Publication Date

February 1, 1999

Will the increasing use of computers in the classroom revolutionize education in the United States? In the short term, I doubt that the utilization of new media resources will fulfill the optimistic predictions of enthusiasts. Nor will their use divert valuable resources from other areas or stifle the teaching of critical thinking and analytic writing skills as angry critics have charged. In the long term—the very long term—new electronic media will almost certainly revolutionize American education in a manner analogous to the way that the mechanization of cotton textile production in the late 18th century touched off the “Industrial Revolution.”

Like that revolution, the "New Media Pedagogical Revolution" will probably occur very gradually, but it will eventually transform our entire system of education. Such a transformation may take decades, and at this early stage in its development, even its barest outline is hardly recognizable. Nevertheless, given the rap idly expanding and essential role that computers and the Internet are already playing in our daily lives, educators must prepare for the inevitable. To prevent them from interfering with what we value most in teaching and learning, we must tame these potentially disruptive force s. We must make these powerful tools an integral part of our teaching "toolkits." We must find waysto utilize them to further our current educational objectives and to develop new approaches appropriate to a world increasingly dependent on electronic devices. That is what I call “the challenge of integration.”

Beginning in summer 1996, the Center for Media and Learning of the American Social History Project joined forces with the American Studies Association's Crossroads Project to initiate the New Media Classroom (NMC), the first systematic effort to promote and enhance historical learning through the use of new electronic resources. The NMC is committed to interdisciplinary and inquiry learning and to continued emphasis on the construction of historical narrative. The high school and college English, history, and American studies faculty participating in this innovative program have embarked on a broad-based investigation to determine whether computers and other new media resources can not only enhance existing teaching methods, but also make possible new kinds of historical learning. After successive summer seminars in 1996 and 1997 designed to train "Teaching with Technology" leaders and a series of week-long regional outreach workshops during the summer of 1998, the approximately 150 participants have developed and begun to disseminate a significant number of new media lessons. Whether new forms of historical learning will eventually emerge from this project remains to be seen. Yet it is certainly noteworthy that experiments with hypertextual thinking and Web-based "virtual papers" have already begun to show considerable promise in this regard .

My involvement with the NMC began in July 1996 when I participated in the first of two summer seminars designed for faculty who wished to become pioneers in the field of teaching with technology. I was immediately won over by the organizers' emphasis on how to utilize new media resources to do a better job of teaching the critical skills and historical content that lie at the heart of the U.S. history survey. Both Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, the principal architects of the program, stressed the importance of inquiry learning and historical narrative, and they did everything possible to encourage continuing reflection upon teaching practices. As instructors and participants worked together evaluating web sites and CD-ROMs, learning how to put together Powerpoint presentations and design Web pages, we began developing the first in a series of new media lessons to try out in our own classrooms. Since that time, I have borrowed ideas and exercises from other participants, developed a number of additional lessons of my own, and tried these all out repeatedly with my own students. Having arrived at the point where I feel at home in this brave new world of search engines and web sites, CD-ROMs, and hypertext, I offer the following account of my journey in the hope that it will encourage others to embark on similar adventures.

From the start, I was determined to integrate new media seamlessly into my American civilization history and Advanced Placement U.S. history surveys without detracting from the critical skills and historical content that have always constituted the essential core of these courses. I began very modestly in fall1996 by revising two existing units to incorporate new media resources. Of the resources we had been exposed to at NMC I, two stood out as containing the kinds of primary sources that I wanted my students to spend more time examining: The Valley of the Shadow ( web site and the Who Built America? CD-ROM. It was somewhat serendipitous that the two sources represented different media and exactly the two with which I hoped to acquaint my students.

Exploring The Valley of the Shadow web site, I had been intrigued with the registers of free blacks in Augusta County ( and the city of Staunton, Virginia (fblack2.html). I was already aware of an imbalance in my treatment of African American history prior to the Civil War in my survey classes. My students were exploring slavery in great depth, but receiving only brief exposure to the plight of free blacks. This collection of primary sources appeared to offer me an opportunity to teach my students how to utilize a web site while helping to correct this imbalance. Therein lay the basis for a new lesson, one that could be inserted immediately following my lone lecture on free blacks in the antebellum period.

Having only a minimum amount of time to prepare and implement the lesson, I followed one of the key maxims of good teaching, the K.I.S.S. principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid! I did a brief classroom demonstration of how to use a Web browser to find and explore a site on the World Wide Web, provided the URL for the free black registers, and showed my students how to use the "find" function of Netscape to query these sources. After a brief discussion of the kinds of searches they might perform—trades, emancipation or manumission, gender, mixing of the races—I set the students to work in our computer lab in groups of two or three for the remainder of two 45-minute class periods. The final product of their labors was to be a 500- to 1,000-word essay explaining what important conclusions regarding free blacks in the antebellum South they believed they could draw from examining these registers. They were encouraged t" choose issues mentioned in classroom structures (such as the alleged deterioration of the status of free blacks or the possibility that many of the slaves who had been emancipated were of mixed racial ancestry) to test on the basis of these primary sources.

The results of this first foray into the new world of electronic resources were very uneven. Some students expressed much enthusiasm and claimed to have learned a great deal about free blacks. At the other extreme, a few students expressed great frustration, claiming they could make no sense at all out of the hundreds of brief entries in the registers.

Most important, many students complained that they had great difficulty figuring out what questions they should ask of the data, and blamed their inability to devise productive queries for what they regarded as inadequate results. Actually, most students learned much more than they recognized—both about working with primary sources and the treatment of free blacks—but I regarded the level of frustration they experienced in the process as unacceptable.

As I usually do with any new lesson, I asked my students to evaluate The Valley of the Shadow assignment. Most students responded by emphasizing the need for more guidance in formulating questions to ask of the data. A majority advised me either to devote more time to the project or abandon it entirely. Given my own perception of how much students had learned simply by playing the role of what Randy Bass has labeled "the novice in the archive," I decided that I would revise and expand the lesson and try it again in the fall of 1997.

In July 1997 I attended the second NMC workshop and had the opportunity to share my "Valley of the Shadow" lesson with the other teachers in attendance. A significant number of my colleagues appreciated the way in which I had combined extensive use of primary sources with a more detailed examination of the plight of free blacks in the antebellum South. A vocal minority, however, upbraided me for my failure to emphasize the racial bias of the sources and the inadequacy of my efforts to get students to view the situation from the perspective of the blacks themselves. Taking those criticisms to heart, I began revising my "Valley of the Shadow" project.

As I prepared for my second try at incorporating new media resources into my survey courses, it struck me that I had not done enough prior to my "Valley of the Shadow" assignment to help students unfamiliar with the World Wide Web achieve the necessary level of comfort with the new medium. In an effort to remedy that oversight, I began the new school year by having my students do a brief web site evaluation exercise that we teachers had been asked to do at the NMC workshop the previous summer. I provided the URL of the referring page ( and a series of web site evaluation tools. I did a brief classroom demonstration of how to peruse these sites and required students to explore in greater depth one site that they found enlightening and appealing and another site that they regarded as uninteresting and of little value. Although a few students complained that they learned very little about American civilization in the process, the overwhelming majority judged the exercise to be an excellent way of get ting them comfortable with using the World Wide Web. I concluded that this introductory exercise could be improved to do a better job of teaching content, but that it had succeeded admirably in preparing students for future assignments using the Web.

In preparation for launching my revised "Valley of the Shadow" project, I increased the amount and improved the quality of the background information on free African Americans that I provided to my students and I stressed the bias and one-sidedness of the primary sources from which we were starting. I required students to find and use other Web-based sources in addition to the Free Black Registers for Augusta County, Virginia, and I encouraged them to look for sources that had been created by, or presented the point of view of, African Americans. I insisted that students formulate a significant historical question relating to free African Americans in the antebellum South and attempt to answer that question in a 1,250- to 2,000-word research paper based on information gathered from both web sites and print sources.

The detailed critiques that I received revealed that the requirement for a revised and expanded research paper accomplished a great deal more than the original assignment had. First, it provided my students with a better understanding of free African Americans during the antebellum period. Second, though warned from the beginning about the bias of the registers, students still expressed amazement at the racism inherent in those documents. "The most valuable lesson I learned from examining the registers," one student wrote, "was that white people of the time didn't seem to think of blacks, even free blacks, as humans." The descriptions in the registers, another student noted, "make the blacks seem more like animals than actual people." More generally, many students commented that they had never before understood or appreciated the difficulties that free African Americans faced during the years 1790-1860.

By demanding that students locate and incorporate additional Web-based sources into their papers, I forced them both to sharpen their Web searching skills and examine in considerable depth at least one relevant site they found. The overwhelming majority of my students praised this aspect of the assignment, frequently commenting that they learned to feel comfortable using the Web as a research tool for the first time. A considerable number expressed surprise at the abundance of data relevant to their research which they were able to find on the Web. I derived a great deal of satisfaction from such comments because they indicated that I had succeeded in devising an assignment that simultaneously taught significant subject matter and important computer skills.

In addition to convincing students that it was important to study free African Americans in the antebellum era and that the Web could provide rich resources for historical research, I was able to give most of my students their first taste of extended research in primary sources. Most enjoyed and learned a great deal from that experience. "Unlike using most secondary sources," one student wrote, "the free black registry gives a sense of closeness to the actual events of the time." Another developed "a new respect for historians who do original research, since I now know how tough it is." More often, however, students appreciated the opportunity to draw their own conclusions rather than relying on historians. As one student adeptly phrased it in a double-edged comment, "I think that this freedom to draw our own conclusions enables us to do something we rarely are allowed to do in our history classes: think and interpret for ourselves."

My students were not shy about pointing out ways in which this assignment might be further improved. They were virtually unanimous in asking that I formulate a number of "model" research questions that those who wished to could adopt as their own with slight modification. They chastised me for insisting that every paper make significant use of the free black registers and forced me to concede that more often than not, data from the 1860 census ( was just as valuable, if not more valuable, a source for answering most questions. They chided me for not providing them with enough instruction in the use of search engines or in the use of several databases that I had created to make it easier to count and establish correlations among the data contained in the registers and the 1860 census.

By the time my students completed this second, revised version of The Valley of the Shadow project, I recognized that there was still much that I could do to improve the lesson, including locating additional print sources on African Americans during the antebellum era. Nevertheless, I was convinced that in revised form this Web-based project should become a permanent feature of my survey classes. When preceded by careful instruction in web-site evaluation and the use of search engines, such an assignment clearly provided students with valuable experience in utilizing the World Wide Web as a research tool while teaching them important writing skills and subject matter. One of my most perceptive students summarized his experience from precisely this point of view. "The Valley of the Shadow research paper," he wrote, "brought together all of the main themes of historical research that we've learned in class up to now. In the project we did research out of original texts. We were forced to think critically about the historical value and significance of direct evidence. We also had to work with this evidence, come to our own conclusions, and write about our own ideas."

In December 1997, I sketched out several important revisions to this assignment which I intended to implement in the fall of 1998. First, in conjunction with a revised web-site evaluation assignment at the very beginning of the year, I decided to spend one additional 45-minute class period in the computer lab teaching students how to use search engines and giving them time to do at least one extensive search for relevant historical sources. Second, I revised the requirement that students had to utilize the free black registers as a major source for their papers—they could now choose between using the registers or the 1860 census for Augusta County as one of their major sources. Third, I formulated a series of model historical problems from which students could select to begin their research. Model queries which I devised included: (1) Were mulatto slaves emancipated more often than black bondsmen? Females more often than males? (2) Were opportunities for economic advancement more abundant for mulattos than for blacks? For males than for females? (3) Did economic opportunities for free blacks deteriorate between 1830 and 1860? (4) Did the chances to achieve one's freedom decline significantly in Augusta County between 1830 and 1860? Were slaves discouraged from seeking their freedom by the deteriorating economic and legal status of free blacks? (5) Did changes in the legal status of mulattos and free blacks significantly influence the social status and/or economic opportunities enjoyed by free blacks during the antebellum period? Finally, I applied my improved knowledge of Web page design to revising the assignment sheet and posting it interactively to the Web.

Having only recently completed my third revised version of The Valley of the Shadow lesson, I am not yet in a position to provide a detailed accounting. However, I can venture several preliminary conclusions with some degree of certainty. First, providing a series of model queries relieved some of the anxiety students felt in embarking on this unfamiliar project, but they demanded even more guidance. Using a preliminary worksheet to guide their initial encounter with the primary sources made students feel more comfortable and kept them on task. But the students were virtually unanimous in insisting that such worksheets would only be worth the time and effort if they were distributed after they had formulated the specific historical problem they intended research. To meet these criticisms, I have already reformulated the model queries and I have begun to customize the preliminary worksheets to correspond to the different queries. The newly revised assignment sheet has been posted to the World Wide Web at https://www.

A second series of conclusions I have drawn from my third time around with The Valley of the Shadow project involves insisting that students really wrestle with the primary sources. As the project has expanded to include print sources, many students have tried to move away from relying on the Web-based primary sources. Using their initial difficulty formulating a problem as an excuse, many made only brief forays into the primary sources, relying almost entirely on print sources in their final product. Since the best papers have been the ones that effectively combine print and Web-based sources, I am determined next year to hold students accountable for analyzing thoroughly at least one set of Web-based sources. To ensure that they will do so, I have not only reformulated the model queries and begun preparing new preliminary worksheets, I have provided step-by-step guidelines with each query to lead students through the process.

I have devoted the bulk of this essay to my experience with The Valley of the Shadow project because that has been the centerpiece of my efforts to integrate new media resources in a manner that enhances my teaching of historical content, research, writing, and critical thinking skills. It has also been the new media lesson that has offered the best opportunity to encourage students to experiment with hypertextual thinking and Web-based "virtual papers." As I indicated earlier, in my opinion, creating Web-based "virtual papers" holds out the greatest promise of developing genuinely new kinds of historical learning. Unfortunately, very few of the students I teach have acquired any great expertise in Web page design and, those who have, have been more interested in electronic bells and whistles than in trying to construct historical essays around nonlinear modes of thinking.

I have tried to set an example for my students by learning the rudiments of Web page design and posting my syllabi, assignment sheets and other course materials on the World Wide Web. (Any or all of these items may be examined by accessing my "Student/Faculty Projects" page, located at, and following the active links). While I have found it convenient to have assignments and selected course materials available to me, my students, and their parents at all times, I cannot claim that any significant innovations have resulted from such practices. Because I write a significant amount of my own course materials, the next logical step is for me to compose a "virtual" or hypertext essay to assign as required reading to my students. Perhaps through such models, I can encourage more of my students to follow suit.

Using CD-ROMs for instructional purposes presents the same kind of pedagogical challenges as teaching with the World Wide Web. At the present time, producing one's own CD-ROMs presents almost insurmountable creative and technological obstacles. As a result, most instructors who have experimented with these media have purchased commercial products designed to appeal to the educational market. Such products vary tremendously in the quality of their intellectual content. Participants in the NMC were given the opportunity to review a substantial number of commercially produced CD-ROMs and discuss their potential classroom applications in a group setting. Each of us found at least one high quality product that could be used for a lesson or lessons to try in the classroom.

Describing in detail my successes and failures in utilizing CD-ROMs in the classroom may not serve much useful purpose. However, brief mention of two positive experiences should suffice to give some idea of the valuable teaching materials presently available in this format and how they might be incorporated into a survey course. By comparing these experiences with those of The Valley of the Shadow project described above, I will try to enumerate the advantages and disadvantages of using CD-ROMs in place of web sites.

Given the current limitations of most connections to the Internet, working with relatively large image files online has proven extremely difficult if not impossible. At present, therefore, CD-ROMs appear to be much more appealing for this purpose. One well-designed tool, filled with appealing images, was introduced to us at our second NMC seminar by Karen Bearor, an art historian on the faculty of Florida State University. An outstanding sample of more than 750 images from the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art, this CD-ROM lends itself particularly well to a search for icons of American culture, images that reflect a sense of our national identity.

Building upon an exercise that Bearor devised, I have developed my own "slide show" (one of the built-in features of this CD-ROM) of 16 images that, in one way or another, reflect our national identity. I require my students to select the two related images that have made the strongest impression on each of them and to write a brief explanation of what they think the two pictures tell us about the United States. The results have been very encouraging. Most students have welcomed this opportunity to enhance their viewing skills and those who are already accomplished visual learners have been able to shine.

The second high-quality CD-ROM that has become a staple in my U.S. history survey, Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914, combines a textbook account, sound recordings, film clips, and a massive collection of primary source materials. After some brief instruction, students quickly learn to navigate their way through this impressive compilation and are ready to conduct their own investigation . To supplement a unit on immigration and economic opportunity built around selected autobiographies from Plain Folk, I require students to examine visual images, oral testimony, and other primary sources relating to either Native Americans or Chinese immigrants, groups that are sorely neglected in most standard textbooks. The first time I gave this assignment in spring 1997, I required students to compose an extended essay of 700 to 1,000 words explaining how the sources on the CD-ROM had enhanced their understanding of the plight of Native Americans or Chinese immigrants. Students enjoyed the novelty of exploring, CD-ROM, but many complained that they had difficulty deciding what to focus on in their papers. When I gave this assignment the following year, therefore, I provided more specific direction.

I asked students focusing on Chinese immigrants to test the authors' contention that the merchant Lee Chew had "made a successful accommodation to American society." Those selecting Native Americans had to test any two important assertions made in the text on the basis of the primary sources. Although J had fewer complaints about any alleged lack of direction, I am concerned that many students chose to print out page after page of primary documents rather than read them on a computer screen. As I work on revising this assignment, I am searching for ways to force students to devote more time to listening to oral testimony and studying visual images, to take better advantage of the unusual strengths of this CD-ROM.

Meeting what I have called "the challenge of integration" will continue to require the collaborative effort of large numbers of like-minded educators. The English, history, and American studies faculty associated with the NMC have formed a core group of "early adopters." We hope to build a much larger community of educators willing to experiment with new media pedagogy and reflect upon the resulting classroom practices. We extend an open invitation to other interested faculty to join us in this endeavor. Working together, perhaps we can insure that computers and other new electronic media will, for the most part, be harnessed for the purpose of improving rather than disrupting the teaching of history and other subjects as well.

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