Technology and Social Studies: An Introduction

Charles S. White
In some ways, technology in social studies education has changed little since I first became involved with educational technology in the early 1980s. Software companies continue to produce drill-and-practice programs, tutorials, and simulations. New titles appear daily, yet old standards like Oregon Trail (MECC) and its many progeny still enjoy popularity in schools and in homes. General tools applications including word processors, databases, and spreadsheets abound. One can find a wide range of curriculum-specific tools, such as time line generators and data graphing tools, in software catalogs. Within and beyond this apparent continuity, however, dramatic changes in technology have already found their way into many schools. The articles in this special section of Social Education reflect some of these changes.
Even among what we might call the traditional computer applications of drill, tutorial, and simulation, more powerful computers and more sophisticated programming have substantially improved the visual appeal (and seduction) of software. Memory and processor-intensive programs with realistic graphics attract and hold the attention of a new generation of young computer users, whose expectations for such realism have grown exponentially over the years. The development and dissemination of CD-ROM technology, with its ability to store large volumes of data (essential for graphic information), is partly responsible for this change.

The power of today's technology to capture, manipulate, and transmit visual information is not simply the result of aimless invention, but in many ways reflects what we have become as a society - that is, a visual society. This would explain in part the explosion of what Martorella refers to as "visual technologies" in both the home and school environment.1 The gateway for becoming connected to this new world is the Internet and its hypermedia environment, the World Wide Web (WWW). You can get a hint of the transformation in communication technology just by noting how many times a day you see or hear a web address given-something like the History Channel's website:

The origins of the Internet and its evolution into a communication tool for students and teachers are described in Joe Braun's article in this issue. Gradually, the Internet is coming to support a wide range of on-line learning communities, groups of people who share information and ideas on particular themes or topics.2 The World Wide Web serves as a gateway to virtually limitless amounts of information. With the increasingly powerful search tools and browsers described in Braun's article, students and teachers are put in touch with resources around the world (see the website list in the Teacher Pullout).

Two-way videoconferencing is another manifestation of the modern visual society. Ed Sembor's article describes an application of visual technology in a program designed to foster racial and ethnic understanding between two Connecticut communities. The appeal in this case was not for vivid visual effects; rather, it was for the ability to bring into visual contact children from different parts of the state who would not otherwise have met and had a chance to develop understanding. Getting connected to distant people, places, and resources is the second great explosion of technology in recent years.

There is, of course, a downside to the modern explosion in communications, as many are beginning to recognize. For every worthwhile site on the Internet, there are dozens that cater to unsavory tastes, as Braun points out in his article. Others are simply filled with out of date, unreliable, and inaccurate information. Separating the wheat from the chaff is a time-consuming effort, although a cottage industry has grown up in the form of websites describing other websites, created by individuals who do the electronic leg work to find quality resources.

The increasing complexity and variety of technology applications has created a further challenge for social studies: how to conduct systematic evaluations of products. Indeed, the term "product" is too narrow; perhaps one might use the term "environments." National Council for the Social Studies published guidelines for software evaluation in 1984 and, while many of the evaluation criteria are still relevant today, the document is somewhat outdated. In their article, Steve Rose and Phyllis Maxey Fernlund have begun to grapple with the issue of evaluation in today's technological milieu. They raise some preliminary questions aimed at gaining a more secure foothold in the evaluation of electronic learning environments, including many that combine multiple technologies. They do so, in part, by using the NCSS Curriculum Standards as a major source of evaluative criteria.

In their article on the Internet Ten, Clark Johnson and Jack Rector make specific recommendations about how to use the NCSS Standards as a guide in choosing quality sites for teaching social studies. The authors tie their website selections to how well each can help students fulfill NCSS performance expectations in their study of history and the contemporary world.

Some teachers meanwhile are using websites to take their students on electronic field trips. Elizabeth Wilson describes an Internet-based electronic field trip to Philadelphia that focuses on the city's importance during the Revolutionary period. This article leads teachers through a process which students can then follow, hopefully preparing them to venture the Internet alone, and even create similar field trips for other students. There is great potential for students to create their own websites, perhaps focusing on community history.3 With the addition of live video transmission, either by satellite or through the Internet (using a tool like CUSeeMe), the potential for distance learning field trips seems virtually unlimited.4

Grounding evaluation of the new electronic learning environments on the NCSS Standards underscores the point that the importance of technology in social studies classrooms depends on its ability to support and amplify powerful teaching and learning of content and skills. This is as true now as it was when I flipped the switch on my Apple II+ for the first time. Technology is only a means to an end. Shirley Engle reminded us a dozen years ago of the comment by Albert Einstein that, for the first time in history, there is a surplus of means over ends.5 Technology is of limited usefulness in helping us decide on what those ends should be.

1. Peter H. Martorella, ed., Interactive Technologies and the Social Studies: Emerging Issues and Applications (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).
2. Lynn A. Fontana, "Online Learning Communities," in Martorella.
3. Glen Bull, Gina Bull, and David Schumaker, "Community Histories," Learning and Leading With Technology 23, 7 (1996): 45-48.
4. Martorella, 59-60, 65.
5. Shirley H. Engle, "A Social Studies Imperative," Social Education 49, 4 (1985): 264-265.

Charles S. White is Associate Professor in the School of Education at Boston University and editor of Social Education's Instructional Technology column.