HIST 794 last post: a retrospective

For the last part of my internship, since April, I have worked with Nate Sleeter of George Mason University on the World History Commons project, an open-source world history pedagogy website. I have spent the last two months principally in writing three short lessons for posting on the WHC website: “European Maps of the Early Modern World,” “Controversial Historical Monuments,” and “Sick Men in Mid-Nineteenth-Century International Relations.” Developing the lessons involves identifying digital historical images and texts available in the public domain or available with permission from rights holders, annotating those and uploading those sources, and writing short descriptions of how to use them in the classroom interactively with students. This exercise has been a fairly satisfying conclusion to the internship, since feedback I have received has been timely, I have gained some experience using hypertext, and I believe I will have the chance after the internship to learn about some different digital tools that Nate has mentioned, particularly using digital maps. This was a central ambition I had in enrolling in the GMU certificate program, and I am glad to end the internship on a high note, connecting it with the program’s first three semesters, which provided exactly the kind of training I was looking for. Over that period I learned how to use the Palladio, Omeka, and Voyant tools, and I have since developed exercises in my own teaching using them. I still want to develop a research project utilizing at least one of them; in (my spare) time an Omeka project, Traces of Western Illinois’ Underground Railroad, may become that, or at least a valuable open-access teaching and tourist resource.

I have also gained confidence to learn how to use other digital tools: this spring I incorporated the digital tool Twinery, a story-telling platform, as an assignment in a Civil War history class, requiring students to compose first-person, interactive, non-linear stories set during the Civil War. Students initially were terrified, but in end many said they enjoyed the challenge, and some, high school history teachers, have already started using Twine in their own classrooms. I hope that they and I will be invited to present on our work at the 2021 Illinois State History Conference.

Before volunteering for the World History Commons project, for my internship from October through March I volunteered for the Smithsonian Institution’s Learning Lab, a part of the Smithsonian Office of the Undersecretary for Education. At the request of the Lab I surveyed various Smithsonian and external educational websites for ideas about best practices to appeal to K-12 students, teachers, and parents, for the Lab to use in revamping the Smithsonian’s digital resources. I gained some personal experience in using some of the Smithsonian’s digital resources to develop teaching lessons by organizing three Learning Lab “collections” centered on selected episodes of the Smithsonian’s Sidedoor podcast.

While at the Smithsonian I also tried to learn more about whether and how digital historians and educational website curators decipher how visitors use their media, an interest peaked during my earlier GMU coursework. I feel this was largely unsuccessful, and after shifting to the WHC, I also asked Nate for any feedback the WHC had collected from users. He provided a document indicating a summary of a survey taken sometime recently. The information in the survey is brief and informal, and it’s not clear how the survey was conducted, but  the summary results shown are interesting to me because they seem to resemble information I heard from staff affiliated with the Smithsonian Learning Lab: in short, it’s difficult to learn how users find and use, or wish to use, an open-access history or cultural heritage website. This is perhaps especially the case for K-12 teachers, students, and parents (in contrast, to, say, scholars and perhaps virtual tourists).

In the certificate program I remember that one instructor commented that, generally, users of history websites make seemingly inordinate conclusions about them within moments, possibly seconds, of visiting them; great care must be given by designers to a website’s first impression. As I indicated to my supervisor at the Smithsonian’s K-12 Learning Lab, I think the challenge of “our nation’s attic” is not to overwhelm users with menu options: it’s mind-boggling that the Smithsonian has several million artifacts (reflecting its heritage of “increasing” the world’s knowledge by collecting artifacts), many of them digitized. However, that intellectual bazaar won’t likely help a high school student arriving at the American History Museum website the day or two before her term paper is due, looking for help. This was an observation I made based on my websites survey as feedback for the Learning Lab (another museum, the National World War II Museum, actually welcomes virtual student visitors with a reassuring message, “Beginning a research paper on World War II can be daunting“).

Perhaps this is a good takeaway from the program as well, that as a teacher in a traditional or a virtual classroom, it is important to anticipate, or at least try to guess at, the audience’s questions and imperfect learning circumstances, and to make a first impression that intrigues and invites diverse audiences not to hit the back button on the assumption that history is too complex, boring, or irrelevant.

Post 7: changing internship tasks

This spring I have changed internship hosts from the Smithsonian Office of the Undersecretary for Education to a World History Commons project hosted by George Mason University, with a goal to finish the internship with some experience closer to my interest in applying digital skills to teaching. I was very grateful that GMU and the Smithsonian could accommodate my request.

I had the goal at the Smithsonian to learn how it uses social media to offer its resources through educational outreach to students, teachers, and scholars. I spent much of my internship at the Smithsonian reviewing Smithsonian websites and other educational institutions’ websites for features I found interesting and attractive. It was not clear to me what exactly Smithsonian was looking for or for what purpose my research was to be used. However, the Smithsonian does seem like it is refocusing its commitment to K-12 education – the “diffusion” of knowledge as much as knowledge’s “increase,” to paraphrase the words of found James Smithson’s charge – so perhaps the impressions I shared ultimately can help that process.

The WHC project is “a free and open educational resource of high quality, peer-reviewed content for world and global history teachers, scholars, and students,” and is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. As an initial task, I asked to write an electronic lesson utilizing a small series of Europeans’ world maps created in the early modern era. The lesson required finding digitized maps in the public domain, and writing annotations and teaching approaches to using them. I learned of a platform called Juxtapose that facilitates comparison of two digital images, which would be pertinent to comparative study of historical maps. My entry on this topic is online.

I am now in process of developing a second entry for the WHC platform that compares images of historical statues in the United States, Europe, and possibly Latin America, which in the 2010s became assailed as symbols of racism and were subjected to destruction and/or removal. The exemplary statues in the lesson were those of Confederate soldiers in the United States (currently, a statue of “Stonewall” Jackson in Richmond, Virginia) and European colonizers in Europe and possibly Latin America (currently, possibly, a statue of Belgian King Leopold II in Ghent, Belgium and of Christopher Columbus in Buenos Aires, Argentina).

A challenge I have encountered in this second lesson has been locating photographs showing statues’ destruction or removal that are in the public domain or licensable for fair use. Wikipedia and Flickr are the most conspicuous media for legally usable images of recent events, but few suitable images seem to exist there at the moment. I found a photograph of the removal of a statue of Leopold on Reddit, but reviewing that platform’s copyright rules showed Reddit’s assertion of its rights to display and disseminate images users upload to it, and not assertion of any rights among users, like me, of images that Reddit displays. So it is something of a learning experience to try to practice or abide by rules of copyright discussed in one of the certificate program’s courses last year.

HIST 794 post 6: applying coursework stuff in the internship, & comparing theory & practice

The bulk of my internship has involved scouring Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian websites for attractive educational features, and documenting those features in summary reports I have supplied my internship supervisor and her team in the Office of the Undersecretary for Education. I haven’t really had the opportunity to put digital skills
While I haven’t really had the opportunity to put digital skills introduced in coursework to use in the internship, when I explored various Smithsonian websites for their educational content and mission statements, I used Voyant-tools to generate word frequencies and associations as a way to visualize references to and contexts for “education.” And to develop a profile of websites’ best practices, I drew on some course readings as well as websites that courses used as examples.
I think a difference between the Smithsonian’s current educational content practices and prescriptions for effective website content that my coursework offered accrues partly from the duality of the Smithsonian’s great heritage of “increasing” and “diffusing” the world’s knowledge: As, at least partly accurately, reflected in its unofficial nickname “America’s Attic,” for most of its history the Smithsonian has focused on accumulating artifacts. Only perhaps in the last few decades has it given equal attention to sharing those artifacts in ways appropriate and valuable for students. Evidence for this dichotomy shows up on the Smithsonian’s websites, even those pages marked for educational resources, which often seem crowded and may have the effect of overwhelming users, especially students. This disconnection between a museum’s physical collection and what and how it presents artifacts online is probably not peculiar to the Smithsonian.
On the other hand, there have been several consistencies I have noticed between coursework and Smithsonian practices. The Smithsonian’s desire to update its online educational outreach has some parallels to a web revamping undertaken by the National Archives, on which there was a course reading. In organizing collections of resources into multimedia history lessons accessible through the Learning Lab website, I encountered metadata assigned by Smithsonian staff to the resources, which practices I had learned about previously. And a Smithsonian (and perhaps open-access websites generally) practice is the challenge to collect meaningful feedback from users regarding website effectiveness or ease of use. In a course, I built an Omeka platform to house curated historical resources, and originally wished to have a function to invite users to leave feedback and make suggestions for adding resources. The course instructor counseled me about the difficulty of making such a function really operable, and advised instead development of a linked Facebook page, which provides space for users to leave comments as well as for me to announce new content. Likewise, the Smithsonian, while it occasionally organizes teacher focus groups, and has a “provide feedback” pop-up on the Learning Lab pages, does not have a survey that gathers a high volume of feedback from users interested in educational resources.
Probably the central insight from coursework I have kept in mind when thinking about effectiveness of Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian educational websites in is the need to view them from the perspective of target audiences, in this case, K-12 students and their teachers, and, in particular, the different needs of those audiences. Should resources be searchable by users’ grade level, by topic, or by the desired learning skill? Should resources be searchable by discipline – arts, social sciences, natural sciences – or in a way that encourage interdisciplinary thinking? Should “things to do at home” include home school learning activities, or focus on fun, after-school activities?
While audience differentiation and anticipation of audiences’ needs is more complicated than I had thought about previously, studying websites particularly for aspects of educational functionality, I have noticed features that I may have missed in coursework assignments. In reviewing metadata of online resources offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, I noticed some of its font and even content seemed designed for a student audience, which I take as a reflection of the Met’s anticipating a student’s perspective and needs. Likewise, the National World War II Museum has a message on its resources search page to the effect of, “Writing research papers can be hard. We can help.” That also feels like a student-friendly effect.
Meanwhile, drawing on a practice from a course in which I designed a web project, and in light of the fact I myself am not a K-12 student or teacher, I have invited students and teachers I know to visit the Smithsonian’s websites and share their reaction. I have also asked them about what websites they often use, if any, for teaching and learning. No teacher or student I have consulted, so far, has reported a perception or awareness of the Smithsonian as a relevant educational resource. While it is anecdotal evidence, that lack of awareness may suggest the challenge to the Smithsonian’s new educational outreach.

HIST 794 Post 5 – website surveys

In the last month I have compiled two surveys for the Smithsonian Office of the Undersecretary for Education, which it requested as part of its project to revise the educational outreach web pages of the Smithsonian museums, centers, and Learning Lab. The goal is to make the Smithsonian online educational resources more utilizable by K-12 teachers, students, and caregivers – an investment in that part of the Smithsonian’s historic mission to “diffuse knowledge.”

The first survey provided information on user-friendly features of educational content on websites of selected museums and other public history or educational organizations. Determining what websites to study and what features about them to describe was subjective; I was to approach these educational websites as a teacher or home school parent might.
I decided to study a mix of websites of history museums (National World War II Museum, Tenement Museum, US Holocaust Museum), historic sites (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association), art museums (Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum), science museums (The Science Museum (UK), Georgia Aquarium), and a community-building urban project (Gates Foundation #InProcess).
For background materials on effective websites, I drew on materials from prior GMU coursework and some other guidance provided by Ashley, my internship supervisor. These were:
• Brad Baer, Emily Fry, and Daniel Davis, “Beyond the Screen: Creating interactives that are location, time, preference, and skill responsive,” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014, https://www.slideshare.net/bradbaer/museums-and-the-web-2014-beyond-the-screen-creating-interactives-that
• Rachel Gonzalez, “Keep the Conversation Going: How Museums Use Social Media to Engage the Public,” Museum Scholar, http://articles.themuseumscholar.org/vol1no1gonzalez
• International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, “Webby Awards: Education,” https://winners.webbyawards.com/winners/websites/general-websites/education
• Museum Computer Network (MCN), “Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources, E-Learning, and Online Collections,” https://mcn.edu/a-guide-to-virtual-museum-resources/
• Organization of American Historians, “Digital History Reviews,” https://jah.oah.org/submit/digital-history-reviews/
• Tim Roberts, “The Relationship Between Audience and Content in Public History Projects,” blog post, https://timroberts.org/blog/uncategorized/the-relationship-between-audience-and-content-in-public-history-projects-2/
• Lynne Spichiger and Juliet Jacobson, “Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield, The Many Stories of 1704,” Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, ed. Jennifer Trant and David Bearman, https://www.archimuse.com/mw2005/papers/spichiger/spichiger.html

Based on these broad criteria I determined the following features were attractive website aspects that the Smithsonian might consider:
• Warm (brown, yellow, orange, red) colors, not white background
• Slightly large cartoonish icons that look like a carnival and invite clicking (like, “ready? let’s go!”) are appealing
• A different appeal is three-dimensional images of a resource
• Headings that convey and encourage systematic or scientific thinking and problem-solving
• Statements conveying that the museum has anticipated the user’s less-than-ideal circumstances, and can help: generally, ‘choose resources that we think fit specific curriculum requirements’
• Redundancy or multiple portals to a resource is good
• Sense of humor and whimsy
• Have the presence of a docent when education users encounter online exhibitions
• But aspire to users’ “self-constructed knowledge”
• Student-friendly annotative language and fonts/fonts
• Offer interdisciplinarity, inter-museum collaboration, and citizenship training through service learning, suggested additional activities, and models of team (both experts and students) research projects
• Limit to 3-4 options and images on the main web page
• Embed reminders that actual visits to the Smithsonian for education are possible

The second survey provided information on user-friendly features of educational content on some current websites of Smithsonian museums. I decided to gather examples based on the same criteria I had developed for the non-Smithsonian websites.

On that basis, I compiled a list of K-12-attractive features in use by the Smithsonian Learning Lab, the Natural History Museum, the 3D Program, the African American History & Culture Museum, the Science Education Center, the American Indian Museum, the Gardens, the American History Museum, the Air & Space Museum, the Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, the Smithsonian Affiliations, and the National Portrait Gallery.

HIST 794 Post 4

Since December I have focused on developing three lesson plans for high school and college history classes that incorporate the Smithsonian’s Sidedoor podcast, whose explore topics that touch on Smithsonian artifacts and include commentaries by Smithsonian researchers. Developing lesson plans has required learning about features of the Smithsonian Learning Lab’s collections platform, which allows organization of digitized resources from as well as outside the Smithsonian collections. For each lesson plan, I searched for resources that connected with the plan’s theme, wrote an overall description of the topic and lesson, ordered and annotated the resources for how students should encounter them, and wrote interpretive questions to guide students’ thinking. I also indicated learning skills that usage of each lesson plan develops, according to a menu of choices the Learning Lab offers.

While little of this work seems to relate to topics and skills developed in my certificate coursework, this experience has reinforced earlier content that focused on public history’s attention to audience analysis in designing online programs. Yet I have the impression that even (or especially) large if august institutions like the Smithsonian face challenges in gathering feedback on audiences’ interaction with those programs. An activity I have been assigned is to browse Smithsonian websites with the perspective of an educator and provide suggestions for better functionality. Hopefully this may be of value to the Smithsonian office sponsoring my internship.

According to my supervisor, the Learning Lab has also conducted some workshops with teachers in particular schools and school districts in the past, partly to gather feedback on how online resources are used in the classroom. I have attempted to replicate that exercise by asking my own graduate students who are high school history teachers to try out the Sidedoor lesson plans I have developed, though none has bravely volunteered.

As a goal I have of this internship is to learn how a museum like the Smithsonian provided educational resources to users, and whether and how the Smithsonian learns how users use its materials, this exercise with the Learning Lab’s collections has been a first step. The next step is to actually be able to publish the collections so that possible users may explore them. As I have discussed with my supervisor, I hope to get approval soon to publish the collections. The Smithsonian Office of Education, which is my internship host, is currently leading something of a redesign by the Smithsonian to more centrally locate K-12 education within its mission and programs. The redesign process may be a reason for some such hiccups in my internship experience, though it has been interesting to learn about the Smithsonian’s recasting its vision and resources towards K-12 educational outreach, and prodded me to think of ways to ameliorate the Office’s unresponsiveness and the challenge of generating user feedback on resource collections (and of course I can publish the collections myself at some point).

For example, after discussing with my supervisor the concept of learning rubrics in assessing students’ learning (drawing on some literature of Sam Wineburg and Lendol Calder assigned in HIST 689) I asked if the Learning Lab had any rubrics for its collections designed for K-12 students. My supervisor put me in touch with someone in the digital content area of the Smithsonian’s Center for Learning and Digital Access, who provided a rubric. I might have had this document before developing the collections, but it can be a basis for further tweaking now.

HIST 794 third post

In the last few weeks I have spent my internship developing lesson plans using a podcast, Sidedoor, which draws on Smithsonian artifacts to portray stories involving biology, art, history, archaeology, zoology, and astronomy. I was assigned to identify and incorporate podcasts with a historical focus, with the larger purpose to help with a Smithsonian Learning Lab desire to increase public audiences’ usage of Sidedoor.
To date I developed two lesson plans. One studies the status of Hawaii as a US territory, using a podcast about Hawaiian women’s efforts to gain the right to vote. Another studies the early history of Muslims in America, using a podcast about a Senegal man enslaved in North Carolina who wrote an autobiography. Both lesson plans make use of other Smithsonian digitized artifacts relevant to the podcasts’ topics to develop historical thinking questions, which students answer over multiple classes. Each lesson plan comprises a “collection,” maintained by the Smithsonian Learning Lab.
Through revising each lesson plan based on a few reviews by my internship supervisor, I am coming to appreciate how detailed and “user friendly” a digital historian must make an online project to attract teachers and students to use it. For example, I initially wrote all discussion questions in a collection’s summary page. The supervisor showed me a way to attach questions to relevant artifacts, which alleviates users’ need to go back and forth between the discussion questions page and each artifact. Likewise, where I initially included a podcast in a collection-lesson only through an imbedded URL link, the supervisor recommended that the podcast audio file itself be an artifact in the collection-lesson. This inclusion allows users to stay in the lesson the whole time they are working, rather than click on links that take them to different websites.
Thinking about matching online history lessons that develop historical thinking skills with target audiences, I realize that the two collection-lessons described above are suitable for upper division high school and beginning college students, a community of learners with which I am already comfortable teaching. My challenge for another lesson is to develop it to offer skills development for younger students. Can a 30-minute history podcast and Smithsonian artifacts be used to teach eighth graders? After listening to several Sidedoor podcasts, I have found one that focuses on the African American neighborhood of Washington DC, Anacostia, which may lend itself to a lesson targeted to students in the District of Columbia who already study local history and may have particular experience with visiting Smithsonian museums or participating in its various local outreach programs. But, generally, I conclude that Sidedoor is pitched to adults, perhaps particularly older “lifelong learners,” and assume a level of background knowledge and mature listening capability beyond young teenagers.
One solution to this issue would be to develop a podcast series particularly focused on secondary level students. But keeping the commitment to Sidedoor, a lesson plan needs to break the podcast into multiple segments, focus less on interpretive or guiding questions, which are important in the two collection-lessons described above, and more questions asking about specific podcast content.
The collections platform developed by the SI Learning Lab is clearly targeted toward usage by teachers. For example, it offers a menu option for collection developers to identify, for display to users, curriculum-standard history skills on which collection-lessons focus. As a college professor, I am not well versed in history skills that are considered standard by high school and particularly middle school teachers. So to develop a meaningful or applicable lower level collection-lesson requires acquaintance with secondary curriculum development.

HIST 794 Post 2

In the second month of the internship I browsed the websites of fifteen Smithsonian (SI) museums and learning centers to compile background information and compose survey questions about ways each site presents its educational outreach. To do this, I navigated through sites’ “education” or “learn” menu choices, and compiled data on various topics: who target audiences appear to be; whether sites refer to national learning standards or offer curricula; whether sites partner with external museums or offer interdisciplinary programs involving other SI museums’ collections; levels and aspects of interactivity; whether and how education appears in each site’s mission statement and in a five-year strategic plan SI published in 2017. A fringe benefit of this browsing was to come across some cool digital tools I will utilize in an upcoming course on the Civil War: an app, “Ripped Apart,” and an interactive game, “Who Am I? A History Mystery.” I uploaded text from the mission statements of each museum or center and of the SI Strategic Plan into Voyant-tools, and used some of its tools to show the frequency of references to word correlations with the term “education.” Using this data and the survey information, I compiled to write a short document, “Snapshot of Educational Outreach at the SI,” and to generate fifteen survey questions, which my supervisor indicates may be part of a survey the SI Learning Lab circulates among SI facilities for feedback on their educational programs. The Learning Lab, on behalf of the SI Office of the Under Secretary for Education, is interested to learn how the SI offers educational programs now as a basis for identifying best practices and bringing more uniformity to the SI’s educational outreach. After this task was completed, I reviewed the “For Educators” menu of the main SI website to check for broken links and to suggest items that I, as an educator, would expect to find on the page when visiting. The final assignment I had for this month was to browse and listen to the SI’s Sidedoor podcasts and to develop some lesson plans using them via the Learning Labs’ collections menu. The Learning Labs is interested to increase the podcasts’ usage by teachers. I finished a first lesson, using a podcast, “Votes for Hawaiians,” as well as other kinds of historical evidentiary sources I found in the SI digitized archives and at the Library of Congress’s online materials. I hope that collection can be published, so I can tell if it is of use to other educators.

HIST 794 Internship Post 1

Beginning in late October I was accepted as an intern by the Smithsonian Office of the Under Secretary for Education and Access (OUSEA). Within OUSEA, I am under the supervision of Ashley Naranjo ((https://learninglab.si.edu/profile/8), the Smithsonian’s Manager of Educator Engagement and Strategic Partnerships.

My current role as an OUSEA intern is to survey the websites of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo to study their educational content and outreach. OUSEA is developing a plan for the Smithsonian’s future educational outreach. The survey I will administer is intended to gather information about the Smithsonian’s current educational outreach.

I am in the process of exploring websites’ “learning” menu options, sampling lesson curricula, following links to websites of non-Smithsonian partner institutions, observing learning options’ interactivity and level of differentiation of target audiences. That process is the basis for development of survey questions, which, when approved will be distributed to Smithsonian educational liaisons. I am compiling notes from the websites’ review and drafts of survey questions on a spreadsheet, shareable with my internship supervisor.

In learning about the founding of the Smithsonian (https://www.si.edu/about/history), I learned that James Smithson described the Smithsonian as an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  For most of its history, the Smithsonian has focused on increasing its collection of sources of knowledge, an emphasis reflected in the breathtaking variety of the Smithsonian’s 155 million artifacts and their custodial institutions’ research missions and museum facilities’ experiences for visitors.

Nonetheless, one of the four goals of the Smithsonian’s strategic plan is to “be one Smithsonian” (https://www.si.edu/strategicplan), a somewhat paradoxical goal for an institution that has historically emphasized the diversity, not uniformity, of knowledge.

Suggesting the beginning of a new Smithsonian interest in education, in 1976 it established a Center for Learning and Digital Access. The mission of the Center is “to deepen, enrich, and personalize learning by encouraging and supporting the creative use of museum resources through research and collaboration with the education community” (https://learninglab.si.edu/about/SmithsonianCenterforLearningandDigitalAccess), with a focus on K-12 grade students, teachers, and parents.

Reflecting a true digital turn in educational outreach, in 2016 the Center established the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which is the vehicle through which OUSEA seeks to centralize users’ access to the Smithsonian’s educational resources. The Learning Lab wishes to gather information on whether or how various Smithsonian entities may contribute to this goal in terms of educational outreach, particularly outreach through digital media. Currently the Smithsonian has prioritized 19 million of its artifacts for digitization (https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/digitization-smithsonian-collections).

Given the variety of the Smithsonian’s collections and on-going research, I think the most likely way for the Learning Lab to align the Smithsonian’s overall educational outreach, the historic emphasis on “diffusion of knowledge,” with the “be one Smithsonian” goal, is to encourage or ensure adoption of “best practices” across the museums, research centers, and Zoo. The survey will seek to identify such best practices as part of its snapshot of how the Smithsonian currently offers educational outreach.

Presenting the Past: Sixth Piece of the Puzzle

I have now constructed the project on a Google Sites website, provisionally titled, “Contextualizing Lincoln on Slavery, Race, and Civil Rights.” The website has two pages. The first page introduces the project’s historical topic of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, discusses the project’s focus on the historical thinking skill of contextualization, and shows a short list of secondary sources. Most of them are monographs that reach different opinions about Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes about race. One is a book chapter that discusses an earlier case study on practicing contextualized historical thinking in the classroom (which actually uses several Lincoln primary sources as the subject). Another is a book chapter that describes opportunities and examples of text analysis using the Voyant platform.

The site’s second page is basically a direction sheet that students follow to complete the exercise in seven steps. At each step, students journal about their thinking on the question of Lincoln’s racial attitudes, as markers for how interpreting Lincoln’s words in different intellectual and political contexts changes (or doesn’t change) perception of Lincoln’s racial attitudes. The first and last steps are pre- and post-exercise assessments of learning. Between them students read excerpts from a history textbook about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, an excerpt from one of Lincoln’s debate speeches concerning race, and two excerpts on the science of racial hierarchy from medical sources of the mid-nineteenth century. They then perform several directed tasks using different Voyant tools, including correlating a Voyant analysis about Lincoln’s and Douglas’s speech patterns with demographic data about the locations where each debate occurred. After the Voyant exercises, students analyze a political cartoon published after the debates that lampoons Lincoln’s racial beliefs.

There are several questions at this point in the project’s development. The first page is a bit text-heavy, and could function better like a short introduction to a book, rather than the book’s cover. But I am unsure what could function as the project’s “cover.” There are several questions relevant to the topic of “contextualizing Lincoln on race,” which the project could ask, though currently does not, because I am not sure where or how to incorporate them without requiring additional secondary reading. I may need to add such reading at the outset.  The project’s opening sentence asks if Lincoln was a racist. But this may beg the question of whether the word “racist” existed in 1858 (it did not). The project implies that Lincoln feared Douglas’s accusation that he was a lurking abolitionist, but does not ask students to wonder why Lincoln feared that. The project doesn’t really explain why Douglas is now considered to have supported slavery. Earlier I had in mind to use a political cartoon that helps us understand Douglas’s proslavery politics. Since the cartoon appeared in 1854, before the debates, I have nixed that, but may re-build it in to parallel the anti-Lincoln cartoon exercise described above. And the project doesn’t ask students to reflect on the circumstance that Lincoln and Douglas were candidates for political office, so that we should expect them to sometimes lie. Does it matter for the purpose of the project when were they lying about their racial attitudes, and when were they telling the truth?

Another issue is the fact that that project currently is very much driven by steps I have developed for students to follow. There is no room in the exercise for them to explore the Lincoln-Douglas debate texts using Voyant tools they choose to see what they discover. Nor is there room for them to independently explore U.S. Census data about Illinois towns where the debates occurred, some of which is presented in a spreadsheet they use for one of the project’s analyses. These could be empowering, but they could also fizzle and be a distraction from the learning objective, if they try different Voyant tools, or study census data that don’t reveal something meaningful. I could encourage or require them to explore Voyant and/or the Census on their own later in the semester with a different set of texts-I suggested in an earlier post that the texts of modern presidential debates are accessible and could be fruitful.

A final unsolved issue is how to have students reflect on their learning from the project, given that there will be available by the end both pre-and post-project learning assessments, and their accumulated responses to question prompts about Lincoln’s racial attitudes that accompany each step in the project. Should they write an overall reflection paper? Contribute to a blog? Present their project experience at a state history conference? I am not sure of how best to culminate the project.   

Presenting the Past Using Digital Tools for Teaching

Digital tools offer teachers of history several challenges in developing assignments for students that reflect historical thinking. If we consider the Internet a digital took, a basic challenge arises from the instant accessibility of Internet sources upon which students often rely for historical information. A source’s accessibility has become a measurement of its credibility, and even its relevance, to historical research questions. This is a problem almost entirely a product of the Internet age, because research in a school or university library, with its heroic librarians’ due diligence to acquire and make available only generally reliable books, has been rendered obsolete. Undergraduate students instructed to use at least a couple of recent scholarly books, unavailable on Google Books, as research sources are likely unable or unwilling to do so.

An effect of the digitization of access to information, equally reliable and unreliable, on the Internet has caused or contributed to a rethinking among some scholars and teachers about what it means to study history. Traditionally, studying history meant acquisition of historical knowledge, whether for purposes of cultural literacy or formation of citizenship. Immigrants seeking U.S. naturalization must pass citizenship tests that quiz them largely on knowledge of America’s political history, e.g., “How many original states were there?” “What was something Benjamin Franklin was famous for?” and “What did Martin Luther King, Jr. do?” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). The nearly instant availability of answers to these questions via the Internet has informed arguments among reformers in the historical profession to de-emphasize knowledge of facts as a measurement of historical knowledge, and instead emphasize knowledge of and practice in ways of thinking as a measurement of that knowledge.

This re-definition of what it means to study history has, or will have, the effect of diluting the information content in college and probably high school history courses, which continue to be known for their topical, geographic, or chronological focus – “the Renaissance,” “Gilded Age America,” “art in the Cultural Revolution.” Indeed, the logic of this reform is to make a course’s content instrumental or incidental to its emphasis on historical thinking skills. In such a situation, students, to the extent they would use the Internet at all, would do so not to learn, say, who drew the “Vitruvian Man” or who muckrakers were, but to learn how to corroborate the accuracy of an historical website’s information, or to find out how popular an historical website is, who made it, and who uses it (Wineburg). This need to verify Internet websites’ credibility is not necessarily limited to the study of history in the age of the Internet. It would be equally important in any field in the social sciences, and possibly others, which claim to play a role in helping develop a person’s capacity for citizenship, when citizenship is defined as critical thinking skills, not knowledge of the national past.

To focus, therefore, particularly on what opportunities the digitized age may afford teachers of history, this emerging emphasis in history pedagogy suggests that the Internet’s probable most valuable resources are open-source digitized collections of information previously sequestered in remote or even inaccessible physical archives. These resources’ usefulness to scholars is probably the most obvious. But they are also the Internet’s real enhancement of what happens in history classrooms. Ironically not that different from what could happen in a pre-Internet, critical thinking skills exercise, teachers may design research exercises that get students to find and interrogate primary sources in ways that teach historical thinking. Different from answers to questions that students find directly by Googling, database primary sources often do not immediately yield answers, and require further analysis to contextualize them and infer their significance. An additional attribute of digital archives that was not available to students in the pre-Internet era is their possibility for independent research, using the skills they have acquired but with the encouragement to experiment and investigate a database in ways not dictated by the instructor. This is an aspect of digital sources’ usage that databases’ websites often note anecdotally (“Our website has been used for some cool research assignments. The following is only a partial list….”)   although it is not something that literature on historical thinking skills has really emphasized or investigated. Is there a way to measure how digital sources enhance students’ curiosity to conduct independent research and explore their own questions?


U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Learn About the United States Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test (2019), online.

Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71(2016).