Reflections upon History teaching in a Digital Age

 In Musings on Teaching and Learning

For my own purposes, in my first blog I defined the academe as a community of thinkers, learners and educators, and so the term academic might apply equally well to a University teacher or student, or to a Secondary School teacher or student. These first two blogs explore my reflections about teaching and learning, and especially about teaching and learning History in Secondary schools and, especially, teaching and learning about history teaching through digital mediums.

A recent return as a Contract Teacher to the classroom in a school with A BYOD or Bring Your Own Device technology policy offered an opportunity to reflect upon the advantages and drawbacks of the use of Information Communication Technology in the classroom, at the same time I was using such technologies to further my studies as part of this Doctorate in Education. Simultaneously, I was using a range of ICTs in researching to prepare two Workshops aimed at History Teachers for the Australian history Teachers’ Association National Conference to be held in Brisbane from September 27th to September 29th. Being new to a school has a crystallising effect on how one views policies, whereas a lengthy time in a school tends to make one accepting of the way things are, and perhaps, less questioning of how they might be.

Just as the internet provided me with a plethora of valuable sources for my research (for this blog, for an article I hope to submit to Australian Educational Researcher, and for my two workshops), it provided students with valuable sources to research in History. In English, it provided opportunities to seek out effective examples of the advertising strategies we had just studied and for students to share and discuss these on their class page. However, it also provided an unconquerable distraction for some students who either could not or would not restrict their device use to the appropriate tools and activities. I was forced to confiscate several phones and re-position students where I could see their screens to ensure they stayed on task. Few students used workbooks tto record class notations, despite the fact that High Stakes testing such as NAPLAN and, soon, external exams are completed using pen and paper. Students’ handwriting when they did write was barely legible.  In addition, Students found it difficult to take notes using ICT in an effective manner, instead resorting to cutting and pasting from web sites and attempting to record all class discussion notes in any order. As a consequence, I stepped away from the lesson plans I had been given and explored reflecting note taking strategies in History- encouraging students to record their own thoughts about what the quotations they had copied meant, and why they were of significance to their investigations, as well as ensuring references were compete and not simply URLs. In English I explained the idea of structured Overviews using headings and sub headings to sequence points logically. I am hopeful these strategies will be of use to students in an educational climate that seems determined to integrate ICT and move away from hand writing.

Given my developing interest in researching my classroom observations, I read a little to explore the research into one to one laptop educational environments (1:1) and found my experience seemed typical of findings. Dunleavy, Dexter, and Heinecke (2007) claimed that while “the 1:1 classroom provided potentially transformative added value to these uses while simultaneously presenting unique management challenges to the teacher”.  Their research also confirmed my own observation that “the presence of 1:1 laptops did not automatically add value and their high financial costs underscore the need to provide teachers with high-quality professional development to ensure effective teaching. In order to create effective learning environments, teachers need opportunities to learn what instruction and assessment practices, curricular resources and classroom management skills work best in a 1:1 student to networked laptop classroom setting.” As far as I can see, while many schools are keen to move to models of 1:1 classrooms, there has been little or no systematic professional development for teachers to create effective use of these tools for learning. In most cases, the emphasis has been upon developing codes of behaviour and acceptable use policies rather than exploring what might be a potentially transformative educational experience.

While the use of ICT tools in schools is potentially one of the most significant changes to face education in the 21st century, it appears to be a change for which schools are ill prepared. The research base in effective use of ICT is quite substantial but the lack of action on recommendations from the research seems to suggest that schools believe the existence of the tool is sufficient, and do not acknowledge the need for a shift in teaching and learning that is required to make best use of these tools. James Cengiz Gulek and Hakan Demirtas seem to describe the positive results possible when effective pedagogy is tailored to the use of 1:1 laptop learning. They claim, “Past research suggests that compared to their non-laptop counterparts, students in classrooms that provide all students with their own laptops spend more time involved in collaborative work, participate in more project-based instruction, produce writing of higher quality and greater length, gain increased access to information, improve research analysis skills, and spend more time doing homework on computers.” (2007) While these claims seem to confirm the powerful potential of ICT in schools, other research paints a more pessimistic picture. Field, for example, argues, “that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking and that the laptop use posed a significant distraction to both users and fellow students. Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance.” (2008) It seems that the potential of ICT as tools for effective learning is best realised when the pedagogy is matched to the new ICT environment. The number of different companies offering classroom computer monitoring software also supports the notion that students need additional support to stay focused on learning expectations. Certainly, Educational digital learning management platforms have become a lucrative business this century- it is a shame that professional learning for teachers in how best to organise effective teaching and learning experiences in this environment seems less a priority.

While writing this blog, I experienced a strong feeling of deju-vu. I then, re-read an unpubished reflective blog I had written in 2006 when the school in which I was teaching adopted a 1:1 laptop approach. What follows are my thoughts from that time:

I believe that any real transformation of teaching practice to integrate the use of ICT in effective teaching and student learning to date has been derived not from any planned or structured professional development, but rather through teacher risk taking and individual critical reflection upon the successes and failures resulting from changed practice, and collaborative sharing of these reflections.  It is my belief that teachers have been forced to cope with the introduction of new forms of ICT by an ad hoc method of trial and error, and the successes they may experience are more likely to result in spite of rather than because of planned professional development strategies, if these are even offered.  Given this situation, it seems logical that future school planning to cope with the need to better equip teachers to deal with the diversity of ICT applications and hardware they encounter in their daily employment should focus on the lessons I believe teachers have learned to date.  Primarily, effective professional support in developing well-developed ICT skills should be based on three principles:  Learning should be based on immediate needs identified by the learner (‘just in time learning’), learning should take place in collaboration with more knowledgeable, respected peers who can demonstrate real and practical applications of the ICT use for improved teaching and learning, and sufficient time must be provided to allow experimentation, practice and reflection as part of this collaborative planning and sharing session.

Changes in technology have an impact on what and how we could teach. Despite this, a focus on equipping teachers with the skills to use this technology in the classroom or for the classroom was in earlier decades, as now, quite limited. Then, as now, we learned by watching peers, interrupting peers with requests to “Please show me how…?” and then pushing buttons and hoping for the best.  Teachers learn to use complicated computer software in 2006 in exactly this same way.  They are prepared to take these risks because they recognize the benefits that are to be gained from mastering new ways of preparing resources, record keeping and teaching.  Where sharing of resources was once as simple as passing on photocopies of useful resources to teaching partners, the introduction of the personal computer and Office into general use in schools in the early 90s introduced both a new level of complexity and enormous benefits. In 2006 I can receive by email a copy of an exam paper from a colleague in another school, add my advice for changes and improvements and have it back in her school by that same afternoon!  The obvious benefit of the introduction of ICT in education is a level of positive professional collaboration which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago; the drawback is the work intensification this creates as teachers struggle to develop the skills to use these new tools to their potential.

If John is correct in his argument that the benefit to students of using new technologies is greatly dependent on the skill and attitude of their teacher towards technology in teaching, and that this, in turn, is dependent on the training staff have received in this area (2002), then any fundamental change in digital innovation in education will be slow in coming.  Although it has been more than a decade since the internet and networking have fundamentally changed teachers’ access to ICTs in schools, professional development for teachers in using this technology has changed very little in most schools since I first began using computers at John Paul College in the mid-1980s.  The keys, then, to teachers’ effective use of the ICT available are the need to use it and the competence to use it; a competence which is undermined by the lack of support provide to teachers in developing their skills.

This observation is nothing new and confirms the calls by advocates of meaningful integration of ICT into schools such as Jamie McKenzie.  As early as 1998, McKenzie argued that schools needed to “spend 25 per cent of [their IT] budget on professional development. Teachers need between fifty and sixty hours a year, for three years, learning what to do with computers.” It was McKenzie who coined the phrase ‘just in time’ learning to describe how teachers best respond to the need to develop greater digital literacy.  My reflections on the difficulties I have encountered over the past twenty years have clarified a number of beliefs which I imagine would characterise the experiences of a large portion of the teaching population trained before the general availability of computers and the internet, and thus a large percentage of the total teaching population.  The first is that I am a highly effective teacher with minimal use of ICT and so need to be convinced that the integration of a particular ICT will genuinely enhance student learning.  The second is that I need the time and support to develop a reasonable level of competence with an ICT before I am comfortable with integration into my teaching practice.  It is this time and support which is sadly lacking in most schools.

If the growing use of ICT by teachers does indeed ‘provide an opportunity to look again at what teachers do and why’ (Loveless, DeVoogd, Behlin, 2001, 65) then the most important priority is to provide teachers with adequate time to do this.   If a real renewal in teaching practice is desired, the question of best practice in the use of ICT needs to be explored in a collaborative manner that acknowledges the various repertoires and agendas each teacher will bring.  Teacher professional development requires a “collegial, non-directive and supportive [approach] rather than [one which is] coercive in style, and [must] seek to foster professional autonomy.” (Wilson & Cameron, 1992, 2). 

Re-reading this reflection after 11 years, it seems that little has changed except the complexity of the software, and the research into its integration in schools. Despite an almost unanimous call for time for teachers to learn how best to use the tools and to collaborate in this learning, it seems schools are still happy to spend large sums on the tools, but not upon developing effective pedagogical frameworks nor teacher capacity. Perhaps when I re-visit this blog in another 11 years, things might have changed.



  • Dunleavy, M., Dexter, S. 7 Heinecke, W.F. (2007), What added value does a 1:1 student to laptop ratio bring to technology-supported teaching and learning?. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23: 440–452. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2007.00227.x
  • Gulek, James Cengiz, &  Hakan Demirtas (2005) Learning With Technology: The Impact of Laptop Use on Student Achievement, The Journal of Technology Learning and Assessment, 3 (2)
  • Fried, Carrie B, (2008) In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning, Computers and Education, 50 (3) Pages 906-914
  • John, P( 2002), Teaching and Learning with ICT: New Technology, New Pedagogy?, Paper presented at BERA Conference, University of Exeter, UK September 12-14,
  • Loveless, A. DeVoogd, G. & Bohlim, R., (2001), ‘Something old, something new… : Is pedagogy affected by ICT?’ In Loveless, A. & Ellis, V., ICT, pedagogy, and the curriculum: subject to change, Routlefge Falmer, London.  pp.63-83.
  • Mckenzie , Jamie, 9 June 1998, ‘How teachers learn technology best and beyond technology’,  Tuesday March 28, 2000, <>
  • Wilson, Steve and Cameron, Rob (June-July 1992) Developing Reflective Student Teachers: A Professional Development Program” Paper presented at the 22nd ATEA National Conference, Ballina, NSW
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