Published Date

January 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “Discovering American Social History on the Web” by Dan Kallgren.

As a member of the Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age project, I developed and implemented four web modules for use in my U.S. history survey course (see the assignments below). The course was a “second-half” survey, focusing on American history from Reconstruction to the present. From the beginning, I wanted to develop modules that fit logically within the broader scope of the course and highlighted in depth some particular aspect of American society that we would be studying at the time. I wanted students to be able to actively engage in some “real” historical research; studying and analyzing primary sources, drawing conclusions from that analysis and preparing and supporting an argument based on those conclusions. I also wanted to expose the students to a wide array of historical sources, so I sought out a variety of materials. I presented the four projects to the students in class, in paper form, generally one to two weeks before they were due. I encouraged the students to work in groups of up to three people. The projects, when due, served as the basis for class discussion for that week. I encouraged students to present their finding to the class as part of the class discussion, though I did not require it. At the end of the semester I gave the students a rather open-ended evaluation form (see below) and received some very helpful comments.

How did the plans work out in practice?

I was generally pleased with the way the modules I developed worked out in practice, with some caveats. The students responded generally favorably to two of the projects, and were not so thrilled about two of the others. For the two projects that did not work as well, the students mentioned two problems. The first was a lack of clarity in what I was looking for. This was in regards to the Kennedy executive orders assignment. In this assignment I told the students to see if there were major themes from Kennedy’s New Frontier agenda which were contained within his executive orders. Some students felt they did not know enough about the Kennedy agenda to do this adequately, others, I think, were simply a bit intimidated by the materials. The second problem was with a certain amount of “obviousness”, for lack of a better term, and this was in regards to the project using the historical USGS topographical maps. In this project I asked the students to compare maps from at least three different years in the same area looking for how the landscape changed. I then asked the students to connect those changes to historical events or processes we had discussed in class or read about in the text. A certain number of students thought that it was all a bit obvious – the population grows, the landscape gets more crowded. The lesson learned on my part from the Kennedy project was to be as clear as possible in what I wanted students to do with the material and provide students with as much background information as possible beforehand. The lesson from the mapping project was to model for the students ahead of time how I would address the project, and give them some more suggestions on some features to which they should pay particular attention.

The other two projects, one on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the other on the Anti-Saloon league, worked well. The students seemed to particularly like the connections between the assignment on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and a novel we were reading at the same time, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Below are some comments gleaned from the student evaluation form that I think speak to what worked well with the projects:

“Helped us to relate to the topics we were studying at the time. Kind of a visual reminder”

“I like the fact that they gave an insight into those areas which would not have been gained through the text or notes. It made me really have to think about those projects.”

“They helped to reinforce what we were learning about in class.”

Did the primary sources you chose help you achieve your educational objectives?

The primary sources did help me better achieve my educational objectives. One of the key objectives I have had for the past few years has been to better instill into students the idea of what historians do, the idea that history is something that historians create, not just passively uncover from the past. Along those lines, I have tried to instill into my students critical thinking skills, particularly looking for patterns and arguments that can be made using materials from the past. These primary sources gave me the chance to turn students loose and let them do some real historical research, see if they could come up with some of their own answers to historical questions, and not simply digest something that was prepackaged. The students generally caught on to this, and enjoyed it. I think they gained a better understanding of what history is (and is not), and how historians go about doing the work of history. Again, some comments from the evaluation:

“They (the projects) were much better than just reading a book.”

“I liked the “investigating” – going through all the different levels or aspects of information – Do more of them!”

“I liked the fact that you can see different aspects of history (other than in a textbook) and be able to look at those aspects in a way that is more hands on.”

What role did technology play? Did it help you convey content (more) effectively?

To my satisfaction, the students picked up right away on the role that technology played in this project. One thing that I think the technology fostered was group work. As I mentioned above, I suggested that the student work in groups, and several of them commented that they liked that. As part of a group they were able to exchange ideas and thoughts as they went through the sources. Most of our students are very internet savvy, and I think they appreciated the chance to put that ability to a constructive use.

“I think it’s about time a professor has included the internet within the classroom because the internet is a part of all our lives.”

“I thought it was fun because I have never had to do anything for school before on the internet like we had to do in here.”

“Things that were not available or easily accessible through the library were in these internet sites.”

“It was an interesting way to learn about these subjects. I also learned a lot more about how to use the internet.”

How well did it help you teach cognitive skills?

I think the projects worked well in teaching cognitive skills, at least as well as a traditional document text, and probably better. The nice thing about using the internet was the variety of sources available. For example, the historical USGS topographical maps are generally not available unless you are at a large research university. The variety of materials helped students to think differently about what an historical source is, and challenged me to come up with ways to present and help students learn about how to use these different sources.

What worked? What went wrong and why?

In addition to my comments above, I think the students seemed to get the most out of sites that had a variety of materials from which to choose. Also, I realized that I provided clearer instructions as to what they should be on the look out for on some of the assignments, and not on others. The students did not like the more open-ended projects I assigned. In addition, I realized that simply because I found something interesting or intriguing did not mean that the students automatically would! The mapping project was one I was personally very interested and excited about, and one that generated less student interest. Oh well! I still think the maps are a great historical resource and convey a lot of interesting information about major changes in American society in the first half of the twentieth century. I plan to tinker with that assignment, taking into account the student feed-back, and see how it can be improved upon.

Did the technology work better with certain kinds of primary sources?

I think the technology worked very well in bringing together a variety of sources – text, images, sound – in one place. Also, the technology presented complex images well. The map site I used was very well done, with a great amount of color and detail provided.

What will I work on, or do differently in the future.

I have already touched upon a number of changes I plan to make. In addition to those already mentioned, a number student suggested trying to find local source material to work with, and I will seek out those in the future. In general, I plan to do more modeling of the process and procedure for the students in the future, spending time in class reviewing some of the materials, and showing them how a trained historian would begin the research process. Beyond that, I plan to integrate more of these in my classes, and am excited to see the final results of this project.

The four projects we had this semester were

  1. Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
  2. Anti-Saloon League
  3. Mapping Suburbanization
  4. Kennedy Executive Orders.
  • Please rank the 4 internet projects as to their “success,” meaning you learned the most, got the most out of it, was the most interesting, etc.
  • What, if anything, in particular did you like about the internet projects?
  • What could have made the internet projects better, more interesting, more useful?
  • What should I change about the internet projects if I were to assign these again?