Moving beyond the Threshold: Investigating Digital Literacies and Historical Thinking in New Zealand Universities

Funding year: 
2 years
Victoria University of Wellington
Post school sector
Project start date: 
January 2014
Project end date: 
December 2016
Principal investigator(s): 
Dr. Sydney J. Shep
Research team members: 
Michael Dudding, Erin Helyard, Matt Plummer, Elizabeth Towl, Rebecca Priestley, Rhian Salmon, Rebecca Lenihan, André Geldenhuis, Irina Elgort, Simone Gigliotti, Ocean Mercier, Mark Sheehan

Project description

This project investigated how university students and new/early career teachers used digital media to support the acquisition and retention of disciplinary threshold concepts for transformative learning and improved student engagement in history-informed subjects. It involved an NZ-wide environmental survey, a MOOC-enabled workshop series, and the development, implementation, and evaluation of digitally-mediated coursework.


The primary question guiding this research project was: what is the relationship between digital literacies, threshold concepts, and transformative learning outcomes in history-informed disciplines at New Zealand universities? Secondary questions were: how can digital literacy be used to improve student learning outcomes and promote transformative learning in history-informed subjects at the tertiary level; how might/could digital media be embraced and/or appropriated to shape the way university students and teachers think about the past; how can students become empowered in their own learning pathways through the introduction and sustained use of digital media and methodologies?

Five objectives focused our study:

  • To ascertain how students and teachers currently use digital resources, tools, and e-pedagogy to acquire and retain threshold concepts of disciplinary thinking in history-informed university teaching/learning environments. 
  • To investigate how prior digital technology learning (both formal and informal) shapes digital literacies and impacts on students’ and teachers’ ability to engage with digital technology in history-informed teaching/learning environments.
  • To identify particular digitally-mediated activities, assessment tasks, and approaches that can/might make a difference to students achieving threshold concepts in history-informed teaching/learning environments.
  • To discover how/whether teachers align digital literacy skills with threshold concepts to support successful outcomes in history-informed teaching/learning environments.
  • To disseminate findings and recommendations that will inform researchers and practitioners about how digital media can be used effectively to engage with and enhance threshold concepts of disciplinary thinking in history-informed and other teaching/learning environments more widely.

Why is this research important?

Large-scale investment in educational resources and technology is based on the assumption that current and future students are or will become digitally literate and that they know how to use digital media effectively and efficiently in inquiry-led and autonomous learning. However, there is little evidence to prove that the ‘net generation’ grasp the disciplinary threshold concepts of historical thinking, attain successful learning outcomes through technology-mediated teaching, or achieve the key competencies of critical and creative thinking and citizenship that prepare them for future employment and social engagement. Teachers of history-informed subjects need robust research data and best practice evidence to understand and advance the relationship between digital technologies, curriculum planning, and historical thinking in order to effectively integrate digital literacies into the curriculum and to accurately evaluate their impact on student learning. Such evidence can be used to inform public policy about future funding strategies for digital learning practices at universities, addressing where gaps exist in students’ access to resources by demographic, subject matter, ethnicity, and gender.

Outcomes and implications for practitioners

This project taught us many things. We began by exploring how digital technologies framed by the intersection of historical thinking, threshold concepts, and decoding the disciplines could help transform learning and improve student engagement in history-informed subjects. We discovered that without the responsibility for course development or delivery modes, early career academics were rarely in a position to capitalise on their digital expertise. The idea that digital literacy involves more than just ready access to online resources, whether images or other, predominantly visual material to supplement textual material, still has little uptake in this community. Moreover, improvement of critical thinking skills was not perceived as one of the main benefits of digital resource and digital tool use. We also examined closely the role of embodiment and disembodiment in connecting teachers and learners with content. We ended by acknowledging that issues of academic identity lay at the heart of the project’s teaching and learning experiences.