Teaching the Digital Native

Let’s face it, using technology is difficult and not everyone can navigate the digital equally well.

The readings for week 13 complicate the trope of “digital natives” that Marc Prensky described in 2001. According to Prensky, the “digital natives” of the millenial generation learn better with online tools because they have always used such tools and learn best and most fluently in this environment. Danah Boyd points out that this depends on the context they bring to learning.

Students are bringing a variety of experience levels to undergraduate and graduate history courses and professors should not presume a level field. Allison Marsh had problems with her graduate public history students engaging in digital material as she had hoped they would. Even when they completed assignments, they were rarely very successful public history exhibits. And these are skills that they will certainly use in almost all public history careers.

Our Clio 1 class also represents this diversity of experience levels and success in using some of the digital tools in our class has varied (this doesn’t necessarily track with the generation of student). However, I’m truly looking forward to the final projects of my classmates because I know they’ll produce something creative and interesting.

As Dan Cohen has written, digital history is precisely what sets GMU apart from other History PhD programs in Virginia. “Pragmatic and prescient”- using the digital in teaching is seen as an inevitable solution. Sometimes it’s to the problem of relevancy in the digital age. We need to teach the students “where they are”- online. And online is also where those teaching the discipline are, even if they don’t always admit it. 

In looking at some of Mills Kelley’s “hoax” courses, students learned most successfully when they brought their enthusiasm for the digital, but are taught rigorously to think historically. Some may (and did) have problems with Kelley’s teaching methodology, but no one disputes that the students genuinely worked hard on their hoaxes, learning history in the process. Students also brought this excitment with them to Nicolas Trepanier’s Historical Gaming courses. The key in both cases was leveraging the excitement for the digital- creating or playing, to teach skills that are not inherently digital at all- evaluating sources, approaching historiographical interpretations, and analyzing arguments.

The common threads that I take away from these readings is that the experience of students should not be taken for granted. Assuming enough support for students at all levels, use their excitement for digital and social tools to encourage thinking historically. If you make history fun while teaching its core ethics, students will learn how to think historically and how to produce history in the digital age. Though the intrinsic “digital native” does not exist in the wild, I’m all for using the tools that students or members of the public (in the case of public history projects) find most engaging. I was excited to see that the National Park Service is interpreting history with mobile phones on the Mall and elsewhere. If the public can think critically about their history- online or off, it’s a win for our work.

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