Can web 2.0 tools enhance students’ understanding of historical concepts? Do digital natives really want more technology in the classroom? This article covers a world history research project, including the learning goals, free digital tools used, student responses, and lessons learned for the next version of the assignment.
The widespread digitalization of primary sources has greatly expanded the possibilities for student research projects. Projects like the Library of Congress’s Portals to the World, the World Digital Library, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, and the California State University IMAGE Project – just to cite a few examples – have greatly increased the accessibility texts, images, and artifacts around the globe. This greater ease of access is particularly important for world or global history students previously limited by the necessarily more curtailed sets of sources reproduced in printed source readers. Now students can work as historians analyzing digitized primary sources previously only available by traveling to distant archives or libraries. John K. Lee has described this greater digital accessibility as a process of democratization of historical sources, and it is particularly useful in helping students construct an analysis that examines the evolution of historical processes over a wide scope of time or space.
In addition to revolutionizing students’ access to primary sources, digital projects also give history students new methodological tools to think through a research question. Digital maps encourage them to think about the relationships between geography and historical events. Wikis can help them think of historical argument as a conversation between scholars interpreting the past. Audio slideshows encourage the incorporation of visual evidence. Through exposure to exemplary digital projects, students ask: How does my analysis of the past change if instead of just writing a traditional research paper on the spread of yellow fever in the Atlantic World, or the travels of Marco Polo, I instead trace historical evolution on a digital map? Will student historians see new connections?
My goal in this article is to share a digital history research project designed by my colleague Peter Pozefsky and me for an introductory-level Global History course we team-taught at the College of Wooster in fall 2009. We designed the course after participating in a week-long seminar created by our Instructional Technology department on integrating technology projects into the classroom, and wanted to introduce students to the digital composition tools we explored. Working in groups of three or four, students used a variety of free digital tools to build an argument about the global diffusion of a cultural artifact before the year 1000 ce. Our hope was that this digital museum would unite several forms of digital history practice. We asked students to curate primary sources – usually Creative Commons sources drawn from sites licensed for educational reproduction – but also to incorporate digital history methodology to provide an interpretive resource for exhibit visitors. The article begins by outlining our learning goals, the digital tools students employed, and our approaches to getting students to master online research, fair use of sources, and digital communication. I conclude with some observations on how we’ll revise this assignment for future classes and thoughts on incorporating digital projects into the World History classroom.
The use of digital tools seems particularly appropriate given many Global and World history courses’ emphasis on historicizing global processes. Indeed, our course began with an analysis of the contemporary debates about globalization exemplified by Thomas L. Friedman in The World Is Flat, followed by a chronological analysis of the evolution of human history using John and William McNeill’s The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. This structure let students think critically about what historians and historical approaches add to the current discourse surrounding global processes. After our discussion of Freidman, the students had a lot of ideas about how technological innovation fosters contemporary globalization. With our methodological focus on digital history, it was interesting to have students use new technologies to study processes themselves advanced by technological changes, albeit pre-modern ones.
Despite the shift from paper to digital communication in this assignment, grounding students in skills of historical research and writing remained essential. As always, a reliance on non-scholarly secondary sources as the basis for research, or not leaving sufficient time for adequate revision of contributors’ drafts, undermined the quality of some groups’ historical analysis. The key for the more successful projects was collaborating with our campus librarians from the initial stages of the project to steer students towards scholarly research resources available. To our surprise, few of our students had previous experience writing blogs, making web pages, or using digital images for anything other than Power Point presentations. As their drafts progressed, students became more adept at considering how to incorporate new kinds of examples and sources into their digital arguments. However, we found that most students resisted the shift away from more traditional forms of academic composition which they found more comfortable and predictable.
We designed the Protoglobalization Museum project to encourage students to use digital history tools to analyze the interactions and connections between cultures. Each small group traced the diffusion of a cultural artifact before the year 1000 ce. The topics examined included the domestication of grains (rice, maize), the domestication of animals (camels, cows, pigs, dogs, horses), and the invention and adoption of tools (chariot, wheel, textiles). Students had to show where, how, and why their item was adopted, and make an argument about the effects on human history. For a final integrating assignment, each student created an introduction to the entire website modeled on digital museum exhibitions. This required them to analyze the contributions of the entire class to build a synthetic interpretation of human cultural history before 1000 ce.
Working with our campus Instructional Technology Department, we built the museum website in Omeka, a free, open source Web exhibit platform designed by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Omeka is designed for scholars, libraries, and museums to organize and share their digital collections. The National Museum of American History’s Object of History exhibit is a great prototype for this kind of project, and includes guidelines for educators wishing to replicate their results with Omeka. Users do not need to know html or other coding languages. Using Omeka proved somewhat more difficult than a building a web page, but was fairly easy to use after our IT department installed the platform. We then created “collections” for each student group to upload their material into a united exhibit.
Omeka had several advantages for this kind of project. Because the CHNM designed it for library or museum use, the platform places a visual emphasis on providing full source information and keyword tags for each entry. This proved very helpful for reinforcing the notion that all scholarly work requires the acknowledgement of all sources of information, a respect for the copyright designations, and diligence to avoid plagiarism. If not reinforced, studies suggest that students commonly believe the standards for using information from online sources is somehow different than copying unacknowledged material from a printed source. The hierarchical structure of Omeka’s exhibit templates also forced students to think about organizational strategies for conveying digital information. I do think that institutions with a less-robust IT department would still be well served in creating a project like this using a free Wordpress blog page or a Google Sites page.
Our assignment criteria were guided by the desire to have students use different forms of technology to foster critical thinking and communication. Building a web exhibit forced students to work on new forms of digital communication as they used presentation and communications technologies to develop their arguments. We wanted to expose them to a variety of free digital tools and get them to think about how the digital medium affects their argument. In addition, we wanted them to create multimodal compositions using text, images, and media to craft historical arguments about cultural diffusion over time. Throughout the course, we emphasized students’ critical historical analysis and understanding of historiography. By asking them to create a digital annotated bibliography we hoped they would link their arguments to the wider historical debates about the roles of technologies, crops, animals in human history. We also chose to have students work in small groups rather than individually to foster collaboration. As an introductory level course, students came from a wide range of majors, and we thought this diversity would encourage students to draw on sources from across disciplines to create a more sophisticated synthesis.
Each digital history exhibit had four main components, each of which drew on a different free web tool. First, students used Zotero to create an annotated bibliography for their research. Zotero is a free, web-based citation management tool developed by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media. After students install it on their computers as a Firefox extension, they can quickly and easily build a research bibliography by clicking on sources they find on web pages, library catalogs, and digital archives like JStor. Zotero stores the full citation information, a digital snapshot of the website or a copy of the associated source file, and has unlimited space for student notes. The iTunes-like interface is clear and easy to use. Zotero also facilitates collaboration by allowing multiple students to contribute to the same shared group library. Every time a group member loggs on, Zotero syncs their work with the most current version of the group’s bibliography.
Another thing we liked about using Zotero was that the online format was in step with the way most students perform research. The accessibility and convenience of online materials sometimes made it hard to convince them of the utility of consulting traditional bound encyclopedias and print reference works as starting places. Despite the use of Web 2.0 tools, the annotated bibliography remains a traditional research assignment indispensable for grounding historical argument. Only the collaborative research and analysis, and the ease of recording full bibliographical information with Zotero, differentiated students’ digital research bibliographies from conventional versions. Not surprisingly, we found that the groups which did not pay sufficient attention to this early stage of the research struggled with the later project components.
The next project component was curating a set of ten primary sources which comprised the core of each group’s digital exhibit. We challenged students to analyze these primary sources to demonstrate the origin of their item, its cultural significance for early civilizations, how it diffused, and its historical significance. Students brainstormed the types of exhibit items they wanted to include and used Creative Commons searches to find images to fit their analysis. They then uploaded their image files, the full citation information for their primary sources, and a brief textual analysis to the Omeka site. The critical thinking came in with their decisions about what ten items to include to demonstrate the range of historical meanings attached to their topic.
The most creative groups surprised us with the content and analysis they presented, uniting strong visual design with good historical analysis. Interestingly, the selection of images appropriate for a digital history exhibit proved very challenging to many students used to preparing less formal presentations with different standards of visual evidence. Some students seemed to be conceptualizing this aspect of the assignment with more of a clip-art mindset born of informal presentations than with an eye to the conventions of digital exhibits. To take a hypothetical example, first draft exhibits for the history of writing might have included stock images found by googling “writing,” rather than images chosen to show the diffusion and cultural significance of the written word. Early peer review of the exhibit components proved crucial. If left until the last minute, exhibits were more likely to contain just the most accessible images, rather than the primary source examples that best built the group’s argument. It also proved important to stress the value of historical interpretation, or the texts denigrated into ahistorical narratives with little analysis.
If the annotated images showed the group’s understanding of the complexity of their topic and its changes over time, the maps emphasized the geographical diffusion of each item and its impact in adopting societies. Students presented their research using Google Maps, a free tool that allows users to construct annotated, illustrated maps. Anyone with a free Google account can save their projects as well as links to maps created by others using the “My Maps” button. This tool was familiar to most students who had used it to find directions, even if they had not previously placed personal markers on their maps. In addition, Google provides helpful video tutorials on using the program. Students placed markers on their group map, illustrating them with images and short critical annotations. Some groups chose to draw lines tracing the geographical limits of their item in 1000ce, or to use different icons to highlight variations in time and space. They then embedded the Google maps in their Omeka exhibit pages using Google’s easy “link” function. Users can click “Customize and Preview Embedded Map” to set the degree of zoom and size of the map.
Mapping the diffusion of their exhibit item helped students think in new ways about the webs of human interactions, and the roles of commercial and cultural networks in historical development. Our focus on the globe before 1000ce also encouraged students to think more deeply about cultural, political, and material development in the Americas before Columbus. This historical knowledge helped with their understanding of history after 1492. In some cases – for example, the horse group – students opted to include later images that emphasized the revolutionary changes involved with the spread of these tools and technologies.
For the final stage of their individual exhibits, students used bubbl.us, mindmeister, or Prezi to create a concept map guiding site visitors through their interpretation of the cultural and biological diffusion of their topic. We used concept maps – graphical displays that use nodes and links to map the relationship between ideas – throughout the semester as a way to break down historical argument and evidence in our course readings, so the students were familiar with the format. In general, concept mapping polarized the students: visual learners found it very helpful, while other students found it a frustrating and artificial way of presenting their notes. In the digital exhibit, students used the concept maps as an opportunity to present their central argument and the historical evidence in support of it. For example, the Chariot group traced both the technological innovations in chariot construction and the historical significance of chariots in ancient battles. We found it helpful to have students write a short text guiding viewers through their concept maps.
After the completion of the individual entries, the Protoglobalization digital exhibit still needed a synthetic introduction to orient site visitors to the argument and design of the site. As part of their final exam, each student wrote an introduction to the museum that synthesized the contributions of the entire class. This proved to be a highlight of the entire project, as students spent more time reading their classmates’ exhibit components and considering how their area of expertise fit into the larger historical framework. We gave students the option of presenting their introductions as standard papers or using any of the digital technology tools we used during the semester. Perhaps because of the time constraints, or because of their greater familiarity with traditional modes of composition, nearly every student chose to write a paper. The winning entry came from a student who really grasped the possibilities offered by digital composition and created a compelling introduction in Vuvox, a free program that lets users build a digital collage of images, video, and audio. Her work unites the various threads of the exhibit, focusing on the themes of people in the environment and human agency raised in McNeil and McNeil’s The Human Web.
The biggest surprise for us was the high proportion of so-called “digital natives” – that is, students who have grown up using new technologies, in contrast with those of us exposed to them later in life – who found digital history anxiety-producing. The technology inventory we had students fill out during the first week of class was particularly revealing. Thirty-six students completed a brief online survey about their familiarity with and degree of comfort with tools used in class. Not surprisingly, the technologies they were most comfortable with were those they had found useful in their earlier academic and personal pursuits: instant messaging (100%), PowerPoint (100%), uploading digital photos (91%), Course Management programs (84%), programs for editing digital audio or video (42%), and microblogging programs like Twitter (36%). Every respondent had used PowerPoint in previous class presentations, primarily as a slide projector to display outlines and images. About one-third of them had some experience blogging. Other tools were less familiar: only nine had used wikis, eight (25%) had used citation management software like Zotero, one student had used social bookmarking programs like Delicious, and one had created a digital concept map.
Given the large amount of new materials we planned to introduce, we decided to devote class time to presenting the digital tools used in the project. Students brought in laptops – either their personal computers or computers on loan from the college – and worked through initial stages of the project in class. This turned out to be a mistake. In addition to using up valuable class time, in their final course evaluations many students reported finding this step unnecessary and unproductive. Those more comfortable with technology were bored, and technophobes needed more individual attention than the classroom setting allowed. We also spent several days doing in-class presentations of students’ work in process. The opportunities for peer feedback and discussion this provided were far more productive. Next time, we will provide students technology handouts explaining the programs, and schedule office hours in the computer lab for additional support, but not spend time in class showing them how to insert a marker on Google maps.
A digital tool that proved particularly helpful was the LibGuide site our librarian created for the class. LibGuides is a subscription service that allows librarians and academics to create online multimedia research guides that can be quickly customized to individual institutional or class needs. As with all research projects, students needed support to find academic sources and work effectively. This site joined links to print resources found in our campus library, research databases specializing in areas pertinent to ancient history, copies of the assignment guidelines, resources for finding copyright-free images, and Library of Congress search term strategies. This library support was crucial to the success of the exhibit.
Another lesson came in the process of dividing students into research teams. We had students sign up for their small groups on our course website, hoping that students would be more motivated to research a topic they had chosen. As might have been foreseen, students were sometimes more motivated by friendships than by either their interests or skill levels. Next time, we will assign groups for a higher degree of social engineering: spreading out the seniors so there were no groups of just first-year students, making sure that each group had at least one student familiar with web composition, and trying to foster more cross-disciplinary investigation. Most of the conflicts that arose during the project were related to inter-group dynamics and anxiety over receiving a shared group grade.
In our enthusiasm for the project, we assumed that students had experience visiting digital history exhibits and thus a familiarity with the structures and norms of the genre. We later discovered that was not the case, and ended up spending several classes looking at and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of other public history websites. I think that this exercise finding and evaluating a digital exhibit would have been a useful first step at the beginning of the semester to help familiarize students with the conventions of digital history.
Finally, my biggest surprise was general student reluctance to move from traditional research and writing assignments to a less familiar form of academic communication. Students have worked hard for over a decade improving their skills writing papers to meet teachers’ expectations; it is understandable that the shift to a new form of composition, demanding a new skill set and imposing novel expectations for evaluation, is met with some anxiety. I’m certain that our relative inexperience with digital pedagogy and assessment added to their sense of apprehension. It is crucial to give students lots of examples, in-class peer review of successful and unsuccessful projects, ample feedback, and the space for multiple revisions to feel more comfortable with digital history. Still, do not be surprised if many of them continue to prefer a more familiar and time-proven form of communication.
Creating a digital history exhibit encouraged students to see themselves as working historians assembling primary and secondary evidence to build an interpretation of world history. We found that the public nature of web projects raises the bar for student work: students recognized that they were no longer just writing for the professors, but for a wider audience. The focus on digital historical analysis and communication, with its emphasis on visual evidence, spatial arguments, and concise writing, proved a valuable learning experience for students. By the end of the project, students focused not just on how to create a digital presentation using Power Point, but thinking creatively about which digital tool best fit the argument they wanted to present.
Edited by Tracy Barrett