Digital History in a Digital Age
If you were walking the streets of Manhattan during the last week of July there’s a good chance you ran into groups of camera-toting, wide-eyed out-of-towners. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about such a sighting—summer in the city is the high season for tourists—but among the ordinary vacationers were twenty-six American history educators, armed with digital cameras, determined to revolutionize the way American history is taught.
The teachers were in town for Teaching Digital History, a competitive application seminar hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (www.gilderlehrman.org) and funded with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Led by Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Houston and the creator of the popular education website Digital History (www.digitalhistory.uh.edu), the seminar instructed teachers on how to use the Internet effectively, conduct primary source research online, and create projects with their students using cutting edge photo, video, and editing technology. By the end of the seminar, the participants, many of whom had no previous experience in multimedia technology, had created short documentaries on different aspects of American history. This hands-on assignment required participants to do online research to find images and write the script for their presentation, with the goal of teaching the same skills to their students.
Promoting the study and love of American history is the core of the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s mission. For too many high school students, U.S. History classes are dull marches through dusty textbooks, but by bringing new technologies into the classroom, combined with a primary source document-based approach to teaching history, students at all levels can produce creative responses to the past, engaging American history in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute has long been at the forefront of using new media to foster American history education. History Now (www.historynow.org), the Institute’s quarterly online journal which was recently selected by the NEH as one of the best online resources for education in the humanities, features historical scholarship and classroom resources for teachers of all grade levels. The Institute features online exhibitions on its website, and creates multimedia classroom materials in its acclaimed History in a Box series. Today’s students are creative and technologically savvy—skills that will serve them well both in the classroom and in the workforce. At the Gilder Lehrman Institute, we believe that teachers and students should expand American history beyond the textbook, and upgrade teaching for our digital age.
Lesley S. Herrmann is the Executive Director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. She has spearheaded the Institute’s efforts to promote the study of American history and improve the quality of history education since 1994, creating summer seminar programs for high school and middle school teachers, National Park Service rangers and museum educators; designing a network of more than thirty American history programs in high schools across the United States; and producing dozens of American history publications, online resources, and traveling exhibitions for students and teachers.