The Infusion of Digital Humanities in the Secondary Education Classroom: The Possibilities and the Concerns

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The Possibilities

Mathew Gold and Lauren Klein have recently made the case that Digital Humanities is an active and quickly growing field of research. However, their assessment is based on observation of tertiary education. It is not until DH makes its mark on secondary education that this claim can be true. By training secondary school teachers as also digital humanities scholars ensures the future of the archive as a collective cultural memory and the internet as an archive and repository of human knowledge. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been challenged to attract students in K through grade 12 to become proficient in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) through grants. They have teamed together with the Department of Education to create new approaches for students to learn STEM opportunities that few students, otherwise, would have seen as a future career. By combining STEM skills with humanistic material, i.e. literary texts, students can find new entry points for learning coding, macroanalysis, computation, and fabrication.

This is especially true for those who come from Title I schools, a designation given to schools in which a high number of students are from low-income families. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), women, minorities, and persons with disabilities are the least represented groups holding positions in STEM fields. In an attempt to balance the playing field, there are a number of opportunities to take advantage of NEH-funded science-humanities projects. These grants put STEM into dialogue with digital humanities initiatives. For example, in such Title I areas, access to free books or ebooks for the classroom help ensure that all students meet challenging state academic standards.  Introducing the world of digital humanities to secondary education students is not greatly dissimilar to teaching a 101 level introductory undergraduate course on digital humanities. It will uncover the general pattern of a book production and literary consumption over stretches of time such as the Harry Potter or the Hunger Games series, to the history of canonized books such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. At the practical level, it also introduces other DH methods including working closely with librarians to examine books that are archived. Collaborating with the school librarian also helps students gain access to computers that are housed in the library versus in the classroom. At the secondary education level, such STEM students who qualify to study subjects in advanced placement (AP) programs such as AP Language and Composition are among the best candidates to which to teach digital humanities to. An example of a collaborative ebook archive project is Frankenstein, accessible for free through Project Gutenberg.

Arizona State University has taken advantage of this idea with The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. Through the site’s Transmedia Museum, it integrates digital and hands-on activities to inspire deeper conversations about scientific and technological creativity and social responsibility. This includes a call for writers to submit original and true stories to Creative Nonfiction’s magazine. It also highlights ASU professor David Guston’s new annotated edition of Frankenstein which includes the 1818 version of the manuscript combined with leading scholars who explore the social and scientific creativity behind the novel.  

The Concerns

In the public education secondary high school classroom today, electronic devices for academic advancement is the assumptive norm, whether it be through the implementation of Smartboards, personal computers, or a curriculum enhanced by the use of cell phones for research and communication. In truth, a classroom today without computerized technology would likely be non-existent or part of an environment lacking in resources, awareness, or access to necessary means of execution.

One glaring issue with the use of technology in public academic environments, specifically with the infusion of digital humanities as part of the core curriculum standard, involves those classrooms in rural and low-income communities that fail to receive the necessary resources to maintain equitable training and long-term career opportunities for students. Ultimately, graduates from these schools will suffer, both financially and psychologically, as they discover that their digital acumen lags behind those pupils who both at home and at the institutions they attended had easy access to technical tools. In turn, lower-income students will be equipped with skills that allow them far fewer employment prospects and corresponding salaries that prevent them from acquiring even middle-class economic status.

While the benefits of incorporating modernized digital instruction in lower-income and rural area classrooms supersede those of maintaining book-paper-pen tradition, the digitization of public school curriculum must become a reality for all schools. Without this balance, those students living in economically-disadvantaged areas will continue to fall behind while middle and high-income bracket schools will use their elevated tax revenues to purchase those resources necessary to keep students prepared and competitive. As a result, both the possibilities for long-term career success and resulting socioeconomic status in the graduates of low-income public institutions will continue to pale in comparison to their economically-advantaged peers.

To underestimate the importance of incorporating up-to-date technology in the high school classroom would be both short-sighted and futile, as the digitization of all written texts, both STEM-based and otherwise, is a certainty. Just as the number of paper-based texts in the post-high school academic environment continues to decrease exponentially, so must be the case in the secondary education setting. And just as the traditional chalkboard had to make way for the dry-erase whiteboard, the textbook will need to do the same for the digital archive. Like it or not this is simply the reality.