Learning by Playing: Can digital history improve students’ learning? (Stéphane Lévesque)
For today’s students, computer technology plays an integral part in their learning experiences. Students are digital natives and savvy. No longer does it suffice for a history teacher to present an overhead and have students take notes. No longer is it enough for a museum to count on traditional exhibits to attract visitors. Digital history applications, whether they are virtual exhibits or online learning programs, transcend the traditional textbook and provide users with dynamic animations and authentic sources and experiences. They engage learners, their multiple intelligences and their diverse learning styles, differently. But do students really prefer computer learning? What evidence do we have that students learn better from digital history?
Few studies have scientifically documented computer-user behaviours, particularly in history education. Much of what is available comes from international/US studies which present descriptive results of small-scale investigations with online applications and webquests. Building on several years of research innovation in virtual history, Stéphane Lévesque is engaged actively in researching how Canadian students learn from and can improve their learning experience with digital history environments.
In a recent funded study by the Canadian Council on Learning (2007-2008), Professor Lévesque investigated the role and impact of a digital history program, The Virtual Historian©, on students’ historical learning and literacy. What this study suggests is that digital history – with all its animated objects and dynamic scaffolds – is not a substitute for classroom teaching. Paradox? Not really. Many students continue to demand and believe in student-teacher interaction and instruction – and for sound reasons. It would be illusory to place the future and faith of history education in the hands of technology alone. Learning is far too complex and multifaceted to be reduced to serious gaming and web animations.
Still, digital history provides students with important learning tools, resources and thought processes that 21st century teachers can no longer ignore. This is why Professor Lévesque is currently engaged with colleague Adam Friedman, from Wake Forest University in North Carolina, in a comparative Canada-US study of high school student learning with technology. Looking at how comparable history subjects, such as Canada-US relations and the War of 1812, can be taught with digital technology, this SSHRC-funded research aims to uncover the particular ways in which Canadian and American teachers and students can learn in technology- connected settings.