CHNM’s Histories: Digital History & Teaching History


This is the second in a series of posts about aspects of RRCHNM’s history written to mark the Center’s 20th anniversary.

No sooner had I published my blog post on the differences between digital history and digital humanities than I realized that I had blurred a crucial difference between digital history and digital humanities: digital history has been far more focused on teaching than digital humanities. In my earlier post I collapsed teaching projects into the broader category of presenting material online; doing so masked a sharper distinction in activity around teaching. Digital humanities, while not unconcerned with teaching, has given it far less attention relative to research than digital history, and, that attention has focused on teaching digital approaches, methods and tools. By contrast, digital history has focused on teaching history, has been “engaged in the project of improving the quality of classroom teaching practices and learning outcomes,” as Steve Brier put it, by using digital media to develop resources and professional development for teachers of K-12 and undergraduate students.  The scale and reach of these projects warrants far greater attention to them than they have received in discussions of digital humanities. RRCHNM’s earliest teaching project, History Matters, a resource for undergraduate US history survey courses launched long ago in 1998, continues to attract more visitors each year despite its age: 2 million visitors in 2013, and 2.25 million so far this year. The much newer Teachinghistory, which builds on the US Department of Education’s Teaching American History (TAH) program to offer a wide range of resources for K-12 teachers of US history, drew 1.8 million visitors in 2013, and has drawn 2.42 million to date in 2014.

teaching projectsHIstoryMattersThose projects represent the two threads of teaching projects that are prominent in the pattern of RRCHNM’s twenty years of work. The first thread is focused on undergraduate and upper secondary courses, and on providing digital resources. The Center’s initial two collaborations with the American Social History Project, History Matters and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, addressed core areas of the undergraduate curriculum, the US history survey and the French Revolution. Later projects undertaken by the Center, and like their predecessors largely funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), highlighted the new fields of world history and the history of childhood and youth, and recent history, the events of 1989.

teaching projectsIn the late 1990s, when there was still relatively little historical content available on the web, a major impetus for these projects was the need to get primary sources online. In that respect, early digital history teaching projects seem to have more in common with contemporaneous online archives such as the Valley of the Shadow than I at least recognized at the time. History Matters includes over 1000 primary sources, a fraction of the 12,000 files that make up the Valley of the Shadow, but nonetheless content on a sufficient scale to be considered more than just a teaching resource. Reflecting on why I didn’t think of sites like History Matters as archives, it was because, moreso than projects conceived as archives, teaching sites surrounded their collections with guides to how to make meaning from them – with precisely the kind of context that I and others often found wanting in sites conceived as archives.  Historical documents in History Mattersand other RRCHNM projects in this thread, are accompanied by annotations. Children and Youth in History also provides case studies of how to read and teach primary sources, and World History Matters and 1989 include scholar interviews that discuss how to interpret primary sources.

TAHA second strand of teaching projects at RRCHNM focused on K-12 teachers, and on providing professional development. Funded by the US Department of Education, through the TAH program, these projects involved RRCHNM partnering with local school districts. Beginning in 2002, the Center’s partners were Fairfax County (twice), Alexandria City, Fauquier County, Loudon County (twice), and Montgomery County (twice). The projects centered on workshops, summer institutes designed to connect teachers with the most recent historiography and pedagogy, supported by websites containing transcripts and videos of those events, platforms to help teachers collaborate with each other, lessons plans, source analysis modules, guides to online resources.


The first project logo

The proliferation of local projects, many of which lacked the online presence of those in which RRCHNM was involved, led the US Department of Education to decide that an online National History Education Clearinghouse was needed to broaden access and serve the needs of all teachers, and to shape a larger conversation about history education.  In 2007, they selected RRCHNM working in partnership with Stanford University’s History Education Group, to create that clearinghouse, awarding the Center the largest single sum that it has received in its twenty year existence. The contract from the US Department of Education provided a guiding set of parameters for the project, including a plethora of offline activities such as an annual conference, print publications, policy analysis, and extensive face-to-face outreach.

THTeachinghistory itself includes material that spans the resources, reviews and examples of historical thinking found in our earlier projects, as well as the teaching materials, standards, lesson plans, and teaching guides of the TAH projects – but on a greater scale, and with more extensive use of video and multimedia, and with the addition of an extensive guide to digital tools for use in the classroom. The wealth of material in the sites themselves, as well as related material we’ll be making available before the conference, offer rich sources for examining the intersection of digital history and history teaching, and the changing technologies and approaches used to improve teaching practices and learning outcomes — a possible project for day one of RRCHNM’s 20th Anniversary conference, on November 14.

Teaching projects form a smaller part of the Center’s work at present than they have in the past – perhaps signaling some diminishing of the extent to which a focus on teaching distinguishes digital history from digital humanities. The TAH program has not been funded since 2011, and the NEH Division of Education Programs ended its grants for Teaching and Learning Resources and Curriculum Development, which had supported many RRCHNM teaching projects, in 2008. Kelly Schrum and her team in the Education Division at RRCHNM have taken their expertise in using digital media to develop resources for teachers and long experience working with teachers in new directions – education projects for Monticello, Ford’s Theater, National History Day,  online professional development courses for teachers, and online digital history courses for higher education. Nonetheless, the steadily growing numbers of visitors to History Matters and Teachinghistory suggest no drop off in demand despite the shrinking resources for developing them.


  1. Adam Crymble

    I think it’s great to see so much interest in those learning resources. There’s a huge market of undergraduates and school-aged students around the world. What you describe here is what I would call digital public history – itself a subset of digital history more broadly. I’d say RRCHNM has excelled at digital public history for the past twenty years. But I don’t think it would be fair to underemphasise the digital historians pushing the methodology envelope within that wider field of digital humanities. It may just be that the digital public history focus in many centers in the US has meant that work is getting missed because the conversation is going another way.

    It’s also not the vision of digital history I see here in the UK. We run a digital history seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and we almost never see anything pedagogical come through. Instead the emphasis is on digital research methods. What can digital methods teach us about the past that we couldn’t reasonably consider in the pre-digital era.

    So are we lagging behind in the digital history methodology, or are digital public historians just not in conversation with the methodologists?

    • Stephen

      I don’t think most US scholars would call these projects digital public history. The audience for teaching projects is primarily teachers rather than students. In the US, the core business of public history is work with museums, libraries and cultural heritage organizations, and their audiences and communities, rather than with teachers per se. In fact, museums and cultural heritage organizations often include specific education staff tasked with working with teachers, as distinct from the other communities with which the institution seeks to engage.

      The question in teaching projects is how can we teach about the past with digital materials, how do digital materials allow us to teach about the past in ways that we couldn’t in the pre-digital era? The initial impetus for such questions was the waves of previously inaccessible material that the internet made it possible to bring into classrooms, but its also always involved questions of method, about the possibilities — need — to use digital methods to work with and present digital material. I don’t think that US academics spend as much time as they should talking about teaching, but the sessions on digital history and teaching at the most recent American Historical Association meeting drew larger numbers of digital novices that most of the sessions concerned with digital research projects and methods. They’re most often talked about incorporating digital history into their other courses, rather than teaching digital history courses.

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