Category Archives: Digital Classroom

Digital History, Class Assignment #1

Students in my History 250: Digital History have begun to work on their first larger assignment that is due in a few weeks. I have asked them to create an autobiographical account of some aspect of their life, primarily using Timeline JS. Students will be expected to embed the timeline on their personal Google Site, as well as embed different types of media into the timeline, such as a Google Map.

In addition, the assignment’s second goal is to help students to think through how a digital narrative might differ from a more traditional written text-only narrative.

I have included a description of the assignment below. It certainly can be improved, but I am hopeful that this proves a useful, introductory type assignment in the class — allowing students to build off of the basic digital skills we have been practicing while thinking a little bit about how we tell a historical (defined here through chronological and contextual lenses) story.

Assignment Text:

History 250: Timeline JS Assignment

Introduction: For your first major assignment for this class, you are being asked to create a timeline of your life using Timeline JS. The assignment will ask you to wed some of the technical skills we have been practicing with some of the questions we have been asking about how one can tell a historical story.

Goal: To create at least a 40-slide timeline using Timeline JS, including both text and some type of graphic on each slide (including photos, video, a Google Map, and others of your choosing), that tells a historical story about some key aspect of your life. The timeline should be embedded onto your website.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. To demonstrate proficiency in creating basic online materials (Google Sheets, Google Maps, Timeline JS, and others) and in linking these materials together through HTML embed codes
  2. To tell a historical story of your life that demonstrates a basic understanding of what historical chronology or contextualization might be.

Explanation: You will be developing a timeline using the Beta 3.0 version of Timeline JS, just as we practiced using in class. The timeline should choose some important theme in your in life (since you certainly will not be able to narrate your entire life in 40 slides) that will allow you to demonstrate an understanding of both chronological thinking and contextualization. This means that it will probably be inappropriate to choose just a single event from your life, as it will be difficult to establish the way chronology is important to the story. However, it will be equally difficult to tell the whole story of your life, as you will also have no time to develop slides that highlight the significant context that gives an event its meaning.

You will be graded on both the technical and the historical aspects of this assignment.

  1. You are required to produce at least 40 slides to narrate your story.
  2. As we saw, Timeline JS links text together with images, videos, audio files, and other types of media. This allows you much more flexibility in thinking about how to narrate a story then just with text.
  3. As we saw, media that is to be included in Timeline needs a stable URL to link to. The easiest solution for images you plan to use (that are already not on the web) is to create a small photo archive in Flickr.
  4. You will need to include at least one clip from Youtube, one Map from Google maps related to the story, and images you own or can link to related to your life. You are also free to use sites such as Wikipedia to link a reader to in the material. Use the web to help you tell your story.
  5. The timeline should ultimately appear on the Google Sites we are experimenting with as your homepage. Please have the timeline embedded onto the page by Tuesday, September 29 at the start of class.


Teaching Digital History, First Weeks

During this current semester, I am teaching a new introductory course history course, History 250: Digital History. The idea for the course, as well as much of its content, was a result of my participation last summer in the Doing Digital History NEH-sponsored seminar.

I have written about some of my ideas for the course last summer on this blog; however, now that the course is a reality, it seems useful to document my experiences in designing and teaching it. Moreover, as my students are required to update their own blogs each week to reflect on what it is they learned in the class, turnabout is only fair play. Since I am already a week behind them — slacker that I am — I promised my post would be lengthier than what I am asking of them. Posts can be found at #vwcdh250.

As I would suspect is true of most people first entering in the world of digital history, History 250’s design has been heavily influenced by Jeff McClurken‘s thoughts on “digitally inflected” versus “digital” assignments/courses.  The goal for my course was to think about what an introductory level digital course could and should do for non-majors. What types of digital learning should such a course promote? What types of digital (historically-focused) applications should students be exposed to? What type of digital projects might both capture their attention and prove possible for them to complete given that the course could not draw upon prerequisites either from within or outside the History major?

Right now, at the end of the third week of class, we are in the process of creating the toolbox, though unlike more advanced courses in DH, the toolbox is focusing upon some more rudimentary level technical skills (such as linking, page anchoring, using embed codes, even what is the Internet) than it might otherwise before we turn our attention in October to actually examining historical web sites and more advanced applications. Students’ abilities and their general level of comfort with technology certainly varies widely in class (unsurprising, both in terms of the all-too-common, but problematic, associations one might make with the phrase “digital native” and the range of skills often present in any undergraduate class).  Consequently, we have been spending a bit more time than I originally had planned walking through some of these tools. This is certainly okay, as I tended to assign more activities for each class than I might need to ensure we do not run out of things to do. However, when I keep skipping over discussions of material in favor of the very hands-on approach to tech support, I feel a bit unsure where the class will be in a month.

I will talk more about projects I have designed for the course in a later post (though here is a quick pass through one). At this point, I feel like I have learned at least two additional lessons from the course so far.

The first came as a bit of a shock. Remembering names is harder for me than normal. I realize I have created a nice system I use during more traditional class discussions to reinforce the learning of names. Typically, class discussions gives me repeated instances to link names to faces (asking a student a question, asking a student to comment on a different student’s comment, or asking a student to summarize a previous class all give me the opportunity to say each student’s name over and over again). However, as I am now spending a considerable amount of class time just jumping from computer to computer, checking work and suggesting small adjustments, I do not have the chance to practice name dropping as frequently as I normally do (and I have gotten a few names embarrassingly wrong). This type of teaching clearly needs a new technique.

Second, I realized quite early on that I have not spent nearly enough time helping students to understand where it is we are going. Sadly, since this is the first iteration of the class, I do not have previous student projects to showcase (though as I teach the class more regularly [I hope], this problem should be remedied). However, I think I need to do a better job at demonstrating analogous final projects created by other undergraduate classes to help build the trust that we all may know where this class is going.

Planning for my Digital History Course

One of the projects I have spent my time at the Doing Digital History Institute thinking about is how I might teach my proposed introductory digital history course during Fall 2015. As I noted earlier, teaching this course at the introductory level was not necessarily my first choice., as I remained unsure how to teach students about the benefits, modes, and methodologies of digital history without having the benefit of earlier course-based knowledge.

Why might I have this concern? First, having surveyed current digital history courses being taught throughout the country, I continuously encountered courses that were aimed at upper-level students. I appeared to me that many of these courses sought to do two things: to disrupt and challenge students understanding of traditional historical methodology while also providing these students with advanced research and interrogatory skills similar to those we typically teach in upper-level research seminars. These courses clearly assumed students would enter the course with certain investigatory and analytical skills already in place (i.e., the ability to read and unpack a primary source), freeing the students to focus their attention on the new digital methodologies being explored in the class.

Second, though, I am wondering if part of the reason I keep finding digital history courses placed at the upper-level of an undergraduate curriculum has to do with the way that we, as instructors, are coming to digital history (or at least why my first inclination was certainly to situate the course at that level). For most of us, digital history is new, complicated, and even (at least for me) a little bit intimidating. It requires us to learn a whole new set of methodologies, approaches to material, and technical skills. Digital history, rightly or wrongly, has the ability to conjure up images of the technologically deterministic, scaled-up, and boiled-down digital threats leveled at humanities education, specifically, and general education, broadly, today.  Moreover, arguably this is how we always have taught new material. Upper-level classes exist for us to explore complex subject matters deemed too advanced for introductory undergraduate audiences, all the while honing our own understanding of the material in order to determine how to simplify it for introductory undergraduate consumption.

Yet, for better or worse, I am teaching the course at the introductory undergraduate level. Consequentially, it needs to introduce students both to digital history and methods and to “traditional” ones as well. Part of the reason why I am here is to figure out how this melding could work.

So far, I have two possible ways to permit the class to (hopefully) accomplish its goal. First, I absolutely need to give the class some content to anchor the analysis we might do. Contextual thinking is a key component to our early historical scaffolding, and I am wondering if the appropriate content might help to allow us to approach the tools themselves as primary sources. Specifically, I am interested in adding a “History of the Digital” component to the class that explores the development of information technology, the rise of digital modes of communication and analysis, and the place of history in this analysis (in essence expanding the analysis done by Cohen and Rosenzweig here).

In addition, I have begun to believe that I need to be careful and enthusiastic in my choice to pick tools that use content. A key bedrock of digital history classes seems to be to “build” (which is something I need to return to), but it seems useful that having students practice reading and interpreting developed digital sites (both as digital content and as history) could be useful. Here I worry about not providing the proper historical context for students to interpret the evidence on these sites appropriately. But that is a problem for the coming days.