Presenting the Past in a Digital World

At first glance, digital presentations of the past seem extremely advantageous. Information that was previously difficult to access can now be viewed with a few simple clicks. In-person exhibits and educational experiences that once could only be experienced by a small group of people can be disseminated digitally to millions, maybe even billions of consumers. Unfortunately, these new methods also come with a number of challenges that educators must be cognizant of.

First and foremost — the amount of sheer digital noise that reputable history learning opportunities have to compete with is off the charts. If these educational experiences cannot be found easily by the target audience, they will be overshadowed by other experiences that may not be as credible. “If your website isn’t on Google, does it even exist?” This isn’t just a colloquial saying, it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your digital project isn’t one of the first results displayed at the top of the first page of a search conducted with search engines that learners are using, the project has failed before it even had a chance to be viewed.
Outside of online searches, it can be difficult for history educators to meet people where they are online. Increasingly, online users are on some of the most popular social media platforms: Facebook, Wikipedia, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok. Unfortunately, these platforms aren’t exactly designed in a way that is well suited to the presentation and distribution of academic and public history. Wikipedia is especially challenging because it discourages reliance on primary sources. With billions of views per month, Wikipedia is one of the most viewed websites in the world — but the content on the website has a reputation for being tightly controlled by a relatively small group of homogenous editors.
Finally, with searches on Google and Wikipedia becoming second-nature, it can be easy for “digital natives” (and even non-natives) to forget to question the origins and credibility of information they consume online. In many cases, this error isn’t necessarily due to oversight, but rather due to lack of knowledge as to¬†how to assess online sources. Even if users are able to cut through all the digital noise and find a credible history learning opportunity, why should they trust reputable projects over non-reputable sources? If they are unable to spot the differences, learners might give equal weight to projects that are unequal in quality.

 

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