Published: Jan. 20, 2016

Sabahat AdilSabahat Adil, an Assistant Professor of Arabic in Asian Languages and Civilizations, plans to implement Timeline JS into her Islamic Culture and the Iberian Peninsula Course. Adil hopes for students to use Timeline JS to be in charge of their own learning and to create their own foundation of knowledge.  Adil completed the Fall 2015 ASSETT Teaching with Technology Seminar.

My courses bring together a range of disciplines, including literature, history, and religion. Even though the courses are multidisciplinary to some degree, they require a concrete understanding of foundational historical material, which is comprised of data including dates, names, etc. In the past, I have required students to gain familiarity with such material by providing it to them myself in the form of a timeline, lectures, or history survey texts. As a participant in the Teaching with Technology Seminar (Fall Semester 2015), I aim to discover new ways of facilitating student-directed learning of such historical material in order to 1) allow students to experience firsthand the complex layering through which the past must be understood and 2) spend more time in class on the assigned literary and cultural texts rather than on the foundational material. By participating in the Seminar, I look forward to discovering technologies that will help me transcend these two learning goals. By leaving the two aforementioned goals unaddressed, I believe that students in my courses will spend most of their time memorizing historical data that I have provided rather than begin to understand the complexity and nuances that govern the past. Furthermore, they will fail to develop an understanding of how historical data allows us to construct, rather than merely inherit, knowledge.  

The course that I aim to make a technological intervention in in order to achieve the two learning goals highlighted above is titled Islamic Culture and the Iberian Peninsula (ARAB 3230). 24 students are enrolled in it. In this course, we examine Islamic, especially Arab, culture and history as it relates to the Iberian Peninsula from the year 711 CE to the present. It has been approved for the Core Curriculum in the category of Historical Context, thus attracting a diverse student body.

In the current iteration of the course, I have asked students to complete a series of assignments, including four response papers on various relevant themes as well as a final project. For the final project, students undertake a set of tiered assignments, which include a project summary, an annotated bibliography, a presentation, and the culminating research paper. Even though by this point they are generally familiar with the foundational historical material, based on a timeline, lectures, and readings that I have provided, I am increasingly interested in developing ideas about how I can incorporate self-directed learning of said historical material as a part of the assignment sequence.

The technological intervention that I aim to implement in the course in order to incorporate such self-directed learning is called Timeline JS, a tool developed by the Northwestern University Knight Lab. This open-source tool provides opportunities for individuals and groups to build multimedia-rich timelines. To create the timeline, one inputs text, along with links to images and other forms of multimedia, should one choose, into a Google spreadsheet. Once published, a timeline is generated. It fundamentally changes students’ engagement with data, in this case, historical data, by allowing them to develop a dynamic understanding of the past rather than provide them with a series of dates, events, etc. I plan to incorporate Timeline JS next time I teach this course to satisfy the need that students have for concrete historical data, but in a way that puts them in charge of their learning and allows them to create a foundation for their knowledge rather than the professor doing so.

When I first taught the course, I created a fairly rudimentary text-only timeline, which one technologically savvy student then used to produce a more visually appealing timeline through Timeline JS. This got me thinking that I could a) do more with historical material and b) integrate the creation of such a timeline as a part of the course assignments. Next time I teach the course, I plan to have students work in groups to collaborate to create interactive timelines throughout the duration of the course. As the course progresses, they will have access to several “master” timelines to consult for their response papers and final projects. They will build the timelines throughout the duration of the course through weekly assignments whereby students, in their groups, will input material into the timelines, staying roughly two weeks ahead of where we are in the course chronologically. I will randomly call upon groups in the class to share what they have contributed to the timelines that week.

I have developed group-based and individual indicators of success in order to measure the impact of Timeline JS on student learning as a whole. Groups as a whole will receive points that will fall into a class participation category in accordance with what they have contributed to their timelines in a given week. In order to account for individual disparity in contributions, I will also ask individuals in a given group to submit written reflections of their own work as well as those of their peers in the given group, which will ultimately also factor into the assessment. On an individual basis, I will also assess individual students based on their citation and use of these timelines during class discussions, response papers, and the final projects.

Ultimately, I believe that such a technological intervention will positively impact students’ experiences and also help me address my overall learning goals. Students will be able to develop their analytical capabilities by developing their own timelines. Furthermore, they will be able to work collaboratively to develop such timelines in groups. In terms of learning goals, such an intervention will allow me to focus on furthering analytical textual analysis in the course itself, which is the ultimate goal of the class, rather than lecture to them or assign historical survey texts. As a 3000-level course, I prefer to have discussions regarding the texts assigned form the basis of the course rather than spend class time on historical material. This technological intervention will provide opportunities for just this rather than spend many weeks lecturing to them or asking them to read historical surveys.

When I implement this intervention, I plan to attend to the following potential pitfalls: 1) students will need some direction regarding the amount and type of information that gets posted as well as appropriate sources; 2) students may need to be incentivized in order to ensure continued contact with the timeline beyond that which is required to get a passing grade; and 3) some students may be hesitant to work with a new technology, so I will need to focus on assessment in order to encourage such individuals. In general, anytime I implement a new technological intervention, I plan to make sure that it is given a low-stakes position vis-à-vis the course requirements as a whole. This will help me incorporate the intervention into future learning designs, but in a way that provides room for experimentation and discovery with ever-changing technologies.