Upper Grand school board cancels award-winning Digital History Project

May 17, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Marni Walsh

Only one week after the successful launch of the digital platform Defining Moments Canada, built on Dufferin’s  award-winning Digital History Project (DHP) model, word circulated that the DHP had been cancelled by the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB.)

Created by retired Centre Dufferin District High School teacher Neil Orford, winner of both the Governor General’s and Ontario Premier’s Award for History Teaching, the Digital History Project won the 2015 Government of Canada History Award. Since 2014, DHP brought senior history students together with the Dufferin County Museum and Archives (DCMA) for a semester of deep historical research, developing real-world statistical analytical skills.

Despite the national acclaim, Heather Loney, Communications and Community Engagement Officer for UGDSB, says the program was cancelled due to low enrolment.

“The Digital Historian Project (DHP) is indeed an outstanding learning program for our students,” said Ms. Loney. “It is a four-credit package that includes courses in Data Management, Canadian History, Current Aboriginal Issues in Canada, and an Interdisciplinary Studies course.”

“This year, the DHP, along with two other experiential learning programs, were offered to the students at the three Dufferin secondary schools. Unfortunately, due to low enrolment and low interest from students, the decision was made to suspend the programs for the 2018-19 school year.”

Ms. Loney added, “These courses are designed to accommodate up to 31 students. However, only nine students had enrolled in the DHP this year, and only 10 had enrolled for next year. Given the low numbers, schools would be forced to cut other important course offerings (with much higher student enrolment) to compensate for the running of a bundle of courses that are significantly under their maximum number.”

Professor Tom Peace of Huron University College commented on the cancellation, noting that he was first introduced to the DHP at the New Directions in Active History in 2015. “What made this program stand out is how it integrated academic subjects often kept separate (specifically math and history) and moved students out of the classroom and into the museum. This is exactly the type of approach many of us take in our teaching in Canadian universities and – based on the student feedback we ran last week on – an approach that provides students with a solid foundation for future advanced academic work.”

“What I found most surprising about the UGDSB’s decision to cancel the DHP,” says Professor Peace, “is that its timing coincides with Neil’s new project Defining Moments Canada, which is modelled on the DHP and has received significant funding from Heritage Canada. This project, with which Huron University College’s Centre for Undergraduate Research Learning is partnered, promises to engage local communities with the historical tools to better understand the impact of the Spanish Flu Epidemic. Somewhat eclipsed by the focus on the centenary of the First World War, this project reminds Canadians that nearly as many people lost their lives to the flu as they did during the war. In both projects, Neil’s work points towards new and innovative ways for teaching history.”

Julie McNevin, the Education Programmer for DCMA says they “will miss having the students at the museum and working with them.” She told the Citizen, “DHP has been a great vehicle for immersing high school students in their local history, and getting to know their local museum…The growth realized in students over the course of one semester, as the result of these projects, is extraordinary. We love having a role in cultivating skills and abilities that students can carry forward into future endeavours. In addition, it is wonderful to see student work shared with the public and added to our databases.”

Avery Bettonvil, a former student of the DHP says she was “devastated” when she heard that the DHP was being cancelled. “Learning history in such an interactive way initiated a deeper appreciation for our past,” she said, “a lesson that is so important to all Canadians, but especially Canadian youth.

“I hoped instead of cancelling the program the board would see the potential of it and do more to promote it. This program united the community. Two towns, three high schools, and in my year, 17 students were brought together because of the Digital Historian Project. This program should have the opportunity to grow into more school boards, not be cancelled – giving more students the opportunity to submerge themselves in history and learn from the past for a better future.”

Another DHP graduate, Riley Tilson, also expressed her disappointment at the cancellation of the Project. “As a student about to enter my third year in University, I found the program was what prepared me the most for the academic challenges faced in University. The DHP also succeeded in helping me learn more about the community I grew up in by identifying how national history can affect local history…As someone who is considering becoming a teacher, I believe the program was ahead of its time because it really prioritized students choosing what to learn, instead of making them take classes they did not want to participate in. I would seriously hope that the Upper Grand District School Board would consider revoking this decision.”

Heather Loney says it is the Board’s “hope that the DHP will run in the UGDSB in the future with an increased enrolment.”

She added, “In the past, the DHP was promoted in all three schools by the teacher running the program. Our plan going forward is to work together and brainstorm why the numbers continue to be so low and what we can do to increase the numbers next year for the DHP and the other Experiential Learning Choices Programs in Dufferin.  This year, our promotional efforts included class visits, advertising, information sessions, and presentations to School Councils, briefing guidance counsellors, posters and invitations.”

Wendy McIntosh, principal of Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne, told this reporter, “I am disappointed that the DHP has been suspended for the 2018-19 school year, as it is a unique learning experience for students – in fact, my son went through the program as a student of ODSS. However, any time a course has low enrolment numbers and low interest from students, schools must make tough decisions.

“Students have many choices in front of them when making their course selections and deciding what they want their secondary school pathway to be. I hope to see an increase in student interest in the DHP when we offer it again in the future.

The born-in-Dufferin, award-winning Project has inspired a national following by Canadian educators. When asked how the cancellation of the DHP by the Upper Grand District School Board might affect the progress of the project moving forward nationally, Ms. Loney stated, “The national project is independent of the UGDSB program.”

However, the UGDSB has endorsed the DHP in writing as a worthy, national educational program and supported expanding it to a national audience. Currently, the UGDSB is also partnered in a research project with Defining Moments Canada to expand the Digital History Project nationally, but for now, it seems, not in Dufferin County.

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