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Technology Brings Past to Life in Some History Classrooms

Some educators use technology to help engage students with key social studies topics, while still emphasizing informed conversation in person.

For a lot of kids, history class can be boring. That’s usually because a strong focus on things that happened in the past can be hard to relate to — especially as an adolescent. To energize students and get them excited about history, some teachers are turning to technology resources to bring the past to life.

For eighth-grade social studies teacher Andrew Swan, technology resources are a way to get his students at Bigelow Middle School in Newton, Mass., engaged and talking about key concepts he’s covering in class. For example, during the 2016 presidential election, students played a computer game that simulates a candidate running for president. According to Swan, the students were excited about the challenge of the game, which led them to seriously engage in the election process in real time. “Kids were taking it to the level where they were asking about electoral votes and why did Texas have so many votes,” he said. He also uses tools like a news literacy program through Checkology to help students analyze media and understand the different types of media out there.

With his own personal presence as a moderator of #sschat on Twitter, Swan connects with other teachers and professionals in the social studies field to discuss and share ways that technology has been effective in the classroom.

Kerry Dunne is one of those teachers, spending half her time as a high school history teacher and the other half as the history/social studies department head for grades 6-12 at Weston Public Schools in Massachusetts. She uses Google apps tools in her classroom to create a semi-blended learning environment. For example, in her Contemporary World Issues class, students submit written reflections through Google apps instead of traditional tests. Students are asked to reference resources used over the course of the unit and submit a thoughtful response to questions. She also uses free digital content, like Digital Public Library of America’s primary source sets.

“By using technology, I’ve been able to give every student a voice, even those who are quieter and less inclined to share verbally,” Dunne explained via email. “I love posting an image, chart, graph, map, etc., and letting students have 2-3 minutes to consult with a neighbor and then post a response to the question using a source, and then respond to each other’s contributions. Every student participates; every voice is heard.”

The issue of technology is complex when it comes to the subject of social studies, which lends itself to discussions and debates that science or math don’t in some ways. As Swan pointed out, “My goal now is to get kids to be able to have a real face-to-face discussion for 30 minutes. I’d rather use the technology for kids to be prepared and be excited about [social studies]. Then coming together, we’ve all got the same base experience so we should have something to talk about.”

Dan Krutka will soon begin as assistant professor of social studies education at the University of North Texas and has a background in research focused on social media and social studies education. He notes that 21st-century educators should address the benefits and challenges that social media platforms bring to the classroom.

“I try to teach social studies educators to teach students to be digital citizens who are personally responsible, participatory, and justice-oriented,” Krutka noted in an email. “This requires students who can determine the credibility of the glut of online information (both that related to social studies subject matter and current events), learn how to tap into networks to advocate for democratic change, and also learn how to effectively advocate for justice.”

All in all, history educators seem to be faced with the same core issue about technology that all educators face: the use of technology is neither good or bad, it’s figuring out the best way to use technology to enhance education for students. Krutka pointed out that technology resources can be powerful tools in the modern world, and history can teach us a lot about how to use them most effectively. “Social media allows citizens to mobilize for change in unprecedented ways, but democratic citizens today must learn lessons from history about what else is needed for successful electoral or social change in their local, national and global communities,” he said.