Two of my History classes recently completed assignments that took the shape of team-produced, online web modules using the ArcGIS StoryMaps platform, intended to present and analyze a historical topic for a wider public audience. In each case these final projects served in lieu of a standard term paper or exam and spurred the students to carry out original research connected to the themes of the class. I opted for this kind of group-based, online assignment because it offered the students an unusual chance to work collaboratively—to see their writing and research intersect with others, and then to revise and improve as a team. Beyond that, it pushed them to think differently about the audience for their work: not to think about writing simply for me (i.e., for a grade), but rather to imagine a wider, global public, and to think about how they could reach (and teach) anyone who might happen upon their website.
History 215, Catastrophe: A Global History of Natural Disaster
During fall semester 2018 I worked closely with the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, particularly with Cathy Person, the educational programs coordinator, to design three visits to the museum. Students visited the Kelsey’s exhibit on Pompeii, and also a temporary exhibit about several urban sites that had been under strain in the ancient world. Each student identified a single artifact to analyze in a short essay, stressing course themes relating to questions of disaster, hazard, vulnerability, and resilience. Several students later submitted these essays for the museum’s Jackier Prize competition for undergraduate archaeological research (and two of them won!).
These individual student essays then became the foundation of a team-based final project. Working in groups of four, the students crafted thematic “modules” to connect our class readings to the Kelsey materials, and to reflect on the connections between ancient sites and present-day concerns about climate change. The groups worked with Kelsey curators, revisiting the museum several times to consider which pieces to include and how to frame their work.
At this design stage we had the assistance of Elizabeth Fomin, of LSA Instructional Support Services, and several BlueCorps consultants who offered their help to undergird the technical side of this work. The students’ web projects took shape using StoryMaps, an easy-to-learn tool based on ArcGIS, with several templates available for professional-appearing project presentations. None of the students had trouble with this—truly!—and following a process of peer review, every one of the final projects turned out very well.
After the semester, Kelsey staff reviewed the final products and offered some corrections, edits, and suggestions, to which each team responded. By spring 2019, the Kelsey had approved all four modules for inclusion on its website.
A couple of examples, showing some of the different designs that resulted:
History 329: Understanding Afghanistan
In winter 2019, I taught a colloquium on Afghan history, aiming to explore and explain the deeper history of a place where the United States has now been at war for eighteen years (and counting). This involved some of the elements that are familiar to students in other history courses—intensive discussion of assigned readings, formal written work (such as an academic book reviews), and shared duties as discussion co-leaders distributed among the students.
The main course project, however, echoed the one described above in the Catastrophe class. I had the students again coordinate the research with a local resource person—in this case Evyn Kropf, a Middle East subject bibliographer at Hatcher Library. The teams consulted with Evyn (and me) to investigate three or four possible topics each, gauging the availability of sources and the breadth of possible subtopics and thematic approaches. Over multiple meetings at the library each team winnowed this list to a final selection. Each selection aimed to explore a topic of importance in Afghanistan’s historical past and to present it in ways that would effectively illuminate key aspects of the country today.
Once each team’s topic took shape, the students dug in for detailed research, and over the next month they worked to devise an effective design for the online modules. Again I had excellent help from Elizabeth Fomin (at LSA ISS), and again the ArcGIS/StoryMaps architecture proved appealing even to those students with no experience, and little comfort, doing anything that smacked of “coding.” For the most part, even these students found the process straightforward.
There was one exception, but it pushed in the opposite direction: A single student team had members with more developed expertise in computer programming, and so they decided to opt out of the general StoryMaps approach. Instead they used Google Sites, which meant more independent work on the technical/web side, but also opened a range of new formatting possibilities.
The process included peer reviews and multiple rounds of edits, yielding impressive final products. Two samples are listed below.
- “Disparities Between State and Non-state Fighters in Afghanistan” (by Syed Ahmad, Anthony Cichocki, and Justin Heddleson; StoryMaps)
- “Environmental Intervention in Afghanistan” (by Joshua Beard, Jackie Cope, Joshua Greenberg, Cameron Marsh, and Joseph Riesterer; Google Sites)
Douglas Northrop is a professor in History and Middle East Studies.