Reflective Essay

As a member of the Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age project I developed and implemented two Web modules for use in the World History Survey course. My university uses the quarter system and these lessons fit in the middle quarter that deals with the medieval and early modern periods. I taught the modules twice and revised the project between the two offerings. What follows, then, records my reflections for both of those sets of course offerings.

For this project I wanted to develop lessons that helped students "do" history. I wanted them to work actively with primary sources and, in particular, I wanted to help students

  • learn how to puzzle through visual primary sources for historical meaning
  • interpret the past based on sources that sometimes conflicted with one another
  • learn to see and compare themes within and across civilizations

Because my cluster was focused especially on primary source interpretation, I wanted to make use of the large number of visual images available on the Internet. So, while I have always assigned textual primary sources (and continued to do so in these two course offerings), I was especially interested in presenting and helping students learn to analyze visual primary sources as well. I also had some very particular pedagogical interests regarding how history students (and professional historians, too) evaluated visual materials.

Pedagogical Goals

First, I suspected that the often-asserted notion that students nowadays are better with visuals than they are with texts was really only true (if at all) when it came to cultural references with which they were familiar. In a world history survey (and especially with sections dealing with a remoter past?), though, the cultural references were nearly always unfamiliar. So, how "good" or "bad" would today's students be with visual primary sources? Could a video-savvy generation turn that acuity to the past, even if they had to struggle to understand meaning and context, or was context nearly everything?

Secondly, by exploring the past through both visual and textual primary sources, I wanted students to evaluate for themselves that old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words. Indeed, I wanted students to think about and clarify in their own minds what sorts of information different primary sources could yield. Moreover, would they turn to visuals only to confirm what texts had already told them, or, could we use both sorts of sources to problematize one another?

Finally, there is now a substantial literature about the different functions and nature of the internet as a unique and distinct medium - for information delivery, for the performance of tasks and as a point of direct experience.1 The first time I taught the Web site I used the internet only as a means of information delivery. Functionally, there was no difference between my lessons on the Web site and lessons based on pictures photocopied (or slides shown) and handed out in class. Initially, that was intentional - I was concerned that not all students would have ready or reliable access to the internet and I wanted to be able to duplicate on paper what I had assigned on the Web. But, there is more to the internet experience than just a place to get information - I had experienced as much myself. Yahoo-style directories and that nifty e-commerce feature of collaborative filtering ("others who bought what you did also bought x, y and z") had significantly shaped how I searched and, most importantly, how I grew to expect to find information I wasn't sure even existed. Could this clicking and browsing one's way to connections be incorporated in a world history survey Web site and, if so, how?

Some have noted that by allowing students to point and click their way through a complex Web site, students not only can control the pace at which they explore the material but also are constructing their own narratives about those materials. Historians in particular have been concerned about this aspect of the nature of the internet because, for us, chronology matters. Student control is one thing, but control that can obfuscate or confuse important chronological or logical links will not help. Would there be a way to encourage self-directed discovery without jeopardizing logical or chronological essentials to the course?

Key theoretical and practical help came from a professional information architect - that is, someone whose job it is to construct the navigational structures, hierarchies and taxonomies of searchable Web sites.2 We decided on a new design for the Web site—one that would not compromise course chronologies or the overall narrative structure of the course but which would provide the necessary format to encourage student "play" with associated terms and themes. The resulting Web site structure, it turns out, not only helps students make connections and see new themes they hadn't realized were even there (and, thus, improves classroom discussions and student essays) but also turns out to function as a means for teaching students how to brainstorm. I had never imagined that brainstorming could be taught - in the past, I had just told students to just jot down any ideas that came to their heads. The structure of this site, though, encourages controlled free-associating or purposeful brainstorming. As Adams puts it "it is no small irony that taxonomies, rigid organizational structures, facilitate the mental zigzag of leaping from idea to idea. Taxonomies, hierarchies, etc. encourage creativity because they provide a structure end-users may react to and play against."3 This was by far the most exciting aspect of this latest incarnation of this project for the AHA.

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

The sources did help to achieve my objectives. Students became adept at analyzing both visual and textual primary sources. They also learned the critical importance of context. They enjoyed and learned a great deal from treating all primary sources as if they were puzzles to be "solved" - not to the extent that there was "a right answer" but that each source could yield particular kinds of information. Learning the advantages and limitations of different kinds of sources was a key lesson mastered. In addition, close scrutiny of art images made students better with texts - better even than students in classes where only textual primary source had been assigned. The opacity of visual representations made even thorny texts seem more readily revealing of information and more easily analyzed. Finally, it was classroom discussions and eventually preparations for a paper that exposed the brainstorming qualities of the site.

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

Yes, I believe it did. Showing visual representations in class is good, but having students work with the images for class discussion and then for exams and papers is better - better because they can take charge of what they see, better because they can refer to it and in this latest version, better than any textbook could be. Most of my students were unfamiliar with the internet but knew that it was something important and looked on this course as an occasion to learn some of the basics of surfing, but also were very excited by how much they could gain from a close examination of visual sources at all.

How well did it help you teach cognitive skills?

I've found nothing as good as this combination of assignments and discussions for improving students ability to critically evaluate sources and, eventually, to interpret those sources for what they reveal about fundamental assumptions of past civilizations. Even the better prepared students imagine on the first day of class that primary sources act as a kind of answer key to the past - that is, that source analysis is a process by which one hunts for a transparent answer. Ten weeks later, no one imagines primary sources are so simplistic, and all have a sophisticated appreciation for the advantages and limits of different kinds of source materials.

What went wrong and why?

The first time I taught this project was, frankly, a technological nightmare. My site was only partially loaded and technical support at my university was too little and too late. Equally frustrating, students were ill-prepared for Web-based assignments. Nearly half the class did not own a computer, most had never used the campus computing centers and only 5 of 35 students had ever surfed the internet. By the following year, student preparedness was moderately better, but (more importantly?) I was considerably better. The revised and improved site was up and working, I knew to expect difficulties and had acquired a classroom with ethernet connection, computer and projecting screen. Still, there were bugs...

Some students had old browsers and usually very old hardware/slow processors and found that the site loaded either incompletely or only painfully slowly. None of my students knew that upgraded software was available free from the internet or how to download it. We did that in class. Indeed, much of class time was given over to explaining basic computer skills, and I was still relatively unprepared for the time that that would take. My lectures (usually 45 minutes long) routinely were shaved to 25 minutes. That is not a problem in and of itself, but, since I do not use a traditional textbook, this meant that the course narrative was severely truncated. The remaining 75 minutes, though, did not always go to substantive class discussions of the material but to basic computer skills issues.

Students also sometimes had trouble with the keywords and found them frustrating because they didn't do what they wanted them to do. That is, they wanted the keywords to be definitional rather than merely suggestive or evocative. In a course where so much emphasis is placed on their own interpretive efforts, some longed for the certainty of lectured and readable "answers".

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

First, I want to develop modules/Web pages on Indian, East Asian and American visual primary sources. Secondly, I may reconsider assigning a traditional textbook, so that students have a ready reference book. I will also need to continue to review in some detail basic internet conventions (i.e., what do you do at a Web site, how can one interact with a Web site) and want to review more thoroughly the questions raised in their homework assignments in class discussions.


1. Academic literature about the Internet first examined the similarities between poststructural literary theory and digital tools. See, for example, George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1992; George P. Landow, Hyper/Text/Theory, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1997; Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances and Audiences from Codex to Computers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1995.
More recently, cultural studies scholars have explored the intersection between "living online" and questions of identity, sexuality and physicality. See, for example, Donna Haraway, Modest-Witness@Second-Millennium.FemaleMan-Meets-OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience, (New York: Routledge), 1997; Margaret Morse, Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1998; Claudia Springer Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age, (Austin: University of Texas Press), 1996; Patrick D. Hopkins, eds. Sex/Machine: Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1998; Sue-Ellen Case, The Domain Matrix: Performing Lesbian and the End of Print Culture, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1997.
Usability engineers, information architects and librarians, too, have made important contributions by moving the debate to more pragmatic concerns: Web site structure, navigational paths and indexing knowledge. See, for example, Patrick Lynch, "Ten Fundamentals of Web Design," Visual Logic [a Web site]; Jakob Nielsen, "How to Read on the Web,", (Oct. 1, 1997) available from:; Argus Associates, Argus Center for Information Architecture, available from:

2. Katherine C. Adams is an information architect in private industry. She has published extensively on this issue in a variety of professional and business journals. See, for example, "Immersed in Structure: the Meaning and Function of Taxonomies," v. 3, no. 2 (Aug. 2000) Internetworking and "Automatic Classification Tools and Animated Taxonomies: Representing Knowledge in Enterprise Portals," v. 10, no. 5 (May 2001) KM World. She may be reached at

3. Ibid., "How Taxonomies Ease Knowledge Retrieval and Facilitate Associative Learning," IBM, Make It Easy Conference Paper, June 2001.