Challenges of digitalisation: Answers from Italy
How do digitalisation and the internet affect our contemporary awareness of the past and the way students approach history? This is the challenge the Fondazione per la Scuola has accepted in 2012 when relaunching the concept of their students’ history competition project. The Fondazione is a member of the EUSTORY Network.
On 2-3 November 2017, the Fondazione per la Scuola organised a teacher training in Turin. Prior to their award ceremonies, they invited teachers and possible future tutors to the Villa Abegg for an initial workshop to prepare for the upcoming competition. The topic of the competition 2017/18 will highlight the history of World War One.
Aiming at fostering the digital literacy of students, the Italian history competition asks students to mainly search for their historical sources online. The competition is the opportunity for teachers to train their students to skillfully investigate (historical) topics and assess information they come across on the internet. These days, the project will shift the focus from High to Junior High School students, trying to reach their target group at an earlier age.
The workshop provided input as well as hands-on group work units both about content as well as about methodology of the upcoming competition, following the leading question of "How to face the hypermedium without fear" (Hypermedium because the internet is seen as aggregator, maybe even as archive of all other media). The workshop as well as the competition project support teachers and students to adapt the historian’s traditional toolbox for a critical investigation of their sources in the 21st century.
The internet is democratic in the way that it provides easy access to information and provides a public sphere to everybody. For two days, the teachers reflected how they can support their students to take advantage of the development, being able to classify, evaluate and properly assess their findings and not just stick to wikipedia or the hits on the first google page that might be of dubious origin, presenting biased or even false information.
Professor Giovanni De Luna from the University of Turin encouraged the teachers to make use of the large amount of digital source material that was made accessible by countless initiatives and institutions during the last four years due to the centenary of WWI. He emphasised the need for students to start their research with a clear question in mind to avoid being overwhelmed and lost amongst the mere number of possible objects available. Together with the teachers he discussed possible keys to the topic of WWI such as continuities and discontinuities, the gap between experienced and depicted history, notions of transitions from symmetric to asymmetric warfare or modifications of the concept of Europe before and after WWI.
Enrico Manera, a doctoral candidate in cultural studies and researcher at ISTORETO – Institute for the History of the Resistance and the Contemporary Italian Society, reflected how digitalisation and the internet deprived traditional gate-keepers like archivists, scientists or journalists and opens new battlefields in the war about interpretation of the world, easily reaching giant audiences. He was quite clear about the fact that the complex mixture of facts and myths about history that is available on the internet will soon lead to a new and different collective memory, especially as the internet has already become the major source of information at least among young people. To support the next generation to be able to differentiate between valid information, personal interpretations, biased propaganda and fake news, major effects in education are important.
Valentina Colombi, a specialist with a PhD in modern history, presented and evaluated twenty renowned webportals in Europe that provide source material about WWI. She especially recommended investigating the pathway the sources took before being included into the different portals when interpreting the information provided. Further inputs were given on photographs, images and on narrations of WWI presented in different video games as possible sources for investigation, the latter highlighted by the organiser of the competition project, Dr. Renato Roda.
On the second day, the teachers conducted small research tasks during a supervised workshop activity themselves. They tried out the provided checklists with step-by-step guidance through the process of deconstructing digital information and shared experiences and plans how to transfer the content provided into their classrooms.
The award ceremony on 3 November provided a festive stage for the best student’s results from the last competition round. After having focused on possible traps that come with the digital age, the winning projects impressively highlighted the chances of digitalisation for schools and education, e.g. by showcasing the students’ results in a virtual museum set up by the students.