Cameron Paterson, 'Towards a Digital History Classroom': Paper for Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges Seminar

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© Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History

Towards a Digital History Classroom

Cameron Paterson


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The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author, not those of the History Teachers Association of NSW.

If we are currently skirting the edge of a learning revolution, there is a real danger that our schools will lag behind, rather like our armies, which were always trained for the last war. To demonstrate this I like using Robert Kiyosaki’s list of eight common assumptions from his book, If You Want to be Rich and Happy Don’t Go To School:

  1. Nobody really wants to learn so you have to use force or threat.
  2. Learning must be boring and slow.
  3. You can’t have fun and learn.
  4. You can’t teach anyone anything unless you control them and force them to sit still.
  5. Testing and grading are necessary.
  6. Not everyone is smart.
  7. Not everyone can pass.
  8. Teachers are smarter than students.

Each of these assumptions is present in my classroom to some extent. Do they need to be?

Traditionally structured classrooms, designed for print literacy and linear premises, could go a long way towards explaining current behaviour and learning problems in children. While we complain about the loss of attention span in our students, we are beginning to notice a dramatic increase in attention range – the ability to surf three television channels at once, or to listen to the radio and study at the same time. Perhaps teaching children in large groups may soon become unmanageable, or perhaps us teachers have to change.

Our students have grown up submerged in a world of immediate infotainment. Printed text is coming to be regarded as too difficult and slow. Its linearity and authority is giving way to the multiple narratives and visual literacy of the electronic text.

The Victorian Education Minister says that it is only a matter of time before Year 12 examinations are done on computer. He believes that in the next decade, schools will have their examinations posted on the Internet and students will surf the Net looking for the answers. The NSW Board of Studies has already had an application for a virtual school known as ‘Net Grammar’.

Today’s developments in technology are just as profound as when Gutenberg’s printing press broke the church’s monopoly on who taught what. The technological revolution puts learning and traditional classrooms on a collision course. Instead of just improving existing models of teaching and learning, we are beginning to transform the existing models.

At Shore each member of staff has a computer provided by the school and can choose between a laptop and a PC. These computers are no longer just used for word processing or spreadsheets. ReportMaker software enables reports to be written and collated on computers. Scanners enable pictures to be used at will and the school’s digital cameras allow photos to be transposed straight into presentations. Powerpoint presentations in classes are becoming regular occurrences.

Instead of projects on cardboard or paper, use Powerpoint. Computers are the way to go.(Chris, Year 12)

I collect student Powerpoint presentations in after use so that I can remodel their presentations into a lesson that I can then present the following year. Students enjoy knowing that their work will be preserved and used to teach students in the following years. However, a cautionary note is worth listening to:

While technology is good and interesting, it should not take the place of old-fashioned reading and study in a technologically developing school environment. Technology can be made useful. It has its place, but we all saw how our ‘beautiful’ Powerpoint presentations had little or no content. This is very dangerous. (David, Year 11)

In January I visited McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where there is a Writing Centre staffed by teachers specifically trained to teach writing. The centre enables students to draft essays or even Powerpoint presentations using computers as tools for writing. Senior students provide editing assistance in a tutoring program. At Shore our plans to develop a Learning Centre have been influenced by this model.

The Shore History department is currently purchasing a Smartboard, which allows Powerpoint presentations to be given on an interactive whiteboard, and the teacher merely taps the whiteboard to bring up the next point. It also enables notes to be written on the whiteboard over the presentation and have them saved automatically. The temptation to draw Peter Sterling tactical squiggles all over maps of Gettysburg and the Somme will be hard to resist.

Several schools have now introduced the ‘Grouputer’, which is a type of collaborative computing that facilitates creative teamwork in classrooms. Each person has a personal window, which is visible on the screen in which ideas are created. The group simultaneously brainstorms their ideas by typing words onto their screen. Everyone can contribute at once and each person’s thoughts are open for public viewing. It is like watching people’s minds at work. With the opportunity for plural authorship provided by hypertext, the web also potentially provides a ready-made tool for developing collaboration.

I was initially convinced of the importance of using the internet to teach History by Lyndon Sharp from the NSW Board of Studies at the 1997 History Teachers’ Conference. Following his simple tips I designed a basic Shore History intranet site. This has been in use for almost two years now and during this period I have developed a greater appreciation of how to use the web to teach History.

Early attempts to structure individual lessons around web sites have convinced me that the web is a tool for facilitating independent research rather than closely guided lessons. Trying to have students read or take notes from web sites led to all sorts of problems. They did not have room around the terminals to use their exercise books, they wanted to know why they could not print or download the information, and of course some finished way earlier than others and wanted to surf or play games. It was all part of my learning experience. The ability to learn at one’s own pace without coercion just does not fit into an instruction dominated classroom.

My Intranet site is about to expand into the Shore History Internet site designed by a Year 11 student, with relevant links for students and staff, and examples of quality student work. Access will no longer rely on teachers booking computer labs or students gaining access to one of the highly demanded terminals in the library. Initially Year 11 and 12 students were skeptical of the value of the web until they were exposed to the Charles Sturt University HSC Online site which contains tutorials, summaries of problems and issues, glossaries, timelines, comments on past exam papers, and useful internet links.

The Internet is very important when getting information and I reckon this is going to become more and more important. (Sam, Year 11)

There is so much information that can be read on the Internet. It will engage students more than reading out of the sometimes ‘boring’ textbooks. (Tim, Year 11)

The Internet is loaded with useful information from different view points and simply is not being taken advantage of to help benefit the students. (Paul, Year 12)

Well-constructed Internet sites can present History in a colourful, entertaining, and dramatic way. They can present History in a variety of ways so that learners can explore in the manner that suits them best. They can use text, graphics, animation, video, sound, and music. They can measure understanding through games and activities. They can ‘create your own adventure’; placing students in the powerful position of decision-maker within the context of well researched and referenced historical scenarios.

One of the best lessons has been using the ‘14 Days in October’ site which is an in-depth account and analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Students travel through a Crisis Centre, a Briefing Room with a RealAudio narration, a Recon Room, dossiers on the Major Players, a Situation Room, and then a Debriefing Room where they can take quizzes to test their knowledge on the events of October 1962. Instead of needing to be pushed to take the quiz, my Year 10 class had competitions with each other to see who could get the highest score out of 10, and then it became a contest to see how long it took for each student to score 10/10. As well as the inherent competition there was a great deal of sharing information and collaborative learning. Why? Because it was fun and it didn’t ‘count’. We have to come to terms with the assumption that playing games constitutes the same mental rigour as learning from textbooks and lectures. Simulation games such as Great Battles of Alexander, Saga: Rage of the Vikings, Panzer Commander and Passage to Vietnam are interactive games that potentially lead the way for the teaching of History in the 21st Century.

Multimedia should make learning fun and intrinsic motivation must replace the use of fear to motivate students. Students should be able to quiz themselves anytime in a risk-free environment as a form of self-exploration. When testing is not win/lose, mistakes will merely trigger the system to help the student overcome any misunderstanding. Students can then come to see that mistakes have a role to play and errors are useful feedback. Maybe traditional examinations will become so out of date that they will come to be seen as a ridiculous device.

The world really is at the fingertips of our students; they can study in the best libraries around the world, browse world-renowned museums, and converse with international experts, although these skills take some practice. One of my Year 11 students e-mailed an English History professor asking for a concise answer to the question ‘What caused World War One?’ He never received a reply. But our students are free to communicate with whoever they want anywhere in the world.

There is much rhetoric about information technology and the Internet and what it can do. Plagiarism is increasing because our students have access to vastly more amounts of information and they do not possess the critical literacies to handle it. And it is increasing because we reward it. Computers have the ability to create a superficial demonstration of learning through professional presentation techniques. Our key challenge is empowering our students to be creative, critical, and constructive users of information.

As teachers the first thing we need to determine is what our students need to know. What are the essential questions underpinning the study of History? Courses need to be organised around meaningful questions that go to the heart of history and have no one obvious ‘correct’ answer. The Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney has now moved to a problem based Graduate Medical Program that is supported by Intranet technology to encourage students in becoming independent and self-reflective learners.

As well as putting more thought into the questions that we ask students, we need to encourage and enable them to ask their own questions. The habit of asking questions diminishes through formal education because of the system’s determination to tell children what to think and believe. Schools teach you to obey authority rather than to question things. By the time students hit secondary school they have been indoctrinated into believing that memorising information at a superficial level is the same as learning.

Research in Mathematics classrooms has found that teachers ask as many as 50 000 questions a year and students ask as few as 10 each. I wonder how different it is in History classrooms? Every study shows that the vast proportion of questions during a class come from the teacher.

If learning is about answering questions and solving problems rather than knowing the answers in rote conditioned responses, we need to develop more effective learning strategies to empower our students to explore and to help them make sense of the results of their explorations. The goal is to create inquiring students who come to class with their own questions and who know how to search for their own answers. At the same time, we need to enable them to look beyond the information they have, beyond their theories, and beyond their beliefs.

There is a vast amount of information on the Internet that has been designed to persuade. The learning scaffolding we provide has to enable children to deal with information in the real world. We cannot assume that information and openness lead to truth, honesty, and fairness. Smart machines need clever and ethical people to work with them. Ku Klux Klan sites are immensely useful for teaching US history and are an entire study in their own right in the reliability and usefulness of sources, bias, and the effects of propaganda.

The particular way in which hypertext and multimedia juxtaposes text, images and music requires a new form of literacy. These digital literacy skills need to be specifically taught through:

  • Mapping existing knowledge and brainstorming the key ideas prior to a task.
  • Identifying alternative search terms.
  • Understanding the differences between the various search engines.
  • Understanding the range of on-screen cues.
  • Comparing and contrasting sites, and using web site information alongside other resources to construct an argument.

The ideal of the unity of learning has now largely been discarded as curriculums have disintegrated into a slurry of minor disciplines and specialised courses. Much current educational thinking and practice is reversing the drift towards the separation of knowledge, and the focus on the subject rather than the learner. At the Australian Technology Park in Redfern designs are underway for the ‘School of the Future’, developing on-line learning programs within a multi-media computer laboratory. The aim is to incorporate the latest learning styles and develop new learning strategies for interdisciplinary teaching with an ethics base. Digital learning must enable our students to see how everything they learn is interconnected.

So where does History fit in? In The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas explains that,

Today the Western mind appears to be undergoing an epochal transformation, of a magnitude perhaps comparable to any in our civilisation’s history. I believe we can participate intelligently in that transformation only to the extent to which we are historically informed.

Brian Hoepper from the Queensland University of Technology takes this a step further when he writes,

What people have tried to do in the past, and the success of those efforts, may be a powerful indicator of what might be attempted in the present to shape the future. Further, if students have been encouraged through critical thinking to see beyond conventional ideas, they could be ready to propose the imaginative and unprecedented human responses which may be demanded by our present world situation. Perhaps history is the school subject best placed for students not only to imagine desirable futures, but also to propose ways of attaining them.

A History teacher’s job is not to prop up the status quo, rather it is to confront people with truths about themselves. History helps us to recognise changes to our society, as well as acknowledging the importance of traditions and cultural identity. Through historical study, people come to see the present within a context of past differences and future possibilities. Present reality is therefore seen as changeable, not fixed. History shows us that we have choices. Our task is to choose wisely.


Hoepper, Brian, “Today’s Truth, Tomorrow’s Nonsense?: Arguing for a radical approach to teaching history”, Australian History Teacher, 16, 1989, 5-15.

Kiyosaki, Robert T., If You Want to be Rich and Happy Don’t Go To School: Ensuring Lifetime Security for Yourself and Your Children. Aslan Publishing, Fairfield, 1993.

Lepani, Barbara, “The Challenge of the Digital Age”, Paper to the Australian College of Education, 1998.

Nesbitt Vacc, Nancy, “Questioning in the Mathematics Classroom”, Arithmetic Teacher, October 1993, 88-91.

Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, Ballantine, New York, 1991.

World-Wide Web Links

Charles Sturt University HSC Online,

14 Days in October,

Grouputer Virtual Community Hall,