Computers and the Practice of History: Where Are We? Where Are We Headed?
Dennis Trinkle, February 1999
Exactly one year ago, Janice L. Reiff described the Internet and the World Wide Web in these pages as "the wave of the present," carrying historians toward an uncertain future.1 Shortly after Reiff's essay appeared, the American Association for History and Computing (AAHC) launched a survey of American college and university professors to gauge in what ways and to what degree computer technology was changing the practice of history.2
The survey was distributed through H-Net and other historical discussion lists and was mailed to the chairs of the approximately 660 departments listed in the AHA's Directory of History Departments and Organizations in the United States and Canada. In all, 485 historians from 101 American colleges and universities responded. Replies were evenly distributed across rank and degree of technical proficiency.
The survey generally supports Reiff's characterization—the Internet and the World Wide Web are waves of the present in the marriage of history and computing technology. Scholars who are still at the altar protesting the union have missed the ceremony. Every history instructor who returned the survey is using electronic mail for scholarly communication, and 93 percent of the respondents report using computers for research. The problems of access for faculty also appear to be lessening. All the respondents indicated that they can now use the Internet from work. Ninety-eight percent of full-time faculty reported having a computer in their office, with 91 percent of those instructors stating that their office computer is connected to the Internet. Access for students remains more problematic. A third of the respondents noted that their students have insufficient access to computers.
The survey also reveals the danger in using unitary metaphors like "the wave" to describe the process of change occurring in American colleges and universities. Respondents' remarks show that there is great individual and institutional variation in how technology is being applied to the practice of history. To take just one example, history instructors at community colleges, liberal arts schools, and research institutions are conceptualizing and implementing technology in significantly different ways, and the results they report reflect this diversity.
The detailed comments following each of the survey questions make it clear that neither the dangers nor the promise of computer technology can be adequately addressed through broad comments about general trends affecting the profession. History is not being swept along by a single wave or carried in a single direction. Groups like the AHA and the AAHC need to start organizing discussions that address the local and categorical factors in technology's impact upon the practices of history.
There are, of course, some shared experiences that are reflected across the entire range of surveys. Experimentation with technology in the history classroom, albeit in widely divergent forms, is a central theme. Eighty percent of those surveyed reported using technology in teaching, and 46 percent stated that they are now requiring their students to use e-mail for course purposes. Forty-four percent also have begun requiring students to use the Internet for research exercises, papers, and seminars—though 23 percent of the latter group expressed concerns about the reliability of information on the Internet.
Nevertheless, recognizing that Internet research has become an unavoidable part of historical research, many of these instructors are addressing the problem of quality through a variety of proactive steps.
Fifty-four percent of the respondents have begun devoting significant class hours to technical instruction and workshops. Many are offering students specific instruction on how to find and evaluate materials on the Internet. Respondents are also turning to printed scholarly guides, to Internet resources such as The History Highway, and to online guides, such as The Argus Clearinghouse, the OCLC Internet Cataloging Project, and the Encyclopedia Britannica's E-Blast to direct students to reliable materials.3
Many faculty are also creating their own web sites to help guide students to dependable online materials and provide other useful resources. Forty-seven percent of the respondents stated that they have developed their own course sites. This measure masks great variety, however. For most of the faculty in this group, the creation of a web site means primarily making a copy of their syllabus and schedule available on the web and directing students to several web sites relevant to the course. A smaller group of faculty (who report greater technical support at their university or some training in computer technology) is producing more complex web resources for their students. The materials mentioned traverse a wide technical range from annotated course readings to interactive tutorials and sophisticated historical databases.
A significant number of faculty is also requiring students to create as well as use online multimedia materials. Twenty-seven percent have begun asking students to produce individual web sites for their courses, and 21 percent require or encourage students to develop group web projects. Many courses are now meeting at least occasionally in computer labs to work with or on multimedia materials. These projects are most frequently mentioned as part of upper-level history courses, but a number of faculty are encouraging students to create multimedia projects even at the introductory level.
However, anecdotal comments also reveal that there are still many history instructors who are uncomfortable with the use of multimedia projects in teaching history. The rationale most often given is that requiring multimedia projects necessitates greater student preparation. The other side of this complaint is the second most repeated explanation: "Teaching technical skills at the expense of historical content and methodology is a calculus of dubious value."
Importantly, a number of those already actively using multimedia projects and materials in their courses also question the benefits to learning outcomes. These complaints come primarily from faculty at community colleges and state universities, especially from those at schools moving aggressively to develop distance learning programs. These instructors echo concerns about students being poorly prepared to use computers in the classroom. They raise fundamental questions about the success of distance learning for early undergraduates in history. More than 20 instructors anecdotally claimed that participation and enthusiasm dropped in direct correlation to the amount of hours spent online in a course. One professor who has conducted a quantitative comparative study of his distance and traditional versions of an otherwise identical course reported that use of the Internet and multimedia projects negatively affected student interest, communication with the instructor, and performance.
Reflecting these anxieties, 73 percent of faculty worry that their present use of technology is inadequate or poorly conceived. They express concerns about outdated technology, insufficient training, lack of release time, student resistance, negative impact upon tenure and promotion decisions, and unforeseen or negative effects upon the quality of their teaching. A number of faculty also reiterate deep concerns, already being widely heard, about how technology is being implemented and used on their campuses. Thirty-five percent of the respondents claimed that they were required by their institutions to use the Internet for their courses. Some of the mandatory uses indicated included offering state-required "technology across the curriculum" courses, putting syllabi on the Internet, making course enrollment and grade records available online, and even using technology provided by a specific corporation as mandated by a partnership agreement. Eleven percent of the respondents specifically noted as their central concern the lack of faculty involvement in planning and policy making. More generally, 65 percent claimed to be dissatisfied with their institutions' technology policies, initiatives, and plans for the future. The most common complaint is that "the administration is imposing technology without consulting faculty" and with "little regard for its impact upon teaching or learning." Others worry that the human dimensions of the profession are being devalued and disregarded. They argue that the union of technology and history will exacerbate the job crisis, further commercialize and dehumanize the profession, and increase the use of adjuncts, part-time instructors, and graduate students. Collectively, these complaints illustrate many of the central issues that the profession must continue to address if technology is to be sensibly incorporated into the practices of history.
Overall, the spirit of the surveys is not pessimistic. All of the responses reveal an alert recognition that the Internet and World Wide Web are changing, or hold the potential to change, every dimension of history—from the structures of historical knowledge to the paradigms of pedagogy. The criticisms that resonate in the responses demonstrate a pervasive desire by faculty to actively direct the courses these changes will follow. The current state of history reflected in the surveys can, perhaps, be best described as cautiously optimistic experimentation.
As one might expect in such a period of uncertain transition, there is no consensus about where history is headed. The experiments are pointed toward new modes of historical interpretation, explanation, and instruction, but the story will likely be one of increased options. Just as television has not replaced radio, and modern scientific thought has not supplanted metaphysics, well-established practices of history will not disappear, but will most likely find novel and productive supplements through evolving computer technologies.
—Dennis A. Trinkle teaches at DePauw University and is executive director of the American Association for History and Computing.
1. Janice L. Reiff, "Riding the 'Wave of the Present,'" Perspectives 36:2 (February 1998), 5.
2. The full results of the survey will be published in the winter issue of the Journal of the Association for History and Computing, which can be found online at JAHC.
3. Dennis Trinkle et al., The History Highway (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998); the Argus Clearinghouse: Clearinghouse Index; the OCLC Internet Cataloging Project: OCLC; and the Encyclopedia Britannica's E-Blast at Britannica.
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