Have you ever wanted to create a timeline for one of your courses? Have you ever wanted your students to create a timeline? There are some excellent options for creating digital timelines, and we are going to explore one on the blog today: Timeline.js. An instructor and graduate student in the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, Mary Helen Hoque, shared her experience using Timeline.js as an instructor, and her students shared their thoughts as well.
Timeline.js is a free tool for creating interactive timelines. It uses a Google spreadsheet to organize timeline content, and allows you to add content from a variety of sources. You can add images, Tweets, YouTube videos, and much more. To create the timeline, you build a Google Spreadsheet using the Timeline.js template and then add content in the spreadsheet. This tool works well for a collaborative timeline project – anyone who has access to the spreadsheet can add content.
With Timeline.js, you do need a place to post the timeline you create. Mary Helen Hoque had her students create the timeline content and used our learning management system, eLC, to post the class created timeline:
I teach MUSI 2040 “The History of American Popular Music.” This semester, my big experiment was moving from teaching my content chronologically to teaching it as genre study, constantly moving back and forth in time. However, I was concerned that my students would lose their sense of chronology and historical context if I wasn’t careful. My solution was to have them generate this sense of chronology for themselves by having them create a class timeline. My hope was that as they added entries to the timeline every unit, they would have lightbulb moments as they realized how songs and artists across genres co-existed with each other and in specific historical/cultural moments. I also envisioned them using the timeline as a class generated study guide before tests.
Like any experiment, I have had mixed results with this project. I liked Timeline JS because it is free, you edit it by adding data to a Google spreadsheet which can be shared however you want, and it automatically generates from the spreadsheet a really beautiful timeline with all media embedded. Despite the surface simplicity of Timeline JS, I still anticipated some causes for confusion so I did everything I could on the frontend in my assignment design to preempt as many issues as possible. I created a worksheet that students were instructed to fill out first which indicated what information went in each column on the spreadsheet. All they had to do then was copy/paste their entry data into the spreadsheet. I also embedded everything I could into eLC both to keep it all private to our class (creating content for public consumption is a different kind of project and requires different framing and coaching, I think) and to simplify the process as much as possible. I later required them to also submit their worksheets to a dropbox on eLC because I found grading from the spreadsheet itself to be very difficult and to ensure they were actually taking the time to fill out the worksheet first.
Student feedback has been mostly positive, but after surveying them on how the timeline project has helped to solidify their learning, I was surprised in some instances by what they perceived as the purpose or benefit of the assignment.
Several students most appreciated having an opportunity to go into depth on a single topic, especially since we only scrape the surface most of the time in class.
Alex Clark: “When we learn about an artist or song in class, because of limited time the lecture/notes can’t go too in depth on the subject, so the timeline is a nice way to delve a little deeper into the topic and learn about it from different resources in doing our studying.”
Cristina Bixby: “I believe the timeline entries have helped our class learn about specific aspects of each unit on a deeper level. We get to choose which topic we want to do our entry on. I find this to be a positive thing because everyone can pick something they find interesting.”
Abby Bland: “The Timeline activity helped me thoroughly understand one song or artist. All three of my entries have ended up being big parts of the tests, so that has helped me. I do not think this is a hard assignment and it never takes me long to complete.”
Another recurring theme was how actually writing their entries helped them prepare for the test.
Erin Cross: “The timeline entries have really heled me gain a more insightful understanding of each of the songs and artists we have studied in class. They help cover more than just the surface information about each of the topics. They also force us to relearn and study what we talked about in class. Personally, I know if there is ever a question on the test about my timeline entry topic, I’m always very confident that I’ll know the answer.”
Emily Thompson: “In the specific category that I have to write my timeline entry on, it helps a lot in understanding more deeply that specific element of the unit we are learning. This has been useful to me because I usually choose a topic that I do not know a lot about so that I am forced to research and learn about that component of the unit that will be on the test.”
Because of the focus on “the test,” however, not everyone found the timeline to be useful in the way I intended.
Amanda DeLaPerriere: “The timeline entries have not been useful in solidifying my learning. Because the entry takes a while with the specifics, it takes away from me studying the concepts I need to understand better for the test. I enjoy researching the specific song, but I usually learn info that is not pertinent to the information being tested.”
Eric Oliver: “The timeline entries help give me a more detailed look at certain topics. For instance, my first entry was on the Savoy Ballroom, and I feel like that gave me a better understanding of Swing Era Jazz and the time period when it was popular. I feel like the timeline entries are really only helpful in helping to learn that specific topic that I choose to write about.”
However, I was thoroughly encouraged that at least a few students found the timeline to be useful along the lines that I had intended and beyond.
Lauren Faircloth: “By making the timeline entries I have been able to learn more about the unit and a specific song or artist from that time. It has helped me better understand certain types of genres and the elements of that genre. I like that the entries allow us to further our knowledge of an artist or song. I feel by learning more about a specific artist/song and the way they work can provide us with a better understand of the genre as a whole.”
Laura Beth Garrett: “When looking at all of the timeline entries, I get a better understanding of not only what types of music were being made at the same time, but also how different people respond musically to the same events.”
Sean Harrell: “The timeline has been helpful for me since I tend to process things better chronologically. It has allowed me to put certain aspects of this course together that I otherwise would probably not have been able to do. For example, by looking at the timeline, I am allowed the luxury of seeing how one genre or music revolution is going on simultaneously to that of another completely different genre. Making connections is cool. Additionally, writing my own portion of the timeline helped me to research and learn things we did not have time to cover in class.”
Illyssa Krouse: “The timeline entries have helped to solidify my learning by making a visual representation that I can use to study. Because we learn units by genre and not in chronological order it helps me understand how each genre overlaps and what was happening when. I am a visual learner so this helps me understand a certain timeframe and what artist/music was popular when.”
Connor Moroney: “The timeline entries have provided me with better insights regarding the time periods and musical styles/genres that we’ve studied. Just researching my own entries has allowed me to make connections with the song or artist that I chose and the impact they have had on modern music and I have been quite surprised to learn how influential some of the artists have been. It really helps paint a picture of how music has evolved and how current music and entertainment so often utilized popular songs of the past.”
Thanks to Mary Helen and her students for sharing their experiences! I’ve posted a sample timeline below – do you think you could use a tool like Timeline.js for teaching?
Note: It is important to consider accessibility and the needs of the students in your class when using new learning technologies in your teaching. I contacted Timeline.js support to ask about their accessibility compliance, and they are still working towards 508 compliance with this tool.