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LEARN NC presents North Carolina’s first digital history textbook

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North Carolina Digital History


Photo of David Walbert

Dr. David Walbert

In 2005, the LEARN NC staff began discussing the feasibility of creating a digital version of a traditional textbook devoted to a single subject for a particular K-12 grade level. Says LEARN NC’s Editorial & Web Director Dr. David Walbert, who headed the project that concluded last winter with the publication of the final installment of North Carolina Digital History, “Since LEARN NC’s mission is to collect and publish digital educational resources for K-12 teachers, the idea seemed not only possible, but also natural – a logical extension of what we do every day.”

In 2007, an advisory group of teachers, historians, curriculum experts and LEARN NC representatives agreed that North Carolina history seemed a logical place to start because it is a required course for all eighth-grade students and because a tremendous wealth of subject-related resources was available. Production began that summer.

The final product is organized both chronologically and according to the goals and objectives of the North Carolina Standard Course of Study and is divided into stand-alone modules that cover discrete portions of North Carolina history. (See example: Prehistory, contact, and the Lost Colony) Each module is divided into chapters, and each individual Web page contains a single-topic article or primary source. (See example: A railroad timetable)

The modular approach was adopted, Walbert explains, to allow teachers to use digital materials to complement both their current teaching methods and existing textbooks. North Carolina Digital History is therefore fully customizable. Teachers may easily choose and present only materials they deem appropriate to the interests and needs of their students.

Easier said than done

“We estimated the project would take one year,” says Walbert, “which demonstrates clearly we had no idea what we were getting into.” At the outset, the LEARN NC team decided no payment would be made for content and no time-limited or licensed material would be included. “We simply couldn’t afford to pay for anything, and including links to items that might vanish from the Web at any moment made no sense,” he explains. The team, however, did not consider these restrictions onerous because myriad relevant items exist in the public domain, are available via Creative Commons, or are willingly shared for educational use.  Even so, Walbert notes, “We wildly underestimated the complexity of the editorial process.”

The primary difficulty was not locating resources, but rather finding consistently reliable resources. “Every source needed to be vetted,” explains Walbert, “and every item verified.” Also, beyond the traditional historian’s primary conundrum of deciding what events to include in a chronicle of a given era, the LEARN NC team had set itself the trickier goals of including as many multi-media elements and as many reproductions of primary sources – original texts, early maps, and audio and video recordings – as possible.

This decision to include primary sources led immediately to the even thornier issue of reading-level appropriateness. “We intended the documents to be meaningful, not simply quaint artifacts,” says Walbert, “but we knew we could not assume the average eighth-grader would be able to comprehend a Revolutionary petition or an antebellum diary.”

The LEARN NC team’s solutions include an extensive glossary along with a “mouse-over” feature that provides instantly visible definitions of highlighted terms. (See, e.g., “malpractices” in the first paragraph of An Address to the People of Granville County) Walbert and the other historians on the team also wrote an introduction for each primary source as well as notes – also available by mousing over key passages – that provide background information, further explanation, and reading questions.

Two other unexpected problems faced by the LEARN NC team involved (1) the paucity of online material related to obscure but significant historic events and (2) the lack of expository material related to thematic or chronological links between historic events. "People care deeply about such issues at the time they occur – think of the current debate over health care reform. But you wouldn't know it from most explanations in history textbooks."  Such explication, however, is necessary, so the work fell to Walbert and his colleagues, who present the material the old-fashioned way: in concise, summary essays.

In a pilot project conducted last fall, a dozen North Carolina teachers who employed the digital textbook in their classrooms reported their biggest challenge was neither learning to use the textbook nor presenting it to their students, but rather accessing adequate technology. “The teachers’ most common complaint was that they were unable to use North Carolina Digital History enough,” says Walbert. “To fully exploit a digital textbook, each student needs his/her own computer.”

The pilot-project teachers also reported that students readily accepted the new product. “Often,” says Walbert, “they were more ready than their teachers to jump into digital learning.” And with regard to the challenge of reading primary sources, he says, “One teacher reported that reading old documents actually encouraged some of her students to want to improve their vocabulary so they might sound 'smarter'!"

Potential future developments

“In the process of creating North Carolina Digital History,” says Walbert, “we learned valuable lessons about the technical aspects of presenting digital material that are easily teachable and replicable.” Creating similar products aimed at single subjects for particular grade levels, therefore, is certainly possible.

In the long run, though, he believes replacing one traditional textbook at a time is not necessarily cost-effective.  A better use of the concept, he contends, is what might be termed a database approach. “Take a subject like environmental science,” he suggests, for which many reliable online resources exist. “If we published a comprehensive collection of digital objects related to environmental science that was aligned closely with North Carolina Standard Course of Study goals and objectives for every grade level,” he speculates, “we could then fairly easily ‘repackage’ selected items as, for example, a seventh-grade set, an eleventh-grade set, and so on, framing and adapting them for each grade level.”

Materials created for North Carolina history are already available for this kind of repackaging, he reports. Most are aligned to high school U.S. history curricula, and some are appropriate even for upper elementary grades.

This approach, he continues, would both inhibit redundancy in the presentation of materials – the seventh-grade set might closely resemble the fifth-grade set – and limit the personnel needs of the agency charged with creating the collections. Collection developers – experts in their fields of interest – could, with help from teachers and curriculum advisors, choose and compile relevant digital objects, then deliver them to an information technology team capable of publishing customized sets for all grade levels in a uniform – and uniformly accessible – manner.

Having demonstrated the feasibility of creating a digital textbook, LEARN NC is pursuing funding for additional, similar projects. Grants are a possibility, says Walbert, and state officials have shown interest. "We're not going to throw out all of our print textbooks tomorrow, and I'm not interested in going digital just for the sake of going digital,” he concludes. “But the technology allows us to make something better than a print textbook, and we should invest in what works best."