Using New Media to Teach East European History

by T. Mills Kelly

September 2001

Teaching Digital History

This article was originally published in Nationalities Papers 29, 3 (September 2001): 499-508 and is reprinted here with permission.

For decades the residents of Taos, New Mexico have been afflicted by a low frequency humming–sometimes louder, sometimes almost inaudible–but never completely absent.1 On almost every college campus in North America, the buzz about using technology in teaching can be almost as annoying–and with each passing year, it gets louder. Although recent events in the American stock market have taken a good deal of the shine off of the idea that the internet will fundamentally transform the economy, in higher education there seems to be no corresponding waning of enthusiasm for the infusion of new media into the educational experiences of students.2

Anyone resisting the adoption of new media technologies in their professional lives runs the risk of seeming a recalcitrant neo-Luddite, falling rapidly behind the rest of us as the technological wave sweeps inevitably forward. Boosters for new media love to put skeptics to flight with data such as those produced by the Campus Computing Project demonstrating that more than forty percent of all college courses use Web resources, up from just eleven percent in 1995. And faculty are all too aware how far behind our students we are falling when it comes to creating new media content. Already, close to half of all college undergraduates responding to a recent survey report that they have their own websites and seventy-five percent report going on-line at least once per day.3 Faced with data like these, it is no wonder many of us feel pressured to do more with technology.

Not surprisingly, the debate over the role of new media on campus too often takes on the sort of either/or quality that leads to polemics–technology is a universal good/ technology is evil.4 To be sure, a number of scholars, most notably historians, have thought very carefully about how new media are changing higher education, especially where either the practice of our craft, or our pedagogy are concerned5 However, we are still a long way from understanding the best ways to integrate technology into the teaching half of our professional lives, primarily because almost every single essay, book, or conference paper dealing with the changes new media are bringing to our courses says almost nothing whatsoever about student learning. By now we know a great deal about how new information technologies are reshaping our pedagogy, but it is a serious mistake to assume that learning is a reflex of teaching. Too often American scholars writing about classroom innovation base their claims for student learning entirely on the intelligent looks on students’ faces at the end of the term.6 By contrast, in the United Kingdom and Australia, mandated assessment regimes, for all the hardships they have imposed on faculty, administrators and students, have also resulted in at least baseline data on what students are and are not learning in a whole range of disciplines.7 A recent example of how far we still have to go in the United States comes from the Journal of American History, which recently published the results of a round table discussion on “Teaching the American History Survey at the Opening of the Twenty-First Century.” In this round table the participants described the many and varied ways they teach their foundation course in American history–and not one of the participants offered any concrete evidence that any of their pedagogical strategies actually work. Moreover, all but one of the eleven participants was dismissive of new media as something worth incorporating into their course. As one participant put it, “I see no need to offer more of what they are already getting plenty of elsewhere in our culture.” None of these experienced scholar-teachers seemed troubled by the irony of such remarks, given that their round table discussion took place via interactive new media.8

This particular example–faculty who use new media to dismiss its value in the educational enterprise–is emblematic of the transitional stage we find ourselves in today. New media technologies are invading our campuses from every direction, but most faculty are still not adequately prepared to integrate the new technologies into their pedagogical goals and expectations. If we are going to progress beyond this transitional stage and remain in control of what happens in our courses, we must set aside the hyperbole and ask how student learning can be changed by the new media technologies–either resulting in better learning, or in substantively different learning outcomes. Otherwise, beyond satisfying our need to feel “with it,” those who do begin to incorporate more and more new media into their teaching will be spending a great deal of time creating new learning resources that may yield very little benefit to their students and therefore to themselves. Instead, as it becomes possible to demonstrate how new media are changing student learning and how they are not, faculty can incorporate the new technologies in increasingly appropriate ways. Once this begins to happen, those who currently are less enamored by the prospect of the incorporation of new technologies into the curriculum will be more easily persuaded that the new technologies have some benefit after all.

Beginning then, with what we do know , it is possible to state with confidence that new media technologies are not a universal good in the higher education classroom, with a few mundane exceptions. To be sure, once a professor begins to weave Web resources into an existing course, a whole litany of student excuses cease to be valid: “I lost my syllabus,” “I didn’t know the paper was due today!” and so on. As gratifying as it may be to reject these student excuses by pointing to the class website, that alone is hardly sufficient justification for all the work required to create the Web resources. At the same time, a mounting body of anecdotal evidence gathered by faculty across the country indicates that the more new media technologies are incorporated into our courses, the better students like the course. And certainly if students are excited about the course, the odds are better that they will actually end up learning a substantial portion of what we want them to learn–however, evidence for this conclusion remains anecdotal.

Fortunately, more specific evidence is beginning to emerge that new media can and do positively influence student behaviors in ways that often lead to improved or at least different learning outcomes. One example of how the inclusion of new media in a traditional course can yield favorable results has to do with the degree to which students engage in recursive reading of sources. Good scholars return to the same pieces of evidence over and over again, considering many possible meanings of their sources before finally committing themselves to one interpretation. Therefore, historians–to cite the example I know best–hope
that our students will learn this skill, not only because it is an example of what we like to call “critical thinking,” but also because it is one very important way that they develop a stronger sense of the interrelatedness of historical evidence and of change over time. Several researchers have examined students’ recursive reading patterns in their courses that use new media and find that their students do this sort of recursive reading (and analysis) more often when accessing sources via the Web than they do when accessing the same materials in print.9 A second area where new media are showing signs of improving student learning is collaborative learning. Most teachers lament the lack of meaningful discussion in their classrooms, and there is a substantial body of research demonstrating that collaborative learning does improve critical thinking.10 College students today are perhaps the most connected people on the planet–they have cell phones, beepers, use instant messaging services, spend hours in chat rooms, and cannot live without their e-mail–but just try to get them to argue with one another in class! So much of their communication with one another is now mediated with technology, it should be no surprise that a substantial number of today’s students find communication via new media to be more agreeable than face to face communication. Thus, it also should be no surprise that scholars teaching courses utilizing new media to enhance collaborative learning find that for those students whose learning style fits well with the technology , outcomes improve.11 And, just as is true with any teaching innovation, those students whose learning style does not fit well with Web mediated forms of communication tend to perform less well.

Given the currently limited but growing base of research on how new media can transform student learning, how then can those of us interested in nations and nationalism integrate the new technologies in ways that are appropriate to whatever our pedagogical goals might be? The most obvious way is to “reverse engineer” our courses–starting with desired student learning outcomes rather than focusing on how much content we can squeeze into the semester or quarter.12 Once we are very clear on exactly what it is we hope our students will know at the end of the semester, then we can reasonably ask which capabilities of the new media might help us achieve these pedagogical goals, which will make it more difficult, and which might result in altogether different outcomes.13 For example, in my course dealing with modern Eastern Europe, this process of reverse engineering led me to focus on several primary pedagogical goals distinct from my desire to have my students be able to remember the difference between Slovaks and Slovenes, or for them to be able to write an essay detailing the events of 1848. Instead, I am much more interested in my students being able to describe in detail how a number of grand themes in the history of Eastern Europe: the importance of nationalism, what it meant to Eastern Europe to be either on the periphery or at the center of European events, the role that foreign domination played in the history of the region, and so on. When it comes to nationalism, I devote a great deal of my time helping them arrive at a more mature understanding of how national identities are constructed, how scholars analyze both national identities and the process of their construction (and perpetuation), and the role that gender plays in both the construction of national identities and in their analysis. The course itself, like all of my courses, places a great deal of emphasis on collaborative learning, research with primary source materials, and requires students to be “architects of their own learning,” meaning they pick and choose from various learning options during the semester to construct a package of learning opportunities best suited to their own predilections.14Two of the recurring problems faculty encounter with our students’ use of the World Wide Web is that many students assume that if something does not exist on the Web, then it does not exist, and that if it does exist on the Web, it must be a good source. This uncritical approach to knowledge acquisition is, of course, not new to higher education. For generations faculty have lamented our undergraduates’ inability to find appropriate sources in our campus libraries, and many of us address this pervasive problem by conducting library orientations. Now we are confronted by students increasingly ill-disposed to even enter the library, because all the knowledge they need surely exists on the Web!15 Because so many of them are uncritical readers of web-based information, these students are even less well equipped to sort through the myriad of available information, the vast majority of which is unedited and free from the scholarly apparatus of peer review. But, telling our students that they should not rely on the Web for their research is akin to telling students twenty years ago that they should not use calculators. While cyberpundits make many good points about the Web as a place where scholarship can exist free from the stultification imposed by the publishing industry, when it comes to our undergraduate students, most of us wish for more control over content rather than less.16 Almost every educator can offer a horror story of a student who built an entire essay around some egregious site located via one of the popular search engines, and those of us who teach about nationalism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union probably have more of these stories than most, given the number of tendentious sites produced by and about or region of study.17

Like many of my colleagues, I have read more than my fair share of such essays. One example that sticks in my mind occurred several years ago. A student in my Eastern Europe survey course wrote a paper on the Croatian UstaÓa state drawn almost entirely from several websites and their associated links.18 In his paper, the student asserted that despite the any outward appearances of popularity, the PaveliÄ regime had essentially no support among the Croatian people (although, he wrote, PaveliÄ himself had some heroic qualities), and almost all Croats actively supported the Partisans. Moreover, he wrote, quoting his source, “Serbs suffered great casualties at Jasenovac prison camp while the Croats lost even more people in Bleiburg Death Marches starting in May 1945.” Certainly, the events at Bleiburg and Jasenovac were two of the greatest tragedies of the Yugoslav civil war of 1941-1945, and one should not minimize massive loss of life anywhere. However, in neither case has an accepted casualty count been established to the satisfaction of the non-Croat, non-Serb scholarly community, and so I was naturally puzzled to learn that the Croats had been victimized “even more” than the Serbs during the war. As I worked my way through this student’s references, it became abundantly clear that he had relied heavily on a selection of Croatian nationalist websites, most of which mixed together fact, speculation, and outright fantasy to create a compelling historical narrative, usually with plenty of pictures, maps, and first-person testimonials. As bad as this was, even worse was the fact that, despite my admonitions, this student had no familiarity with the existing conventional literature (books, articles) on his topic. In order to avoid such problems in the future, as part of my reverse engineering of this course, I redesigned the essay requirement. In the current iteration of the course, students now write their essays on how national identities are constructed (or reconstructed) and how history is placed in the service of the nationalist imperative. Starting with a recent essay by Hugh Agnew that discusses these processes (at least partially) in a new media context, the students are then required to compare Web resources they locate to existing scholarship on whichever national group they select.19 Because Agnew’s essay includes both Web sources as well as conventional sources, it gives the students a framework for analysis that combined both the sources they prefer and the ones they do not. In this way they analyze both the content of the nationalist narrative and the presentation of that narrative, whether in print or in new media, and ask critical questions about how presentation can privilege certain parts of the content over others. I am happy to say that this past semester one student wrote her paper using the very same Croatian nationalist websites as her predecessor two semesters earlier, but because she was analyzing them as nationalist artifacts, rather than as historical evidence, and because she contrasted them to the conventional literature on the events and people they describe, her essay was a model of historical analysis at many levels.

New media can also be used to accomplish another goal of many of us who teach about nationalism–helping students understand our scholarship as a dynamic and evolving conversation among experts rather than as a selection of published work on the library shelf. Until recently the only way it was possible for students to observe this conversation was to drag them off to one of our conferences, and as we know most conference sessions tend to be long on presentation and short on debate. The other alternative was to have the students read three or four years worth of production by scholars interested in nationalism and to understand all these essays and books as a conversation, albeit one taking place in print. The round table of American historians cited above is but one example of the thousands of scholarly exchanges taking place in new media environments–e-mail lists, threaded discussions, chat rooms, and so on. Because organizations such as H-Net ( archive these discussions, they are now available to us as pedagogical tools. In a recent course on nationalism in Eastern Europe I used one such discussion which took place on the H-Net list HABSBURG, to introduce my students to the gendered nature of many such discussions, especially where East European topics are concerned.20

The participants in this particular discussion were responding to reviews on HABSBURG of Branimir Anzulovic’s, Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide , and of Noel Malcom’s Kosovo: A Short History . The two-week long discussion of these works and the reviewers’ comments on them was wide-ranging, ultimately bringing in more than twenty scholars who offered thirty-nine discreet comments either about the works, the reviews, or directed at one another. Students in the class were directed to identify indications of the gendered nature of this debate and to be ready to discuss how the debate might have been shaped by whatever they found. Because they were being asked to analyze “expert conversation” rather than acquire content knowledge, my students warmed to the assignment, and the first thing they all noticed was that not one of the twenty participants in this discussion was female. Not surprisingly, the first question they generated in their own discussion forum was what percentage of the HABSBURG membership was female. Although the membership numbers fluctuate from week to week and no exact count is kept by the editors, at the time of this particular discussion approximately 20% of the HABSBURG membership was female. In our discussions, which took place both on the Web and in class, many students focused on the degree to which the participants in the debate emphasized the military side of what was happening in Kosovo, with one student arguing forcefully, that if women had been participating in the debate there would have been more discussion of the social consequences of Serbian and Albanian nationalism. “What about the mothers? Why aren’t any of these historians talking about them? ” she kept asking. While reading these postings through the perspective of gender was a difficult task for the students, and one that they could not achieve mastery of in a single assignment, having access to the full range of the expert discussion made it possible to have such a discussion at all. Further, because much of their discussion took place in the same medium–a threaded discussion forum–as the conversation they were analyzing, the students seemed much more willing to engage one another in real debate, as opposed to simply agreeing with one another and being supportive, than is typically the case in an undergraduate classroom. Finally, because their contributions to the discussion forum were often made as they were reading comments by experts in the field, they often mimicked the style of the scholars, writing in more complex sentences and with a better vocabulary than is common in such mediums, where student writing is often fragmentary and overly casual.

These specific examples are but two possibilities from the many and varied opportunities that new media provide. As more and more of our campuses become sufficiently wired, our students will be able to access immediate multimedia experiences that conventional teaching cannot readily provide–encounters with visual images, music, and text more or less simultaneously. Surely such encounters hold the possibility of different learning, if not better learning, however, only if that learning takes place within the context of specific pedagogical goals. The examples offered here are not revolutionary, but are at least indicators of something different going on that could not be so readily achieved with conventional sources. At the same time, they are evidence that new media technologies can influence student learning only if they are put in the service of specific pedagogical goals within the context of a particular course. However, if the objective is to “ramp up” a course purely for the purpose of having it, or some part of it, exist on the Web, any measurable change in student learning will be coincidental rather than intentional.


1 The official “Taos Hum” website is

2 See, for instance, Diana C. Oblinger and Sean C. Rush, eds. The Future Compatible Campus. Planning, Designing, and Implementing Information Technology in the Academy, (Bolton, MA: 1Anker Publishing, 1998) and Deborah Lines Andersen, “Historians on the Web: A Study of Academic Historians’ Use of the World Wide Web for Teaching,” Journal of the Association for History and Computing , III/2, August, 2000 for but two of hundreds of possible examples.

3 For the Campus Computing Project survey results, go to: ( Data on student use of new media technology comes from propriety surveys by Greenfield Online, the Greenfield On-line Pulsefinder On-Campus Market Study , Westport, CT (July 8, 1999),

4 See, for example, the excellent summary by my colleague Paula Petrik, delivered at the American Historical Association’s national conference in Chicago (2000), “”We Shall Be All”: Designing History for the Web.” Available on the Web at: On the negative side, one can read such oft-cited works as Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies. The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994), and on the positive, a recent example is, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).

5 See, for example, Graeme Davison, “History and Hypertext,” The Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, (1997), and Stanley N. Katz, “A Computer is Not a Typewriter, or Getting Right with Information Technology in the Humanities,” Lecture in the Digital Directions Speakers Series, University of Virginia, February 4, 1999,

6Of course, every discipline has a literature on student learning, even my own-history-although most of the research that exists on student learning is concerned with what happens during the K-12 years. Among the best examples are Samuel S. Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Phi Delta Kappan , March 1999: 488-499; and by the same author, “Reading Abraham Lincoln: An Expert/Expert Study in the Interpretation of Historical Texts,” Cognitive Science , 22/3, 1998: 319-46; and Robert B. Bain, “Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History Instruction,” in Knowing, Teaching & Learning History. National and International Perspectives , Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds. American Historical Assocation, (2000): 331-52.

7 One good example of how much farther these matters have progressed in the United Kingdom is the upcoming National Seminar ‘Researching Teaching and Learning in History’ (May 2001) at the University of Glasgow’s Subject Center for Archaeology, Classics and History

8 “Teaching the American History Survey at the Opening of the Twenty-First Century: A Round Table Discussion,” Journal of American History, March 2001: 1409-1441.

9T. Mills Kelly, “For Better or Worse? The Marriage of Web and the History Classroom,” Journal of the American Association for History and Computing, III/2, (August 2000); and, John McClymer for “Inquiry and Archive in a U.S. Women’s History Course” in Works and Days 31/32, 1998: 1-13.

10See, for example, Anuradha A. Gokhale, “Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking,” Journal of Technology Education Volume 7, no.1 Fall 1995,; and “Powerful Partnerships: A Shared Responsibility for Learning”, A Joint Report of the American Association for Higher Education, the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, June, 1998.

11See, for example, Diaz, D. P., & Cartnal, R. B. (1999). Students’ learning styles in two classes: Online distance learning and equivalent on-campus. College Teaching 47(4): 130-135; and Kelli Cargile Cook, “Online Technical Communication: Pedagogy, Instructional Design, and Student Preference in Internet-Based Distance Education,” unpublished dissertation, Texas Tech University, 2000; and Bill Cutler, “A Course Portfolio,”

12 On reverse-engineering courses, see Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design , (Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998).

13See, for example, Peter Stearns, “Student Identities and World History Teaching, ” The History Teacher , 33/2, February 2000: 185-93.

14The idea of students as architects of their own learning is hardly new, but has recently been described in print by Elizabeth Barkeley, in her course portfolio project for the Carnegie Foundation, “From Catastrophe to Celebration: Analysis of a Curricular Transformation,” This site is password protected, but can be accessed via the Carnegie Foundation main page at

15 “Choosing Quick Hits Over the Card Catalog,” New York Times, August 10, 2000

16One example of the many debates around the issue of peer review and Web publishing is a recent discussion that took place among H-Net editors, following the American Historical Association’s 2001 national conference.

17One good resource for helping students recognize egregious pages is maintained by Marshall Poe at the University of Limerick: “Tendentious Web Pages,” In addition, a number of useful Web pages have been created to assist students as they learn to read Web resources with a more critical eye: “Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources,”, and “The ICYouSee Guide to Critical Thinking About What You See on the Web,”

18The sites the student in question relied upon most were:, and

19Hugh LeCaine Agnew, “New States, Old Identities? The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Historical Understandings of Statehood,” Nationalities Papers, 28/4, December 2000: 619-50.

20“Kosovo, Serbian Nationalism and Territorial Partition,”


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