I recently read Keith Barton’s 2005 article, “Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths” for about the upteenth time. It’s a great article that talks about the misconceptions many teachers have about using primary source documents with their students. The belief many teachers have, especially those with little experience with primary sources themselves, is that students will learn more from reading/analyzing primary sources directly than they will from secondary sources. These teachers assign primary sources as reading assignments as if they were chapters from a history textbook. This is almost always confusing to students, and they rarely make the connections between documents that expert historians do. This has less to do with the documents or the students and more to do with the way expert historians approach primary sources. In order to make sense of primary source documents, historians employ certain strategies that help them contextualize the source and see where it fits with other sources written about similar events at around the same period in time. OK, make a mental note: historians, reading primary source documents, strategies.
Earlier today, Willy from edfoc.us referenced an article by Mark Bauerlein, in which he claims online reading is a literacy of a lesser kind. His premise is that people, especially students who have gorged themselves on media since they were able to sit upright, don’t really read online text. They skim, click and scroll past vast expanses of text, mining out the words they want to see (my paraphrase). The whole argument Mr. Bauerline poses is reminiscent of Marhall McLuhan, who believed that different media would embed themselves with the message, affecting the way our brains would perceive the message. If this perspective were to be taken to the extreme, one could argue that it doesn’t matter what a person reads online — a classic poem, a love letter, a death threat, sports scores, War and Peace — because the end result will be scanning, clicking and scrolling. A lesser kind of literacy. If people follow this line of logic — and trust me, school adminstrators have been known to take it in hook, line and sinker — then it’s no wonder there is such a knee-jerk reaction to digital technologies.
In Mr. Bauerlein’s defense, I have taught online classes for several years, and I know firsthand that many students don’t read the course documents that could very well mean the difference between passing my class and failing it. These documents are online, and although I urge my students to print them off and read them carefully, I know they skim, click and scroll. Then they argue with me that I was unclear about the due date for a paper they failed to turn in on time. So, yes, online reading can be a problem, but would these students have studied the syllabus any closer had I handed them a printed copy? Probably not.
This brings me back to the problems associated with giving students historical documents. Regardless, of the potential to do more harm than good, there can be tremendous payoffs for student learning if teachers structure the activity appropriately and give their students strategies for decoding these documents. Strategies such as SOAPS, APPARTS and SCIM-C are all designed to give students a heuristic for analyzing primary sources. The same is true of reading instruction, where students are taught strategies for comprehending what they read. Teachers don’t give first graders a pile of books, then complain that they don’t know how to read, and this shouldn’t happen with online text either.
What Willy addresses in his post is that new types of media — digital text, in this case — require different, and sometimes new, strategies for avoiding the pitfalls they introduce into the learning environment. Rather than demonize digital text, we should see it as a challenge that requires new ways of thinking about the problem. We don’t approach other content areas without strategies for navigating through them, and online reading should be no different. Whether it’s using new tools, employing new strategies or simply pointing out the pitfalls, online reading is here to stay and should be approached proactively.