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Mary Francis Giandrea, George Mason University
My interest in this assignment arose from a growing concern that students’ deep faith in the power of the Internet to solve all of their problems blinds them to its weaknesses as a scholarly resource. Despite repeated warnings, for instance, many students continue to choose the first site that results from a Google search, without any consideration of authorial intention, qualifications, etc. Because there are many very good sites on the Internet, and because I use the Internet in my courses, I feel strongly that we should educate our students about the proper use of the Internet for historical research rather than restrict their use of it. Thus, when Dr. Kelly described this project to me, I was eager to give it a try.
I chose two sections of History 100, the general education survey of Western Civilization, into which to integrate the assignment. A total of 50 students participated in the project. The students worked in groups of 5; thus, each class of 25 students had 5 groups of 5. The details of the assignment are provided on the webpage designated below, which was given to the students and was posted to my webpage, along with the rubric page designed by Dr. Kelly for evaluating websites. In short, each student located 2 websites featuring primary sources, discussed them with the group, and ultimately each group produced a list of 10 websites. After receiving approval of the lists from me, individuals posted their entries to the database. Grades were assessed both on an individual and on a group basis, although the majority of the grade was based on the quality of the individual's entry. From start to finish the entire process was scheduled to take several weeks, but in practice it took slightly longer.
In many ways the experience was a grueling one for professor and students alike, although not for any reason having to do with the design of the assignment itself. Because it was the first time I had assigned the project, there were things I had not thought through, such as the importance of sticking to the rule that groups submit lists together and not allowing students to submit websites for separate approval. This happened because so many of their attempts were rejected either because they were unsuitable or because they were duplicates of already-approved websites. Groups were getting tired of meeting, only to go back to the drawing board over and over again, but I was then inundated with hundreds of emails over those weeks and nearly lost all track of who was doing what. Lesson learned. I will get together with Dr. Kelly to figure out how to avoid that problem in the future.
It was grueling for many of the students as well, because some of them genuinely do not seem to have [ever] understood why, in some cases, dozens of their submissions were rejected. In the end, however, I think that is why it was a valuable experience. I had actually envisioned this assignment as a relatively easy one and was truly surprised that they found it so difficult to choose academically viable websites. Part of the problem was that they were to find websites containing primary sources, and some probably still do not understand the difference between a primary and a secondary source. Most, however, did learn the difference and they compiled a very respectable database of the most prominent, and indeed some very obscure, primary source sites. The database further reflects some engagement on the part of the students with issues of bias, intention, authorship, and dating. The quality of the descriptions varies considerably, but not knowing quite what to expect, I was, in the end, pleased with the databases the students produced.
I did not do a formal evaluation process with the students, but we discussed the project in class and overwhelmingly the students agreed that they had developed a new appreciation for the complexities of the Internet. At the very least, they now know that anyone can post virtually anything they wish and that as consumers of the information they are wholly responsible for making informed choices. I intend to keep the project in my syllabus for the fall but will have to think harder about the logistics of the group submissions.