CrowdSourcing a Timeline in a History Survey Course

For a number of years now I've long wondered if we could use digital tools that handled events and dating in the history classroom to help teach both historical methodology and construct a course's basic historical narrative.

Last fall I grabbed the bull by the horns and did just that: crowd-sourced a timeline for my 170-student History 214 'Introduction to European History' here at McGill. It was an interesting experience - from ramping up a prototype web-app, to managing the classroom, to the overall reactions of students to a novel way of thinking through history as a collective endeavour. In the end the tool allowed for a different approach to teaching the fundamentals of historical scholarship, forcing the class as a whole back to basics of what it is historians do, the kinds of decisions they make, and how those operate in wider collective contexts like a classroom, or even a community.

History 214 is one of McGill's core survey courses, it often runs twice a year - in the fall and later in the spring term. It has a diverse student body: the course is a pre-requisite for students who want to go on in history, or an elective for students in other faculties and programs. I had first year freshmen, first year university (slightly different at Quebec institutions), all the way up to fourth year or senior undergraduates.
The Timeline Assignment (original name, eh?) formed the first two weeks of the course. Students returned to it later at the end of the term for their final assignment. Pedagogically the assignment had several purposes:

  1. Build a chronological-timeline of the historical narrative of the period covered by the course
  2. Engage students in historical discussion from day 1
  3. Clearly demonstrate that history is made up of malleable arguments and assertions, not clear or solid 'facts'
  4. Historians decide what is important all the time, and use those choices to narrate the past
  5. Historical 'names' are part of the interpretation - events in the past often are unnamed, or become part of cultural identities and memories because they are named
  6. Academic history as a discipline, despite its often individual nature, is carried out by communities of researchers.

The assignment also focused on writing up the event and involved the usual composition and methodological objectives history courses associate with a term paper:

  1. Research methodologies - how do historians find sources? What is a primary source? A secondary source?
  2. How do historians construct an argument or a thesis?
  3. How do historians support their arguments using historical evidence?

A key principle from day one was underlining how historians make choices that shape our understanding of the past all the time. This was critical to the overall aims of the assignment - students choose their events prior to the course, and then were asked to return to their events at the end in their reflections. The reflection component of the assignment asked point blank: "do you still think this event is important? Why or why not?" Needless to say, answers varied widely. Some still believed their events to be important, often due to increased analytical depth. Others disagreed. One remarkable comment put political history in its place: "I now feel that the death of a Prince has less importance than the arrival of the pineapple in Europe."

As an instructor, the assignment I felt the assignment went better than I could have imagined. Students were a bit puzzled at first, but they had to write reflections on their work for the end of term. Many of them remarked on how useful it was for them to do something like this up front, and then revisit it at the end of the term.

And so - I spent a few weeks in august revising the tool. Originally it was embedded within a small teaching platform I'd built for the class at The tool now has its own name - Storea - and home at In May I had the chance to present on the work at the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities at Brock University. This coming winter my colleagues and I are going to workshop the tool for the History Department here at McGill. Hopefully it will become a staple for a number of courses, and allow for cross-course, multi-year, comparisons.

The code isn't clean enough at this point to release, but here's the method in case you want to do something similar.


Backend: php, mysql
Frontend: jQuery, Timeline.JS, Magnific Popup, LoopjTokenInput, jQueryUI, WYSIWYG HTML5
Caveat - if you DON'T have php, mysql, or know of jQuery, you can use Timeline.JS's website and a google spread sheet to do some of this. You won't be able to do cross-calendrical stuff. So if that's you, and you don't want to do all this back end stuff, just skip down to the classroom bit. You'll have to figure out how to handle access to the Googlespreadsheet and find a way for your students to get access to the spread sheet without compromising student privacy.


TimelineJS: a small javascript library that helps render data from Google spread sheets into a nice timeline by transforming it into JSON. Storea uses TimelineJS out of the box, along with the lazyload functionality in the developer version available on Github.

Making the JSON

TimelineJS is not dynamic on its own; the entire point of the tool is to allow students to create and query events by tag, different calendars, and sections. This meant developing a back-end solution for handling the data and its output in the appropriate JSON format TimelineJS needs.

Mysql: Although TimelineJS allows for embedding of various types of media, students had to discern between primary and secondary evidence, and link place names as well as people to their events. Equally, I wanted students to gain a sense of how different evidence, places, or people might appear in numerous events, for different purposes. Consequently the text TimelineJS uses for creating its events had to be larger than usual, and required a much more complex data structure. I created a series of tables to store the data - events, places, people, things, tags, etc. I also integrated the tables into my teaching database so I could easily mark the assignments once they came in.

Php: I reverse-engineered the JSON structure TimelineJS needs to run, and added additional fields to it that fleshed out the events, and allows for some custom colouring for event groups or sections within the timeline. Equally, all of the data handling occurs through jQuery AJAX posted to php logic pages in the back end.

jQuery: All of the functions to load the data into Timeline.JS via AJAX, and to handle adding, editing etc. as well as some fluid / dynamic layouts for the timeline container.

Magnific Popup: For the pop-up boxes for adding and editing events, as well as the event viewer for each item in the timeline as TimelineJS rendering only offers a limited space for the description of each event.

LoopjTokenInput: For the facebook-style autocompletes that allow for some control over tags, in addition to reusing references, people, and places. jQueryUI's autocomplete merely handles text, not JSON data that permits for unique identifiers in the background.

jQueryUI: For all of the basic interface operations etc.

WYSIWYG HTML5: Students familiar with HTML could format their work using pre-set style sheets, and embed hyperlinked images from other sites, if they wanted.

The Assignment

Student Work

Students had to write a 500 work encyclopedia style entry on an event that:

  • Was no longer than 3 years at most
  • Involved Europeans or took place in Europe between 400 and 1750AD

They had to have a name, basic dates, and two sentences done by Sept 17th. By the end of term they had to complete an addition 500 word reflection on their event, what they learned about 'doing history' by completing the assignment, and above all, whether they still thought the same things about their event as they did at the start of the course - was it still 'important'? They also had to completely revise and complete their event entry, adding sources and tags, and tagging people and places involved.

The resulting assignments were c. 1000 words of tagged text (one public, the event; the other private, the reflection), with linked information. They also had to properly date the event using the correct calendar - either Julian, Gregorian, or Jewish.

Some Preparation

I divided the course chronology up into 38 separate blocks of time; for earlier centuries (5th to 10th) the blocks were 100 years; 11th-13th, 50 years, and 14th onwards 25 years.

In the classroom

The overall assignment involved 3 steps - initial group drafting of the timeline; use in lectures and reflection; revision and writing the reflection. After the first class, I devoted five classes to the timeline and discussions of historical methodologies that focused on particular parts of the assignment. In these preparatory classes I lectured for 15 minutes on elements of the event form in reference to particular historical methodological problems. The remainder of the class was devoted to student group work on specific theme. After these classes, we turned to the usual lecture series, though I explicitly referenced the timeline events in my lectures, point out gaps as much as matches in what I thought - as the instructor after all! - was important on particular themes etc.

Step 1: Making the Timeline

Day 1: Timeline I: What's in a Name? Periods, Events, & Things

Some preparation: Students randomly divided into groups of 5-6. One student logged into the course website and 'claimed' a group which randomly selected a block of time for the students. They also added the remaining students to the group so that they could see each other's work online. Students were told to find an event that interested them and that they thought was significant within their block of time. Though the students were in groups, all of the work was individual: groups were divided up the timeline and provided students with colleagues to talk though which event they might pick, and how to upload it etc., but the work was individual.

The mini-lecture: What's in a name? Is it a kind of ownership? Who gets to pick names for people, places, artifacts, and events? Why? Does everything have a proper name? or not? What does a name tell us about the importance of something? Historical arguments often turn on 'what's in a name' kind of discussions - naming is a fundamental practice for historians. From a technological point of view we looked at museum holdings which lacked specific names, but had accession numbers - can identifiers be used as reference points for historical evidence? Are identifiers 'names'?

Student Work: Does your event have a name? If so, is it the only one? Who decided on the name? If not, what would you call it and why?

Day 2: Timeline II: Whose History? People and Sources

The mini-lecture: Who is involved in history and how? What kinds of witnesses do we have for the past and how they offer us different kinds of purchase on whose story it is? How sources construct the past, as well as are the means for reconstructing it? What role does identity have in the writing of history? Until the 1960s history was the story of 'big men' and their exploits. Since then, it's tended to focus on what everyone else was doing. We discussed the differences between secondary and primary literature. The 'who' in history is not just about past figures, but also those who are writing history in the present.

Student Work: What sources are there for your event? Who is involved in the event? Who wrote them and why? How can we account for differences of opinion?

Day 3: Timeline III: When? Dates & a Brief History of Time

The mini-lecture: Despite being the discipline the most sensitive to time, historians don't spend much time talking or teaching about time in their classrooms. It's always puzzled me: so I decided to take a moment and give my students a brief history of time. I quickly went over time and measurement (including clocks and musical time), time as a matter of perspective or spatiality, and then looked at how historians think about time as a matter of synchronic & diachronic forms. I also illustrated the problems in ascertaining accurate times or chronological information about the past. Fuzzy dating was set next to the clock and the rise of merchants' time.

Student Work: When did your event happen? How do you know? Are there exact dates in your sources? What calendars does your source use? Are there other ways of thinking about time in your event? Is culturally significant in such a way that it creates a culturally significant chronological marker, like a disaster or a rebellion?

Day 4: Timeline IV: Where? Locating History - Places, Spaces, and Minds

The mini-lecture: Where does history 'happen'? On one level I described the role place and space have in setting the historical context. I moved from a physical geographical location, like and address, to more nebulous ideas about location - like a public or private space, a religious space, a contested space. The lecture then tied it into names - are the Holy Roman Empire and Germany the same 'place', or different ones?

I also challenged students to think about the place of history as being a kind of memory - a virtual place or space of the mind, or a cultural place in terms of commemoration. Place as a point in time. I highlighted the idea of forgetfulness - and how the loss of a place in people's minds can also be mapped to the loss of a physical place and remembrance about what might have been there. My example was Africville in Halifax Nova Scotia, which is now covered by a bridge's on - off ramps.

Student Work: Where does your event take place? Is its location the same as the space or places in which it occurred? Does it still exist? If not, why? What does the loss, the renaming, or rebuilding of a place do for your event?

Day 5: Timeline V: Why? Thinking about Historical Significance & Reading Between the Lines

The mini-lecture: History is itself a construction of the past in the context of the present. It is driven by the interests and choices of historians, like the students themselves. How do historians use historical evidence to build arguments about the past? How do they reconcile conflicts or biases in sources? Gaps? I also highlighted that there might be many or multiple 'significances' to their events, and that it was for them to prioritize and decide which was the most important, or which ones were worth discussing.

Student Work: Start thinking about why is your event historically significant? Do historians agree on why it's important? Do you agree or disagree with them? How have you made your decision - ie what evidence is there to support your interpretation and argument? To who is it significant? Are there limitations, and if so, what are they?

Step 2: Lectures

Over the course of my lectures I referenced the timeline - both when there was an overlap with my argument, and when there were gaps. Having the timeline up and running for the first historical lecture meant I had 170 slides already available for discussion. Students had to keep track of when their events were discussed, and if other thematic discussions related to their events.

In the middle of the term the departmental liaison librarian came into to discuss how to use the library, find sources, etc., all in reference to the timeline assignment. Students had to find both primary and secondary sources for their events, and add them to their bibliographies as references.

Step 3: Reflections

Early November I reminded students that they had to revise their events online and write up reflections all by the end of the course at the start of December. This last stage focused entirely on the production of the event prose and proper referencing. The reflections were submitted separately to the events, and collated in the app's admin side for marking by instructors.

The Aftermath

Things I would change:

The first time you run something in the classroom certain things go prettily, and others go... interestingly. This was certainly the case for the Timeline Assignment. The code was new; there were some bugs. For instance, Safari didn't play nicely on Mac OS X, but Chrome did. Perhaps I didn't spend enough time talking through how to use the environment itself; then again, most students grasped it pretty intuitively.

The main points for revision are in clearly defining how students should handle sources in their written submissions, and how I used the timeline in lectures. In terms of the former, I'll ask students to use brackets for footnotes or use MLA for in-text referencing. This became an issue in assessing the work. With the latter, it's a time management issue - there's so much material in this course that making sure each student got their due simply wasn't possible. I'm going to truncate the overall chronology next time too - leaving buffers of 100 years on the low end, and 50 years on the top, so students will have time to a) get used to the course, and b) not feel that I'm not covering their events at the end.


The current set up needs to be able to handle filter for different classes - so I can use the existing data next time I teach a similar course. I've also got to build an ISBN / OCLC parser of some sort for the things / bibliography. And above all, hack the minified Timeline.JS code. I'm also going to work on getting the system in a shape that would be easily deployed for McGill's history department courses. But that means a more extensive rebuild, and better binding with McGill's LDAP service for authentication etc. Nevertheless, it's do-able, and I think there's interest!

Student Reactions and Outcomes

The reactions to the assignment were overwhelmingly positive. Though students were initially sceptical, using the events within the lectures, and forcing them to reflect on the process had a clear impact on what students thought about the study of history in general. Perhaps the most profound pedagogical impact was the use of a web form to force students to make the decisions historians have to make everyday - what is something called, who is involved, etc., all within a limited space. And so while the prima facie purpose of the assignment was to crowd-source the historical narrative for a large history course, its actual aim was to strip away any notion that history is anything other than the compilation of assertions and arguments from a group of researchers. It's a conversation, and is malleable. Many students remarked on how the assignment transformed their thinking about history entirely. As a teacher this outcome was more successful than I expected. I'd hoped that some students would come away with a sense of the malleability of the past, but I am genuinely tickled that this was not something only the brightest and sharpest came away with, but the majority. If anything, at the end of the course students were highly critical of the timeline they initially produced because they'd come to see how it painted a picture of the past that was often just political, focused on the lives of 'famous men', and didn't really at the end of the day best capture what interested them. And so the creation of a timeline ended up being a highly effective strawman for introducing student to the professional craft of historical scholarship. If anything, it's the practice of doing history which they'll take with them - and that's the point of the course, isn't it?