7. Prospects for the future
We may yet be at an early stage of this transformation but IT has already changed significantly the way historians engage in their practice. Access to records is being made more rapid and predictable, though this has its costs if it precludes intelligent and inspired browsing of sources. Information is now stored in media which facilitate easier access, collection, presentation and analysis. Once gathered, this information can be disseminated more quickly, more effectively and, hopefully, at least as thoughtfully, as was always the case. Almost every venue where history is presented will probably be transformed by these developments.
The world of publishing is changing fast. Resources in electronic form are blossoming. Traditional publications now not only compete with their electronic counterparts but often they are translated into that medium as a matter of course. Learned journals now materialise on the web more quickly than they appear on the shelves of the library. Ephemera, including local history newsletters and the publications of special interest groups, such as mining and railway history, now have their own electronic bulletin boards. In this deluge we are faced with the problem of determining the value of this copious bounty.
Insistence on the submission of word processed assignments is but a small step on the route to the future. Evidence of a real acceptance of the new technology will come when students are routinely offered the option to submit multi-media presentations. Such a stipulation would probably encourage students to produce not only carefully constructed assignments but also more thoughtful and interesting history.
Three aspects here strike me as sufficiently important to warrant a little attention; the unreasonableness of asking students to produce history using modern IT; the problems of assessing this type of assignment; and, what would this look like? Just what is this all about?
First, for those unfamiliar with the technology this may sound daunting, an impossible demand to make of students. However, this is not so. The cohort of children currently attending secondary school received instruction in compulsory IT classes where they are taught how they can creatively use these media. Historians teaching in universities would be asking students to do no more than use competently those skills which they will have acquired before they attended college.
The second and the third points can be taken together. A POWERPOINT demonstration, the hotly contested Bristol election of 1774, is provided on this CD as an illustrative example. POWERPOINT is the presentation tool Microsoft provide as a component of its OFFICE suite of applications; other software companies have produced similar applications, CorelSHOW! for example. In passing, it can be pointed out that this technology shares much with webpage design applications and these modes of presentation are converging so that they now share similar structures, commands and features. In other words, in this field, acquired skills are transferable skills.
Hotly contested', the example provided on the CD is a simple construct. It is designed to show some of the features and attributes of this type of presentation tool. 'Hotly contested' can be copied to a harddisk and taken apart, section by section, if not byte by byte. If you have never used this type of software, but have POWERPOINT on your PC, you now have an opportunity to experiment.
As ever, the best way to learn is to do. Once you have run through this demonstration you can easily edit it to alter the text, change the order in which the slides appear, introduce new slides, include different graphics and so on. As an exercise, you could even change it to demonstrate features of the recent Presidential election in the United States, which demonstrated many similar features as it also staggered to its final result.
And, I think, if you have examined 'Hotly contested' in the right spirit you will have answered the second question: 'How can this type of assignment be assessed'; in scrutinizing this example, you will already have assessed it critically. The conventions applied in marking a presentation may differ in detail from those which relate to assessment of an essay but the essentials remain: does it use appropriate historical material? are visual aids used to good effect? is it the producer of a literate student (or group of students)? is it the product of a numerate student (or group of students)?; are the citations accurate, comprehensive and honest? is the analysis perceptive? is the analysis innovative? and so on.
Having confronted the question of assessment, albeit in a cursary, didactic and provisional way, we can all move on to ask our students to show us what they can do with these resources and this technology.
While adoption of this strategy would not dilute the traditional justifications rehearsed by historians seeking to encourage those interested in the study of history, the acquisition of modern, technical but highly relevant IT skills would do nothing to harm the employment prospects of history students. Certainly, in universities, where the resource base is much richer, undergraduates could only benefit from the provision of a IT-conscious history curriculum.
In reality these changes will be constrained only by scarce and limited resources. Access to hardware and software will be important but it should not be forgotten that the real determinant here is the supply of educators who are trained, enthusiastic and motivated. In an age of performance indicators efforts will be made to measure the inputs, the usage of these resources and there may even be attempts to gauge quantitatively the outputs achieved. However, in this context, the real test of today's historians will be the effectiveness with which their students seize the opportunities offered by the new technology.