Digital History: Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Research
Created and maintained by Steven Mintz, Sara McNeil, and John Lienhard
Digital History: Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Research is an extensive web project by John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History Steven Mintz in combination with John Lienhard, M.D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Sara McNeil, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. It is designed to engage students more forms of media and actively immerse them in the learning process. This website is a large compilation of multiple historical tools, documents, links and multimedia of American History.
Professor Mintz has written extensively on the history of the American Family, culminating in his recent work, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. Mintz's focus on children has brought him to reassess the learning and teaching process in American schools. Mintz has made admirable strides toward taking into account the ways in which students can and should interact with historical works. His personal website reveals his commitment to making history interesting to freshmen through the use of new tools, presumably including his Digital History site.
Professor Lienhard is known for his weekly radio show on NPR, Engines of our Ingenuity, about technology in American history, as well as his numerous books on engineering and social impact.
Lienhard and Mintz combined their efforts with Dr. Sara McNeil to guide the teaching and learning process specifically oriented to the internet.
Digital History is an impressive project. It is an ambitious use of multiple digital tools, bound together through a central website. It includes links to a digital textbook, original documents, multimedia, reference and online exhibits that are available for multiple uses. Digital History acts like an online museum of historical works, but also includes a broad collection of reference tools including original documents, teachers' tools and transcripts as well as audio of book talks given by important historians. The enormous array of resources is impressive--at first.
As the reader investigates further, one loses track of the purpose of the site. The site confronts the reader with a wide selection of avenues of inquiry based on educational level (teacher or student), interest (research, history profession, film trailers, active learning, etc.) or ethnicity (Asian Americans, Enslaved Voices, Mexican Americans and Native Americans). The "Credits" link brings the reader to the vast array of historically related material including primary documents on slavery, historical maps, and timelines of the United States as well as more information on the teacher opportunities presented by the site.
At this point, the web site, while a bit disorganized, was manageable. However, following the link to the "Maps" section brings up a long page (equivalent to 22 pages of print) of historical maps. There is no search function, so the user must rely on the author's organization of topic, era or geographic region. Each map is not an internally held map, but instead a link to an outside page containing a "historical" map. The accuracy of some of the maps is questionable and there is no one consistently linked site, such as to the historical map database at the University of Texas, leaving the reader wondering about all of the links. Many of the links are broken, revealing an unmaintained site.
It is difficult to understand the weakness of this project given the authority and funding of the site with partnerships ranging from the Chicago Historical Society and The Gilder Lehrman Institute to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the National Parks Service. There are several other weaknesses of this website as both a digital repository of information for researchers and as a teaching tool.
The website is promoted as a database containing over 1000 annotated documents supplemented by primary sources and over 100 teaching modules on various subjects of American History. Unfortunately the database does not have a search function. The user is asked to browse by topic for the correct information they are seeking. When locating the sitemap, the user is given a near duplicate of the link table located on the left of every page.
Another weakness is the presentation of information. Clicking on "Ethnic Voices" brings up a page of "Ethnic America". The first available link is under Immigrant Voices--Primary Sources and African American Voices. The user might think the links point to primary sources of African Americans, possibly including documents of Fredrick Douglass or Sojourner Truth. Instead the user is guided to a link tree (ordered by chronology and topic) all relating to slavery. The African American experience is reduced through this site to the history of slavery.
Historically speaking, this site is difficult to use. There is no clear authorship of the annotated documents. The only authors given in any part of the site are Mintz, Lienhard and McNiel, but the quantity of text betrays their implied authorship. Without clear authorship, the historicity of documents is easily questioned.
It is important to note that there are several fantastic aspects of this site. One is the interactive timeline that provides a slider and map of the United States and multiple icons that appear as the slider is moved. The icons relate to the nature of the event such as cultural or political. The map can be crowded and confusing, but the icons provide links to more information about the events.
Another great part of this site is the variety of sources available. Not just text, but multimedia video, audio, web games, teaching tools, handouts and resources are available. Teachers and students can benefit from spending time sifting through the resources available.
There is also a resource called "Ask the Hyperhistorian" that provides a link to post questions to Steven Mintz regarding anything historical. This is a good bridge between those who are outside of the profession to get an insight into what historians do. It also is an opportunity to consult an authority beyond the likes of Wikipedia for historical answers. An archive of past questions and responses are posted, but there are no dates of posting or responses, so it is unclear how usable this resource is.
While a bold move, Digital History attempts to do too much. The collection of resources and information are reminiscent of a filing cabinet stuffed to the brim with information. If you know what drawer to look in, you might be pleasantly surprised with your results, but finding exactly what you are looking for may be a daunting task.
With some reorganization and the implementation of a search/index tool, this web site might be an incredibly useful tool. As it is, there is too much information, unsorted and thus unusable to make this site recommendable. This website can be quite a learning experience because it forces one to consider all of the work that must go into a good website and what others will say if your work is close to being great, but not quite.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: April 2007