Evaluating Websites for History Teachers: Using History Matters in a Graduate Seminar

by Tracey Weiss

May 2001

Teaching Digital History

This article was originally published in The History Teacher 34, 3 (May 2001): 345-352 and is reprinted here with permission.

This past fall I taught a graduate research seminar at Millersville University on “History and Media.” My grand objective in the course was to engage graduate students in an inquiry-based investigation:

What roles are the new media technologies playing in the changing nature of historical practice?

In preparation for the weekly class session, seminar members read online essays, reviewed websites, and prepared written summaries of their “electronic fieldwork.” The class sessions, held in a networked computer lab, were devoted to discussion and presentation of historical, interpretive, and pedagogical issued raised by the course readings.1

For the sake of convenience and convention, historical practice was defined as three distinct, albeit related, enterprises: research, teaching, and public interpretation. The course, as I had promised, was centered on an intensive examination of History Matters, the United States history survey on the Web developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York. As part of our investigation of “Virtual Communities and the Practice of History” in the first unit of the course on Digital Resources for Historical Research,” for example, we compared and contrasted the “Talking History” forums sponsored by History Matters and the “Discussion Forums” organized by H-Net Humanities and Social Sciences Online. We engaged in a lively webchat on the American Quarterly hypertext issue with Roy Rosenzweig and other virtual guests during our final unit on “Digital Resources for Historical Interpretation.”2

Our most intensive exploration of History Matters resources occurred, however, during the second unit of the course on “Digital Resources for the Teaching of History” as we sought to investigate the following questions:

  • What role is History Matters playing in addressing the changing nature of student learning and teacher knowledge and practice?
  • How are new and expanded forms of access to primary materials altering or transforming the practice and theory of teaching?

The eight seminar members were almost evenly divided between those in the first semester of M.A. coursework and seasoned K-12 teachers at the end of their coursework. Jay, Jeff, and Mike, who were veteran teachers working in rural and suburban districts in south-central Pennsylvania, tested the course readings and activities in the crucible of their classrooms. Concurrently completing an M.A. degree and teacher certification, a fourth student, Kevin, played the graduate course material against his professional education and social studies courses. The unit on teaching encouraged the remaining members who were in the early stages of their coursework–Josh, John, Marlene, and Jennifer –to speculate and to hypothesize about the impacts of technology-mediated instruction.

We began our exploration in the archives. Fortified by Randy Bass’s “The Novice in the Archives” from “The Garden in the Machine: The Impact of American Studies on New Technologies,” seminar members were asked to browse the “Many Pasts” archive in History Matters and to select three documents that illustrated some of the possibilities and perils of using electronic archives to engage “novice learners” in the art and craft of historical investigation.3

Effectively incorporating their research interests and teaching responsibilities on the one hand, with the obvious emphasis of the archival collection on the experiences of “ordinary” Americans from 1876 to 1946 on the other hand, the seminar members eagerly selected documents on World War I and on women’s roles at the turn of the century. The veteran teachers immediately identified the challenges posed by extensive archival collections. Reporting on the rich World War I archives (World War I–Trenches on the Web and The World War I Document Archive), Jay observed that “it would require an extraordinary amount of time to read, or even browse, one of the two sites.” He maintained that “teams of students working together would be necessary to do justice to these sites. It would be possible [however] for a teacher to use a very directed study with very guided direction.” 4

Jennifer proposed using excerpts from the clandestine prison diary of National Women’s Party member Rose Winslow (Ruza Wenclawska); an anonymous article, “Experiences of a Hired Girl” from a 1912 issue of Outlook; and a 1908 autobiographical essay in Socialist Woman to launch a unit of study on Women’s Suffrage. The “short and easily readable” documents, she argued, would pique student interest in the nature of women’s roles around the turn of the twentieth century. She also suggested a series of highly focused questions to encourage students to probe the personal narratives more deeply and to open up additional lines of inquiry for individual research projects.5

After this preliminary exercise of outlining individual lessons, novice and veteran teachers turned their analytical attention to “Coverage and Coherence in Historical Narratives: From Assignments to Courses.” They browsed “Syllabus Central” from History Matters and “Crossroads Conversations” from the American Studies Association’s Crossroads Project and selected some dynamic syllabi from both sites for presentation and evaluation in class. Expanded access to primary materials was recognized by all as an obvious advantage of Web-mounted syllabi. As Jay happily remarked, “I got the hippie lifestyle in the 1960s, a WEB Du Bois lecture on the benefits of African American isolation from the mainstream, and a vision of the American Revolution that was new to me in approximately three clicks.” 6

Mike announced that “the biggest change I see is the use of the Web as a supplement and its ease of access to primary materials for students without time or money.” Alert to issues of access and equity posed by Web-mounted classroom materials, seminar members were, nonetheless, curious about the actual use of these “supplemental” resources. Increasing the level of individual student accountability for learning, as one student declared, was another potential advantage of this expanded access to primary sources, yet several seminar members expressed reservations about whether and how this potential benefit was realized.

Reflecting on the incorporation of multimedia resources in David Jaffee’s United States history survey course, Mike concluded that “Ultimately, the student is expected to interpret history to answer the question ‘what does it mean to be an American?”‘ Done well, this would require tremendous critical thinking and writing skills. It would be interesting to examine student work and see if it lives up to such expectations.7

Jeff elected to review the survey courses of Patrick Reagan (American History, 1877-Present) and Michael O’Malley & Suzanne Smith (The U.S., 1865 to 1990) because “both are centered on the time period I teach and would offer two points of view on the same curriculum.” He determined that “it cannot be said that both Reagan and O’Malley allow technology to make any conceptual difference in how the issues of their class are dealt with.” Jeff ended his review with the inference that “Reagan and O’Malley [would] explain the importance of the online explorations that are linked in their syllabi during their introductory class…. depending on the way in which the online suggestions are approached, they may [emphasis added] engage students in authentic, complex intellectual tasks.”8

The graduate students began to understand that using online access to engage novice learners in the analysis of primary materials shifted the gravity of teaching from narrative presentation to directed research.

The annotated syllabi enabled viewers to gain a valuable “behind the scenes” perspective, as one student put it, “on what it was like to structure, assign, and assess a Web-based assignment.” Carefully reading Jaffee’s annotations, Jennifer reported that “what seemed most interesting was that Jaffee tells us that the more his students used the Web, the better their ‘visual literacy’ became.” She observed, further, that “He contends that his assignments have not changed materially, so much as the students’ responsibilities in responding between text and Web has changed their work load and increased their understanding…. [and] that having his students use the Web, along with the text, has afforded them a better understanding of the complexity and depth of analyzing history.”9

It became clear to the seminar that the ability, through hypertext and hypermedia, to “show and tell” (and not just “explain as you describe”) would change both the balance of and the relationship between argument and evidence in a way that clearly foregrounds the latter and makes us rethink the former. As Jay summed his review of the dynamic syllabi “a coherent narrative was present in all the sites, but the voices of the time were also represented.”10

Energized by our virtual look into other teachers’ classrooms, we went back to the drawing board and took another look at digital classroom activities as the final preparatory step before developing lesson/unit plans as one of the major course requirements. Seminar members sampled Web-mounted assignments developed by K-12 and college educators across the country including the American Social History Project’s “Classroom Activities for the New Media Classroom,” NEH’s “EDSITEment Lesson Plans for Home and School,” the Library of Congress’s “American Memory Learning Page,” and the National Archives and Records Administration’s “Digital Classroom” as well as History Matters‘ “Digital Blackboard.”11

Imagining themselves variously as teachers and/or as students as they worked their way through the digital assignments, the seminar members confidently and competently created their own annotations of the lessons. Though their task was to select and evaluate three specific lessons, some also rated the formats and conventions of each organization. Some preferred the realistic timeframes, concise directions, clear objectives, and excellent resources of American Social History Project’s New Media Classroom lessons, while others lauded the Library of Congress’s Learning Page for exemplary standards-driven exercises, separate pages for teachers, students, and supplemental resources. The various analysis sheets found at the National Archives’ “Digital Classroom” garnered praise; as Marlene exclaimed, “Is there anything more essential to learning … than knowing which questions to ask?”12


Having the right ingredients was a necessary, but not a sufficient precondition, however, for creating effective and engaging inquiry-based lessons. Skeptical of assumptions that active learning automatically produced deep student understanding, seminar members interrogated the digital lessons for clear connections between resources, activities, and student learning. “Exploring Ancient Egypt,” the only lesson evaluated by more than two reviewers, received accolades as an excellent introduction to a timeless topic (“Egypt will always capture the imagination!”). The two easily accessed sites used in the activity provided, as Jennifer noted, “ample ‘visual information’ as well as enough narrative to grasp some of the ‘basics’ needed in order to effectively analyze the artifacts.”13

The seemingly simple but carefully sequenced steps, as one seminar member observed, “made students think about what they saw and talk about it.”14

Many of the digital exercises asked students to create conventional historical narratives that explained events as they described them. However, the seminar members all agreed that the extraordinary array of visual images on the Web encouraged teachers to devise lessons that would help students to develop and refine skills of visual literacy. Texts, images, and audio clips were juxtaposed on many archival sites such as the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress and in many of the Web-mounted classroom activities.

This recursive review of individual lessons constituted the turning point of the unit on teaching for several reasons. First, it encouraged seminar members to rethink issues of coverage and coherence (breadth and depth) by asking again:

* How does one effectively use a website to “make” an assignment?

* How would such an assignment “fit” into the rest of a course?

Second, it closed with the investigative spiral which began with “Teachers in the Archives, Identifying Documents,” moved to “Teachers in the Pedagogical Archives: Reviewing Dynamic Syllabi,” then to “Teachers Still in the Archives: Reviewing Lesson ad Unit Plans” and concluded with “Teachers in the Classroom: Developing Lesson and Unit Plans.”

Thus, the strategic and sequenced deployment of History Matters as a curriculum for graduate studies in history enabled seminar members to bring to bear all they had learned about the use of digital resources in the design of their lesson and unit plans.

Members of the History and Media graduate seminar would heartily agree with the declaration of the UCLA Center for History in the Schools that: “perhaps no aspect of historical thinking is as exciting to students or as productive of their growth as historical thinkers as ‘doing history.’”15

The most useful way to evaluate the impact of History Matters (and other new media resources and technologies) on the practice of history may be to ask, “How well does History Matters support and encourage the doing of history?” The “Many Pasts” primary document collection at History Matters is particularly significant as a prototype archive that includes text, image, and audio resources. Moving teachers away from what John McClymer has called a “pedagogy of scarcity” toward a “pedagogy of abundance,” 16 the increased access to primary materials promises to transform presentation-centered classrooms into inquiry-centered workshops where apprentice historians and highly-skilled teacher–scholars explore together the art and craft of historical investigation. Providing windows onto other inquiry-centered workshops (or classrooms), the site’s “Syllabus Central” and “Digital Blackboard” sections are especially valuable. The annotation feature of the former makes visible the teacher’s retrospective assessment of intentions, consequences, and meanings.17 Providing similar annotations of the inquiry-based lessons found at the “Digital Blackboard” would be an invaluable addition for teachers seeking to place historical inquiry at the center of their classrooms.


1 Tracey Weis, Millersville University, History 610: History and Media (Fall 2000) available at:l

2 History Matters: the U.S. Survey Course on the Web,; Center for History and Media At George Mason University,; American Social History Project,; Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine,; American Quarterly: Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies

See the June 1999 issue of American Quarterly for scholarly reviews hypertext articles and brief statements by each authors.

3 Randy Bass, “The Novice in the Archives” from The Garden in the Machine: The Impact of American Studies on New Technologies, available at:

4 World War I–Trenches on the Web,; The World War I Document Archive, Jay Vasellas, in History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café. October 2, 2000.

5 History Matters; Jennifer Sharp, in History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café. October 8, 2000.

6 Jay Vasellas, History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café. October 15, 2000.

7 David Jaffee, City College of New York, U.S. Society 101,; Michael Chermack, History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café. October 8, 2000.

8 Patrick Reagan, Tennessee Technological University, History 202 AmericanHistory,; Michael O’Malley and Suzanne Smith, U.S. history 1865-1990,; Jeffrey Mummert, History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café, October 9, 2000.

9 Jaffee, U.S. Society; Sharpe, History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café, October 10, 2000.

10 Vasellas, History 610 Speakasy Studio and Café, October 3, 2000.

11 American Social History Project’s “Classroom Activities for the New Media Classroom,”; NEH’s “EDSITIEment Lesson Plans for Home and School,; the Library of Congress’s “American Memory Learning Page,”; the National Archives and Records Administration’s “Digital Classroom”; and History Matters‘ “Digital Blackboard”

12 Document Analysis Worksheets, National Archives Digital Classroom,; Marlene Lang, History 610 Speakeasy Studio and CaM, October 15, 2000.

13“Exploring Ancient Egypt,”; Sharp, History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café, October 29, 2000.

14Joshua Grill, History 610 Speakeasy Studio and Café, October 16, 2000.

15 UCLA Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for U.S. History (1992).

16John McClymer, History 260: 19th Century U.S., 1815-1914 available at

17 For a cogent overview of the issues involved in using digital resources in American history and culture classrooms, see Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, “Teaching Culture, Learning Culture and New Media: An Introduction and a Framework,” in “Intentional Media: The Crossroads Conversations on Leaming and Technology in American Culture and History Classroom” published in the Spring/Fall 1998 issue of Works and Days (Vol. 16, Nos. I & 2).


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