Historical Resources Online and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

As part of an assignment for Dr. Kelly’s History 689: Teaching History in the Digital Age, we were asked to evaluate two digital projects. I looked at two projects devoted to teaching history with online primary source material developed and published by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at my home institution of George Mason University. Exploring U.S. History tackles niche topics for a specific class and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French functions as a portal or collection of primary source materials. These two sites, while existing on two ends of the spectrum on digital scholarship, do suffer from similar issues, namely in that they only partially address helping students ask good questions of history.

Exploring U.S. History, last updated in 2004, presents modules designed to supplement George Mason University’s History 120 course. The stated goals are to reinforce textbook readings and built IT proficiency, which is defined as learning to build and maintain webpages, completing online assignments, performing online research and using technology in historical analysis.

Given its 2004 production date, the site is presented with a very simple, yet clear design that stands the test of time. The site offers clear instructions and navigation buttons. Nice visual cues and use of breadcrumbs help with wayfinding, which allows students or readers to drop in on any page and understand how to click around. (This is important given that the majority of traffic to a website enters through a page other than the home page.)

The available topics are diverse and plentiful and offer students a broad view that the work of historians is more than just reading texts. Still the assignments presented ask students to answer questions instead of ask them. The assignments do help lead the student through what we could consider “good” historical questions, but the site does not help connect the dots between the primary material and asking historical questions of that material. ((See Wineburg, “On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy,” Am Educ Res J September 21, 1991 vol. 28 no. 3 495-519.))

Detailed instructions  as to how to explore these objects, which range from material culture to photographs to texts, may be  prescriptive  depending on the particular topic or source in question. Sadly one of the more sophisticated assignments–analyzing artifacts in the Barnum museum in situ–offers no such instructional layer. With respect to the specific goals of the site, much like the steps to “reading” source materials, a sophisticated historian can see how the assignments and exercises map back to the original goals, but it is doubtful an undergraduate will. Additionally, there are no conclusions to any of the assignments. As a supplemental site for a physical course, once can assume the discussion will take place in class, but as an online resource, this lack prevents non-students from exploring. With a little work, this site could be scaled for use beyond that specific classroom.

On the other end of the spectrum, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution provides a collection of online primary source documents. It is the older of the two sites with a copyright at 2001. It is unclear when it was last updated.

The site functions as an actual portal for an impressive array of source material including topical essays, primary sources ranging from images and paintings to  texts, songs, and maps. Due to its early creation date, the site does not benefit from directed navigation options. Browsing, exploring and searching are encouraged, yet there is no inherent difference between these three functions. A a student arriving on site without a research plan would be hard pressed to know where to begin ((For the challenges with search, see Beyond Google: How Students Conduct Academic Research)). One of the most useful essays, “How to Read Images” is buried at the bottom of the Explore tab. Offering a more obvious link to this essay–and providing similar instructions to help scholars “read” the other primary source types–would be one way to solve this problem.

The essays located under the Explore tab make use of the early benefits of hypertext. The supplemental primary source materials that are presented with each essay are listed in the left margin (not in context in the main body) for interested students to explore. However, the essays themselves read as chapters from a general text book and are still presented as insurmountable chunks of text without the reprieve of images to break the flow and rest the eyes. Wayfinding in these essays is complicated by the fact that each supplemental source pops as a new window (cutting edge technology in 2001) complete with new navigation buttons.

The Browse tab presents a truly non-directed browse functionality; the sources are in alphabetical order and offer no other categorization beyond the primary source type.  The primary text materials on the site are presented with a short introductory paragraph and translated to English. As Jeri mentioned in her review, this prevents students from actually seeing the original document in full context or reading it in its native French. Nuance lost in translation is lost forever and the ability to read texts in their native language is a crucial part of historical thinking. While admittedly a barrier for most undergraduate students, the importance of seeing a text in its original form (and language) allows them to “read” the document on a more sophisticated level. While the site does provide context for the text in question, an image of the original would be a helpful addition.

Knowledge of modern research on site usability, readability, and navigation undermine the truly impressive collection of artifacts on the French Revolution. The overarching challenge with this site as a teaching tool is the lack of a framework to help guide students in their historical thinking. The site itself presupposes the reader is asking sophisticated questions and in this respect functions only as a search portal for finding relevant material.

Regardless of their respective goals–admittedly one site was created to ask specific questions of history and the other functions only as a warehouse–these sites would benefit from more open-ended questions and better instructions on how to “read” sources. Despite their age, with these additions, these sites would remain relevant to helping students learn to think historically.