Teaching history in the digital era

Common Core, Technology and Digital Resources

04/01/2012  |  Sheila Fuentes
Virtual Classrooms

Teachers stand at the cusp of a new age, charged with ensuring greater student achievement while also using technology and the internet to promote digital literacy. A new age, however, comes with new challenges that educational providers are beginning to recognize as teachers navigate new standards and search for appropriate digital content and technologies.

Since 2010, 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Meant to provide improved and consistent educational standards, with an emphasis on literacy and student preparation, the incorporation of the Common Core standards suggests a major shift in both classroom content and strategies.

The fast pace of technological innovations and the increasing use of mobile devices and social networking are also having a major impact on educational approaches in the United States.

As Americans increasingly rely on the web for home, work, and school, using not only computers but also mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, teachers turn more and more to the internet for digital tools and content for the classroom. The Common Core now makes it possible for teachers in disparate parts of the nation to use many of the same materials, and teachers of both traditional and virtual classrooms are challenged with finding content that integrates Common Core standards with digital materials and advancing technologies.

All Content is Not Created Equal

Frequently schools have little or no budget for new course content and materials. In many schools, dated textbooks stay in classrooms for far too long, and while access to the internet and technology is growing throughout the nation, advances like smart boards and tablets are still out of reach for many. Even where educational technology has been implemented, with technologically integrated classrooms and online learning, teachers still face the challenge of finding affordable and reliable content and resources to match their needs.

As teachers and schools eschew expensive commercial content, they turn to free open education resources (OER) online. Open education resources are free to use, and there are seemingly endless OERs to choose from. They are not all equal, however, and finding reliable free content on the web is a time consuming challenge. Teachers spend valuable planning and personal time searching for open resources and vetting content and quality, and it’s easy to get bogged down sorting through the overwhelming amount of material available online. The adoption of the Core Content has created the added challenge of ensuring that OERs conform to the new standards.

A Solution: A Community-Oriented Resource Environment

One organization has been anticipating the educational shift toward the Common Core and digital technology and is responding to the need for trustworthy digital content.

The non-profit Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has dedicated much of the last two years determining how to address the needs and concerns of teachers in both traditional and virtual classrooms looking to integrate the Common Core, digital resources, and new technologies. This spring Gilder Lehrman will re-launch its website as a comprehensive and community-oriented resource environment for teachers.

Gilder Lehrman carefully considered teachers’ frustrations with digital content when it began developing its new site. Ian Brown, the Director of Technology at the Gilder Lehrman Institute, said, “After reviewing reports, records, and teacher responses from evaluations compiled throughout more than a decade of developing programs and history-intensive curriculum for educators, we solicited insights and opinions from thousands of teachers in surveys and focus groups conducted over the past two years.” The end result: a community- oriented resource environment. “This website, created based on teacher responses, will contain reliable content integrated with community components,” said Brown. “This will allow teachers the ability to respond, offer suggestions, and share their experiences. [We have] developed an environment that provides users not just with content but with a forum for learning and discussion. We will also leverage the strong community foundations of the site to engage with teachers across the country as we continue to develop rich digital solutions.”

The new site, specifically designed to align with the Common Core standards, was created and vetted by Gilder Lehrman’s team of master teachers, renowned historians, education professionals, and technical consultants. “The site will offer ‘History by Era,’ an exciting collection of digital resources, with features, content, and primary sources spanning American history,” said Anthony Napoli, Director of Education at the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

“But unlike a textbook,” added Executive Director Lesley Herrmann, “‘History by Era’ is written in many voices; 50 noted historians have contributed original essays on themes and events in American history based on the 10 chronological eras designated by the Library of Congress.” In addition to scholarly essays, ”History by Era” offers recommended resources, timelines and terms, and multimedia features like podcasts, online exhibitions, slideshows and quizzes.

The new site also offers improved search capabilities for the catalog of the Gilder Lehrman Collection, a holding of more than 60,000 historical documents. The collection is of special interest to scholars and to teachers seeking digitized primary sources for the classroom. “The new digital catalog offers more images and transcripts for documents in the collection’s vast holdings than ever before — in addition to curator notes, filterable searches, images for classroom use, and cross-referenced resource content,” said Sandra Trenholm, the Lead Curator and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Collection.

Looking toward the Common Core’s emphasis on literacy, Gilder Lehrman’s new site also guides teachers in using history as a lens for teaching reading and writing, highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of learning. The new website offers “featured documents” from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, annotated and accompanied by teaching guides and questions to help bring history to life in the classroom.

The Affiliate Edge

While the Institute’s new website is for users of all interests, Gilder Lehrman has created special offerings for members of its Affiliate School Program, a grant-funded initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Offered at no cost, the Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School Program is a nationwide network that connects schools with valuable resources and digital content: strategies, lesson ideas, context questions, in addition to expanded pedagogical features — and this list is growing. Any school can become an Affiliate; visit Gilder Lehrman’s website for information on how to apply.

In Gilder Lehrman’s new website, Affiliate School teachers are connected to exclusive digital tools. Among the innovative features offered to Affiliate Schools in Gilder Lehrman’s new site is a personal resource center for teachers, where they can view lessons created by other teachers, see favorite teaching strategies, access lessons, and create their own personalized resource kits. In addition to the ability to save and favorite items, Affiliate School teachers can build their own lessons from the site’s content. Affiliate teachers will also be able to make their lessons and resource kits available to the entire Affiliate community.

Affiliates will also be at the cutting edge of community teaching technologies. Affiliate teachers will be able to interact with their students, post assignments, and facilitate online class discussions—additional features that will help teach digital literacy to students in traditional schools and facilitate community among students in virtual ones.

Laying the Groundwork for the Future

In the future, new additions and developments will include more alignment with the Common Core as the organization positions itself to anticipate the trajectory of new educational technologies.

In the spirit of community-based learning, the Institute welcomes feedback regarding the site’s continued development — through surveys, polls and an open forum for feedback and discussion of the site. This website offers teachers something unique: not just the opportunity to take part in an innovative community-oriented resource environment but also the chance to help shape it — and the future of educational technology — according to their needs.

Sheila Fuentes is a New York City-based writer and editor.For more information, visit www.gilderlehrman.org.
Comments & Ratings

  7/26/2012 6:53:15 AM

New Comment 
Heidi,This is a truly beautiful and inorpiatisnal piece. I can relate whole-heartedly to your message, both as a parent and a teacher. Yes .our children are so precious. I often watch my daughter go off to school with her heavy back pack, looking like she's carrying the cares of the world on her shoulders and wonder . How does she fit in? Do her teachers like her even a little? Will she feel successful, supported and encouraged by her teachers and peers?Then, as a teacher, yes . I try to create an environment that will nurture every child who comes into my room. There are times, however, when I feel I am inadequate for the huge task at hand. Sadly .no ..I don't always reach my students. As hard as I try, I cannot provide for them in a way a parent's interest in their well being, their education can do. There are many who experience so many obstacles to being happy and successful that come into our rooms .You have put an enormous challenge out to us all .parents and teachers alike. You have given us all something to think about in a unique and poignant way. Oh, if only all parents could express the same level of passion in their children's education as you have for your children's education. But while many parents are just trying to keep their lives afloat, at least they have you to be their spokesperson to speak up for their children. They are, after all, the whole reason behind what we do!Thank you, Heidi, for creating this and sharing it!