Internship 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.

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