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Liz Sarles's picture
I fell in love with the subject of history when I was a sophomore in high school and that love has guided my professional development for the last 25 years. As much as I enjoy reading, researching...
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Technology as a Vehicle for Discussion in the Classroom

Discussion and debate in the History classroom are necessary if we want our students to truly engage with the material and think critically about the past. How to generate discussion, however, can serve as a challenge for many educators – particularly in wired classrooms where students are constantly connected to computers or devices. Yes, technology can sometimes serve as an impediment to live discourse. Students, and even teachers, sometimes find it easier to immerse themselves in an online reading or web activity. But technology and our ability as educators to use it could actually serve us well in constructing a stimulating classroom experience for all present.

Think of tech as a springboard of sorts; you can use technology and student access to it as a means of jumping into all sorts of activities. There are any number of ways that technology can be used as a platform for generating discussion or debate. Here are few of my favorites:

  1. Written Debate: I tried this activity for the first time three years ago, with the goal being twofold: help the students learn about Google Docs and pull my more reserved students into conversation. Assign a debate topic for a given day and split the class into two sides, pro and con. On the first day, the students remain in their groups and prep for the debate. They open a shared document with their group-mates and generate ideas and arguments; after 20 minutes they close their computers and then assess these ideas in their small groups. Their homework is to prepare for the debate. On the next day, the students return to the class for the actual debate. I open another shared document and invite all students onto it; the debate then takes place via Google Docs and the students are not allowed to speak. We hold this debate for 30 minutes. At the end, we assess the debate in large discussion format and continue our conversation. I found that all students participate in the written debate, and then seem to feel far more comfortable offering comments and insights when we hold the open discussion.
  2. Crafting Memes: I would call this activity my first foray into trying to understand and utilize the social behavior of my students, at least as it connected to contemporary mediums and social media. I began the class by asking the students to open their computers and find their favorite memes. They needed to be able to show it to the class and explain why they liked it and why they thought it was successful. We then talked about the purpose of memes and how they could convey information in an effective manner. Once I felt that all students understood the function of memes, I tasked them with building their own about the given subject of that day. We were in the midst of studying the Reformation, and so the memes focus on the leadership of figures like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII. The students found the activity to be exciting and at times humorous, and the end results were quite clever.
  3. Fake Tweets: Not all of my students are tweeters, but their knowledge of the medium meant that this was an easy activity for them to grasp. The first time I did this, we were in the midst of studying the Era of Good Feelings. I divided the class into three groups, with each group representing a region – South, North or West. The students researched their region and its reaction to various issues at the time: Clay’s American System, the election of 1820, the Second Bank of the United States, etc. After the research session, I opened a shared document via Google Docs and invited all students to participate in writing the document. Their task: imagine that you are in a session of Congress and want to convince others of your views regarding a pressing national issue. Your mode of persuasion is Twitter, and so you must tweet your views. We ran the session for about 30 minutes, with some pointed and witty tweets guiding our way (think #notHamiltonagain or #didn’ttheFederalistasalreadydie or #giveusroadsandwewillgiveyougoods). At the end of the allotted time, we came back together as a group and analyzed the various tweets - and used the comments as a platform for discussion about the Era of Good Feelings in general. The students loved this and had so much fun together.
  4. Website Assessment: I like this activity because it combines content analysis with research skills. There are so many websites out there that make outlandish claims or offer false information, and I want my students to possess the ability to navigate through all the crud. We started the class by reviewing what makes a source credible (my students have a Google Doc worksheet to help them, drawn from online sources such as Evaluating the Credibility of Your Sources and Is My Source Credible? ). I then project a website and have the students work in small groups analyzing the source in terms of authorship, readership, audience, content, meaning, etc. They have about ten minutes to do this, and then we return to the large group and converse about what makes the source credible or not. ***As a connected assignment, you can task your students with building a fake news site that appears credible at first glance. The students really immersed themselves in this project and found it to be relevant and interesting.

Certainly there are more options in terms of using technology in the classroom. My aim here is to show how technology can actually spearhead conversation instead of impeding it. If we are lazy in terms of how we as teachers use computers and tablets, then we can have classrooms where students are isolated from us and from one another. But if we are thoughtful and creative in our approaches to technology in the classroom, and really build out ways for the students to connect to the material and to one another, then the end result is true engagement.