Reflections on criticisms of the Web in education

Posted on February 18, 2008 by

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I know that I said that I would not get into the criticisms of the use of the Web as an educational tool in history, but I think that discussion in favor of digital history actually benefits from pointing out some of the criticisms. I have to wonder, considering all of the criticisms of the Web as an educational took, if we can’t simply address this on another level. If there is criticism about the use of the Web, and claims that students don’t know how to use the Web properly, instead of condemning the resource, why aren’t those full of criticism more proactive in teaching responsible use of the Web. After all, as we teach historiography, are we not teaching responsible use and understanding of books, primary resource materials and so on? Considering the expanding regularity of use by college students, a course focusing on critical and objective use of the Web would be a sensible addition to the general education curriculum. One research effort has even shown that exploring on the Web does seem to encourage original thinking about the past. Therefore, there is a need to teach students how to read the Web critically and how to judge the quality of sites (Kelly 8). Likewise, while some continue to argue that the Web is a poor substitute for “thick books” and actually discourages students from using libraries, the responsibility again falls to the educators. In order to develop Web-competency in our students, educators need to teach students proper research standards with the use of the Web integrated therein. The Web is certainly not the all-inclusive replacement for books, but it is a useful resource, and therefore there is a need to join both books and the Web as complementary in effective research standards. One critic of the Web even admits that “once students have absorbed some secondary texts and have some understanding of how historians use primary sources, the web can aid our students” (Takeshita 5).

Though they understand the current limitations, Digital Historian Roy Rosenzweigproponents of Web technology and regular contributors to the practice of digital history admit that the surface has only been scratched when it comes to using this new technological marvel. Roy Rosenzweig stated that “despite the abundant misinformation available online, the Internet is – somewhat paradoxically – a superb source for basic factual research, especially when used by those who are careful to determine source quality.” Furthermore, he asserted that “the Web itself cannot be blamed for misinformation or misrepresentation” (Rosenzweig, “Xanadu” 25).

As for the use of the Web in investigating the history of the American Civil War, even the poor quality sites are historic phenomena. Many are the sites that continue to display outward sectional animosities and age-old resentments and they generally misinform readers historically. Nevertheless, these sites are still important in understanding popular memory of the Civil War. Once students are taught to read the Web as discerning historians, these sites open-up an entirely new sub-discipline in examining the Civil War on an even broader scale, across the span of time.

Furthermore, not unlike the Civil War in print, or, for that matter, any humanities discipline in print, the educator has the ability to select for the students what is appropriate for study on the Web. Selecting websites for inclusion in syllabi should be no different than selecting books and articles for the same. The Web does have its limitations as a resource pool for primary documents, but like the computer, it is only as good as the data that is entered into it. This is where we the historians as educators, use our skill and knowledge of subject-matter experts to be highly critical of content. If we don’t like the slant that a book gives in its historical analysis, we don’t have to select it. Conversely, when we find a website that does not fit our needs, we ignore it (or use it to develop an understanding of critical analysis in our students) and move along to a better website or a multiple set of better web sites.

I’m probably “beating a dead horse” with this topic among other digital historians who have already mulled this over time and time again, but inevitably, technological advances made possible through the Web, at least as they pertain to history, perhaps, “have not been accompanied by a simultaneous advance in interpretive theory.” However, considering we are only entering our second decade of being on the Web, should we not take into consideration that some of us are hasty in criticizing the technological advances that will prove of immense importance? If we are in the first phase of this paradigm shift, we should also recognize that in their earliest years, paradigm shifts come with a great deal of reluctance and criticism. Being critical can serve as a valuable tool in remolding the Web in a way that it will better serve us as historians in the future. As with most things, if we are critical of the way things are, it is time for us to find solutions to make the Web better. As historian Edward L. Ayers states, “The best way to wage that resistance is to seize for ourselves the opportunities the medium offers, opportunities to touch the past, present, and future in new ways” (Ayers, “Pasts” 8).

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Posted in: Digital History