|Author:||Mark S. Newmark|
|Title:||A Call for a New Generation of Historical Web Sites|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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A Call for a New Generation of Historical Web Sites
Mark S. Newmark
vol. 2, no. 3, November 1999
|Article Type:||Computing in the K-12 Levels|
A Call For a New Generation of Historical Web Sites
Mark Newmark's "A call for a new generation of historical web sites" assesses the ability of the current structure of the Internet and of historical web pages to serve history teachers of school-aged students. The article critiques a number of historical web sites to achieve a better understanding of the criteria that should guide the construction of historical web pages. That critique leads to the conclusion that teachers will be better served by the Internet when web designers create web pages which are age specific, in which the content parallels the whole curriculum taught in courses, in which the content is of manageable depth, and in which the content is presented in teaching-centered form. The article concludes with a brief discussion of the role that broadcasters, textbook publishers, software manufacturers, distance learning organizations, universities, boards of education, school districts, individual schools, and individual teachers might play in the development of future online historical materials.
Online expeditions offer a wealth of information previously undreamt of. So vast are those resources that the Internet is often billed as an "information superhighway." Trouble for the history teacher of school-aged students is that the sheer number of lanes makes online travel daunting and frustrating. No less problematic is that the exits along that information superhighway seldom lead to where one wants to go.
Take the experience of James, a high school teacher of ancient and medieval history. James' classroom has just been connected to the Internet. He is teaching a unit on Alexander the Great next week and sees the Internet as a great resource for augmenting his class' study of Alexander. One big attraction of the Internet for James is that it can allow him to escape from the isolation of his own classroom. Accordingly, he hopes the Internet will give him ideas as to how he might construct his class' study of Alexander. In addition to looking for some neat ideas about how he might approach Alexander, James hopes to use the Internet to acquire a few resources that his students' textbook lacks. In particular, James is looking to the Internet to give his students a couple of different perspectives on Alexander (hero, villain, madman), to give his students a visual feel for Alexander (through images of Alexander on coins and sculptures), and to give his students a sense of place (through some maps showing the course of Alexander's travels). The basic resources James is looking for are on the Internet. Whether James will have the time, patience, and acumen to find them is a different matter.
The Internet is a vast set of inter-connected computers, serving a whole range of constituencies. Its breath-taking breadth is the Internet's greatest asset; that breadth is also its greatest shortcoming for the teacher of school-aged students. Teachers generally have quite specific objectives: to impart a particular aggregation of information, understandings, and skill, and to do so in a fixed period of time. The increasing adoption of state standards is making these objectives all the more pronounced. Recall James' wish list: a couple of ideas about how he might approach Alexander, some maps showing the course of Alexander's travels, a few visual representations of Alexander, and a couple of different perspectives on Alexander. As compared with the college instructor or the Hellenistic dilettante who may really seek as vast a collection of resources on Alexander as possible, James' wants are quite limited and predictable. Further, the resources James requires will almost certainly be of a different level of complexity than that of the college instructor. We do not expect ninth graders to read college texts any more than we expect college students to read ninth grade texts. There is surely something pedagogically unsound about a virtual library in which all age levels are referred to the same texts. The vast, open-ended, and unpredictable design of the Internet is, then, almost antithetical to the rather discrete, closed-ended needs of the history teacher of school-aged students.
Individual web sites can, of course, compensate for some of the shortcomings in the Internet's design. A web site can be constructed to meet the exact needs of teachers, providing a carefully limited amount of information appropriate to a particular and age level and presented in connection with an activity, rather than as stand-alone items. Few web sites have been so constructed. Instead, web sites have been stuffed with historical information in the belief that the more one puts there, the better the chance that there is something on the site for everyone.
The Problem of Overstuffing
About.com at http://www.about.com/ suffers from this overstuffed design. The information at About.com is extensive and the site designers have done an outstanding job of categorizing information. The site has one web page devoted exclusively to Ancient History and that page in turn contains hyperlinks to 31 sub-topics such as Calendars, Celts, Cleopatra, Death/Afterlife, Rome: Early, and Rome: Consuls. One of the 31 sub-pages under Ancient History is Alexander the Great. The Alexander sub-page turns out to link to yet 37 other pages on Alexander. Wonderfully organized as the About.com site might be and rich in resources as those subsidiary sites might be, 37 hyperlinks on Alexander is sure to be an overwhelming number for our history teacher, James. One suspects that About.com was not designed specifically with history teachers in mind.
Those few sites which supposedly make history teachers of school-aged students the target audience tend to suffer from yet other diseases: under-inclusion and/or haphazard organization. Take for example the site of the Academy Curricular Exchange for High School Social Studies at http://ofcn.org/cyber.serv/academy/ace/soc/high.html. As of September 15, 1999, the site contained a list of hyperlinks to only 96 lesson plans. The lesson plans are presented in laundry list fashion, with no system of classification to make them accessible. Thus a link to a mini-lesson on search & seizure laws.(HS), is followed by a mini-lesson on Civil War & Emancipation. (HS), one on the role of government (HS), and one on Americans living abroad. Would our high school history teacher James really have the patience to go through this list of 96 lesson plans in the vague hope that there might be one on Alexander? The lesson plans on Ask Eric are similarly unstructured and un-comprehensive. As of September 15, 1999, the social studies site at http://ericir.syr.edu/Virtual/Lessons/Social_St/World_history/index.html had 18 hyperlinks to lesson plans. Many of the lesson plans would seem to be helpful. But how many teachers have both the time and fortitude to sift through the list of lesson plans in which a second grade lesson plan on Ancient Egypt is followed by a sixth grade lesson plan for the study of Brazil and a middle and high school study of chess as metaphor for society?
Organization of Online Resources and Curriculum Pathways
Large organizations are providing some excellent models for how to organize educational materials for history on the Internet. PBS has created some wonderful materials on Alexander the Great which are very much along the lines of what our school teacher James is looking for. In 1998, Maryland Public Television produced a delightful series called "In the Footsteps of Alexander with Michael Wood." PBS created a web site to accompany the program at http://pbs.org/mpt/alexander. The web page has all the information that James, wanted: maps showing Alexander's progress, visuals of Alexander, and several different perspectives on Alexander.. That information is presented in the form of a short, lively, encyclopedic-style narrative in which detail does not interrupt the narrative, but rather is obtained via hyperlinks embedded within the narrative and in a section independent of the narrative called "Resources." The narrative is complemented by a "Teachers Guide", a compendium of just the sort of clever ideas about how to approach Alexander the Great that James had sought.
Helpful though the PBS site may be for James and his class' unit on Alexander, the PBS site will not meet most of James' future needs, as PBS' teaching units stem from only a few of the programs it broadcasts. The PBS site may, however, serve as a model for the type of content, amount of content, and level of content optimally presented.
Creating a whole line of online resources which will help a teacher through the entirety of his or her course is a considerable enterprise, especially when trying to create different sets of resources for different age levels and different subject areas. Textbook manufacturers are developing web sites with just such online resources. Glencoe, for instance, is building up a set of resources at http://www.glencoe.com/sec/socialstudies/links/world/index.html. Software giants are also undertaking the task. Microsoft has designed an extremely well-organized set of geography & history lesson plans at http://www.microsoft.com/education/curric/activity/geo.htm. While textbook and software giants have developed wonderfully organized containers for material, their cupboards are still quite bare. Microsoft, for example, had only nine geography & history lesson plans as of September 15, 1999. An online set of resources called Curriculum Pathways contains he most ambitious collection of well-organized, course-specific web pages which contain a careful pre-selection of Internet resources with age-appropriate content that is presented in a teaching-centered form. Curriculum Pathways is the product of the SAS in Schools Division of SAS Institute, the world's largest privately-held software company. Information about Curriculum Pathways may be found at http://www.sasinschool.com/software/pathways/pages/pathways.shtml. What one will find at that site is that Curriculum Pathways was developed with high-school-aged students in mind and has different pathways depending on the subject matter being studied. At present there are pathways for math, science, literature, and history.
The history pathway breaks off into five main forks, one for Ancient Civilizations, one for Early Regional Civilizations, one for Modern European History, one for Contemporary World History, and one for United States History. Go to one of those sub-categories, and one is presented with a manageable number of sub-topics. For instance, under Ancient Civilizations there are seven sub-units: one on Prehistory, one on Ancient Egypt, one on other Ancient Middle Eastern Civilizations, one on Ancient India, one on Ancient China, one on Ancient Greece, and one on Ancient Rome. Within each of these sub-sections is the good stuff: lesson plans for how to use online resources to study the topic, lesson plans for how to approach the topic without the use of computers, links to a manageable number of web sites that have been seen to be especially useful and age-appropriate, and some suggestions for assessments. Curriculum Pathways presently has a unique combination of assets. It covers a number of historical topics through well-organized, course-specific web pages which contain a careful pre-selection of Internet resources with age-appropriate content. Moreover, material in each unit is presented in a teaching-centered form.
My own indirect connection with SAS Institute prevents me from being an objective evaluator of the SAS in School's Curriculum Pathways product. I teach at a school founded by and funded by the heads of SAS Institute and their wives. It is that connection between the school at which I teach and SAS Institute which allowed me to examine Curriculum Pathways in the first place. I might, though, briefly note a few of the drawbacks of Curriculum Pathways. Unlike most online resources for teachers, Curriculum Pathways is not free: clients must purchase access to the resources, which are then made available to the client either over the Internet or through the client's intranet. Its expense may make Curriculum Pathways cost-prohibitive or financially punitive for many schools and school districts. Further, its curricular areas are far from comprehensive and its present target audience is only high school-aged students.
What I would emphasize about Curriculum Pathways, though, is that it demonstrates the viability of a model in which the content of web pages is age-specific, 2) the content parallels the whole curriculum taught in a course, 3) the content is of manageable depth, and 4) the content is teaching-centered. There are of course a number of different possibilities about how such content is developed. It may be that individual teachers develop the content on their own; it may be that university scholars develop the content on their own; or it may be that large organizations such as PBS, SAS, Glencoe, and Microsoft orchestrate the development of curricular materials. There are also a number of possibilities about how content is collected. Perhaps broadcasters such as PBS will organize entire study units. Perhaps large software manufacturers such as Microsoft and SAS Institute will organize entire study units. Perhaps textbook publishers such as Glencoe will offer a full suite of online materials to complement their textbooks. Perhaps specialized distance learning organizations such as About.com or The Florida High School http://fhs.net/FHSWeb.nsf/Home?Open will assemble the range of full online course materials. Perhaps individual schools or school districts will get into the compilation business on a large-scale. Finally, it is still very much up in the air who will publish the materials and under what terms. Will individual teachers be the publishers, individual schools and school districts, state boards of education, software companies, broadcasters, textbook companies, specialized distance learning organizations? What will be the relationships between developers of materials, organizers of materials, and publishers of materials? Will materials be offered for free, for a flat fee, or on a pay-per-service basis?
For those of us seeking to develop, compile, and offer curricula online today and hoping to position ourselves better for tomorrow, the present challenge seems clear: to shift from seeking to cater to the largest possible audience to a paradigm in which smaller audiences are targeted and the selling point of the curricula is more on how carefully material has been excluded than on how comprehensively and copiously it has been included.