Reading Digitally, History That Is…
January 27, 2011
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Last night, I spoke to an APUSH student over the phone during one of our scheduled discussion-based assessments, and she told me that she had abandoned the online, digital, PDF textbook in favor of an analog version that I gave to her a few weeks ago. “It’s just hard to read online,” she quipped. A recent Scholastic/Harrison Group report presents an ambiguous and murky picture concerning the role of digital texts in the lives of students and suggests that the push for digital textbooks in K-12 classrooms may be premature, at best. (The report fails to address the efficacy of digital texts versus analog texts in the transmission and retention of knowledge.) As Florida (a MAJOR textbook market) gets ready to move toward universal digital textbooks, I have begun thinking about literacy as it relates to digital texts and, more specifically, how that translates into historical thinking and the reading of history.
David M. Berry argues that “we should be thinking about what reading and writing actually should mean in a computational age.” He suggests that the burgeoning third wave of digital humanities should address the epistemic issues associated with the digitization of knowledge, and I think my student’s complaint about her required digital textbook is where the theoretical rubber meets the real-world road.
I argued previously (at length) that full online delivery of content at the high school level may not be the best way to move forward, and digital textbooks are part of the reason why I believe we need to be more critical about distance education. [The following will be edited with links and references once I am able to locate the links and references in question…please help in the comments if you know what I’m talking about.] Many studies have shown decreased performance amongst students who read content online versus those who read analog versions of the same. I’m excited about the possibilities in store for historical knowledge and historical literacy in the digital age, but we have to navigate these waters with an eye toward our charges and their best interests, not in technology for the sake of technology.
More importantly, we have to begin looking toward the future (and I think this is what Berry is getting at in the above post). How does an increased reliance on digital archives, digital textbooks, digital activities, etc. affect how students learn, know, and understand history? Are new narratives being constructed? How is the brain adapting to these changes? What happens to the critical disposition of learners in a digital environment? How does digital sociability affect the telling of stories and students’ perceptions of evidentiary reliability? And, at the most basic level, how does reading a digital history text differ from an analog version of the same? How does the brain change or adapt (if at all) to this new input?
I think I may have found a research topic, friends.