This Week in Digital Pedagogy Readings: website reviews

This week I’m reviewing 2 RRCHNM projects for a digital pedagogy readings course:

Historical Thinking Matters
strengths:
*Consistent module structure and repetition in tasks. Students would be able to familiarize themselves easily.
*Teacher educator lessons have a lot of good stuff on how to encourage historical thinking, like questioning and sourcing.
*Offers audio/video of scholars discussing key issues or sources
*Guided questions walk students through how to read sources.

weaknesses:
*Warm-up and inquiry sections: sourcing directions more general than the questions posed—not sure how this reinforces questioning/thinking as opposed to reading for content/facts/simple comprehension.
*Also not a lot of help with how to write the essay, just what to write about. Seems to jump students into the deep end without much scaffolding of how or why historical thinking is important.
*The relationship between sources isn’t clear beyond their placement within the same module.
*Very text heavy: no more than 1 visual primary source per unit and student work is always written responses.
*Timelines can be abstract: for example, the Spanish American War timeline starts at 1500 and jumps significantly through time in a way that doesn’t make connections immediately clear.
*Design: home page is messy, navigation isn’t intuitive (ie: double nav bars at top & bottom; font styling is goofy; header picture doesn’t immediately connect to site content/purpose)

Imaging the French Revolution
strengths:
*good number of images (42) selected. site visitors are able to use a tool to compare images, enlarge them to see details, and layer them on each other.
*the “Essays” section presents formal scholarship (complete with footnotes), whereas the “Discussion” section shows the conversations the 7 scholars had over different thematic issues. Good for showing students how historians craft interpretations and talk about methods. Each comment in the discussion threads are far shorter than the essays, so it’s easy to get a quick sense of the debates.

weaknesses:
*This site would work as a reference or supplemental material for a class, since it highlights scholarship and historiography, and basically puts long-form writing up on the web with a clickable gallery of images.
*The integration of the images into the essays is inconsistent, which gives the impression that they are of lesser importance than the site would suggest.
*Navigation between the Essays, Images, and Discussion sections is not easy or intuitive. Sometimes the images referenced in the essays are embedded next to the text, and sometimes not. The site would have benefited from a clearer and more prominent “how to use” blurb;
*Design: The saturated red, white, and blue throughout was a bit overwhelming for prolonged viewing of the site.

Conclusion: The sites reviewed above serve different purposes: one explicitly pedagogical and one scholarly. Both mostly achieve their goals. Historical Thinking Matters provides a structured way of working through 4 key moments in American history, keeping what it means to engage in historical thinking foremost in mind. Imaging the French Revolution works at pairing the scholars’ views on using images as important sources for studying the French Revolution and the images themselves up on the web along. It’s a significant resource for students and teachers who are looking for material in this area to see how historians think about images and craft interpretations. The weaknesses I identified above stem in part from my expectations of user experience and design that shouldn’t takeaway from what the sites achieved. Rather, they suggest ways that these projects could be retooled or new projects could address.

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