The Curiosity Prerogative – Technology As Empowerment For Self-Expression

Digital Humanities – Creating A Virtual Vicinity Of Like-Minded Learners

For both teachers and students, the shift from independent departments of history and English toward a successful 3.0 Digital Humanities program began through collegial dialogue and active collaboration both during school hours and through virtual interactions on Twitter, Tumblr, and Blogger. Reconceptualizing essential skills through the lens of the Digital Humanities has strengthened the technical literacies of our students; deepened their understanding of historical and socio-political context; and augmented the overall quality of their expression. Technology tools have proven especially effective in redirecting the learning lens away from a teacher-centered classroom and blurring the distinction between “requirement” and “enrichment.”


Twelve years ago, when I began teaching at my current school, the infrastructure allowed computer access only through a traditional, hardwired desktop lab. Today, my students participate in a seamless one-to-one laptop and iPad program, with interactive SMARTboards and an open wireless network. The learning pedagogy, especially in the humanities sphere, has evolved dramatically as a consequence of this union of digital tools.

In trying to pinpoint the optimal role for technology in the classroom, I find myself grappling with seemingly polar dilemmas. For example:

·       Is creativity consistent with rigor?

·       Is choice anathema to instruction?

·       Is student-inspired motivation equal to teacher-directed motivation?

The promise of web 3.0 technology is its focus on the experience of the learner. By separating the digital flash from the scholarly substance, an adept mentor can enkindle the curiosity of a student who then feels empowered to master any desired content. The early orthodoxy of one-way information delivery, from expert to pupil, has now become multi-dimensional as digital devices are incorporated into the daily habits of learners. Each mind can branch in a unique direction, separate but supportive to the parallel inquiry of the student at the next terminal or tablet. As the teacher provides context, the technology provides extension. Students can push their understandings both laterally and vertically, delving more deeply into areas of interest or widening their scope to include unanticipated offshoots.

In a humanities classroom such as mine, digital tools invite this customizable workspace. Flexible online resources yield benefits in inspiring students’ self-directed dexterity and imaginations. Additionally, outside of instructor-prescribed courses and times, the efficiency of social networks and the immediacy of communal blogs allow learners to stretch their senses of discovery and sharing.

For example, in asking students to select a history topic from the decades of the Cold War, I invited them to build interactive web pages to educate others. The project goals centered on analytical interpretation, curated graphics, and visual customization. I established a detailed rubric and a basic framework of expectations. From there, however, a daily menu of possible tools – such as DvolverVokiBig Huge LabsOne True MediaToonDooPosterMyWallTimetoastDipitySmoreSpell With FlickrAnimotoCartoonize, or Supalogo – allowed each learner to devise his or her own path to interpretation and creative output.

In this vein, “enrichment” ceased to be a constantly moving goalpost. Once upon a time, “extra credit reports” were the go-to prescriptions for intellectually capable (but occasionally bored) learners. Students at the other end of the spectrum, however, were stuck with “extra help,” forced to “drill and kill” their free time with rote exercises.

Now, one unexpected advantage of digital learning is the universality of enrichment. Using free, open-access sites, teachers can generate a constantly updated trove of links that any learner can enjoy. My colleagues and I, for example, established a humanities enrichment tumblelog, where each day we post an intriguing video, graphic, or website that branches off of the daily conversations in English or history class. The posts invite students to peruse content at their leisure, in their own space and time. They can investigate resources that pique their curiosity and spark them to explore further.

As a result, the most common (and gratifying) refrain I hear about students’ self-motivation is that they go home in the evening and watch YouTube videos about the stalemate in the trenches or the negative ads of political candidates. The underlying framework of the in-class discussion becomes enhanced by students who evolve into real-time experts and home scholars.

Via social networks such as Twitter, learners can share these personal discoveries. Classes can set up communal Tumblr pages to which any student can submit. This invitation to publish creates a compelling, scavenger-hunt mentality. A thrill exists in the immediacy of self-broadcasting. Students develop a reciprocal fascination with generating buzz among their peers, and the new classroom model becomes a mutually enriching choreography of teacher-provoked, student-extended learning.

Front Page Photo Credit: Marc_Smith via Compfight cc

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