Monday, October 15, 2007

Web Review: "Ontario History Quest"

Part of our course work this term was to review a website that contained historical content. Here is my review:

Ontario History Quest . Created and maintained by the Toronto Public Library in conjunction with the Archives of Ontario, the City of Toronto Archives and the Ontario Government. Reviewed September 23-24, 2007.

Ontario History Quest was developed jointly by the Toronto Public Library, the Archives of Ontario and the City of Toronto Archives to be a teaching tool for Ontario history teachers and a learning tool for students. The site aims to expose students to primary sources, rather than secondary sources traditionally used to teach history in school. The aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly interface was designed by ecentricarts (Toronto, Ontario), and the learning content was created by an educational consultant, B. Rubenstein.

The website is split into two major sections: the learning content and the database. The first section consists of a series of online, interactive projects designed to follow the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum; these projects are targeted at grades 7, 8, 10 and 12. Each project starts with an introductory activity to ensure students understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. Following this, students are shown a primary source, or a series of primary sources that centre around one topic related to their field of study. Open ended questions such as, “If you could ask the painter of this painting one question, what would it be?” compel the students to become engaged with the sources they are viewing. Very little in the way of the traditional memorization of dates, or the narrative telling of political history is evident in the website’s content. The emphasis is clearly placed on learning to think critically, rather than on learning a series of historical facts.

All of the information students need is available on the website, which ensures no dead links arise as external websites are changed or taken offline. The majority of the information on the site is found in the second section of the website: the database. This database includes over 3000 online primary sources relating to Ontario history in a variety of media, ranging from photographs, to video, to scanned documents. The records have been carefully chosen for relevance to the curriculum and have been uploaded from the collections of the Ontario and Toronto Archives and the Toronto Library. The database is very easy to use, and includes many options for searching, including well-organized drop boxes to search by place, subject or type of media, as well as the opportunity to use more advanced search techniques. A detailed tutorial aids any unsure students, and the lessons give helpful hints on what types of searches the students should try when looking for materials for their projects.

Ontario History Quest also has many features to help teachers budget their time with lesson plans and evaluation tools. Students benefit from note-taking aids as well as checklists to help them write good reports. The site from anywhere since no software or licensing is required, and users can easily print screen content for offline use.The wide range of documents available allows teachers to customize the assignments to emphasize local research, assuming the class lives in a fairly major centre.

Where the site is lacking is in maintenance. It was designed in 2003 and as far as I can tell, has not been updated since. The site was designed to look best in 800x600 resolution, which is considered poor by 2007’s standards. This means the content on the site does not take up enough of the screen, resulting in wasted space. The site also suggests users use at least Internet Explorer 5.5 or Netscape 6.2.2. Netscape has all but disappeared and Internet Explorer 5.5 is now over seven years old and completely outdated. Further evidence that the site is not maintained was found when trying to access one of the primary sources. A message that “Due to copyright restriction, this image cannot be made available until after December 31, 2003. Please be sure to visit in 2004” appeared when clicking on the image. This is problematic because the Ontario curriculum changed as of September 2004 to reflect the end of the O.A.C. courses. The exercises, particularly the grade 12 assignments, no longer reflect the Ontario curriculum. Websites of this nature should have a date-stamp to let educators know the material is – or in this case – is not up to current standards.

Finally, the grade 7 and grade 12 projects are nearly identical because the curriculum formerly dealt with the same time periods for these two grades – 1820s-1850s. Only minor changes in the assignments and the number and type of primary sources appear between these two grades. Any student who was taught using this website in grade 7 would likely be unenthused to have to redo the same projects in grade 12. This reflects laziness on the part of the creators on an otherwise marvelously designed teaching tool. With a few hours of updates, and annual maintenance, Ontario History Quest would be a fabulous addition to Ontario classrooms.

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