Digital technologies have provided opportunities for educators and learners to interact with sources that lead them to think about the past in innovative ways. There is a spectrum of tools that have allowed educators to assume the role of facilitator and to focus on activities that builds historical thinking skills. For students, becoming acquainted with these technologies to the point of doing it “playfully” (Kee), would take them to new insights and discoveries for them to deal with their past and present.
But just making use of digital technologies in a history classroom does not guarantee a better learning experience. And so history educators are always on the lookout for best practices for using these tools effectively and for engaging their students on particular historical subjects. Scholarship suggests that digital technologies are used best in history classrooms when: (1) teachers go through their own processes of developing historical thinking skills (Sleeter, Schrum, Swan, & Broubalow), (2) students get to craft and tell their own stories, (3) the “hammer” or the “saw” (Wineburg) selected was appropriate for the historical content covered and for the teaching modality (face-to-face, hybrid, online, virtual, synchronous, asynchronous).
Now users can become storytellers and history makers by creating multimedia presentations and making them accessible to others. These can be digital stories about themselves or a recount of past events. As an activity that can be done individually or collectively, digital storytelling combines a variety of elements (source types, online platforms) and skillsets (historical thinking, information literacy, digital literacy).
One example on how digital tools has been effectively used for engaging in history scholarship is the Tiananmen Project. College students learned about techniques and technologies for articulating collective knowledge on recent events. This collaborative writing project exposed them to the iterative processes of researching, content creation, peer-reviewing, and disseminating information on the second most visited site in the globe: Wikipedia. These activities, according to Brown and Olsen, are about encouraging students to be critical about potential biases in existing public-domain pages, to develop their own interpretations of primary sources, and to gain the confidence to continue with similar activities beyond college years. The teachinghistory.org website is one of various platforms that offers plenty of ideas to motivate students to engage with primary sources, work collaborative, and become information producers. It includes sample lessons and teaching material that involves content writing on popular social media sites, such as Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook (e.g. Using Facebook to Engage with Historical Figures). This clearinghouse site also showcases storytelling lesson plans that integrate multimedia technologies, like Photo Story 3, PowerPoint, and Canva. Advancement of digital tools has made it possible for users to create their own online interpretive exhibits. That is the case of the open-access platform, Omeka, where users can intuitively organize collections, curate exhibits, and develop image-based projects.
Mapping, Plotting, and Touring
Mapping and timelining tools are a great way for expert and non-expert users to interact with historical sources and do research. With products like Palladio and Kepler.gl, users can study large-scale corpora, generate questions that may have gone unasked, examine digital sources from various angles, reveal unexpected historical relations, or observe how past ways of telling stories may have shaped users’ own versions of the past. (White, 2010, as cited in Presner & Shepard, 254). In the case of timeline tools, such as Neatline, TimelineJS, Chronozoom, and StoryMaps, users can help them creatively visualize where events took place and anchor archival sources related to those events.
Many public history sites make use of digital tools to increase user-content engagement with digital stroll and tour experiences. Interactive interpretive exhibitions, such as The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour, take users on virtual field trips to distant places and spaces. History educators can build lesson plans around these museum exhibits, and help their students generate tour experiences that at times cannot be duplicated in real life. There are museum sites with touring activities that help users gain an empathetic comprehension of the past. One example would be the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria: A National Geographic Interactive Site, a site that takes visitors through the Salem witch trials.