Exploring History on the Web

Teaching and Learning

cholarly, public, and popular historians who have gone online have repeatedly confirmed the Library of Congress’s early discovery that the web reaches unprecedented numbers of K-12 students and teachers. As a result, a very large percentage of websites, regardless of their primary focus, have incorporated teaching materials and advice. Although traditionally archives and libraries have eschewed a direct teaching function, on the web they have often embraced it. American Memory’s Learning Page offers many resources for teachers, including lesson plans, tips on searching the collections, and links to other websites. The National Archives and Record Administration’s Digital Classroom offers a similar array of resources. Online lesson plans have become so ubiquitous that no one has yet cataloged them.47

Many museum sites offer extensive teaching resources. The Smithsonian’s online version of the exhibit The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden includes lesson plans, advice on using the site with students, and an annotated bibliography. Linked to the virtual exhibition George Catlin and His Indian mounted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Renwick Gallery) is an extensive “Catlin Classroom” organized around Campfire Stories with George Catlin: An Encounter with Two Cultures. It includes four multimedia exhibitions featuring artworks by Catlin, a searchable database of Catlin’s writings and hundreds of his artworks, fourteen lesson plans, and an online discussion board. The openness of the web to multiple audiences has even led some scholarly journals to think about teaching, a subject rarely broached within their covers. For example, the Journal of American History has created a site called Teaching the JAH, which focuses on an article from each issue and offers teaching suggestions and related primary sources.

Although teaching enters at some level into many archival, museum, and even scholarly websites, many sites relate primarily to teaching and learning. The most ubiquitous and numerous of these are syllabi—surely the most common history websites. Perhaps 30,000 history syllabi are posted on the web, with about half of those gated behind passwords through university sites and commercial courseware like WebCT and Blackboard. But even just the publicly available syllabi provide a remarkable snapshot of the state of history teaching: How are courses conceptualized and structured? What books are being assigned? They also sadly reflect on the limited design skills of most historians, a topic that we consider in Chapter 3.48

Most online syllabi reduce logistic hassles endemic to college courses, such as frequently needing to hand out lost assignments. Some, however, aim much higher. The online syllabus for Stanley Schultz’s University of Wisconsin telecourse on the United States since the Civil War includes lecture notes, biographical sketches, exams and review sheets, a photographic gallery, and a directory of history websites. Our GMU colleague Michael O’Malley has mounted several online syllabi that are notable for their clear interfaces and creative design. His most elaborate effort supplements an inventive course, “Magic, Illusion, and Detection at the Turn of the Last Century.” The website not only provides a syllabus and an extensive collection of primary sources (including books, posters, images, and early movies) but also a mystery about turn-of-the-century identity that students are asked to solve. Along the way, it expresses an original historical thesis in nonnarrative, multimedia terms.49

Figure 13: The home page for Michael O’Malley’s course on “Magic, Illusion, and Detection at the Turn of the Last Century” beckons students to join in an online investigation of the past.

Course websites are almost always individual efforts. As a result, they reflect a personal vision, even one that is embodied only in the structure of course assignments, owing to limited design skills and time constraints. Particularly energetic and creative instructors like O’Malley, however, transcend these obstacles. The most extensive teaching sites generally reflect the efforts of a group or institution and external funding support from an agency like NEH, which has underwritten many online teaching projects.

Some of these large-scale projects have developed portals or resource centers for teachers in particular areas. For example, historians Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar at Binghamton University have, with support from NEH, created Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775–2000. The site contains more than forty mini-monographs designed to be used in teaching; each one poses an interpretive question and offers a set of primary documents related to that question. Similarly, TeacherServe at the National Humanities Center offers extensive online materials for teaching about religion and the environment in American history.50

Still other projects strive to offer resource centers for even broader swaths of history. History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, developed by CHNM in collaboration with the American Social History Project (ASHP) at the CUNY Graduate Center, presents a range of materials for teachers of U.S. history, including 1,000 primary documents in text, image, and audio; an annotated guide to more than 800 websites; model teaching assignments; sample syllabi; and moderated discussions about teaching with leading scholars. A companion site, World History Matters, makes available some similar materials across an even broader canvas. Both sites also seek to give students the skills and tools needed to analyze the enormous number of primary sources that have become available online. As Randy Bass has pointed out, the web has put the “novice in the archive,” but it has not taught him or her what to do there. Thus History Matters and World History Matters provide guides and interactive exercises showing students how “expert learners” make sense of primary source evidence like films, music, maps, and traveler’s accounts and demonstrating how historical insights are formed.51

Most teaching websites offer resources (especially primary sources) and advice (for teachers on how to teach, for students on how to work with evidence). What has been talked about endlessly but has been much harder to achieve is interactive learning exercises. A significant challenge with computer feedback is the difficulty of portraying the subtlety and ambiguity of real history through the either/or, yes/no choices encouraged by the binary nature of digital logic. One approach that two innovative sites offer is to provide exercises—in both cases, mysteries—that have no right answer and where the learning comes through the exploration. ASHP’s The Lost Museum, centered around a three-dimensional re-creation of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum as well as a searchable archive of primary documents and a set of teaching activities and background essays, asks students to solve the mystery of who burned down the museum in 1865—a mystery with no answer but one that requires an exploration of antebellum life and culture to offer a plausible solution. Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Land similarly presents students with the problem of solving the murder of William Robinson, an African American who was killed on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia in 1868.52

47 “The Learning Page,” American Memory from the Library of Congress, ↪link 1.47a; U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Digital Classroom, ↪link 1.47b; The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) lists more than twenty gateway sites for history lesson plans. Some of the notable compendia can be found at NEH’s Edsitement, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places, and the Dirksen Congressional Center’s CongressLink.

48 See Paula Petrik, “Top Ten Mistakes in Academic Web Design,” History Computer Review (May 2000), ↪link 1.48a; Daniel J. Cohen, “By the Book: Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses,” Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1405-1415, ↪link 1.48b.

49 Michael O’Malley, Jacksonian Democracy, ↪link 1.49a; Between the Wars, ↪link 1.49b; History 120, ↪link 1.49c; Magic, Illusion, Detection, ↪link 1.49d.

50 Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender, Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000, ↪link 1.50a; National Humanities Center, TeacherServe,

link 1.50b. More recently, half of the Women and Social Movements site has been moved to a commercial and gated site run by Alexander Street Press.

51 Randy Bass and Roy Rosenzweig, “Rewiring the History and Social Studies Classroom: Needs, Frameworks, Dangers, and Proposals,” Journal of Education 181.3 (1999), ↪link 1.51a; History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, ↪link 1.51b; CHNM, World History Matters, ↪link 1.51c.

52 ASHP, The Lost Museumlink 1.52a; Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, Who Killed William Robinson?, ↪link 1.52b.