resources from the American Civil War. The first step was for students to "find, collect, and interpret the primary resource data." [38] This proved to be a difficult experience for several students, as they at first felt overwhelmed. One student reported "frustration… with the first attempts to ascend this mountain [of information]," while another felt "kind of taken aback at what is going to be required to get this even near completion." [39]

From the vantage point of the instructor, the course was unique and took some getting used to. One professor described it as "doubly difficult to teach," as it was necessary to impart the content knowledge of the Civil War to students, while simultaneously changing the mode by which this knowledge was conveyed.  [40] In the past, the professor was a disseminator of information, and could assume that students were able to listen, read, and write. However, because this course involved digital history resources, this assumption could not be made, as the professor felt that students had to "master technology issues and then history." [41] By the same token, both of the professors felt as if their roles had changed. One described feeling more like a "head coach" rather than "an instructor," while the other felt akin to a "facilitator," and wondered whether or not with the assumption of this role was "really being a professor." [42]

Overall, participating in a history course taught in this manner seemed to be a positive learning experience, as students were involved with "doing" history rather than having it told to them. "Doing" history, as one professor stated, is:

[Taking] inchoate, unorganized, raw material, to find meaning in it…And my objection to the way most history is taught is that people are never shown the inchoate part and never, therefore, are given the chance to do history. They're given the chance to memorize somebody else's done history…In many ways this is more, even though it uses machinery, it's more tactile, you actually have to go get all these things and actually drive across the landscape and go into the archives and get them and then manipulate them. It feels more like doing history than using some set of published books in the library. [43]

As opposed to recalling facts from a professor's lecture, students were assigned the task of interpreting digital primary sources in order to create their own narrative of what transpired in the past. Because they were using html and the Internet as a medium, they could not help but become more familiar with these technologies, but at the same time, the students were able to engage in historical thinking by analyzing digital history resources that they would most likely not have had access to had the class been in a lecture format. [44] One student in the class expressed this notion succinctly, stating that

I learned a great deal about HTML, but also about the common man in the Civil War. The letters we read weren't about causes, or politics, but about how the simple man dealt with the "horrible machine" of war. [45]

By engaging in the practice of digital historical inquiry, students are able to think historically as they interpret numerous digital primary sources in order to construct their own narrative, and as a by-product, become more familiar with the technologies that they have used in doing so. At the same time, the role of the instructor changes from one of a disseminator of knowledge where students are told what they need to know, to one of a guide or facilitator where the instructor's role is to work with students to help them decide what knowledge is important to create. It is clear that digital historical inquiry has occurred in an undergraduate American history course-whether this occurs, or even holds the potential of occurring, in high school world history or world geography courses remains to be seen.

Moving Forward, Cautiously?

Primary sources lie at the core of the historian's work, as they offer the opportunity to delve into the past and interpret what happened based on evidence. Heretofore, the use of primary sources had been reserved for use by historians. The proliferation of primary sources in electronic format on the Internet has made it possible for virtually anybody to view, and thus evaluate, remnants of the past.

This analysis and interpretation of digital primary sources is referred to as digital history, and holds the promise of major ramifications in the way that history is taught and learned at all levels of schooling. Digital history is especially poignant for the study of world history and world geography, as these subjects seek for students to adopt a global perspective in which they compare cultures and arrive at a historical understanding as to why certain events occurred (and still do occur) throughout the world. The practice of digital history is predicated on the use of technology, particularly the Internet. If barriers, either real or perceived, exist for social studies teachers to use this technology, neither they nor their students will be able to reap the benefits of available digital history resources.

We know that digital primary sources have the potential to change the way that social studies has traditionally been taught and learned. Because their use involves the Internet, on the surface there is a shift in the medium by which information is transmitted to students. This shift carries with it a deeper current, as inherent in digital primary sources is the potential for students to engage in historical thinking, as they construct their own meanings of the past rather than memorize facts. This goal of students acting like historians as they interpret historical documents and events has been realized in undergraduate American history courses. We do not know how the means and to what extent secondary world history and world geography teachers use digital primary sources, the barriers that may prevent more widespread use of digital primary sources, and the effect that this has on their teaching. There also are concerns related to the content and message in electronic sources.

Not all Web sites provide accurate information. For example, if students are searching for material on the Holocaust, there are numerous sites that proclaim that it is a myth that it occurred at all. [46] In addition, users have no control as to when a Web site is updated, and thus may be subject to out dated information.

Virtually anybody can post a Web site, and just because something is on the Internet does not mean it is true. Also, groups whose interest is to promote a certain agenda have Web sites that are slanted toward a particular view. Students and teachers need to be discerning as they search for digital primary source materials. From their 2000 study of high school social studies students' Internet use, Scott and O'Sullivan assert that students understand that they need to be critical consumers of information they find on the Internet, as some Web sites may be "unreliable." [47] However, if one of the goals of social studies is to develop critical thinking skills, this uncertainty may actually prove to be useful. When students engage in the process of deciding which resources are most reliable and accurate, whether they realize it or not, they are using historical thinking skills.

While digital primary sources hold great potential for the teaching and learning of world history and world geography, they are not recommended without a degree of caution. Not only do classroom teachers and students need to be discriminating in terms of what resources to utilize, but there are other factors that may mitigate some of their effectiveness as well. From a logistical point of view, a Web site can be taken down abruptly and without notice, and if a student or teacher had relied heavily on one particular site for information and it is suddenly taken down, their work would be lost.

Two other potentially problematic issues concerning digital primary sources are copyright and plagiarism. These issues are intertwined, as both teachers and students may be inclined to utilize copyrighted material that they come across on a particular Web site without the author's permission. This could range from one student naively imbedding a copyrighted image into a homework assignment to another student purposefully and deviously stealing work, such as an essay that was found on a Web site. As a result, teachers should familiarize themselves with copyright law, as they or their students could be liable for copyright infringement. Nevertheless, digital primary sources' vast potential for the teaching and learning of world history and world geography far outweigh any potentially negative repercussions.


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