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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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January072008

It’s Time for a More Open Timeline Tool

There’s no shortage of online services offering free tools for building your own timeline. But what potential do they have for use in the classroom, and how might they be improved?

It’s something I’ve wondered on and off for almost a decade now, ever since having a conversation with edtech pioneer Ferdi Serim. Along with being one of the first educators to explore the role of the Internet in the classroom, Ferdi’s a music fanatic, particularly jazz. During one of our many after-hours conversations at some education conference, Ferdi talked about having some kind of online timeline tool that would allow students to collaborate on a music history project. Students would create a timeline of the history of music and interconnect it with other historical milestones in culture, politics and science. That way, they could explore how the history of music is impacted by real-world events, and vice versa.

I always thought it was a great idea, but the tool just weren’t there yet. That’s begun to change in a big way over the last couple of years, though, with various Web 2.0 startups offering users a way to publish chronological milestones.

Some of the biggest players in the space are associated with genealogy. For example, the family tree service itsourtree.com and its German-language parent site, Verwandt.de, already have around 10 million user profiles and more than a million user-generated family trees in it. Similarly, Geni has grown in popularity because of its ease of use, something that’s key for any family tree service given the age range of its users. But they’re still built around documenting the lives of people and their connections with each other, rather than broader historical milestones per se.

Other user-generated chronology sites are less focused on family trees, but still emphasize family stories rather than history writ large. OurStory, for example, lets users create a collaborative timeline around a question you ask of your friends and family, like “What are your favorite family wedding stories?” or “What were the best gifts you ever got for Christmas?” OurStory then lets you connect milestones on a timeline with your media files, including photographs and videos. As more friends and family participate, the larger your timeline grows. But these timelines are basically closed environments, intended for those you invite, rather than anyone who stumbles along and has something to contribute to it.

OurStory has also taken the idea in a somewhat different direction via a side project called Tribbit. It’s the same idea as OurStory, but done in the context of online tributes. You choose the topic of your tribute, then invite others to contribute, or “trib,” to your timeline. They’ve even got a collection of lesson plan ideas courtesy of teachersfirst.com.

Tools like OurStory and Tribbit, definitely have potential in the classroom even though they weren’t 100% designed with students in mind. They’re certainly a vast improvement on previous attempts to create educational timeline tools, such as ReadWriteThink’s timeline maker, which doesn’t let users save their work, and puts timeline milestones in the order in which you type them, rather than chronologically. Same thing with the Learning Tools Timeline - potentially very powerful, thought not particularly user-friendly. They also seem more aimed towards teacher-generated timelines rather than student efforts, let alone collaborative ones.

Meanwhile, there are tools like MIT’s Timeline project, which describes itself as “Google Maps for time-based information.” Like Google Maps, they’re attempting to create a tool that’s entirely Web based and can be populated with data using a simple XML file. This last point may not seem like a big deal, but it’s potentially very powerful, as it would allow users to import and export their timelines easily, even syndicating them across the Internet. And just as you might subscribe to an RSS feed to read a blog, you could subscribe to an XML feed for a timeline and be notified whenever milestones are added or edited.

In an ideal world, what I’d love to see is the creation of a timeline generator that embraces the open nature of wikis - a chronowiki, if you will. Just as a user can go into Wikipedia and start a new encyclopedia entry from scratch and get the public to help author it, you could do the same with a timeline. Sure, some timeline tools already let you send out invitations to people and give them permission to edit your timeline, but they’re not wikis. They don’t allow anyone to come in and help improve your timeline, or connect them with other timelines.

How might such a chronowiki be used? For example, last month I was asked by NPR to create a timeline on the history of blogging. While this may sound straightforward, trust me, it’s not. Lots of people have contributed different elements to what we now know as blogging, and the facts around who did what are often contentious. Meanwhile, one can trace the origins of blogging to the earliest days of the Internet, or even well beyond, going all the way back to the original logs - the log books kept by ship captains as their sailors “threw the log” to measure the ship’s speed.

I had a variety of milestones in mind for my timeline, but I’m sure I was missing a lot, so I asked the public to help contribute other milestones. I received lots of suggestions via my blog, email, even Twitter, but it wasn’t a great collaborative experience. Ideally, I would have wanted people to go to a wiki that looked and acted like a dynamic timeline, where they could add new milestones and edited previous ones. If this imaginary tool included tagging, users could connect the dots between milestone items, or even other users’ timelines, simply by adding keywords to different milestones. And if the timeline were XML-based, they could have followed the development of the timeline, syndicated it, or even imported large numbers of milestones into the timeline with ease.

Even though I haven’t found a tool like this just yet, there’s still plenty you can do with sites like OurStory or Tribbit. In some ways, the fact that the timelines you create on these sites are invitation-only will be seen as a strength for educators who want to keep their students’ online activities in a closed environment. Have you found these tools or others to be useful? If so, I’d love to hear about it. But I still can’t stop thinking about creating a much more open, wiki-like timeline tool, where students, teachers and people in general could contribute to an ever-growing collection of timelines, all interconnected and editable with just a click. The possibilities - like time itself - are infinite. -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools, Wikis

Responses

Here is a link to a timeline creator that I used recently. http://timeline.cer.jhu.edu/

I used it to try and create a chonology of creation myths. In this case the students sent me the information and I posted it to the timeline. Using the Smartboard some of the students entered the information themselves.

http://www.ucityschools.org/pages/uploaded_files/timeline.swf

Glad you see that you like the ideas from TeachersFirst. I absolutely agree that student collaboration with timelines is a terrific way for them to structure and restructure a “view” of their own into many curriculum topics. The TeachersFirst Edge section of our site actually has several reviews of similar tools, including another set of ideas for using OurStory (and a special offer for teachers who seek premium level membership for free). You might want to check out the review of TrinTuition Workbench as a collaborative tool not strictly for timelines but easily used to create them, as well. TeachersFirst is free, a service of a non-profit. We are glad to be helpful and share the good things we find.

Not sure if you wanted suggestions, but http://www.xtimeline.com is a great site, you may be interested in: http://www.xtimeline.com/history/A-Weblog-History. They even allow you to embed the timieline in your blog. This site allows for collaboration and puts events in the correct order, as you mentioned about the other timelines.

The development and use of open timeline tools for teachers will be an excellent development. They will be particularly useful when the timelines are not simply listings of events, but also include editorial commentary and allow for debate and discussion of the content. We’ve just started creating timelines of Japanese history on our site for teachers, in which select teachers and Japan specialists can edit the content on-line, and anyone can offer comments and suggestions. We will be curious to see if there will be active participation, and also are curious of other sites, aimed at educators, that have created timelines to be developed by the web community. (For an example of one of the timelines we are working with, you can visit the resources section of our site, aboutjapan.japansociety.org and select “timelines.”) - Rob

I have my seventh graders create timelines of their favorite celebrities. I would love to be able to take all the celebrity time lines and join them onto one big timeline. I am unsure about how to go about that… Any ideas?
Thanks for the idea about Timeline Maker. We usually create basic timelines using Excel, but this semester I’m going to try Timeline Maker as a change of pace…
-Kimberly Cossick

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