Publication Date

February 1, 1997

I teach the honors section of the two-semester sequence in Western civilization for the history department and the University Honors Program at the University of South Dakota. Nearly all of the fine students in this course take both semesters with me and grow accustomed to the unusual problems I set them. Last spring I had them develop a multimedia project entitled "The House the West Built." Working in groups of about five persons each, the students selected and researched some aspect of Western civilization and presented their results on the World Wide Web. They used text, graphics, sound, and video coded in hypertext markup language (HTML) readable by common browsers such as Netscape, Mosaic, and Internet Explorer. Thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of my students, this project succeeded in presenting the fruits of traditional historical reflection in innovative ways, using existing computer- and Internet-related technologies as well as those under development. Other educators may find my model useful in working with their own students.

The January 1996 issue of Perspectives carried a series of articles about multimedia presentations in the history classroom, the nature of the World Wide Web, and historical resources on the Web.1 Some of these articles also explain how to browse the Web and create Web pages. In what follows I shall assume the reader’s familiarity with the concepts and tools described there. Most educators will be able to consult their local computer experts for further assistance, and many university Web sites include pages of instruction about establishing Web sites on the local network (see USD’s site at or I also recommend as a starting point “New Tools for Teaching” ( by James J. O’Donnell, a pioneer of cyberspace technology in education.

As I browsed the Web in preparation for writing this article, I searched for similar student history projects. Most of the information on instructional technology—and there is a great deal of it—concerns ways for teachers to use the Web. Surprisingly, I found very few projects that students prepared, and all of those had originated in composition courses. For a fine example of a class project go to "Once Upon a Tune in the Eighties," at, with reflections by the instructor, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, and links to other projects. See also the index of student writing for the Web, "Writing for the World," at I know of no history projects by students on the World Wide Web.2

The Assignment

The assignment under discussion constituted one of the four projects my students did in the spring term (the others were traditional papers; the syllabus for the course is available at I divided the students randomly into nine groups of four or five members each. Each group developed a theme that treated some aspect of Western civilization. I encouraged the students to use any material they could write, scan, record, photograph, or videotape. I told them to have fun with the project, but warned them that its purpose was not to dazzle visitors to the site with technological bells and whistles, but to develop a cogent and elegant critique of some aspect of Western culture. I gave the students the assignment on January 11 and required them to submit their projects by April 12. We launched the various projects over the next few days, and the completed Web site was up and running for USD's spring festival, IdeaFest, where the students demonstrated it in the showcase for undergraduate research during the week of April 22-26.


My purpose in setting this assignment for my students was to go beyond using computer and Internet technology as a tool for my own teaching and research and make it a resource for my students and a vehicle for them to present their work. The fastest growing, most universally accessible medium of communicating ideas that scholars in the humanities have ever enjoyed, the World Wide Web requires new ways of formulating intellectual problems as well as of presenting their solutions. Moreover, the medium entails new sorts of problems relating to the influence of computer and communications technology on human life and thought. I further expected this project to excite the interest of the students, as in fact it did. Finally, I wanted my students to have the experience of working within groups on complex problems.


When I first met with the class in the fall of 1995, I told the students that they would have to procure handouts such as syllabuses, study questions, and documents from my own home page whose address or Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is From my home page they could also follow links to sites of related interest around the world. I wrote the URL on the board and asked the 43 students whether they understood what it was. A few students raised their hands. In fact, it turned out that only three or four knew how to gain access to the World Wide Web, so I gave the entire class a brief lesson about using a Web browser. Several students came to my office for further help. By the end of the year only one student—someone who joined the sequence at semester break and who depended on his fellow students for this assignment—had not learned how to browse the Web. Students can pick up the requisite skills quickly on their own and by helping each other; they do not need much formal training.

I presented the multimedia assignment to the students at the beginning of the spring term and established the nine groups in the second week I told them that they were responsible for establishing the content of their projects and for assigning responsibilities within the groups but that I would work closely with them to tum digitized text, images, sound, and video into the final presentation by marking up their projects in HTML. I had secured production assistance from Interactive Technologies in Education and Corporations (InTEC), an institute in USD's School of Education, whose director gave an introductory lecture on multimedia production to my class and helped individual groups to prepare storyboards, or a series of rough sketches, of their ideas; scan images; and digitize video. I had already acquired proficiency in HTML editing and so decided to produce the projects directly in HTML, sometimes using Microsoft Word's free HTML add-on, Internet Assistant. One could also use the presentation software described in the January 1996 issue of Perspectives, either to create multimedia presentations directly in HTML for posting on the Internet or in proprietary formats readable by browsers with the appropriate add-ons. InTEC’s page on educational technology at has additional details on these aspects of using HTML.

Students at USD have ready access to relatively new machines running Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, and to Macintosh computers. On these machines the students can prepare the textual material for their presentations. Students have access to additional equipment at InTEC including Macintosh Quadra 950 and PowerMac 8500 computers, Hewlett Packard and Apple scanners, equipment for video capture, and a QuickTake digitizing camera, as well as DeskScan, Photoshop, and Adobe Premiere software. Most of these machines and sites have direct connections to the university's research and education network, COYOTENet. I did the HTML editing on my desktop, a 90 MHz Pentium multimedia computer with a direct connection to COYOTENet.

Through February and March we tool occasional class time for the groups to meet briefly while I circulated among them to check their progress. I warned the students that they would have to start early and meet often because they could not get a group of several people together and consult the staff at InTEC on the eve of the due date. I suggested that they take some time to browse the Web and see what others had done, and I pointed out that visitors to their Web sites would not linger on a page with nothing but great expanses of text. That is, the projects had to take a multimedia approach, and that approach, in turn, affected choice of topic and character of presentation. I insisted that each group have a topic selected and a rough idea about how the presentation would look before the midterm break at the beginning of March. By the second week of April I was spending several hours a week outside class with the students. To encourage cooperation within each group, I built a component of peer evaluation into the grading of the assignment (60 percent my evaluation, 40 percent fellow students'), but in fact I found no significant problems with each student doing his or her share of the work.

I instructed the students to submit their completed and digitized materials to me by April 12 in DOS file format with a storyboard. I expected to spend the following days coding, assembling, and launching the projects. One of the students had already written Web pages, and she launched her group's site, Students in two other groups became excited enough about creating Web pages to learn HTML, and they too launched their own sites. In the end, I had to mark up only six of the projects in HTML. Even so, I spent much more time than I had expected, for two reasons. Some groups had not adequately and concretely thought out how they wanted their presentations to appear and so did not give me enough information to tum their disks into Web sites. I resolved this problem by conceptualizing the presentations myself and then having the group vet what I had done. Some groups gave me files that were not compatible with my PC; in such cases I sent the files back to their computers to be converted to the proper format. I spent six to eight hours marking up each project. By April 15 the site was substantially complete, and I launched it by transferring it to the university's server so that it was available to the world. The next day we met in a computer lab, and each group presented its site to the entire class. To our relief and delight, almost everything worked.

Until this point only my students had access to “The House the West Built.” Therefore, copyright issues did not come up. I think that, within the context of a course, the fair-use clause of U.S. Copyright Law permits students to incorporate copyrighted items into their projects (InTEC has a useful collection of documents and links on the issue of copyright and the World Wide Web at Before making the site available to the world, however, I felt obliged to secure permission to use copyrighted objects. This process proved far more time-consuming than launching the site. Responses from copyright holders who had posted images on the Web came quickly and almost always positively. I found it much more difficult to secure permissions from copyright holders via the mail; most of those I wrote to responded negatively or simply not at all. Such images I have deleted or substituted with an equivalent for which I could secure permission. Therefore, current visitors to the site will not see exactly what my students planned. In addition, sites move or disappear over time, and not all links that work in May 1996 will continue to work in the coming months.

The Project

Visitors to “The House the West Built” first arrive at an introductory screen that presents the project and makes acknowledgments. They can click on the "openings" in the image of the facade of a historic building on USD's campus to visit the individual projects. If one clicks on the doorway at the bottom of the picture, for example, "The Evolution of Philosophy" comes up. Its main page has decorative elements, a picture of the authors, a list of linked sites elsewhere on the Web, a bibliography, and text that explains the purpose of the site. Within that text one can click on key phrases or links that go to secondary pages on Greek and Roman philosophers, rationalism and empiricism, existentialism, political philosophers, and socioeconomic theories. Each of these pages has pictures of the relevant philosophers. The students who created this site gave me a carefully prepared storyboard that showed me exactly how to assemble each of the files on their disks into the completed site. They also gave me hard copy indicating the location within the texts of pictures and links to other sites on the Web. I had only to convert their texts to HTML documents, insert photographs, and establish the hypertext links from one document to the next. I did not edit the texts themselves except in a few instances in which there were egregious errors, Seven months of writing papers for me had already inculcated a certain consistency of style among the students.

Another project surveys the influence of religion on art through a virtual auction of selected works, complete with the auctioneer's chant (as background sound, which currently works only on Microsoft's Internet Explorer for Windows 95, as far as I know), Visitors to other projects can survey Renaissance Florence (this site includes a video taken from the top of Brunelleschi's dome) or medieval England; take a whimsical tour of world architecture; explore the Museum of Western Civilization (it would be possible to hear excerpts from classical music at this site if not for copyright restrictions); and study mythology or the education of women,

Results and the Next Project

Beyond setting the problem and facilitating its execution, I saw my particular responsibility as ensuring the depth, sophistication, and the technical quality of the presentations. Superficiality is the danger of multimedia approaches to education, and the necessity of guarding against it will enhance students' critical skills.3 I insisted that the multimedia dimension of the project constitute not a seductive end in itself but a tool for persuasive and interesting presentations, While the completed projects do vary depth of content and sophistication of analysis, none of them in fact succumbs to the tendency toward discontinuity in a point-and-click world where the visitor to a site decides what link to follow from any given point. My students were clever and hardworking enough to make the new medium serve a message that retains its traditional humanistic orientation.

When we started, the students faced the assignment with some trepidation but great excitement. The course evaluations, in the end, indicate an overwhelmingly positive response to the project. It was fun to do, interesting, valuable for learning about the Internet and about working with other people. Some students objected to the group experience, wishing they had selected their own groups or worked alone. A few wished that they had had more technical instruction, and one said that it was "not an appropriate project as this was not a class in computer science. Several evaluations concluded: "I hated the multimedia project at first but when it was done I liked [it]."

Next year I plan to organize a similar project for my students, with a focus on revolutions and the utopias they aim for. I shall begin to introduce HTML editing and other technical aspects of Web site creation in the fall term and require the students to have written their own home pages before I set the multimedia assignment in January. And because I expect to make the project accessible to the world as soon as I launch it, I shall require the students to secure permission to use copyrighted items. One can watch the progress of the new project by occasionally visiting my home page ( I am always willing to respond to questions or comments; e-mail me at

Editor's Note: Those who have access to the World Wide Web can visit this project at and also take advantage of the links to Web sites of interest.


1. Saul Cornell and Diane Dagefoerde, “Multimedia Presentations: Lecturing in the Age of MTV”; Andrew McMichael, Michael O’Malley, and Roy Rosenzweig, “Historians and the Web: A Guide,” “Using a Web Browser,” and “Creating Your Own Web Page”; Mark Pitcavage, “History on the Usenet: The People’s Forum”; Sara Tucker and Mark Kornbluh, “The H-Net Teaching Resources Archive”; and “The AHA Home Page and Beyond,” Perspectives, January 1996. The McMichael, O’Malley, and Rosenzweig articles are available at https://web.gmu/chnm/beginner.html.

2. George P. Landow created a site, “The Victorian Web” (, which has a counterpart in Brown University’s Storyspace Cluster, a collection of hypertext documents not yet accessible on the Web. I understand that this counterpart contains material generated by his students.

3. For reflections on the lack of content and continuity in multimedia writing from the inside of the industry, see Paul Roberts, “Virtual Grubstreet: Sorrows of a Multimedia Hack,” Harper's Magazine, June 1996.

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