Archive for May, 2013

The Internet is finally beginning to penetrate historical practice.  At the recent North American Society for Sports History (NASSH) Conference, held May 24-26 at Saint Mary’s University, Douglas Booth and Gary Osmond provided a fascinating primer on the impact digital history is starting to exert on a field like the study of international sports history.  The Internet itself, Booth pointed out, is — in fact–“an infinitely expanding, partially mediated archive.” Exploring the World Wide Web, however, can be frightening, especially for recognized experts, because it “disturbs previous certainties.”

DigitalHistoryTraditionDigital history is the use of digital media and tools for historical practice, presentation, analysis, and research. Early work in digital history focused on creating digital archives, CD-ROMs, online presentations, time-lines, audio files, and virtual worlds. More recent digital history projects demonstrate the potential of creativity, collaboration, mapping data, and technical innovation, all of which are aspects of Web 2.0  Current and future initiatives seek to fully utilize the Internet to create dynamic sites of history-making, inquiry and discussion.

Digital dreamers tend to breed skepticism. The inaugural issue of Wired magazine from the spring of 1993, for example, predicted  an overly optimistic digital future.  Management consultant Lewis J. Perleman foresaw an “inevitable” “hyperlearning revolution” that would displace the thousand-year-old “technology” of the classroom, which has “as much utility in today’s modern economy of advanced information technology as the Conestoga wagon or the blacksmith shop.”

Historians and history teachers had reason to feel threatened. John Browning, future Executive Editor of Wired UK, explained how “books once hoarded in subterranean stacks will be scanned into computers and made available to anyone, anywhere, almost instantly, over high-speed networks.” Wired publisher Louis Rossetto went even further, linking the digital revolution to “social changes so profound that their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.

Techno-skeptics saw a very different future. Debating Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s, literary critic Sven Birkerts implored readers to “refuse” the lure of “the electronic hive.” The new media, he warned, pose a dire threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth”—“the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”

Today’s students are digital natives and generally far more savvy than their professors. No longer does it suffice for a history teacher to present an overhead and have students take notes. Museums cannot count on traditional “static” exhibits to attract visitors. Digital history applications, whether they are virtual exhibits or online learning programs, transcend the traditional textbook and provide users with dynamic animations and authentic sources and experiences.

Most teaching websites offer resources (especially primary sources) and advice on how to do digital history. Yet creating  interactive learning exercises remains a significant challenge. One approach is to provide exercises—in the form of  mysteries—that have no right answer and where the learning comes through the exploration.  Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Land, developed in 1996,  presented students with the problem of solving the murder of William Robinson, an African American who was killed on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia in 1868. It has morphed into the Great Unsolved Mysteries Series, consisting of 12 “cold cases” designed to turn students into real-life historians. While challenging, they now appear dated because they tend to be static and traditional in their use of virtual archives.

University professors, at the undergraduate level,  are gradually coming to accept digital history. But this begs the question. What evidence do we have that students learn better from digital history?

Few studies have scientifically documented computer-user behaviours, particularly in history education. Much of what is available comes from international/US studies which present descriptive results of small-scale investigations with online applications and webquests. Building on pioneering research in virtual history, Stéphane Lévesque of the University of Ottawa spent a decade researching how Canadian students learn from and can improve their learning experience with digital history environments.

In a  funded study by the Canadian Council on Learning (2007-2008), Lévesque investigated the role and impact of a digital history program, The Virtual Historian, on students’ historical learning and literacy. What this study suggested was that digital history – with all its animated objects and dynamic scaffolds – is not a substitute for classroom teaching. Many students continue to crave and need student-teacher interaction and instruction – and for sound reasons. Learning is, according to Levesque,  far too complex and multifaceted to be reduced to gaming and web animations.

Still, digital history provides students with important learning tools, resources and thought processes that 21st century teachers can no longer ignore. Working with Adam Friedman of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Levesque has embarked upon in a comparative Canada-US study of high school student learning with technology aiming to uncover the particular ways in which Canadian and American teachers and students can learn in technology- connected settings.

Historians and teachers are starting to cast a wider net.  Instead of limiting their research to written sources including newspapers, sporting records and official documents; they are tackling history as represented in digital forms, material culture, and museums. The growing relationship between  Wikipedia and history demonstrates the expansion of the field  beyond its traditional parameters. The study of history is now becoming  far more integrated with digital history, cultural history and public history through connections unlocked by the digital revolution.  All of this is making possible more dynamic, topical, interactive engagement in studying not only contemporary society but the past.

Why do academics and teachers show such reticence to engage in digital history?  Does doing digital history run the risk of turning the subject into the art of the “mash-up”?  What’s the difference between good digital history and the bad variety?  What can be done to encourage more practitioners to move beyond using the Internet as a tool to actually embracing digital history? 

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An 18-year old Texas student at Duncanville High School, Jeff Bliss, simply had enough — and could not take it anymore.  After being dismissed from class for asking a question and being told to “quit bitching” in Grade 12 World History class on May 6, 2013, he launched into a ninety second condemnation of his teacher’s uninspired attitude and habit of “packet teaching” depriving students of the opportunity to actually engage in learning.

JeffBlissRantAs the son of a teacher, and a student who returned to high school after having dropped-out, he expected more from teachers in his school.  Caught on video by an “undercover” student, his outburst went viral and discussions broke out over both the appropriateness of  his behaviour and the critical education reform issue he raised in the classroom rant. When the teacher, Julie Phung , was placed on leave with pay, a fierce public furor erupted over whether the outspoken Bliss may have a point.

Whether intended or not, Jeff Bliss happened to hit on many of the hot button issues in the American Education War.  “If you would just get up and teach ‘em instead of handing them a frickin packet, yo, there’s kids in here who don’t learn like that,” he said. “They need to learn face to face.”  When Phong, sitting at her desk, repeatedly admonishes him to leave and says he’s “wasting” her time, Bliss unloads with his own lesson about teaching:

“You want kids to come into your class, you want them to get excited for this? You gotta come in here and you gotta make them excited,” the tall student with flowing blond hair and red high tops says in the video, standing at the front of the class and gesticulating to further emphasize his point. “You want a kid to change and start doing better? You gotta touch his freakin heart. You can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell them.” His closer: “This is my country’s future and my education.”

Local Dallas TV news affiliates quickly picked up the video, and by May 14, it  exceeded 1.8 million views and had gleaned international attention. The Innovative Educator, Lisa Neilsen, a strong advocate of “student voice” defended the student’s right to voice his opinion in a school where that was not normally encouraged or even permitted.   But public commenters were quick to point out the disrespectful nature of the outburst in an environment where teachers are supposed to be respected. They also warned this video doesn’t show us the full story.

The official response from the Duncanville Independent School District  was rather instructive.  “As a district with a motto of Engaging Hearts and Minds we focus on building positive relationships with students and designing engaging work that is meaningful,” the district said in a media statement. “We want our students and teachers to be engaged, but the method by which the student expressed his concern could have been handled in a more appropriate way. We are and will continue to be open to listening to students.”

Many educators were upset because it fed public perceptions of the “bad teacher.” One well-known American educational blogger, high school English teacher Tom Panarese, expressed his profound discouragement in a post entitled Why the Jeff Bliss story makes me want to quit.

” I’m probably just seeing end-of-the-school-year exhaustion manifest itself “, Panarese  wrote, noting that stressful June testing was about to begin.  Then he added: ” But it seems that the conversation about education as it is via social media has been happening this way for years and as noble as Jeff Bliss’s champions might think his “I Am Spartacus” moment might be, it won’t really change anything except get a black mark on his history teacher’s record.”

Was Texas high school student Jeff Bliss justified in speaking out against mediocrity in teaching?  Do we know enough about conditions in the school or that class to pass judgement on the teacher’s approach or the student’s behaviour?  Should students have more of a voice in shaping what is learned and how they are taught, especially in senior high school?  Are educators expressing legitimate concerns about the dangers of “trial by underground You Tube clip”?

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Public education systems tend to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that does not fit everyone.  Children who are highly gifted, severely challenged, or being raised in devout Christian homes often do not fit easily into the standard model, particularly in rural and small town Canada where few school alternatives exist for families. An estimated 100,000 Canadian children from 6 to 16 years of age are being educated outside the system in a variety of home education settings.  Most are being educated in traditional homeschool  fashion, and about 10% by parents committed to the philosophy of “unschooling” or deprogramming their children.

HomeschoolingChildOne of the best known parents who chose another option – homeschooling – is Quinn Cummings, author of The Year of Living Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling (2012). Her motivation, in homeschooling her 8-year old, grade 4 daughter, four years ago, was more mainstream. Like a growing number of home education families, she wanted her child “to work hard and be challenged without it meaning two to three hours of homework every night.”  “I wanted our daughter,” she says, “to learn how to learn. I suspect this is a skill school should give you, but i didn’t want her to look back on her childhood as an extended meditation on worksheets.”

Parents in the 21st century are becoming more adventuresome in finding new ways to educate their children. Traditional homeschooling is evolving from one-on-one home tutoring to online learning tapping into resources like Khan Academy and the latest electronic educational games.  It’s now possible to offer blended learning combining home instruction, online learning, and community-based programs. It’s a combination that allows parents to “custom build a curriculum” for each student using  “a mix-and-match approach” best suited to the individual child.   Cummings calls it “made to order education” for the 21st century.

Not every Canadian province “gets it” when it comes to home education. Wide variations exist across Canada in how school authorities respond to, and support, parents and families seeking to homeschool their children. Canada’s leading education province, Alberta, is officially committed to “school  choice” and the most receptive to homeschooling. Provincial funding is available, through a transfer of fees, and varies according to the program of studies you are offering. If you choose basic/traditional you usually get about $700. Blended is anywhere from $900-1200 and fully aligned you can receive as much $1500.00 per child.  Some variations do exist between the various school boards.  Provincial authorities in British Columbia and Ontario are open to homeschooling, albeit without such generous financial supports.

The most restrictive province may well be Nova Scotia, especially after a November 2012 Auditor General’s report proposing tighter regulation and more rigorous supervision. While only 850 out of 124,000 school age children are registered for homeschooling, AG Jacques Lapointe reported a “lack of adequate systems” to ensure a minimum of supervision, including proper registration records. Out of 120 files reviewed, he found 102 did not specify what a child was expected to learn and five had no information on the study program. It was a major embarrassment for the Education Department and may precipitate a backlash against homeschoolers.

Supporters of homeschooling in Canada were quick to react to the Nova Scotia Auditor General’s report.  Paul Faris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, charged that the AG’s proposed changes would make Nova Scotia “the worst place in Canada” to home-school children.  Nova Scotia, he pointed out, already has plenty of regulations, albeit some that are not currently being enforced.  The Auditor General, according to Faris, was “completely ignorant” of the research on homeschooling and was “trying to fit it into a public school model.”  Caught off-guard by the AG’s report, Education Minister Ramona Jennex responded by saying she was “open” to looking at changes.

A former New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto created a sensation when he quit his decades-long teaching career and announced it in a 1991 Wall Street Journal column entitled, “I Quit, I Think.” Until encountering recent health problems, Gatto has been a major education critic and a proponent of homeschooling and unschooling children.  His two best known books, Dumbing Us Down (1992) and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008), provide the most searing radical critique of the impact of “compulsory schooling” on the creativity and imagination of children.

In a Homeschooling Magazine interview a few years ago, Gatto praised homeschoolers for showing “courage and determination” on “the front lines”  and for “making the right choice.”  “You’ve made a choice to free your children to be the best people they can be, the best citizens they can be, and to be their personal best, ” he said. ” But had you allowed those kids to remain in the grip of institutional schooling, the kids would have become instruments of a different purpose.”

Why do increasing numbers of Canadian parents choose to homeschool their own children?  Are home-schooled children more likely to be independent trailblazers or are they at risk of becoming ‘free floaters’ in life? What’s the secret of successfully homeschooling children?  And what is the real purpose of imposing tighter regulations on Canada’s home education families?

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