I recently wrote about the digital humanities and your research . Here I explore some of the ways in which the digital humanities may be used in your teaching. In both cases I understand the digital humanities as an umbrella term that covers both the use and the creation of digital tools (databases, text corpora, archives, Computer-Assisted Design modelling tools, etc.) in humanities disciplines. On the face of it, it might seem that teaching would offer fewer opportunities for creation than research projects might – but some recent pedagogical experiments have shown that this needn’t be the case.
Expand your students’ options
You – as a lecturer - are in an unprecedented position in the history of education, able to offer your students access to an ever-expanding world of digital resources with which they can enhance their learning. Your library will no doubt offer training courses for new students in digital resources, but this simply isn’t enough. Students need your guidance, throughout the course of their degree, in becoming (and remaining) critically informed, educated users of the myriad digital resources out there in your specific field.
Learning as play
Digital humanities tools are not just instruments to be applied passively to learning. Recent studies have shown that they can themselves help create an active, engaged learning environment. Some students may find that that they learn more easily by using tools that have game environments. These might allow students to work through problems at different levels, at varying speeds, and often with an engaged ‘problem-solving’, ‘what if’ approach (see, for instance, Jagoda, Hayles and LeMieux’s online game ‘Speculat1on.net’, which allows users to explore the global financial crisis of 2008 through a series of speculative scenarios). Some environments create role-based learning, and / or give learners ‘rewards’ as they move through levels: critics of such ‘gamification’, however, argue that this approach may trivialise serious subjects with real-life consequences, or encourage superficial learning strategies.
Some academics have taken active engagement with digital humanities tools a step further in their teaching, asking students not just to use pre-existing tools, but also to create new resources themselves with these tools, and in so doing, to reflect upon the ways in which knowledge and accepted ‘fact’ are constructed. Kevin Kee’s edited collection Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology (2014) provides an excellent guide to such innovative engagements with digital humanities. The collection discusses, for instance, the use of CAD-modelling tools by students to create new resources: in one class students ‘re-built’ the architecture of a Victorian-era city from the ground up, by combining old fire insurance maps with new software; in another, existing preconceptions on migrant patterns were challenged. Technical knowledge was not always a consideration: one of the most interesting (and controversial) teaching projects was also the most straightforward, when students were asked to use Wikipedia to create a credible historical hoax (they created pages on ‘The Last American Pirate’, which is still listed as one of Wikipedia’s 10 most successful hoaxes of all time). Importantly, this project taught students about how knowledge is constructed discursively, and how current digital tools, including social media, create a veneer of authenticity and authority that may not always be well-founded. In other words, such digital tools may be used to teach students valuable lessons in being critically informed readers of historical ‘fact’.
Digital Humanities and social media
You may also find it helpful to create a social media outlet for students to exchange ideas on your module, and to build a network of those with ideas about it. This might be on Facebook, or even Twitter (create new accounts for these, however, rather than your own personal social media accounts). These can operate as informal discussion boards to supplement your teaching and your own Virtual Learning Environments such as Moodle.
Not all of us, however, will have the time or resources to create new resources or even to come up with very creative ways of using existing tools – but by incorporating them into your teaching environment, even in the most simple of ways, you will help your students develop their critical skills.