By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Yes or no:
Was Argentine populist Juan Perón a fascist?
Was the 1910 Mexican Revolution a Communist revolution?
Did the CIA try to assassinate Fidel Castro?
These questions are samples from an innovative class assignment given by Dr. Quinn Dauer, associate professor of history and international studies.
The assignment challenges students to deconstruct commonly-held views that are reinforced online, building informational literacy skills long the way.
Informational literacy is a term usually applied to skills used to separate fact from fiction in our era of deepfakes, social media manipulation and conspiracy theories online, where falsehoods are created and circulated, often with malicious intent.
In Dauer’s hands, informational literacy becomes a skill to reach informed conclusions about the past that have implications for attitudes and actions in the present.
Dauer’s innovation involves building digital literacy in the study of history.
His timing couldn’t be better. During the pandemic, schools closed and learning took place online. Attention largely focused on the logistics, the ability of teachers to replicate the classroom experience in the virtual space, and the capacity of students to combat Zoom fatigue.
For Dauer, the shift to online teaching and learning demonstrated the relevance of the subject matter he had been working on for several years, and it was a chance to move forward with the central concern of that work.
“Asynchronous online courses provide an opportunity to develop and sharpen student’s digital competencies through digital literacy and digital history (or digital humanities) assignments,” Dauer said.
In his course, HIST-F100 Issues in Latin American History, students choose and develop a topic and question about misinformation on the internet pertaining to the region, then research and write a wiki entry with an answer to the question based on appropriate source materials.
“Misinformation about Latin America and its history pervades the internet and often appears in student work and class discussion,” Dauer said.
The assignment hews against this trend by challenging students to identify and assess misinformation by applying historical thinking and digital skills.
In this effort, Dauer assigns the Digital Polarization Initiative (DigiPo) to more directly address misconceptions of Latin America and meet the course objectives.
A project of The American Democracy Project (ADP), DigiPo is a wiki where students can evaluate digital information and media, such as online news stories, memes, and images, and then add their own analyses to the conversation, according to the ADP website.
“Students develop key digital and information literacy skills, such as understanding the context for information they find on the Web and the process of creating information on the Web,” the ADP states.
Dauer credits the digital literacy assignment with enhancing student learning in several ways. Students learn the basic tools and search strategies available to them to fact-check information online, and they become more critical consumers of information circulating online. More specifically, they are able to examine and dispel misinformation about Latin America. They are able to present their work for class discussion, enhancing the learning experience for all.
Dauer has documented his conclusions through formative and summative assessments for student learning for the last three times he has taught F100. His findings are in line with those of the Stanford History Education Group, a leading project in the digital literacy movement. That group found that “students at a primary, secondary, and post-secondary level were unable to correctly discern reliable from unreliable sources and fact from misinformation.”
Dauer’s students move from there to critical competence in the differentiation of sources, the recognition of bias and the understanding of context.
“Before this assignment, I worried that students would confirm misconceptions or inaccurate information,” Dauer wrote in a 2019 article published in Perspectives on History, the journal of the American Historical Association (AHA). “Instead, students understood Latin America in a much richer way by recognizing the diversity within the region, rectifying stereotypes, correcting misinformation, and complicating simplistic narratives, especially those found online.”
Far from obsolete
Dauer’s approach is anchored in his personal experience, and teaching philosophy.
As an undergraduate, he was indebted to mentors who invested time and energy in helping him develop the tools to succeed in history.
As a graduate student in Miami, he was exposed to the vitality and bewildering diversity of the Latin American diaspora.
The first experience gave him an appreciation for rigorous inquiry, the second fed his love and respect for the cultures and people of Latin America.
Both involved tangible lived reality. In many ways, his current research and teaching is an effort to invite students into that dimension, tipping the scales toward reality and the passion of discovery.
“The antidote to this information literacy crisis is historical thinking skills, making history and history courses far from being obsolete due to Google and Wikipedia,” Dauer has written. “Instead of simply regurgitating names, dates, and factual information, historical thinking skills are central to students being able to assess and discern reliable information, especially in a digital environment.”
This aligns with his teaching philosophy, which besides introducing students to the major problems, issues, and cultures in Latin American and world history also seeks to employ active learning strategies such as discussions, debates, role-playing games and simulations alongside research papers and presentations.
These elements combine to make history more real., and to make the study of history more experiential, less vulnerable to the distortions of the virtual space.
The past is present
Country music legend Merle Haggard once sang, “My past is present.” He was referring to an old flame walking into a bar where he was enjoying a drink, but the title could be the soundtrack for the past several years, during which American governmental, economic and social institutions were subjected to critical scrutiny and even assault, based on historical narratives.
Dauer’s emphasis on digital literacy gives students the analytical tools to scrutinize historical claims underpinning contemporary movements, so that when the past is present, it is at least accurate.
To do this well requires a command of both historical veracity and current tech. It turns out that, for Dauer, the willingness to embrace new tools like DigiPo is the key to a deeper understanding of the ways in which the past and present relate to one another.
“Innovation plays a central role in my teaching,” Dauer said. “It helps to make history relevant to new trends and issues in the ever-changing and increasingly interconnected–i.e., globalized–world in which we live.”
That is also a world in which the conquest of Mexico by Spain is no longer attributed to the inherent military or religious or ethnic superiority of the conquistadors, but understood in the context of disease and divisions among the Aztecs’ rivals. A world in which caravans of migrants are not perceived as an unprovoked invasion but understood as both a direct and indirect result of U.S. economic and foreign policies in Central America. A world in which Latin America is not viewed as a monolithic bloc peopled by the “other,” but as home to a complex, contradictory, diverse and fascinating mix of peoples whose history and destiny are irrevocably intertwined with those of its neighbors to the north.
Identifying and dispelling biased historical narratives is fundamental to participating constructively and meaningfully in the world, according to Dauer.
“Digital literacy is central to civic engagement and a democratic society,” Dauer said.