Making History in a Digital World

How different is teaching and learning history in a digital world?

Fundamentally, history is still about interpreting sources to construct an understanding of what happened how in the past. Yes, the internet has made it easier (and cheaper) for more people to publish more things, and those things can be misleading or purposefully wrong just as often as they can match current scholarship. But, the internet has also created the opportunity for faster verification and greater transparency in knowledge-making.

I find the process of creating and editing Wikipedia articles an intriguing example of how information can be disseminated on the internet. Sometimes Wikipedia is wrong, but its system of changelogs and forums to discuss how articles should (or shouldn’t) change is more than just an effort to create good content. It is also a system where the process of making and verifying knowledge becomes more transparent. The hows and whys of what gets included and how articles develop and are worded is just as recorded as the articles themselves. Liam Wyatt has argued that these elements of Wikipedia are themselves a useful source for historians, and the very practice of creating and editing Wikipedia articles is a learning experience for students.

Wikipedia and its logs and discussion boards are also an example of scholarly practice that reflect much of what goes on behind the scenes in academia and publishing houses. Choices are made, sometimes more or less honestly, about the truth of a topic and how it should be presented. But having that record available helps to make the people who made decisions accountable and allows others to check their work, to rundown the sources and the decisions. Such a record is a model that all scholars should embrace, and one that can maintain and build public trust in scholarship.