Last week, I talked about the benefits of using Twitter as a platform to share work and news in the historical community. The organizations and individuals I have found on Twitter have proven time and again the potential of online platforms for reaching audiences and peers.
That being said, how are scholars using “the web” to author original content or collections of historical material in the form of archives or class sites?
Reference sites such as besthistorysites.net list dozens of active sites separated by field, time period, and theme. From public organizations like the National Archives or the Library of Congress, to academic sites from universities such as George Mason University, the size of the history web is vast and growing.
One site that caught my attention was one designed by the College of Education at the University of Houston simply titled “Digital History.”
After exploring the website, it became clear to me that Digital History satisfied many of the advantages of the medium that David J. Cohen and Ray Rosenzweig listed in their book, which is also titled Digital History–that is, non-linearity, interactivity, and accessibility.
Choosing Your own Adventure
On the site’s home page, users can utilize a table of contents to search through material by historical period or topic, as well as by function, such as lesson planning, interactive activities, or multimedia. Additionally, by clicking on any one of the historical periods (such as the Progressive Era), users can access a wide range of period-specific materials– pdf files of primary source documents, music playable by stream on a popup tab, art and photographs, handouts or quizzes, to name a few.
These functions grant students and teachers the ability to pursue topics on a chosen path, with opportunities to interact with different kinds of sources and media along a self-guided, nonlinear path.
Additionally, Digital History goes to great length to connect students and teachers with other websites or digital archives that are either drawn upon or that offer additional information they may find useful. “Resource Pages” provides links to primary source material on third party sites–such as the “Famous Trials” archives developed by the University of Missouri, Kansas City–that focus on more specific topics related to American history.
In so doing, Digital History both makes its own resources more readily accessible to both students and educators, while also introducing its users to a larger network of historical and digital humanities materials and websites.
Digital History is, however, not without its flaws.
Though it seems to promote interactivity with students, the technological requirements of the website make it difficult to access all of Digital History’s features. For instance, some “eXploration” modules with activities designed for student input require using a specific version of the Windows Media Player to access content.
Although the authenticity or accuracy of the site’s historical content seems consistent, it becomes clear upon closer inspection that it requires further maintenance and updates. Some of the links to featured archives of primary source material, for instance, failed to connect to the original archive’s website.
Furthermore, it seems as though the site’s creators sacrificed opportunities for greater interactivity with their target audience for quality control.
According to Digital History’s “Credits” page, the site was a collaboration of professors from the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Hawaii. Nowhere is it indicated whether student-created content or feedback was utilized in the design of the site.
Thus, the well-curated store of sources and activities of Digital History remains a one-way style of learning (from its creators to its audience). To avoid fatigue or passivity on the part of students, the sites’ creators should seriously consider opening up opportunities to publish user-created content, such as projects that utilize their collected material or student-led, original research.
Overall, Digital History represents a good history website that could better serve as a hub for digital humanities. Its vast content and use of third-party sources is certainly a great resource for historical education. If it were to provide more opportunities for input to the public it serves, however, Digital History would go much further toward making education not just digital, but communal as well.