Aashique Ahmed Iqbal
History teachers in the 21st century will face unprecedented new challenges posed by technologies making their way into the classroom. Two technologies are changing the way in which students and teachers engage with history; the smartphone and Artificial Intelligence chatbots. Both pose substantial and imminent challenges to teachers that will have to be negotiated with care to ensure the best learning outcomes. Otherwise history teachers are likely to find themselves dangerously marginalized in a technical landscape. In this essay, I will provide a brief overview of the challenges posed by smartphones and Artificial Intelligence chatbots before discussing some of the ways in which these might be navigated.
The first two decades of the 21st century were characterized by way of technological change that differentiated the history classroom from its 20th century counterpart. Teachers relied increasingly on new methods of presenting lectures such as PowerPoint and some schools adopted Learning Management Software such as Canvas. A time travelling teacher from the 1980s would have found the classroom of the 2010s eminently manageable. Technology was firmly on the side of the teacher. This balance has in the last five years shifted substantially against the teacher. To put it differently, the space for plagiarism, misinformation, and distraction has vastly increased in the recent past while our capacity to manage the classroom has substantially decreased. In this context it is worth turning to each of the technologies discussed in turn.
The smartphone potential
India emerged as the second largest market for smartphones in the world behind China in 2019. The pandemic, which began in force in India in 2020, transformed the smartphone from a luxury into a necessity for school students as schools and parents scrambled to begin online classes that year. Now it is not uncommon for school students, especially in senior classes to have their own smartphones. While the smartphone enabled online classes in the midst of the pandemic, its growing ubiquity poses a number of challenges to teaching in general and history instruction in particular. Before smartphones made their way into the classroom, the teacher was the arbiter of historical information, at least during class hours. Teachers helped students make sense of a wider syllabus and to correct misconceptions in the course of study. Now with smart phones, students can access an almost unlimited amount of information in real time. This might at first appear to be a blessing since students can in theory access a wealth of relevant information that will help them understand the subject better. In practice however, the internet is less a curated library and more a disorganized and often downright dangerous dump. Much of the information found online is of dubious quality, having been written by untrained amateurs. This is often as true for websites such as Wikipedia as it is for the many history blogs that can be found online. History, in particular, as a discipline, is prone to suffer from the worst effects of misinformation spread on the internet with malicious intent. This is without taking into consideration the manifold distractions offered by smartphones from online browsing to mobile games, nor the fact that smartphones are powerful recording devices that can be misused in any number of ways.
How should history teachers respond to the challenges posed by the smartphone? One answer is to ban them outright. Many teachers and indeed schools have taken this approach in the vain hope that they can effectively turn back the clock to a time before smartphones. This approach is not likely to work with a generation of students who have grown up with smartphones. Banning smartphones from the classroom is more likely to cause disciplinary issues, as students inevitably attempt to smuggle phones into the classroom, than it is to solve the issues that these mobile devices cause. History instructors intent on banning smartphones run the risk of failing to learn fundamental lessons from the subject, which has demonstrated that more often than not it is advantageous to adapt to technological change than to oppose it.
A better approach then is to channelize the potential of smartphones by providing history students with exercises from a carefully curated set of websites. This ensures that students will use their phones in ways that are beneficial for the teaching of the subject and they are not likely to utilize sites that may mislead and misinform them. Central to this effort is the importance of media literacy which history teachers should pick up and pass on to their students. In an online environment where students are likely to be saturated with information, it is important that they learn how to discriminate between well-researched data and serious misinformation. Thankfully navigating through irrelevant data to find verifiable evidence is a key specialty of history as a subject. A media literate approach can be implemented relatively easily by providing students with lists of websites with well-researched data, teaching them how to verify historical claims by looking at evidence offered in references and also training them to do background checks on any websites they may be using. In a sense, the internet is introducing students to primary sources, about which they might have earlier learned. It is as such important that their instructors train them to separate information from misinformation.
AI chatbots and the history essay
The history essay has long served as an important tool for evaluating the learning outcomes of history students. Many schools consider the take home essay as one of the most important components of a student’s final grade. The rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbots such as ChatGPT over the last year however poses a serious challenge to the history essay. For those unfamiliar, ChatGPT is a free AI chatbot that can produce essay length answers to prompts fed into it within seconds. The AI service poses a key threat to the humanities in general and history in particular since it is very good at answering broad questions. At present there are a few technologies that can serve to detect this new form of plagiarism. Software such as Turnitin which is useful for detecting when essays might be copied from online sources is unable to detect whether an answer was penned by a student or by a chatbot. The questions most vulnerable to being answered well by AI are precisely those of a broad generic nature that are favoured by history teachers.
In the absence of technological countermeasures against ChatGPT, history teachers will have to turn to pedagogical methods to avoid being buried under a cascade of easy-to-prepare and hard-to-detect plagiarized essays. Universities across the world are turning once more to pen and paper examinations – a trend likely to be adopted increasingly by schools. The option of requiring students to answer in-person vivas is also gaining in popularity, though these are clearly limited to small class sizes. Another possibility is to move back to more objective questions which test the knowledge of students in the course content.
While this is not ideal from a pedagogical perspective since it encourages precisely the sort of rote learning that has made history an unappealing subject in the eyes of students, it might have some value. Objective tests can be paired with essay type exercises in order to ensure that students are not cheating on the latter. In other words, teachers can assign a small portion of the grade to objective type answers while having other graded components using essay style questions. If there are discrepancies between the two, then it might prove easier to detect AI chatbot created plagiarism.
A more fundamental change to essay style questions might be to make use of primary sources and select readings which chatbots will not be able to write essays on since these are not present in their larger databases. Essay prompts should focus on critical analysis of sources and readings which ChatGPT is not presently capable of. Needless to say, this is easier said than done, especially at the school level where questions have to be relatively generic and where syllabi are not vested in the hands of teachers. However, where teachers are able to implement an approach focused on critical reasoning and careful analysis of sources, there the threat of ChatGPT is likely to reduce significantly.
History instruction is facing unprecedented challenges from technology that place teachers at a marked disadvantage. The responsibility of taking on these challenges rests within the discipline of history itself. Training students to synthesize large amounts of data and to be aware of the pitfalls of online misinformation will not only make them better history students but also citizens who are more aware. Meeting the threat of AI written essays will require asking students questions that will sharpen their critical reasoning by drawing on the strengths of history as a field that is concerned with a past that is both unique and multivocal. Technology, like history, is likely to march on and in time provide teachers with new tools to better deal with the issues raised by smartphones and AI chatbots. Until that day comes however, teachers will have to rely on pedagogy to make up for the shortcomings of technology.
The author is Assistant Professor for History at Krea University. He is a historian of science and technology in South Asia and his book The Aeroplane and the Making of Modern India has been published by Oxford University Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.