#AHA20 in New York City and Evaluating Digital Resources as an Assignment

Published on: 20 Jan 2020

By Jo McCutcheon

For the first time, I was able to attend the Annual AHA Conference (its 134th ), co-located in two hotels very close to Times Square.  The conference began in the afternoon on Friday January 3rd and finished Monday the 6th, a few hours before my first class of the term began, so I was not able to take in the full conference, but I was able to follow the hashtag #AHA20 and follow the sessions that I missed and wanted to attend. If you could not attend, there are still conversations about teaching and the conference.

There were some engaging and thought-provoking sessions related to digital – teaching and the opportunity to follow folks who share their experiences and work online for colleagues interested in pedagogy. While at the conference I was reminded of some fantastic tools and resources for teaching history and reminded of several that I have used before.  These new resources will be introduced into future student assignments.

For many classes that I teach, students are required to become familiar with online digital projects, tools and data sets and they are then required to evaluate and review them based on defined criteria they may adapt using Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzwieg’s work -  Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web or they create on their own criteria which is an excellent experience for them as well.  An objective of this assignment is to demonstrate the value of critically analyzing online material – that like journal articles and monographs, students are encouraged to develop good practices with regard to digging deeper into the layers digital projects, tools and datasets may offer them in class and in future work.

This assignment has worked at all levels of undergraduate teaching and each term I modify the weight and word count.  Typically, the word count is similar to the weighting of the grade.  That is a 10 % assignment will be the equivalent of 1000 words not including a bibliography or citations. This particular assignment is usually worth 15 % - 25 % depending on the number of projects, tools or datasets students are evaluating.

Students are encouraged to insert screen shots, hyperlinks, graphics and tables that will help to support their descriptions and the criteria they develop or articulate. They are encouraged to identify and evaluate projects, tools and datasets that will either support their final projects or that they are passionate about already. If they are building toward their final projects, they will include a consideration of how and why they will use the projects, tools and datasets.

Students can also submit their work as a short YouTube Video or as a Podcast. All work is submitted online and all work has a written component. I also work throughout the term to develop good habits with saving conventions for their work so that I can track and manage their assignments as well.  For example, my preferred convention is:  LastFirst_Assignment#_CourseCode_Date

The graded is distributed between three components, 10 % for a clear introduction, title, clear articulation of the strengths and weaknesses of the resources they evaluated. As a point of departure, students are directed to follow a clear organization that follows content, form and usability.  70% for their analysis, evaluation and research and support of their evaluation linked to clear criteria.  This includes the details they have included in their work, hyperlinks, screen shots and their research examining how these resources have been used by others or how they could be used and in what context. Students are directed to be as specific and descriptive as possible. They should avoid general observations like, “This website is massive/credible/amazing.” Instead, a sentence like, “This website is an important and credible website that provides important information for history students working on the Great War and commemoration in Canada and should be part of the high school and first year curriculum.”  Finally, Mechanics is worth 20 % of their assignment. This component is meant to further support and develop good habits and includes ensuring students have a clear title, avoiding simply indicating the assignment #, that they have included identifying information and that they have followed guidelines regarding pagination, header and footers and their bibliography and citations follow the assigned guidelines. 

To get them thinking about how to evaluate their resources, I have adapted questions over time to reflect the resources available to evaluate.  A point of departure is to get them to think about the Project Team or individuals behind the resources.  Who created the site, exhibition, game, database, mobile application or tool? Was it a collaboration of academics, public servants, the private sector, or is that information difficult to determine?  What do we know about the creators initially and after additional research? What other publications or products to they have? How is their work communicated? Who supported the site, exhibition, game, database, mobile application or tool? Is the site, exhibition, game, database, mobile application or tool regularly updated or is it archived/fixed to a singular launch? Is the site, exhibition, game, database or tool organic, that is always improving and adding content? What secondary sources were used for the site, exhibition, game, database, mobile application or tool? Is it difficult to determine? Is there supporting documentation? Is it an open access research site, exhibition, game, database, mobile application or tool? Is a university subscription required, special equipment or in-app purchases? Who is the intended audience? 

Students are encouraged to think carefully about the work that may be completed by a Government Department or Agency and any long-term transparency considerations. They are also asked to consider how often a resource may be updated or whether or not it was intended as a singular launch. They might also articulate a project where the public is encouraged to add content or transcribe content (CoLab Challenges and By the People at Library of Congress).

They should also consider the volume and breadth of resources: hundreds of pages, thousands of pages, millions? How many images are available? They should consider the size of storage required terabytes vs. zettabyte - is equal to a billion terabytes. What is the geographical reach of the site, exhibition, game, database or tool? What era does the project or tool cover? What topics can be informed by the site, exhibition, game, database or tool? Does it house a layered or complex architecture or is it a simple list of topics that is more like a textbook or journal article? Are there interactive elements of the site, exhibition, game, database, mobile application or tool?  Visual resources? Does it require specific technology or skills to use? How does that affect accessibility?

Finally, how usable is the resource? How useful is the site map or index? Are there resources available on YouTube? GitHub? Are there resource guides for teachers? Does it provide Information about evaluating or working with primary sources? Is there social media like Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest associated with the website? Is there an internal search engine? How easy is it to use? Are there any reliability issues raised because of technology? Many tools and resources disappear or change terms of usage – it can be frustrating to find this out just as the term begins or ends depending on your perspective as teacher or student.

Some suggested resources to evaluate:

JS Timeline

Virtual Museum of Canada
Early Canadiana Online
The Historical Atlas of Canada
Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine

Japanese Photographic Collection / Travel / Tourism
Daily Life of African American using Newspapers
Chronicling American 1690 onward - Newspapers 




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