The Shoreline of the Past ...Meets...The Wave of the Future

by Marc Schulman

This article was written in 2005- since then a great deal has changed and I well try to update the ar article in the coming months

In the past few months a number of widely circulated articles have exclaimed how computers have not lived up to our expectations in education, and furthermore, lamenting all of the money spent procuring them. This negative reaction is not surprising. After all, with the introduction of every new technology critics there are always to come forth in protest. It is no different in the case of computers in the classroom. I will not attempt to cover all of the issues relating to computers in the classroom in this article. I will however, show how incredibly effective computers can be in the teaching and learning of history.

There are many ways of learning about history. The earliest cavemen had the ability to learn about events from visual depictions in paintings. With the invention of the camera, in the mid-19th century, we gained a new means of learning about history, from the historical images that captured these seminal events on film. The true horrors of the Civil War were captured through the work of its photographers.

Over this century there has been a sea of change in the way humans receive information. When the century began books and newspapers were the only source of information. As the century progressed movies, radio broadcasts and then, finally, television became major mediums for information and learning. As television became ubiquitous in the American home it became our focal point for learning about the world around us. In the 60’s most Americans received their daily dose of information by watching Walter Cronkite and his contemporaries on the evening news.

During the last twenty years new technologies have invaded our homes; cable television and the computer. This revolution has further changed our methods of interacting with the world around us. A generation of children has grown up learning about the world in fast-paced sound bytes, or in the even faster playing Nintendo-style video games. As a result, in the past two generations, there has been an incredible shift in how, and where we receive the vast majority of our information.

Yet, despite tidal wave of new technology, the way we teach our children history has by and large remained unchanged. We still use the same type of textbooks and the same methodologies to teach history as we did two generations ago. And then we wonder why "Johhny" doesn’t know much about history.

Standard history books and texts alone have little chance of interesting a generation brought up on computer games. We must find ways of handing down history to the next generation using methods that speak to their multi-dimensional, multi-input world. There is no panacea here. The answer to teaching history in the 21st century lies in using every available tool. Demonizing computers and technology will certainly not help better the study of history. Fortunately, the same technology that has helped lessen the interest of students in history has now come to the rescue.... The solution, the Multimedia computer.

"There is no panacea here.
The answer to teaching history in the 21st century lies in using every available tool."

The advantages of computer-based multimedia must be used to present historical information in a most inspiring fashion. Done well, computer based multimedia can be as riveting as the best historical documentaries. No one can doubt the engrossing nature of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War. It is without doubt one of reasons for the great increase in interest in the Civil War in the United States in the years following its screening on PBS.

Multimedia history can combine all of the compelling aspects of film documentaries with interactivity and the advantage non-linearity. In a computer based multimedia program students and teacher have the ability to explore particular areas of interest. A multimedia program can also contain more in-depth information than any single book or film, allowing students to go far beyond the original presentation. In many multimedia history programs, students can explore original source documents on the same subject as the multimedia presentations.

The multimedia computer provides authors with the unique ability to synthesize an array of diverse mediums. Instead of a picture book that is limited to a few hundred photos (maximum) with very little text, we now have CD Roms with thousands of photos, hundreds of pages of text and narration, and even video. So, a student learning about President Kennedy, can read all about his Presidency, see photos of JFK, actually watch him deliver a speech, and if the student wants to examine the speech more carefully s/he can go and read the full text of the speech.

Multimedia history CD-Roms can be used in numerous different ways. In my view, multimedia CDs should be used instead of, or in tandem with a textbook. Due to all of its many capabilities, a multimedia history exceeds the potential of the best textbooks. It is unfortunate that despite the low cost of CDs in quantities (less than $10 per unit) in most schools students do not have enough access to computers to allow the CD Rom to replace textbooks.

The lack of sufficient and adequate computers in schools will begin to change. The best example is the state of Texas, which recently announced its decision to replace textbooks with computers and CD Rom based software. However, where such a revolutionary course of action is not an option, there are several additional ways of using history CDs.

Multimedia CDs can be used effectively by independent study groups or in a computer lab. They can also be used by a teacher with an overhead projector to make presentations. History CDs can be placed in the library to be used as a general student resource. Finally, since all of the resources of our programs are exportable teachers can easily utilize our programs to prepare presentations for classroom use.

I have been writing multimedia history software for more than eight years. In this time there have been tremendous technological advances that have allowed greatly improved presentations. The first commercial program I authored was available "without sound", on 8 floppy disks or "with sound" on a CD using about 60 megabytes. The latest version of that same program comes on two full 650 megabyte CD Roms.

The role of a multimedia historian (that’s what my wife calls me) requires being one part traditional historian, one part documentary film maker, and one part scavenger, always looking for just the right image, or just the right document to illustrate an important point. Technology has given me the tools to bring alive the events of the past in way that I hope can energize a student and gain his or her attention.

We are, however, only on the first leg of a long and important journey. It is my hope that as computer technology becomes ever more powerful, (sometime in early part of the next century), I will be able to introduce students to Lincoln, Washington and other great historical figures face-to-face.

One of most important things that defines us a human beings, is our sense of shared history. Harnessing the good of technology and computers to teach history will only strengthen our ability to keep our future children connected to their past.

Marc Schulman is the Chief Technology Officer at MultiEducator, Inc. The Multimedia History Company, located in New Rochelle, NY.