Timelines on iPads

A culture and civilization course in college often means teaching a lot of historical facts and adding modicums of culture along the way:  art, music, religion, societal evolution, etc. But the backbone of such a course is composed of historical events and major figures (i.e. political or military) that shaped a nation.  For students schooled in a country just over two hundred years old, I quickly realized that European history before the eighteenth century was a blur resulting from a lack of personal/scholastic landmarks.  This became obvious one semester when I had three exchange students from Spain and witnessed their widely different response from that of the American students to parts of the course on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The American students were comatose or at best confused – the difference between an empire versus a monarchy very blurry if at all present in their minds.

        Louis_XIV_of_France         NapoleonBonaparte  Among the American students, those who fared best were art history majors. Compounding the difficulty of teaching such a course, intelligent textbooks for this level (third year, upper division French) are written in language well above third year students’ competence.

Part of my task, as I perceive it, is to make historical events come to life and show how each one is related to the next as part of a chain reaction. One of my ideas, when I started to prepare the curriculum this year using iPads was to ask the students to create interactive “folders” for each century or major period in which they would include visual and audio elements.  My two student assistants and I started looking and testing time-line apps.  The results were both frustrating and exciting.  The frustration came when we realized that it was often impossible to upload or share the results of our work using the apps we liked best for looks and ease of use.

Each app had its own limitations which included the types of media that could be linked – or not – to the entries.  For instance, video clips or sound.  My students discovered and tested, among others, “Everyday.me,” “BeforeNow,” “LifeTrack,” and “PicStory,” all free apps, but for the latter the $4.99 upgrade giving access to the more sophisticated features was money well spent.


As for the excitement?  For me, it came when my two assistants (who had taken the class in question a year ago), after showing me visually stunning samples of their work said, “Tell your students that this is really great preparation for tests or for the final exam!  We learned so much doing it.”  To which I responded, “Please come and tell them yourself, they will believe you!”

In a presentation to faculty members from various disciplines who were considering the use of iPads in their classes, we showed a sample of what could be done with PicStory. Faculty members were very enthusiastic, especially the history professor who asked many questions during and after the talk.

My initial thought was for the students to be able to listen to the music of a time period while perusing colorful images – with comments – of the art, historical paintings, architecture, significant figures and leaders, thus creating an intellectual as well as sensory memory of each century.  Imagine listening to the Carmagnole while looking at images of the sans-culottes storming the Bastille, or listening to Jean-Baptiste Lully while “walking” through the salons of Versailles and reading about the Sun King, Louis XIV on your iPad.

So far, the results are very encouraging, but sometimes acrobatic means have to be used to obtain the desired results.  For instance, my crafty student who worked with PicStory recorded the sound track that was going to play on her time line by placing her laptop next to her iPad and recording the music playing on the laptop. The sound turned out to be quite good, but if you imagine for one instant the life of a student, you will understand how finding a quiet space to do this can in itself be a colossal obstacle.

Most of the timeline apps are really geared to save personal memories; they are linked to social media so that what you post on FB or Twitter enters your timeline automatically.  You can “localize” an event by entering the address where it took place – a map will be created with a pin to mark the exact spot.  Photographs can either come from a social media post or your device’s camera roll.  The day’s date is automatically entered for the track selected (children, vacation, pet, employment, car, etc.).


However, creating a timeline for the biography of an author or political figure is quite easy, just entirely manual.  The year-wheel spins back quite fast, although going back to 1789 will take quite a few scrolls and BeforeNow only goes back to the beginning of WWI (1914). My advice is to test the app before putting a lot of time into what you hope will be a definitive project.

Because students tend to learn more by doing than by listening (although there are merits to all kinds of listening activities!), the iPad timeline function – if applied with minimum of astuteness and motivation – shows enormous potential for what could be a rather dry culture and civilization class.


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