Reconsidering the Digital Historian Project

In 2014, the Digital Historian Project began as a partnership in Experiential Learning between 3 secondary schools in Dufferin County (the Upper Grand DSB) and the Duffern County Museum and Archives (DCMA). The goal was to offer a 4-Credit semester-long intensive program taught in situ at the Museum to senior students, in which curriculum would be delivered by a History & Math ‘team-teaching’ model. The lessons would integrate numeracy and historical thinking skills, and focus on rich archival research using a digital platform. Students were recruited from Grade 10, and take the DHP in their Grade 11 Year. In 2015, the DHP was awarded the Government of Canada History Award, and also received an  ‘exemplary program’ designation from the Ontario Ministry of Education. The DHP was cancelled by the UGDSB for 2018-2019. Today ActiveHistory.ca runs two letters from program graduates about the project’s influence.

By Riley Tilson

I was finishing my second year as a double major in History and Politics at Queen’s University, when one of my profs said: “History is all about perspective. You have to change how you look at the world to understand it.” I found familiarity in this statement, because it was an idea that had been sparked inside me not too long ago, when I participated in the Digital Historian Project in its pilot year in 2015.

In the program, I found myself with sixteen other students from three local high schools in Dufferin County. We were a ragtag bunch who had been selected to participate in a four credit program that was designed to mesh Canadian History, Indigenous Studies, Data Management, and independent projects powered by research at our local museum, the Dufferin County Museum and Archives. You’d think that seventeen kids in Grade 11 wouldn’t be very interested in taking an in depth look at Canadian History, especially with the fact that this innovative program had the possibility of many hiccups in its first year. But it surprised us all and, instead, left us with a better understanding of our country, and the county we call home.

The DHP was the first time I was encouraged to look at our history critically. Unlike previous history classes, history was no longer a list of dates and facts. The DHP transformed it into so much more. In the DHP we were encouraged to look at how history was a set of contingent events, where the past repeats itself daily. We examined the “big” and “little” picture (as we called it), examining how national events affected local histories in Dufferin County.

Research on local veterans from the First World War made the biggest impact on me. I was astounded by how researching their lives created a personal connection to the past.

The DHP allowed me to research the stories of two young veterans from Dufferin County. It took me on a long journey from the Archives of the Dufferin County Museum all the way to military cemeteries in the French countryside.

I cannot begin to describe the emotions I felt on our Europe tour. I’ll never forget the moment when our group visited Tyne Cot Cemetery. We were a group of sixteen-year-olds sitting in absolute silence, each of us having personal connections through our researched veterans from the World Wars, understanding that these men and women who had sacrificed so much, were not unlike ourselves. Through the DHP, we were provided with a personal connection to history. It’s simply something you never forget for the rest of your life.

In a program like the DHP, you gain an understanding from intense research projects, class discussion, and taking part in a curriculum that encourages students to take a step outside standard learning. You enter a world where learning is interactive, it’s forward-thinking, and it encourages students to learn at a level that suits their needs.

Sometimes our classes didn’t have a strict structure, something I loved because we were able to learn simply by having a discussion in the classroom, or by taking the day as it came, where lessons sometimes meshed together.

I can remember, for example, having our lessons on Early Canadian History and Indigenous Studies at the same time, so we would gain multiple perspectives in our studies. In addition, we were given the opportunity to work independently on projects once a day, and there was always a teacher around to answer questions on all four of our courses.

The DHP single-handedly prepared me for my post-secondary education. I did not find myself struggling as much as some of my friends because I had already studied in an environment where independent learning met with class discussion. The workload was something to which I had already become adjusted.

No professor or TA is going to hold your hand in university. They won’t look at your thesis and tell you if it’s right or wrong. In university, you have to become dependent on self-learning, and you have to develop ideas on your own. Programs like the DHP are so successful in preparing students for university because they give a taste of postsecondary study by gathering students who want to learn in an interactive setting that requires critical thinking and new ideas.   

I would love to see programs like the DHP mounted across Canada. I know that in the Ontario education system, there is a strong emphasis on succeeding in math and science. Often students such as myself, with a preference for the arts, were forced to endure science and math classes that were isolated from the arts.  Programs like the DHP are so innovative because they encourage students to follow their passions and draw connections between the arts, math and sciences.  

The DHP was a program unique to Dufferin County and the Upper Grand District School Board. It prepares students for university and fosters a better understanding of our national and local histories.

The DHP really could be the future of learning in Ontario (or even Canada). It just has to be given a fighting chance. At the end of the day, Canadian youth deserve to have an education better than what went before. From a student’s perspective, the DHP marked an important innovation in the history classroom. 

I strongly encourage the UGDSB to reconsider the cancellation.

Riley Tilson is in her third year of a Double Major in History and Politics at Queens University. She is a graduate of Orangeville District Secondary School and took part in the inaugural DHP program in 2014.

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