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Journal of American History

Using Digital Technology to Teach American History

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

Building the Better Textbook: The Promises and Perils of E-Publication
Michael J. Guasco

"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

Pursuing E-Opportunities in the History Classroom
Mark Tebeau

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 live.

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 lecture course.4

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.

Readers may contact Guasco at <>.

1 Richard D. Brown, America Unbound: Colonial to Present (e-book) (Medford, 2002) <> (demo module) (Nov. 20, 2002).

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 <> (Nov. 20, 2002).

3 History Matters <> (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, 1868).

4 Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream," speech, [Aug. 28, 1963], The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project <> (Nov. 11, 2002); "War of the Worlds," adapted and prod. Orson Welles, CBS radio broadcast, [Oct. 30, 1938], WOW Home <> (Nov. 11, 2002); Roy Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America? Part II: From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946 (CD-ROM) (Fairfax, 2002).