Across the History Curriculum. Part 7
“History never looks like history when you are living through it.” (John W. Gardner; U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, and a strong advocate for citizen participation who founded Common Cause; 1912-2002.)
“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” (Robert Penn Warren; American poet, novelist, literary critic, and one of the founders of New Criticism; 1905-1989.)
This newsletter is a continuation of a series exploring possible roles of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Mathematics in the precollege history curriculum. In this newsletter, I use the term Information and Communication Technology in a very broad sense. Paraphrasing and expanding on this entry in the Wikipedia (Wikipedia, 2020b, link):
ICT is an umbrella term that includes any communication device, encompassing radio, television, cell phones, computer and network hardware, satellite systems, and the Internet and local networks. It also includes the Web, various services and applications software such as video conferencing, distance learning, computer graphics, computer music, and so on.
ICT is a broad subject and the concepts are evolving. It covers any product that will store, retrieve, manipulate, process, transmit, or receive information electronically in a digital form (e.g., personal, tablet, and mainframe computers, smartphones, computer game machines, digital television, email, social networking systems, robots, and so on).
Here is the major question I address in this newsletter: What do I personally believe history teachers should know and teach about the history of Information and Communication Technology (ICT)?
I hope my exploration of this question will help you to decide what you, personally, will do to help students gain appropriate historical knowledge that will prove to be a useful part of their education.
The two quotations given at the beginning of this newsletter provide a hint of some of the issues to be addressed. The first is especially poignant for these days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We adults and our children are living during a time of very rapid changes in the world. As an adult, I want our children to gain some insights into the changes that have already occurred during their (short) lifetimes, and to understand that the pace of change is increasing. I want to help prepare them for adult life in a changing world. The second quotation summarizes my goals in that regard.
Literacy is popularly understood as an ability to read, write and use numeracy in at least one method of writing, … The view that literacy always involves social and cultural elements is reflected in UNESCO’s stipulation that literacy is an “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” [Bold added for emphasis.] (Wikipedia, 2020e, link).
Throughout this newsletter I use the two terms:
- Reading and writing literacy (reading/writing literacy); and
- Information and communication technology literacy (ICT literacy).
Reading/writing literacy is more than just saying written words or writing words formed in your head. It is understanding and effectively using a particular human-developed means for communicating with yourself and others.
ICT literacy is more than just using an electronic device by turning it on and following the instructions. It is being able to select hardware and software appropriate to your need and then using it competently to accomplish your purpose, e.g., solve a problem, communicate electronically either orally or in writing, gather information, create new information documents to share, entertain yourself and others, and so on.
The term literacy is sometimes used in other disciplines. For example, a wine connoisseur might refer to a person with little knowledge about wines as being wine illiterate. People talk about audio literacy, video literacy, and so on.
In this newsletter I explore an analogy between reading/writing literacy and ICT literacy. A fundamental idea of this analogy is that both reading/writing literacy and ICT literacy empower the people who have such literacy. On a broader scale, there is some evidence that a country having a high level of reading/writing literacy tends to have a higher level of economic well-being, both for its people and for the country (Cameron, 2005, link).
A similar issue can be explored for ICT literacy. Many individual people have benefited by increasing their level of ICT literacy, often because it helps them to qualify for higher paying jobs. But, for a specific country or for the world as a whole, we can question whether an increased level of ICT literacy has indeed improved the lives of the people of these countries or the world (Blinder & Quant, December, 1997, link). On the negative side, ICT has wiped out many jobs and has strongly affected the (traditional) social development of many children. On the positive side, it is easy to argue the benefits of the Internet and Web, computer uses in research and commerce, and so on.
Technological progress empowering individuals or groups goes back a very long time. We have archeological evidence from about 3.3 million years ago when rock knapping was used by prehumans. With this knowledge and skill, a user could make stones that were sharp enough to scrape and cut hides. This improved survivability and quality of life. Of course, these prehumans did not have a general-purpose spoken language, but we can talk about rock knapping literacy, or, more generally, tool literacy.
We can look back perhaps 1.8 million years or so to when prehumans learned to create and use fire, both to cook food and as protection against wild animals (Anderson, 10/5/2012, link). This new fire tool (part of our increasing tool literacy) improved survivability and quality of life.
Similarly, we can look back to the initial development of reading and writing. I think of reading and writing as a tool—but a tool that is much different from using sharp stones or the controlled use of fire. Think about how reading and writing progressed over the years. How has this development changed the world?
Now, we can ask the same question about roles of ICT over the past 70 years. To what extent has ICT improved survivability and the quality of life for us modern humans? For example, we know that the average human life expectancy has increased about ten years during this time. What roles has ICT played in this increase?
My guess is that when historians a hundred years from now look back, they may well decide that reading/writing literacy and ICT literacy were two of the most important developments in human history. They will note how they both empowered people and nations, and that ICT literacy built on and expanded the capabilities of reading/writing literacy.
It is important for students to understand the ideas presented above. For example, students need to understand how reading/writing literacy will affect their quality of life. Similarly, they can explore ICT literacy from a quality of life point of view. For example, has the availability of the smartphone improved quality of life of those having one? I know that, personally, using the GPS application on my smartphone has made a small but significant improvement in my quality of life–I don’t get lost nearly as often! Much more importantly to me, using the Web has made a huge difference in my quality of life.
These types of questions are applicable to each major invention or discovery made by prehumans and humans up until now. I personally find the study of such developments fascinating. As a history teacher, you may want to increase your emphasis on this in your teaching. What do you want your students to know about the roles of libraries? What about Gutenberg’s movable type printing press? What about newspapers and magazines? What about the typewriter? And more… Students can explore the impact of these developments on reading/writing literacy, and then the additional impact of ICT literacy on all of them.
There are many classroom activities that you can use to engage your students in such discussions and enquiry. For example, each student or small teams of students could select a time period in recorded human history, and do a project on how reading/writing literacy had changed the world or a specific country up to that time. The report could include information about the nature of schools and the level of reading/writing literacy in various parts of the world at that time. This can then be expanded to include the impact of ICT literacy.
Think about the development of reading and writing about 5,400 years ago. Humans had oral communication and oral tradition for many tens of thousands of years before that time. They used show and tell (an informal type of apprenticeship), songs, storytelling, and drawings on rock surfaces and cave walls to pass information from generation to generation.
Reading and writing provided an accuracy and continuity of information preservation and transmission not previously available, and thus made it possible to reliably store information and to communicate it over both distance and time. It soon became an important aid for dealing with the logistics and processes of the growing populations of towns, cities, and kingdoms. It facilitated the development of libraries to serve the needs of scholars to draw on the steadily growing accumulation of written information. You may have heard of the Great Library of Alexandria, located in Egypt. It was probably established during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BC) (Wikipedia, 2020c, link).
Historically, following the invention of reading and writing, a small number of schools were developed to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and history. Their goal was to produce graduates with a usable level of reading, writing, and arithmetic skills to serve the governmental and commercial needs of the country. A very small, select set of students—mostly chosen from the nobility and wealthy—were given this educational opportunity. It is interesting to note that historical records suggest it took about twelve years of schooling to achieve the desired levels of knowledge and skills.
In addition, reading and writing are a brain tool, to help our brains as we work to solve problems and accomplish tasks. For a town or city example, think about maintaining accurate records of property ownership, taxes, food supplies, and so on.
Or, think about the task of doing multidigit arithmetic calculations or solving engineering problems without the memory aid of reading and writing. I like to think of reading and writing as a type of artificial intelligence (AI).
As you were learning reading and writing in your precollege education, what did you learn about the history of reading and writing? For example, did you learn about different systems for writing? (Wikipedia, 2020f, link):
Writing systems can be placed into broad categories such as alphabets, syllabaries, or logographies, …. In the alphabetic category, a standard set of letters represent speech sounds. In a syllabary, each symbol correlates to a syllable or mora. In a logography, each character represents a semantic unit such as a word or morpheme.… Alphabets typically use a set of less than 100 symbols to fully express a language, whereas syllabaries can have several hundred, and logographies can have thousands of symbols.
This information about writing systems is a small example of the discipline named linguistics (Wikipedia, 2020d, link):
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It involves analyzing language form, language meaning, and language in context. Linguists traditionally analyze human language by observing an interplay between sound and meaning. Linguistics also deals with the social, cultural, historical and political factors that influence language, through which linguistic and language-based context is often determined. Research on language through the sub-branches of historical and evolutionary linguistics also focuses on how languages change and grow, particularly over an extended period of time. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Perhaps you know that cuneiform was the first written language and was developed by the Sumerians (Historyextra, 9/24/2018), link):
Cuneiform is an ancient writing system that was first used in around 3400 BC. Distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, cuneiform script is the oldest form of writing in the world, first appearing even earlier than Egyptian hieroglyphics. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Do you think reading and writing magically appeared, with it not existing at one time and the next year it existed? Actually, the need for reading and writing grew over thousands of years, and it was partially satisfied by the use of clay tokens. The picture below shows Sumerian clay tokens whose use began about 11,000 years ago. These clay tokens were a predecessor to reading, writing, and arithmetic (Halloran, 12/8/1996, link):
Figure 1. Clay tokens from about 9,000 BCE.
Here is an important question about history education. What content about the history of reading and writing do you think should be taught in our schools? For example, is it important for students to learn the word cuneiform, and associate with it the date 3400 BC and the idea that it was an early (perhaps the first) written language? To continue this question, do you know where and when the first alphabetic language was developed? Is this important information for students to learn in their precollege education? Remember, they are living in a world where many people learn reading and writing in a non-alphabetic language.
In my opinion, all students should learn some key ideas such as: a) starting more than 5,000 years ago writing was developed; b)written language proved to be very useful and important to people, and was a world changing development; c) a number of different written languages had been developed; d) alphabets were a great leap forward, and today both non-alphabetic and alphabet-based languages are widely used in today’s world. As mentioned earlier, reading/ writing literacy empowers both individual people and their nations.
In summary, reading/writing literacy, and the technology to support its development, progressed over thousands of years. Each new step built on what had come before. Moreover, some of the steps depended on progress in technology developed just in the past few hundred years, such as identifying and coming to understand electricity and eventually developing the telegraph. The telegraph was a huge step forward in rapid communication over great distances. Then the telephone allowed even illiterate people to communicate over great distances. Today we have the Internet and Web. What development will come next to expand reading/writing literacy?
Ask your students to think about the statement, “Reading/writing literacy empowers both individual people and their nations.” Begin with a whole class discussion to help all students to understand this type of empowerment. Then divide the class into small groups, with each group to make a list of what they consider to be the five really important ways in which this literacy empowers both individual people, nations, and the world. Next, do a whole class sharing and debriefing to produce a master list of the really important ideas that have emerged from the small group discussions. Finally emphasize that each individual student can take responsibility for building and maintaining their own level of reading/writing literacy.
The same type of activity can be applied to other technological developments, such as the development of steam power, internal combustion engines, recording and playback of sound, radio, motion pictures, and television. All of these technologies came before the development of electronic digital computers.
The historical effects of reading/writing literacy are not typically part of the teaching of reading and writing, and are probably under emphasized in parts of the precollege education system. So why should things be any different for ICT literacy?
Perhaps the first use of the term computing literacy was by Arthur Luehrmann in a 1972 talk and paper, “Should the Computer Teach the Student, or Vice-versa?” (Luehrmann, 1972, link):
Mass computing literacy is not an agreed-upon educational goal. Today very few courses at any educational level show students how to use computing as an intellectual tool with applications to the subject matter being taught.
In the same year, Luehrmann described his insights into ICT—although the term had not been invented by that time (Moursund, 2020, link):
If the computer is so powerful a resource that it can be programmed to simulate the instructional process, shouldn’t we be teaching our students mastery of this powerful intellectual tool? Is it enough that a student be the subject of computer administered instruction—the end user of a new technology? Or should his education also include learning to use the computer (1) to get information in the social sciences from a large database inquiry system, or (2) to simulate an ecological system, or (3) to solve problems by using algorithms, or (4) to acquire laboratory data and analyze it, or (5) to represent textual information for editing and analysis, or (6) to represent musical information for analysis, or (7) to create and process graphical information? These uses of computers in education cause students to become masters of computing, not merely its subjects.
The computer field and computer uses have grown explosively since 1972. I use the term ICT literacy as a modernized generalization of Leuhrmann’s discussion.
The initial development of electronic digital computers was motivated by the needs of scientists and the military to carry out immense amounts of computation to solve problems in the development of nuclear weapons, and to help handle military logistics. The world had no general purpose electronic digital computer before 1943.
The actual and potential uses of such computers quickly expanded as they grew in capabilities and came into general use. In less than 80 years, we have expanded from having one computer in the entire world to having more than two billion, with most of these being a million or more times as fast as the first commercially-produced computers (SCMO, 2020, link). In addition, the world today has more than a billion tablet computers and is producing smartphones at a rate of about 1.5 billion a year (O’Dea, 2/28/2020, link). All of this for a world with a population of about 7.8 billion people!
Computer technology and other technological progress during the past 80 years has given us fiber optic communication systems, earth satellites, GPS, computer games, the Internet and Web, smartphones, genetic engineering, and so on. One way to think about all of this is as reading and writing on steroids! As technology advances, still more powerful technology can be built on it and/or through using it.
The Internet and Web provide an excellent example. The Web is considered to be the world’s largest library, and the Internet connects the world. Both are proving especially useful during the current Covid 19 pandemic. Have you ever wondered how large the Web is? Here is a small piece of an answer (Thomsen, 3/27/2020, link):
The Internet Archive has made access to more than 1.4 million eBooks free for people stuck indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. [This free offer will end when the National Emergency ends.]
The books will be available through a new portal called the National Emergency Library, something the Internet Archive organizers decided to create to help universities transition to remote instruction. [Access Books to Borrow at https://archive.org/details/inlibrary.] [Bold added for emphasis.]
Specific data is available about the total size of the Web. Very roughly, the amount of computer data storage needed to hold the entire Web is in excess of the amount needed to store a billion full-length books such as novels (de Kunder, 4/2/2020, link; Hosting Tribunal, 2020, link). I don’t know about you, but it boggles my mind to think of a library the size of a billion books!
Here is a tidbit of history. You know that books do not make up most of the content of the Web. Ten years ago Google was working on a project to digitize all of the books that are currently available in the whole world (Parr, 8/5/2010, link). Extrapolating from data in this 2010 article, there are now about145 million books suitable for inclusion in this project. Unfortunately, the project was suspended after about 25 million books were scanned (Howard, 8/102017, link):
But the promised library of everything hasn’t come into being. An epic legal battle between authors and publishers and the internet giant over alleged copyright violations dragged on for years. A settlement that would have created a Book Rights Registry and made it possible to access the Google Books corpus through public-library terminals ultimately died, rejected by a federal judge in 2011. And though the same judge ultimately dismissed the case in 2013, handing Google a victory that allowed it to keep on scanning, the dream of easy and full access to all those works remains just that.
As I am writing this newsletter, the United States is providing at-home computer-based instruction to many tens of millions of students whose schools have been closed due to the Covid 19 pandemic. This requires that the students have good access to the Web. Although the U.S. is a wealthy country, this crisis is showing that the country still has quite a long way to go in being able to provide high quality, at-home education to all its students .
Moreover, we know that good education is far more than just providing students with access to content, whether it be via print materials or through use of higher tech means. We understand the importance of the human element in teaching and learning. A very strong effort is being made to keep teachers in the loop during this Covid 19 pandemic.
For years I have participated in online meetings of small groups of people. I find such online meetings less satisfactory than face-to-face meetings, but I also realize they can be quite effective. The software facilitating such meetings has improved substantially in the past few years. Still, it takes practice to learn to be a comfortable participant in online meetings.
Web-oriented Classroom Activities
The Web is far different from the libraries created before the development of computers. For example, consider a type of computational math problem that students learn to solve in school, such as long division of multidigit decimal numbers. This can be a long and arduous learning process, especially if students are expected to gain speed and accuracy in the task. The Web provides access to free computer software that can carry out all of the types of calculations that students learn to do by hand in their precollege education. (You may be pleased to know that by-hand calculation of square roots has largely disappeared from the curriculum.)
Explore this ICT-based math capability with your students. You might start by asking your students about their access to calculators and computers at home, and how many of them make use of these tools in doing their math homework. What are their thoughts about being able to use a calculator when taking a math test? What are their thoughts about being able to use a computer when taking a math test?
You will likely want to expand this type of discussion. Outside of school settings, people routinely make use of open books, open computers with Internet connectivity, and so on as they deal with the problems and tasks of work, play, and the rest of their everyday lives. Suppose that all tests students were expected to take in schools were given in an open book, open computer, Web-connected computer mode?
This is a profound question. What knowledge and skills do we want students to gain so they can use them in an immediate, “off the top of the head” mode? Does passing the types of tests students are currently taking in closed book, closed computer mode actually ensure they are gaining the types of skills that will serve them well in their futures? What do you and your students think about this idea of open book, open computer exams? Note that many students are currently being tested in this type of environment as they are being schooled at home during the Covid pandemic.
The history of technology is the history of the invention of tools and techniques and is one of the categories of world history. Technology can refer to methods ranging from as simple as stone tools to the complex genetic engineering and information technology that has emerged since the 1980s. The term technology comes from the Greek word techne, meaning art and craft, and the word logos, meaning word and speech. It was first used to describe applied arts, but it is now used to described advancements and changes which affect the environment around us.
New knowledge has enabled people to create new things, and conversely, many scientific endeavors are made possible by technologies which assist humans in traveling to places they could not previously reach, and by scientific instruments by which we study nature in more detail than our natural senses allow (Wikipedia, 2020a, link). [Bold added for emphasis.]
Our current system of history education is quite weak in teaching students the history related to both reading/writing literacy and ICT literacy. Some of this history is taught in subject area classes that are required of all students. But, this is spotty, and from a historian’s point of view leaves much to be desired. I strongly recommend that all history teachers at the precollege level incorporate more content and assignments about the history of these literacy ideas into their curriculum.
Anderson, L.V. (10/5/2012). The heated archaeological debate about which hominids first started cooking. Slate. Retrieved 4/5/2020 from https://slate.com/technology/2012/10/who-invented-fire-when-did-people-start-cooking.html.
Blinder, A.S., & Quant, R.E. (December, 1997). The computer and the economy. The Atlantic. Retrieved 4/4/2020 from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/12/the-computer-and-the-economy/377019/.
Cameron, S. (2005). The economic benefits of increased literacy. UNESCO Digital Library. Retrieved 4/5/2020 from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000145957.
de Kunder, M. (4/2/2020). The size of the World Wide Web (The Internet). WorldWideWebSize.com. Retrieved 4/7/2020 from https://www.worldwidewebsize.com/.
Halloran, J. (12/8/1996). Symbolic counting tokens from the early Near East. Sumerian.org. Retrieved 4/3/2020 from http://www.sumerian.org/tokens.htm.
Historyextra (9/24/2018). Cuneiform: 6 facts about the world’s oldest writing system. HistoryExtra. Retrieved 3/31/2020 from https://www.historyextra.com/period/ancient-egypt/cuneiform-6-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-the-worlds-oldest-writing-system/.
Hosting Tribunal (2020). l How many websites are there? How many are active in 2020? Hosting Tribunal. Retrieved 4/11/2020 from https://hostingtribunal.com/blog/how-many-websites/.
Howard, J. (8/10/2017). What happened to Google’s effort to scan millions of university library books? EdSurge. Retrieved 4/4/2020 from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-08-10-what-happened-to-google-s-effort-to-scan-millions-of-university-library-books.
Luehrmann, A. (1972). Should the computer teach the student, or vice versa? Retrieved 4/11/2020 from https://citejournal.org/volume-2/issue-3-02/seminal-articles/should-the-computer-teach-the-student-or-vice-versa/.
O’Dea, S. (2/28/2020). Smartphone production volume worldwide from 2015 to 2021. Statista. Retrieved 3/31/2020 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/742517/global-smartphone-production-volume/.
Parr, B. (8/5/2010). Google: There are 129,864,880 books in the entire world. Mashable. Retrieved 4/11/2020 from https://mashable.com/2010/08/05/number-of-books-in-the-world/.
SCMO (2020). How many computers are there in the world? SCMO.net. Retrieved 4/4/2020 from https://www.scmo.net/faq/2019/8/9/how-many-compaters-is-there-in-the-world.
Thomsen, M. (3/27/2020). Internet Archives launches the National Emergency Library. DailyMail. Retrieved 3/31/2020 from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-8157393/Internet-Archive-makes-1-4-million-ebooks-available-free-coronavirus-shutdown.html.
Wikipedia (2020a). History of technology. Retrieved 4/7/2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_technology.
Wikipedia (2020b). Information and communications technology. Retrieved 4/7/2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_and_communications_technology.
Wikipedia (2020c). Library of Alexandria. Retrieved 4/11/2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria.
Wikipedia (2020d). Linguistics. Retrieved 4/6/2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistics.
Wikipedia (2020e). Literacy. Retrieved 4/6/2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy.
Wikipedia (2020f). Writing systems. Retrieved 4/6/2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writing_system.
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner). He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles.