Playing With History

[9:30] Today and tomorrow I’m at the conference Playing With Technology in History at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Day one is an unconference focused on the edges of the envelope in humanities computing. The sessions during the day include things like wearable computers, serious games, MakerBots and CraftRobo, barely games, walkabout applications for phones, along with good old fashioned issues like metrics for assessing student learning.

[11:00] I spent the first morning session in a session on making (see post on conference website). I’m particularly interested in this approach to history both because of what I’m writing in my book on teaching history in the digital age and because my teaching is more and more emphasizing turning my students loose on the past to create history in ways we haven’t thought through.

[12:00] In a session on the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canadian History project. This is a project I’ve been using for years in my introductory history courses — the Who Killed William Robinson case — as a way of introducing my students to historical research in an engaging and rigorous way. Even though the Robinson case has nothing to do with Western Civ (the course I use it in), it introduces students to the difficulties of historical research, particularly working with documents that just aren’t very clear as to what they mean or don’t mean. We did an exercise where we did what I ask my students to do and then discussed what that meant to us as educators–what we learned from trying to learn like our students and how our expert knowledge about history, as opposed to these particular moments in history, helped us with the exercise. For me it was a lot of fun to spend some time working through a digital resource I have been using for so many years.

[12:20] Why I don’t tweet…The previous paragraph is 958 characters.

[1:30] Went on walkabout around Niagara-on-the-Lake with an iPhone researching a mystery from the war of 1812. This application (still in beta), created by our conference host Kevin Kee, is just the sort of thing Tom Scheinfeldt, Josh Greenburg, and I envisioned something like four years ago in the days before the new generation of smart phones. Ours was going to be “Stop Booth” and would give you a chance to traverse the historical/geographical space of D.C. in an quest to save President Lincoln from his assassin, but a combination of technological limitations and a lack of funding kept us from ever pursuing this idea. It was really exciting to see Kevin’s history quest through town on an iPhone and to imagine all the ways we’re going to be able to take advantage of this platform as humanists.

[3:00] Sat with Bill Turkel to see how RFID tags could be used in humanities applications. He demonstrated a simple (for him) program that would allow an RFID reader to gather data from a tag, then link it to a database of historical information. One idea I had from that demonstration would be to create a “magic wand” that had a reader in the tip that would allow students to wave the wand over an artifact or a bank of photographs to gather information about the thing being examined. If the readers had a greater range, something similar could be done with historic sites–students could wander through the site and as they passed tags, historical content could pop up on their phones. What makes this different from just having a GPS application is that they would have to actually pass close to the object with the RFID reader to get credit for completing some sort of quest in the site.

The big question for all of us at this conference is how all the “play” we are talking about can be connected to the serious purposes of teaching and learning. I’m a believer that there are direct connections, but I also am hard headed enough to insist that those connections be made explicit through data (qualitative or quantitative) that demonstrate how certain kinds of learning takes place during or as a result of play.