Scene 45: Chun explores history

In which college student Chun reviews the sweep of history in the Americas.

Investment in massive multimedia learning resources, designed to have very long shelf-lives, will provide highly productive experiences for social studies.

The Americas History Project was decades in the making. It was a free resource that allowed students to watch any stretch of history unfold. Time periods were navigable via maps that let you swoop in to see depictions of family life and commerce, and swoop out to see data visualizations over any stretch of time. Avatar experts followed you around (when not shooed away), politely extracting your questions and interests, suggesting things to watch next. It had a gigantic amount of mostly-custom content.

Chun presently was watching a geographic visualization of populations through the 1700s. The maps had various kinds of color coding – identifying native tribes and immigrant groups, of course, but also modes that indicated population densities, technologies, languages, areas of conflict and change, and so on. In time-lapse sequences, the different representational modes alternated intermittently to let the student see the evolution along different dimensions, while a narrator (sometimes recorded, sometimes synthesized) described the significance of what was happening.

She had previously watched, with morbid fascination, the rate at which European-imported smallpox decimated a number of regions. She took a brief detour to learn what smallpox was and the way that it killed people, lost interest, and looked for some other area to explore. She poked around and found some interesting items related to the Northwest Indian War. Chun explored a profile of Pontiac, which, through simulated conversation, yielded insights into how this man viewed the world, and then she mulled whether to watch a movie depicting Pontiac's Rebellion. It no doubt could be expected to be an educational movie, which would (Chun assumed) include some interactivity; there was actually a full 80 minute version and an abbreviated 15 minute version.

She stopped and took stock. She knew she could contentedly get lost in the Project for hours—as she had on a past occasion—but decided she'd better focus on obtaining her points. She saw, to her delight, that her meandering had already earned her a point and a half, but she wanted to get more quickly to ten points, and so she re-reviewed the assignment.

Chun studying

The assignment ultimately required submission of a report, but most of it could be verbally recorded, and some flexibility in topic was allowed. The non-negotiable part, though, was circumscribed with the question, "Which population changes in the Americas do you think had the largest effect on the distribution of wealth that we see in the present day?"

Chun mentally wrestled with this for a minute. Was it more about South America versus North America? How wealthy were different countries today? What factors generated wealth?

Fortunately, the assignment instructions provided two coded links into the Project that were strongly recommended. Chun activated the first one, and a narrator provided an overview, as maps of different cities showed relative wealth levels in different cities and countries growing over a three hundred year span. She was surprised to see how wealth was so concentrated within cities.

After just five minutes, she had a solid sense of where the greatest wealth was and how recently it had gotten there.

There are many ongoing efforts to make history interesting: school materials, PBS documentaries, movies, classroom activities. Every little bit helps.

Then there are the huge, multi-decade projects that eventually will give us astonishing new learning resources. These will be able to rapidly educate each of us about our country's historical situation, and dispel confusion about where our society is currently "at." And it will motivate us to understand better what we might possibly do to guide history's evolution.

History needs to be taught in a variety of ways. For example, some learners need to hear fewer abstractions and have greater focus on issues close to home. Many learners can quickly ingest large numbers of historical stories if the learning resources are well designed. Interface concepts from simulation games like Civilization can and should be coopted, not only to help visualize the different dimensions of human society but also to more easily see their relevance and function.

All learners need to receive it very visually. And everyone needs to be able to ask their own personal questions—especially questions in the "so what?" vein. As for students who are compelled to learn history because of curriculum mandates, game-like incentives and other enticements will need to be incorporated.

Massive resources like this would of course require new, specialized technical platforms, but far more critical is the design of the content. A wide variety of pathways must be anticipated and supported; fun, interactive scenarios developed; semi-personalized clarifications about historical episodes "spring-loaded."

The productions will of necessity be "cross functional": visual designers, and instructional designers, and academic experts, and programmers, and data analysts.

Ongoing integration with current news stories will be important: whenever a policy issue arises in the news, imagine if you could click a link and have the relevant history visually explained to you, to your interests.

Certainly, learning resources like this are challenging to fund and maintain over a long period. Technologies change, the discussions move on, content gets outdated. But there's grounds for optimism: technical standards such as HTML5 ensure a long technical shelf life. Content management systems are getting better, and demand for top-quality content will continue to grow.

And History in particular is a subject with a particularly long shelf life. This fact will undoubtedly encourage patient investment.


cast of characters