Using Digital Technology to Teach American History
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser Article
Building the Better Textbook: The Promises
and Perils of E-Publication
Michael J. Guasco Article
"Scholars will soon be instructed through
the eye": E-Supplements and the Teaching of U.S. History
David Jaffee Article | Appendix
Using Online Resources to Re-center the U.S.
History Survey: Women's History as a Case Study
Kriste Lindenmeyer Article
Pursuing E-Opportunities in the History Classroom
Mark Tebeau Article
Building the Better Textbook: The Promises and Perils of E-Publication
Michael J. Guasco
Whether we like it or not, electronic media have already altered
the ways history is imagined, researched, and presented in the classroom.
Most of the innovations, such as electronic course reserves and
the substitution of Web pages for printed syllabi, are relatively
simple. Many instructors have altered their pedagogy as a result
of technology, employing PowerPoint presentations and the Internet
not simply as educational resources but also as tools they require
their students to master. Students’ expectations have similarly
been altered: e-mail has quieted the office phone and diminished
the crush of eager students during office hours, papers and instructors’
comments often travel back and forth across the Internet, and age-old
excuses have been digitized. The fabled dog who used to eat our
students’ homework has been made obsolete by the corrupted disk,
the computer that crashed, and the printer that refused to print.
Interestingly, however, one significant area of teaching remains
mostly unchanged—the textbook itself.
Several efforts have been made in recent years to alter traditional texts
by packing them with CD add-ons that promise to enhance the learning
environment. Digital Learning Interactive, founded in July 2000,
has taken the task of building a better textbook even further by
creating the Interactive Learning Resource Network (iLrn), which
includes fully electronic "textbooks" in several academic fields.
In American history, iLrn offers the appropriately titled America
Unbound, a somewhat fragmented but comprehensive survey stretching
from the settlement era through the end of the twentieth century.1
Instead of the typical thirty chapters that appear in most conventional
printed textbooks, America Unbound contains sixty chapters
of online text. Each chapter incorporates a brief overview, study
questions, a glossary, a description of the internal and external
readings, and a chronology. Other features include links to interactive
electronic resources containing maps, images, and timelines. This
package also provides space to design course-specific bulletin boards
and calendars and to compile class rosters and exams.
One of the great advantages of America Unbound is that instructors
can easily shape the text in any way they desire. Primary-source
links and interactive modules can be integrated into the textbook-reading
experience so that students can approach the subject matter from
a number of angles. By putting these components online, America
Unbound invites instructors to use their insights and imaginations
to mold their students’ approaches. The tool thus holds powerful
potential for new collaborations between textbook author and course
instructor, and between course instructor and students. For the
students themselves, America Unbound offers possibilities
to highlight text online, take notes in pop-up screens, and participate
in ongoing conversations in course chat rooms monitored by instructors
at all hours of the 24/7 world in which they--and we--increasingly
Where America Unbound aids
the imaginative process most clearly and least conventionally, however, is
in its inclusion of fifteen interactive modules. Many history courses already
feature instructor-designed Web pages with links to outside primary sources
and other special Web sites. America Unbound has elaborated on this
by crafting historical modules that push students to think about contingency,
causality, and multiple perspectives. Some modules cleverly integrate history
with popular culture, as in the presentation of the possible relationship
between L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Populism entitled
"The Wizard of Oz: A Populist Parable?" Here, students can read excerpts from
the book, consider who Baum may have had in mind when creating certain characters,
and see related historical data. For example, readers can select the Cowardly
Lion from a list of characters at the top of the page and learn about his
resemblance to William Jennings Bryan. They can also view a political cartoon,
examine an election map from 1896, and read Bryan’s 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech
to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In "Chicago: Building a
City" and "Route 66: Touring New Deal America," students explore familiar
terrain, perhaps even places where they have been, with a historian’s eye.
Other modules, such as "Choosing Sides: Colonial Social Groups on the Eve
of the Revolution," are simply fun to play with and could easily be worked
into the classroom setting, thus extending the collaborative process.2
At the same time, much is familiar about this textbook--even its
interactive potential. Although there are nearly two hundred primary
sources here, most of them can be found online in the public domain
for free. To take but one example, at the History Matters
site, more than 750 primary sources are available through just one
portal. Quantity does not necessarily equal quality, but in this
regard the accessible documents in America Unbound are generally
uninspiring. Some pleasurable exceptions, such as Richard Henry
Dana’s Two Years before the Mast and Twenty-Four Years After
and Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, reach toward social and
cultural history, but many of the sources here are the usual speeches,
party platforms, and other political documents.3
Before the instructor begins customizing, the actual text of America
Unbound (the raw material) has the characteristic strengths
and weaknesses that lie in any attempt to be all things to all people
by offering chapters that variously emphasize political, social,
economic, biographical, and cultural themes. But because iLrn has
"unbound" the text, instructors can determine which chapters they
want to use in their courses. This selectivity, however, comes with
a price. The chapter entitled "Virginia Settlement" offers a concise
political narrative of the period between the settlement of Roanoke
and the dissolution of the Virginia Company in 1624. But it does
not tell the reader much about a seemingly crucial issue--the interaction
between the colonizers and Native Americans. That subject is instead
taken up in greater detail in a separate chapter, where a more textured
presentation of Anglo-Indian relations appears. Greater awareness
of the difficult relations between Indians and Englishmen is also
manifest in two of the interactive modules, which allow students
to point-and-click their way through timelines, images, and maps
dealing with Jamestown and the larger history of Native Americans.
Historical subtlety--perhaps an ambitious objective in the typical
American history survey course--is quite possible with the use of
this text, but in order to achieve that goal professors must work
diligently with America Unbound instead of simply relying
on their students to use it as a reference work. Instructors need
to extend their attention to the text itself.
The purveyors of America Unbound
promise to "let students take control of their own learning experience," but
this is perhaps more problematic than it may at first seem. Traditionally,
students have been guided in their reading of textbooks by the thesis, theme,
or point of view that authors and publishers provide to give coherence to
what might otherwise degenerate into a meaningless sea of data. One of the
virtues of the typical printed textbook is the narrative thread that binds
together a story. In America Unbound’s quest for flexibility, however, the authorial perspective
has become difficult to discern, a problem that is highlighted by the simple
fact that it takes some effort to discover that Richard D. Brown is the author
of the survey. In this case, I had to e-mail iLrn’s customer support division
to verify my suspicions. Other historians have participated in the construction
of the modules, I was informed, but they remain curiously anonymous. The organization
of the material also emphasizes this problem. The survey lacks either an integrated
search engine or an old-fashioned index, so it can be difficult to find information
about some issues that would appear in several different chapters treating
different time periods. I wonder whether college students would be as patient
as their instructors if they had trouble locating something in the text, or
if they would simply give up.
If not compensated for by the
professor, the absence of a well-integrated historical narrative also makes
for occasionally dull reading. In its bare electronic form, America Unbound
presents American history as a series of separate compartments that can be
manipulated easily. Consequently, depth of analysis and narrative prose have
been trumped by historical "bullets" and electronic links of uneven quality.
To take but one example of the collapse of historical narrative, in the chapter
entitled "Territorial Expansion: 1820–1854," one section details the federal
government’s limited resources to develop western territories in a style that
reads like talking points. In four one-sentence paragraphs, readers learn
that "the nation already had more land than it could use," that "government
officials regarded most U.S. territory west of the Mississippi River as a
distant frontier area for Native Americans," that the "development of roads,
topographical surveys, and forts in much of this region was still years away,"
and that "the federal government was small and had little capacity to maintain
order in the territories it already owned." There is little in these statements
to offend historians, but its presentation only encourages the idea that history
is simply a collection of things to memorize, rather than a creative and energetic
discipline involving interpretation and, occasionally, a good yarn.
Because the producers of this text take special pride in being completely
detached from the traditional hardbound-text format, one cannot
help but wonder about some of the things that the people at Digital
Learning Interactive chose not to integrate into their presentation.
If one of the strengths of the text is its adaptability, its biggest
limitation is that it is still much like a standard printed text.
Electronic media promise great rewards for energetic instructors,
but just how different would the history survey course be for students
using America Unbound rather than a printed text? To be sure,
there would be more bells and whistles, but would the learning environment
be enhanced? For example, one of the things the Internet and CD-ROMs
do very well is promote interaction with video and audio sources,
as well as with the printed word. Here, however, we still cannot
see or hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech. When
reading about popular culture in the 1920s and 1930s, shouldn’t
students be able to listen to an excerpt from the "War of the Worlds"
radio broadcast or see Charlie Chaplin shamble down the street?
Wouldn’t it be more compelling if students could hear their lesson
on jazz music, rather than read the lyrics of two blues classics
from the 1920s? Creative instructors can provide (and for decades
have provided) such video clips and audio lessons on their own,
but some textbook publishers have also packaged precisely such sources.
The Who Built America? CD-ROM, assembled by the American
Social History Project, for example, contains several hours of audio
and forty-five minutes of film that would enrich any survey or upper-level
America Unbound ultimately has enormous potential for use
as an exciting text but, like the introduction of technology into
the classroom in general, does not automatically pay dividends.
Many students remain unconvinced of the superiority of the digital
format itself. When I used an earlier version of this text at Oberlin
College in fall 2000, my students were not wholly impressed. When
queried, they said that they liked and admired the flexibility of
an electronic text; interestingly, however, they insisted that an
old-fashioned bound-paper textbook was, in their words, easier.
The two most common assessments were that (1) they liked being able
to haul their textbooks around with them more freely than the online
text allowed and (2) they did not like reading from the computer
screen. Lacking both a completely wireless learning environment
in which electronic notebooks are as common as the three-ring binder
and a screen resolution that is easier on the eyes, I suspect that
my students' reservations will continue to be borne out elsewhere.
For those instructors who, perhaps, only grudgingly make any textbook
available for their students and then never again make reference
to it, there may be no great benefit to this or any other nontraditional
approach to the packaging of history for undergraduate students.
With that in mind, however, instructors who are inclined to integrate
texts into the classroom more completely will almost certainly be
quite pleased (especially if the physical resources of their institutions
support their efforts). But those who choose to adapt this electronic
text can also expect that their attempts to make it a collaborative
component of their courses will be time-consuming and perhaps unrewarding
if their students do not meet them halfway in the educational process.
America Unbound, as my Oberlin students were quick to note,
is neither a better mousetrap nor "easier" than other
textbooks. It does have advantages, but they will only become manifest
with time and with the efforts of dedicated and talented instructors.
Editorial note: The resource reviewed in the preceding
article is no longer available. April 10, 2003.
Michael J. Guasco is a visiting assistant professor of history
at Davidson College.
2 L. Frank Baum, The
Wonderful Wizard of Oz (New York, 1900); William Jennings Bryan,
"Cross of Gold" speech, [July 9, 1896], Douglass Archives
of American Public Address <http://douglassarchives.org/brya_a26.htm>
(Nov. 20, 2002).
(Nov. 4, 2002); Richard Henry Dana, Two Years before the Mast
and Twenty-Four Years After (London, 1869); Horatio Alger, Ragged
Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks (Boston,