Publication Date

May 1, 2018

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Undergraduate Education


Digital Methods, Public History, Teaching Methods

Historians readily agree on the importance of our discipline to building an engaged citizenry, but faculty often struggle to impart this idea to students who have learned history through lists of names, dates, and dry facts. As I have found, students can enjoy opportunities for civic engagement in general education courses by combining digital tools with content knowledge and skill-building assignments.

Students created Clio entries for sites in Jacksonville, Illinois, including the town’s historic Ferris wheel. Angela Sayler/Courtesy Jacksonville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Students created Clio entries for sites in Jacksonville, Illinois, including the town’s historic Ferris wheel. Angela Sayler/Courtesy Jacksonville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

As they settle into college life, students in my first-year seminar—Is There an App for That? Doing Digital History—work with the mobile app Clio to learn digital history methods, network with community leaders, and develop a sense of place. At Illinois College (IC), a private, liberal arts college in Jacksonville, Illinois, first-year students participate in learning communities, in which discipline-specific seminars are paired with either English composition or public speaking courses. Working with Clio, a crowdsourced app, students conduct original research about their community that everyone who uses the app can access. But since the course is paired with Chris Oldenburg’s Speech Fundamentals, students take their work with Clio one step further by presenting it to community organizations using newly acquired public speaking skills.

Created by David Trowbridge of Marshall University, Clio lets users find nearby historic sites with their smartphones. The app is free for Apple and Android, and it uses familiar resources, like Google Maps, to pinpoint sites and create tours. The highly intuitive interface guides students through the process of creating an entry, while a variety of tools allow for instructor oversight.

My growing interest in digital history spurred the creation of the course. In 2014, Illinois College was awarded an NEH Challenge Grant to build a state-of-the-art archival facility. Thanks to the generosity of the Council of Independent Colleges’ Consortium for Digital Resources in Teaching and Research, I was part of a team focused on outreach through digital collections. I initially hesitated to involve first-year students in that work, but Clio offered an ideal entry-level platform. I wanted students to not only learn technical skills, but also to take on a local history project that would develop their research capabilities, promote civic engagement, and foster a connection with Jacksonville, the students’ home for the next four years.

Still, I was nervous about how it would all play out. I would not describe myself as an expert in digital history and didn’t know if I would be able to handle the technology. I also wondered how the students would respond to the idea of doing research on Jacksonville (founded in 1825), though it harbors countless historical gems. Students in first-year seminars have yet to declare a major, but rarely do they intend to study history. More often than not, they arrive skeptical that history has any practical applications outside of the classroom. Over the course of four years, they will enjoy numerous extracurricular opportunities for community engagement, and the completion of a curricular civic engagement unit is required for graduation. Students are introduced to this institutional expectation during their first weekend on campus. As new students, however, they’ve not yet connected concepts of service with studying the humanities.

Both times I taught the course, we began the semester by touring campus, which features historic homes and the original college building from 1829. We then took field trips to local historic sites, including a house museum, the Governor Joseph Duncan Mansion, and a historic post office currently undergoing renovations to become the Heritage Cultural Center Museum. The students completed a scavenger hunt around the downtown square, visited wayside exhibits managed by the Looking for Lincoln commission, and combed through goodie bags of tourism pamphlets provided for free by the Jacksonville Visitors and Convention Bureau. The students readily observed that the people of Jacksonville not only appreciate local history, but they bank on historical tourism for economic development.

In developing Clio entries, students conducted research at the campus library and archives, as well as at the Jacksonville Public Library. In fall 2017, the students also hosted David Trowbridge, who provided feedback and helped the class understand what motivated him to create the app. For most of the students, publishing their work online marked their first attempt at writing for a public audience. This challenged them to negotiate competing narratives and to distinguish between much-beloved local myths and history.

Chris Oldenburg reinforced the public nature of the Clio project through the study of rhetoric and audience-appropriate language in Speech Fundamentals. He and I created several shared assignments that we graded and assessed separately: students wrote outlines for speeches, they revised multiple written drafts, they gave informative speeches about their Clio entries at midterm, and they worked in groups to give persuasive speeches to a public audience. For that final speech, they researched their audience and developed an appropriate message for a specific business or institution. Our careful and clear collaboration helped students understand that their success in my course depended on developing public speaking skills in Chris’s.

One assignment added professionalism and project management to the skill sets students could develop through the project.

In fall 2016, students did not engage with community organizations until they presented their work at the end of the semester. As small groups of four students, they spoke to the Morgan County Historical Society, the Morgan County Historic Preservation Commission, the marketing and admissions departments at Illinois College, and the Noon Rotary Club. Initially, the four students who presented at the Rotary Club were puzzled as to why their audience of business and civic leaders would want to know about Clio. Yet simply attending the lunch meeting was an education in civic engagement. They learned how Rotary members supported one another professionally and raised money for community projects. For lunch, they were seated at the same table as the director of the Jacksonville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, who immediately saw potential in the project. After their presentation, a representative from Jacksonville Main Street, a local economic development organization, approached us about developing a historic walking tour of the downtown area.

Building on this suggestion for fall 2017, I required students to collaborate with three different community groups that stood to benefit from an online tour. The first group of students worked with Jacksonville Main Street to create a tour of town square murals that depicted events in local history. The group paired with the Morgan County Looking for Lincoln Working Group helped develop a tour of wayside exhibits about the 16th president’s time in Jacksonville. And a third group worked with the college’s admissions department to develop a historical walking tour of the state’s oldest degree-granting institution. This added professionalism and project management to the skill sets students could develop through the Clio project. Each group met their community partner three times throughout the semester to learn about the organizations’ specific needs and receive feedback on their project.

The final component of the project was assessment. Because learning how to receive constructive criticism is an important aspect of college-level work, students needed to understand whether they were successful in conveying their message. In 2016, students developed an audience survey that revealed the value of their work to the community. The majority of audience members had never heard of Clio, but following the presentations, 63 percent said they would consider using the app for their business or organization, and 78 percent indicated they would use it in their leisure time. Many responded enthusiastically with lists of sites and monuments to feature in future entries, and several indicated an interest in future collaborations.

In 2017, students assessed their projects by writing press releases. With guidance from the IC marketing department, they interviewed their community partners and members of their audience, described their work to general audiences, and revisited the historic value of their project, as well as the importance of their work to the community. The press releases were subsequently synthesized and posted on the college website, providing a secondary publishing opportunity.

Audiences, including civic and business leaders, educators, historians and historic preservationists, and other professionals, responded warmly. Jacksonville mayor Andy Ezard was particularly excited to learn about the app as Illinois celebrates its bicentennial in 2018. He said, “With the development of the Clio app for our area, it gives Jacksonville the opportunity to become more modern while still promoting our past.”

Overall, students in 2016 and 2017 were enthusiastic about the project. At the end of the semester, they indicated that Clio strengthened their historical understanding of the local area and thereby their connection to Jacksonville and to Illinois College. As one student wrote, “[Clio] made me feel that I have roots here.” Working with Clio also helped the students gain a deeper appreciation for the role of historical research in civic engagement; as one student remarked, the community presentations showed her “how people actually use history for economic development.” As they honed a variety of skills, from historical research and writing to public speaking and marketing, they came to appreciate the broader applications of history outside of the classroom and as a vehicle for civic engagement.

Jenny Barker-Devine is an associate professor of history at Illinois College.

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