Using Technology to Encourage Students’ Engagement with History

by Marjorie Hunter

Students now entering the K–12 system have been raised with advanced technology from birth. These students—the post-MTV Generation—never saw a BetaMax videotape or experienced the joys of making a phone call using a pencil jammed in the finger holes and listening to the click, click, click of the rotary dial. With the advent of cell phones and, most notably, the iPad, effectively incorporating new technologies in the classroom has become a costly challenge in many schools, particularly in high poverty areas.

I primarily teach Advanced Placement (AP) and Pre-AP World history at the Academies of West Memphis, a suburban school located in West Memphis, Arkansas. I have taught U.S. history, economics, and lower-level world history at the high school level. Last year the high school underwent a name change and a revision to the curriculum. Through a collaborative effort with a local community college, the Academies now offer courses in high-tech fields such as website design and digital communications as well as a traditional high school curriculum.

The local economy relies heavily on traditional blue-collar work such as trucking distribution centers for several major companies and some light manufacturing. Of the 1,100 students at the Academies, approximately 85 percent are African American, 14 percent are white, and less than 1 percent are Asian. The Academies and most of the other district elementary and junior high schools qualify for Title I status while the entire district has free and reduced lunch through a special federal grant.

The ability to tap into Title I funds allows the Academies to implement WiFi access points throughout the school. Luckily, I have a router in my classroom so my students have strong WiFi signals for the iPad and Chromebook carts—on most days. Occasionally, the WiFi refuses to cooperate with my lesson plans and students have logged onto the "Whopper WiFi"—the free internet access at the Burger King across the street. I refuse to allow an inoperative system or slow internet connections interfere with my students' learning. Thank you, Burger King!

The WiFi issue is but one of many difficulties I face when incorporating technology into my students' lessons. Technology becomes obsolete quickly and schools cannot keep up with the changing pace. The iPad cart in my classroom has twenty-nine iPads that recently celebrated their fifth birthday. Grant money runs out eventually, so iPad apps need to meet the essential budget requirement of free or I must purchase the desired app myself. Some of the apps students love using have undergone enough updates that they are no longer free or do not work properly with the iPads due to changing operating systems.

The problems with technology sometimes seem never-ending and often require creative problem solving. For example, one of my AP students was able to access the Internet only through his smart phone. Completing his online homework became a challenging obstacle to overcome—the small screen size, phone browser and website incompatibility, and data plan severely curtailed his ability to complete assignments on time. Many of my students had to use the public library, stay after school, give up lunch, or come to school early—some arriving as early as 6:30 a.m. and staying as late as 6 p.m. In addition, students voluntarily come to school on Sunday afternoons for several hours to work on their assignments, including group projects.

The problem of access led me to ask students this past fall to brainstorm a list of stores, restaurants, and other public places with free WiFi for customers, thinking that perhaps someplace other than school would seem more desirable to students. An amazing number of local places turned up—pizza parlors, fast food restaurants, and even gas stations! After this survey (and a stern teacher warning about the perils of three or four teens sitting inside a parked car at the local gas station), students began meeting at the Burger King or a nearby McDonald's to work on cooperative learning projects and other assignments. I suspect that the gatherings often garnered many suspicious questions from parents, but the students produced some amazing projects and demonstrated critical thinking skills by devising solutions to technology limitations.

Too often teachers and students see technology as a game or as a reward for completing boring worksheets or taking lecture notes. When used effectively in the classroom, iPads and Chromebooks encourage in-depth reading because they allow students to follow various links embedded in websites. Students willingly attempt complex texts that normally receive a cursory glance and sometimes a dismissive attitude when the vocabulary is perceived as too difficult. Last August, for example, I gave each student a copy of a National Geographic article on the Iceman found in the Alps some years ago. Students experienced difficulty with the reading and using context clues to decipher meaning. I used a combination of two different reading strategies that work well in group settings and eventually we slogged through the three-page document in four class periods. By the end of the week, we were all exhausted and heartily tired of the magazine article.

When I assigned a website hosting a similarly complex text document on the same Iceman topic, however, students struggled less with vocabulary, engaged more enthusiastically with the material, and asked more thoughtful questions about the content. I attribute this difference to reading the text on the iPad. One of the most telling markers for increased student concentration was that students were still reading, taking notes, and discussing the document when the bell rang! As the year progressed, this phenomenon became more commonplace and a few students actually came to class the next day discussing additional research they did during lunch or at home. Even one of my ADD/ADHD students came to class early from lunch eager to share what he found online the previous evening!

Typically, I start the year by assigning a tried-and-true classroom activity such as a small, manageable poster presentation. This allows students to foster a cooperative team spirit that lasts throughout the school year. I gradually increase the technology used in assignments so students have ample opportunity to use it for learning rather than game playing, texting, and social media. By the end of the spring semester, students have become accustomed to iPads and Chromebooks in the classroom through summative assessments, reading assignments, and projects resulting in a well-prepared class that can begin working on more advanced technology-driven projects.

I try to incorporate a variety of technology experiences for my students. It is not enough for students to create a Powerpoint with a few historical images and post it online. Traditional history classes teach students how to read pie charts or bar graphs for statistical information. I, however, teach students to collect and summarize data needed for authentic historical inquiry. I also want students to examine and discuss topics not usually found in textbooks. I want to stimulate curiosity about our nation and our place in world history. For example, many books mention the influenza pandemic of 1918 but few delve beyond citing the 450,000 Americans that died. I developed a study unit that required students to use Internet resources to discover how societies changed and adapted due to diseases such as cholera, measles, polio, and diphtheria. Students compared information found on multiple websites and then used Infogram to create an infographic summarizing the changes and continuities. This free website requires public publishing in order to view the completed product, which allows my digital users to become digital producers for the first time.

My Pre-AP classes finished the school year with a complex technology project on the Cold War that included music, Google images, and embedded YouTube video clips. Students began by researching vocabulary associated with the Cold War such as domino theory, containment, the Warsaw Pact, and NATO to help set the stage. We also watched the made-for-TV movie The Day After so students could connect visually with the effects of the Cold War and a failed mutually assured destruction policy. This film encouraged my students to immerse themselves into the Cold War and heightened their awareness of today's nuclear proliferation concerns. Students then used Google slides for their presentations. After developing a working vocabulary of the historical period, I divided the topic into three sub-topics: the Space Race, political and military issues, and the social aspects of the Cold War. Each group of students selected an overarching topic and could choose to approach their project however they wished. One group chose to examine how the Cold War affected U.S. pop culture by examining James Bond movies that reflected ideological tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Another group researched nuclear weapons development and the SALT talks. Yet another group decided to examine some of the scientific aspects of the Space Race, including freeze-dried convenience foods such as Tang and instant coffee that influenced American culture.

As a result of my pedagogical shift to technology infused with project-based learning, my students have become consumers and producers of historical information. This change has allowed me to rediscover the joy of teaching a classroom filled with highly engaged, curious students who ask questions about their world and have an eagerness to share their technological prowess and historical knowledge with friends and family.

Marjorie Hunter is a teacher at the Academies of West Memphis in Arkansas, where she teaches AP World History and Pre-AP World History. She received a doctoral degree in Heritage Studies from Arkansas State University—Jonesboro.