In Search of Digital Literacy in Canadian History Programs

By Stacey Devlin

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via

During the second half of my MA, my colleagues and I were tasked with preparing an exhibit about early-twentieth-century medicine. Not having a background in medical history, I began by downloading archived medical periodicals from Early Canadiana Online. I reasoned that if I could identify important conversations of the profession during the period of interest, I would have clear leads for exhibit content. What were considered standard practices? What were the pressing issues or the latest controversies? Unfortunately, I wasn’t at liberty to read the thousands of pages I had downloaded, let alone to keep an ongoing record of topics or word usage. During the previous semester, however, I had taken courses on digital history and digital research methods. After using Voyant Tools to generate a list of frequently used words in my periodicals, I put together a program to extract instances of these key words and save them in new documents for review. My processing of the periodicals ended there, but even this simple operation gave me useful direction for continued research.

In the two years since then, I’ve continued to use a variety of technologies in my work. My university training in digital history (and the willingness to embrace new technologies in general) has been helpful in finding employment opportunities outside the academy. I incorporate digital tools into my workflow because they’re illuminating, time-saving, and even fun. However, digital literacy was not a priority during most of my university career. Similarly, I have few peers that would consider themselves digital historians, despite the fact that research is routinely conducted online and the digital humanities are a frequent topic of discussion within the discipline.

It’s no secret that today’s historians have access to a wide range of technologies for research, analysis, and communication. However, the impact of digital technology on university history programs is not clear. In 2011, Tom Peace wrote for Active History urging history departments to include more instruction on digital methods. He argued that, with technology becoming increasingly important to the work of historians, students needed deliberate training to critically engage with it. Around the same time, Ian Milligan published about the need for history students to be trained in digital literacy through “dramatic changes to history undergraduate curriculums,” as well as the use of programming as a solution to the problem of too much information. While there are many strong advocates for digital history, I found it interesting that these pieces from five years ago discussed digital literacy as not only helpful or novel, but necessary to conducting historical research today. We have greater access to data and technology than ever before, but are aspiring historians being trained to understand and use it?

Inspired by Krista McCracken’s examination of archival instruction at English-speaking Canadian universities, I embarked on a similar investigation focusing on digital history. I wanted to know if exposure to digital history throughout Canada was similar to my own experience, and I wanted to know if, as Tom Peace, Ian Milligan, and others had hoped, digital literacy was becoming a recurring component in Canadian postsecondary history classes.

In an attempt to understand the most recent state of events, I searched the most current Fall and Winter course offerings I could find. I noted courses that were listed or cross-listed as history courses, or otherwise required for the completion of a history or public history program. In addition to digital history courses, I considered historical methods courses which included a digital component. (However, there may be courses which do encourage digital literacy but were not included in my survey because the available course information did not mention this. If you are aware of a course or program that I missed, please contact me or leave a comment and I’ll make updates accordingly.) I did not include learning opportunities outside of university degree programs (notably, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute).

My results showed that universities varied not only in the number of digital history-related courses offered, but also in the range of topics covered as well as the timing within a program when digital literacy is introduced. Out of 56 universities considered, 18 offered digital literacy training (through a single course, multiple courses, or a degree program). Only seven of these 18 universities offered more than two digital history courses. Of 39 courses identified, 15 were graduate-level, while over half of the undergraduate-level courses were upper-year. Of the three digital history-related programs identified in this investigation, two were Master’s-level and one was Doctoral. Internet sources and online exhibits/publishing were the most frequently covered topics in the courses, followed by theory, spatial analysis/HGIS, and text analysis.

Will tomorrow’s historians be trained to create compelling visualizations of their data? Graph representing the social network of League of Nations personnel, published by Martin Grandjean via Wikimedia Commons.

Will tomorrow’s historians be trained to create compelling visualizations of their data? Graph representing the social network of League of Nations personnel, published by Martin Grandjean via Wikimedia Commons.

These results suggest that many history students don’t encounter formal training in digital history during their studies. If they do, it’s most likely to happen in the latter half of their education, with an emphasis on finding internet sources and presenting research online.

Coincidentally, last week Sean Kheraj also published an Active History post about the state of digital history, describing his approach to teaching digital history as well as offering insights on the state of digital history instruction in Canada. His post offers a helpful list of links to Canadian digital history courses as well. He, too, found that “the landscape of digital history teaching in Canada is uneven” and suggested that the expertise of individual faculty members plays a large role in how, or if, digital history is taught.

Interestingly, however, pedagogical approaches to digital literacy seem to share similarities across the country. In the three digital-heavy courses I took during my MA, each class session was typically devoted to a single topic, with time divided between discussion of the topic and experimentation with applicable tools or techniques. Evaluation was based on reflections, projects, and active engagement. This “whirlwind tour” approach was indicative of student experiences throughout Canada. Many of the courses identified in my survey favoured active learning, a generous number of topics covered, and no final essays or exams.  In fact, this is the very same approach that Sean Kheraj describes for his upcoming digital history class at York University.

My survey’s findings can be understood partly through the problem of definition for both digital history specifically and the digital humanities writ large. Who is a digital historian? Which technologies are the most important for students to become familiar with? How should students be trained when technology changes so quickly? (Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader provides a collection of noteworthy essays on this theme of defining digital humanities and/or humanities computing.) Given this situation, perhaps it should come as no surprise that when digital history courses do appear in history programs, they tend towards a broad approach.

Having undertaken this survey, I continue to wonder about how digital history is embraced by students and whether currently offered courses adequately prepare them to use digital skills in their future careers. The “whirlwind tour” survey courses are helpful introductions to digital history, but they have their limitations. Students can only acquire a basic overview of topics covered in the course when each one receives a single class session (or half a session). Projects help to mitigate this by offering the chance to explore a topic in more depth. It has been my experience, however, that many of the tools learned in digital history survey courses are set aside never to be picked up again. The technical skills that I use today include foundational learning from my university education, but they consist almost exclusively of skills that I pursued more than once while at university (and plenty of additional practice was still needed after graduation).

Instructors also have the challenge of ensuring that digital history is not portrayed as somehow isolated from the rest of the discipline. Today’s students would benefit from guidance on how to integrate digital endeavours with other forms of research and/or communication. Furthermore, aspiring historians should participate in critical conversations about not only the benefits, but also the limitations and assumptions inherent to computer-based research. By giving students a more concrete footing in digital literacy, postsecondary history programs can demonstrate the usefulness of technology in a more impactful way and better equip graduates to adapt technology to their specific needs.

That being said, no student can be expected to adopt every tool made available to them. We won’t all be programmers or social network analysts any more than we’ll all be environmental or military historians. One of the most valuable takeaways from my digital history training, beyond the acquisition of particular skills, was a sort of “hacker mentality” – an attitude that gave me permission to experiment and find alternative ways of researching and interpreting the past (or new ways to simply save time). If we can have life hacks, beauty hacks, and IKEA hacks, why not history hacks? I may never program a robot again, but doing so developed creative problem-solving abilities which have proved invaluable as a public historian and consultant. It’s exciting to overcome a challenge or succeed in doing something new. That frame of mind can motivate the aspiring historian to adapt to new possibilities or situations irrespective of the specific technologies involved.

Despite the ever-growing importance of digital technology to historical research, digital literacy is still by no means a standard component of current history programs in Canada. Today’s aspiring historians would be well served by increased discussion of digital technologies in history courses, more critical conversations and practical exercises around technology, opportunities for use of digital technologies within and beyond the survey course experience, and the encouragement of a paradigm that allows for creativity and innovation in research.

Stacey Devlin is a Research Associate with Know History Inc. in Ottawa, Ontario, where she provides historical research services and GIS support. She is also a freelance consultant for historical projects. Stacey holds an M.A. in Public History from Western University.


2 thoughts on “In Search of Digital Literacy in Canadian History Programs

  1. Greg Bak

    Interesting post, Stacey. Read alongside Sean’s post, we are starting to get a better idea of how common digital history courses are, their pedagogical strategies and their intended objectives.

    In addition to considering digital literacy in history, we also need to think about digital historical literacy – the fact that all digital systems and tools are themselves historically and culturally contingent. Ian Milligan’s piece on OCR in newspaper databases is an excellent start to this, but the point needs to be generalized farther. We need histories that explore the ways that not just applications and operating systems, but the entire hardware and software stack, and the digital objects that people create with these technologies, are imbued with historically and culturally specific characteristics and assumptions.

  2. Sean Kheraj


    I’m glad to see this discussion continue. You correctly point out the way that digital history courses have developed some common characteristics. My course will borrow the general approach of a whirlwind survey with discussion and practical exercises. I’m quite drawn to this approach and I’m curious to see how it works with my own students in the coming academic year.

    We often offer this survey approach, however, to students at the senior level. I think there is the possibility of offering such a course at the 3000-level (third year) and then offering more specific courses at the 4000-level (fourth year). For instance, we could start to offer general digital history coures to third-year students (such as the one Jim Clifford teaches at University of Saskatchewan) and then offer specific courses on text mining, HGIS, programming, and digital public history at the fourth year. This is something I will be thinking about as we launch our digital history course.

    Finally, your point concerning the integration of digital history skills into all history courses is important. Peace and Milligan (and probably Clifford) have also made this point. In the comments on my post from last week, a number of comments indicated that some instructors are already integrating digital history into their existing courses. I look forward to seeing more of this in the future.

    The real question about digital history teaching at universities in Canada is this: Why are so many Active History editors involved in teaching digital history and pressing for more digital history in post-secondary history curriculum? Conspiracy?

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