Outcomes of various scaffolding strategies on student teachers’ digital historical inquiries

Outcomes of various scaffolding strategies on student teachers’ digital historical inquiries

Lee, John K


In this study, 30 students in a graduate level social studies methods course used digital historical resources to respond to a single question about the Cuban Missile Crisis: “How was the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved?” The participants were placed in three groups and each group was given a different scaffolding strategy for using online sources to answer the question. Participants searched for information using the Google search engine, were directed to a specific collection of 275 documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis, or were directed to 5 specific documents relevant to their inquiry. Four primary findings resulted. 1) High quality sources are accessible by doing a simple Google search using terms such as “Cuban Missile Crisis.” 2) Learners need mediating pedagogical structures when using large and medium size archival historical collections for historical inquiry. 3) Participants who used the 5 pre-selected documents were more likely to retain contextualized knowledge. 4) Residual learning effects are related to reflective thinking which occurs during and after using digital historical resources. We recommend that web developers consider the limitations of online historical resources and recommend that social studies teacher educators and K-12 teachers carefully select web based historical resources for use in their class.


Authentic historical inquiry has long been available as a viable and often superior method for teaching and learning history, but too often it has been reserved for the brightest students or put off until after the “real content” was covered. Teachers cite a number of obstacles to historical inquiry relating to curriculum, time, students’ abilities, and lack of access to primary source materials (Lee, Hicks, & Doolittle, 2003; Hartzler-Miller, C., 2001; Becker, 2000; Gabella, 1994). But, perhaps the greatest obstacle in promoting historical inquiry in history classrooms has been the social studies teachers’ themselves and their inabilities to conduct historical inquiry (Seixas, 1998). Even for the most eager teachers, their lack of training in the methods of historical inquiry has pushed historical inquiry in their classroom to the background behind more ineffective and didactic methods of teaching and learning (Ravitch, 1997). We contend that digital historical inquiry has perhaps the most potential in positively transforming social studies teaching and learning. Given this belief, we have constructed this study to investigate three methods for social studies pre-service teachers to complete a simple digital historical inquiry. We are primarily interested in looking at how access to different types of online historical resources influences social studies teacher education students’ abilities to construct an answer to a straightforward historical inquiry.


There is a significant body of research on social studies teachers’ historical thinking (Hartzler-Miller, 2001; Seixas, 1998; Vansledright, 1996; Yeager & Davis, 1995; McDiarmid, 1994, Wineburg, 1991), but none of these researchers have taken into consideration the changing characteristics of historical inquiry brought about by the recent development of web-based technologies. The World Wide Web has created new opportunities for pre-service social studies teachers to engage in authentic historical resources (Whitworth & Berson, 2003; Lee, 2002; Milson, 2002; Mason, Berson, Diem, Hicks, Lee, & Dralle, 2000). These opportunities reflect even larger trends at the intersection of technology and history instruction and practice, specifically related to the availability of digital historical resources and the emergence of new digital historical inquiry methods (Rosenzweig, 2001; Ayers, 1999b).

Digital historical inquiry means taking full advantage of current and emerging technologies to support conceptualizations of learning history that stress developing inquiry skills, perspective taking and meaning making over the transmission textbook-driven model. More broadly, “digital history is the study of the past using a variety of electronically reproduced primary source texts, images, and artifacts as well as the constructed historical narratives, accounts, or presentations that result from digital historical inquiry” (Lee, 2002). With its reliance on the non-linear web-based presentation of primary source materials and secondary historical interpretations, digital historical inquiry facilitates more provisional examinations of the past. The Web’s hypertexuality encourages a process orientated view of history, one where students can read and write alternative historical stories (Ayers, 1999a). As students read and write historical narratives in hypertext they will have the ability, through the construction of links, to exercise a greater sense of control over the narrative and particularly the structure of arguments within the narrative (Davison, 1997).

Digital history

Lacking a significant history of its own, digital history is somewhat hard to characterize. Relational databases were the earliest digital resources used by historians. Harvey and Press (1996) defined relation databases as “a collection of interrelated data organized in a pre-determined manner according to a set of logical rules. [Relational databases are] structured to reflect the natural relationships of the data and the uses to which they will be put” (p. 22). The use of relational databases was associated with the shift to the statistical analyses of historical information. Using databases with information such as census records gave historians the opportunity to inquire into a wide range of meaningful problems (Smart, 1996). With the appearance of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, text- and image-based digital historical resources began to be compiled and used by historians. The widespread availability of these resources necessitated a change in the way historical research was conducted (Barlow, 1998; Schick, 1997). These changes were mostly the product of the new level of accessibility to documents, particularly for the novice students of history.

The World Wide Web is the primary delivery mechanism for digital historical documents, and in recent years the quality and range of documents available on the Web has significantly increased (Rosenzweig, 2001). The Web makes primary source documents available to students and historians regardless of their intent or ability, and, in a sense, democratizes the practice of history (Ayers, 1999a). Web-based digital documents can also be pedagogically valuable if they allow learners increased control (Wilson & Marsh, 1995). The Web can put learners in direct contact with the raw materials of history and enable them to construct personal understandings of the past. Furthermore, Galgano (1999) suggests that web-based search and copy/paste functions as well as the ability to work in multiple computer windows can all contribute to easing some of the physical constraints on using historical documents. These ease of use issues may make digital historical research more efficient than traditional methods.

Given the growing availability of digital historical resources, use of these resources has increased. The most active use of digital historical resources to date has been in colleges and universities where professors are making use of online historical resources to facilitate their students’ primary source document-based historical research (Trinkle, 1999). In a 2002 national survey of social studies teachers, Lee, Hicks, and Doolittle (2003) found that about 50% of teachers indicated that they use digital historical resources more than once a month. Three in every 4 students who took the NAEP1 National History Test reported that their teachers use computers. Despite the trend in these reports on “use,” Becker (2000) found that very few social studies teachers and teacher educators utilize the Web to encourage inquiry and perspective taking within their classrooms.

While the Web places vast quantities of information before every social studies teacher and student, merely having access to a wide range of disparate sources alone will not transform history and social studies learning (Mason, Berson, Diem, Hicks, Lee, & Dralle, 2000). To date, social studies teachers’ technology preparation and meaningful usage, in terms of seamlessly integrating technology to encourage inquiry, has lacked subject context and has been disconnected from student learning (International Society for Technology in Education, 1999; National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, 1997). With this study we have attempted to directly address the lack of subject context in social studies pre-service teachers’ use of technology.


In this study, 30 students in a graduate level social studies methods course used digital historical resources to respond to a single question about the Cuban Missile Crisis: “How was the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved?” The course included a significant focus on content knowledge and a related focus on the transformation of content knowledge into pedagogical knowledge. This exercise was the first part of a two part exercise focused on the development of content knowledge and the transformation of that knowledge into pedagogy. The course assumed that strong content knowledge was necessary in order for pedagogical knowledge to develop. We were interested in the question of how the use of various digital historical resources might enable social studies teacher education students to better or more efficiently develop their historical content knowledge about a preconceived, course-related content specific topic.

The content question posed to participants in this exercise facilitated our efforts in determining whether content knowledge had been advanced as a result of the participants’ work with online historical resources. We selected the Cuban Missile Crisis because it is an important part of the state high school curriculum for which these participants were being prepared to teach. Despite widespread familiarity with the topic we suspected that most participants would not be familiar with the nuances of the “end” to the crisis.

The participants were placed in three groups and each group was given a different scaffolding strategy for using online sources to construct a response to the question. The first group was told to use the search engine Google and search for documents using terms from the question. Participants in this group were not told what type of documents to use. Participants in the second group were directed to the Avalon Project at Yale Law School: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy2. Avalon is an archival digital history site that includes documents relevant to the fields of law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy and government. One collection within Avalon includes 275 documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Participants in this group were told to read the document titles in this collection to make decisions about whether the documents might be relevant to answering their question. If so, they were told to click on the link to the document and scan or read it. The third group was also directed to the Avalon site, but they were told to read 5 specific documents that were relevant to their inquiry.

Participants in all three groups were also provided with specific strategies for analyzing the documents (Hicks, 2003). Essentially, they were asked to summarize the content of the documents, contextualize the documents, and make inferences from the documents. As inferences emerged they were told to corroborate their findings. We were not looking at the question of how these historical inquiry related analytical strategies were implemented given the source. Instead, our research was focused on the manner in which participants’ work products were influenced by the larger pedagogical structure of scaffolding in the three activities.

We constructed the three scaffolding strategies to reflect what we believe are three levels of pedagogical guidance for using digital historical resources.3 The pedagogical guidance provided to participants was progressively more structured from Groups 1 to 3. The group that searched the web using Google, Group 1, reflected a common Internet research trend in social studies-what we will call “unstructured research.” The research was unstructured because participants had virtually no guidance for collecting data to answer the question and because they were not compelled to use authentic primary resources. Groups 2 and 3 had some guidance and more direct access to authentic resources, namely they were told to use a specific teacher/expert-selected site or specific documents. Group 2 was told to read the document titles listed in the Avalon collection on the Cuban Missile Crisis, scan documents with promising titles, read in depth if the scan turned up relevant content, and confirm findings with additional documents. Because this group was guided to a specific online collection of primary source documents we will call this “semi-structured research.” Group 3 was given a carefully selected set of documents from the Avalon collection which were thoroughly vetted and told a story that in a sense directly related to the answer to the question. We call this method “structured research.” We thought the least structured activity would be the most difficult and participants completing this activity would be the least productive in answering the question. We thought the most structured activity, would be somewhat less difficult and certainly the most productive. We were unsure about what to expect from Group 2, but we suspected they would have a more difficult time than Group 3 and have more success than Group 1.

All the participants were given 45 minutes to search and read information. Prior to doing their work, participants were asked to write a brief paragraph response to the question: “How was the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved?” They wrote a second paragraph response to the question 45 minutes later, after completing their research. After writing the second paragraph, the class engaged in a discussion about the correct answer. Two months later we returned to find out how well they had retained their knowledge. Our research interests included determining the effect of participants’ prior content knowledge, the utility of the web site or search engine in facilitating participants’ construction of a response to the question, the affect of the scaffolding or level of pedagogical guidance when using digital historical resources, the affect of class discussion given the circumstances of the class activities, and the durability of the knowledge developed during the activity and subsequent discussion.

Data in the form of the participants’ writing, interviews with participants, and classroom observations were analyzed using the constant comparative method (Glasser & Strauss, 1967). The constant comparative method allowed for the development of emergent findings that could be grounded in the data. The first step in analyzing the data was developing a system for coding the data. We developed 10 themes and coded all data using these themes. After the data was coded, it was compared across emerging categories in order to solidify the identity of like categories. We collapsed the 10 themes into 4 categories, which served as the foundation for the development of 4 separate findings. The two primary researchers in this study independently analyzed the findings and were in agreement on all of the themes, categories, and findings.


Our research focused on three questions. First, how did participants’ content knowledge develop given their prior knowledge and the methods they used for accessing online resources to aid in answering the question? Second, what do the findings from the first question tell us about the pedagogical qualities and/or limitations of these specific online resources and the methods for accessing and using these resources? Third, what are the residual effects on content knowledge of the three types of learning with online historical resources experienced in this study? We were, in general, interested in how various methods for using different types of digital historical resources affected participants’ development of historical content knowledge and the retention of that knowledge.

Our first and second research questions were addressed by analyzing the direct results of participants work on the first day of this activity when participants conducted the research and wrote the before and after paragraphs. Of the 30 participants in our study, only 3 were familiar before class with the details of the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis, namely that the United States agreed to a quid pro quo with the Soviet Union, withdrawing missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal of missiles in Cuba. After completing their work with the online resources 17 participants were able to correctly identify the quid pro quo. Participants’ in the group which used the Google search engine (unstructured research Group 1) and the group that had 5 specific documents from the Avalon collection (structured research Group 3) had more success than the participants’ in the group that had access to all 275 documents in the Avalon collection (semi-structured research Group 2) (see Table 1).

Finding One: Meaningful and coherent secondary and primary digital historical resources on the Cuban Missile Crisis are easily accessed and understood using widely available search engines.

Despite the lack of structure, participants in Group 1 did very well at their task. Prior to their online investigation only 1 of the 10 participants in this group correctly identified as the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis the quid pro quo involving the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Seven of the 9 participants who did not know about the quid pro quo discovered it in their research. Participants in Group 1 learned about the quid pro quo mostly by reading secondary historical sources. In total, seventeen different sources were accessed by the 7 participants who made progress. The sites accessed by participants ranged from the highly ideological Marxist.org to the John F. Kennedy presidential library site to a middle school class web site (all 17 sites accessed by participants in group one are listed in Appendix 1). Of the 17 sites, four specific sites functioned as the primary source of information for the 7 participants who made progress.

One of these 4 sites, the National Security Archive from George Washington University, was found as a result of a Google search on the phrase “resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”4 The site contained an article describing a critical meeting between U. S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly F. Dobrynin. It was in this meeting that President Kennedy, through his brother Attorney General Kennedy, agreed to remove U. S. missiles in Turkey. The article originally published in 1995 and written by Jim Hershberg, was found online at the National Security archive at George Washington University.5 Four participants used the article as their primary source of information in constructing their second response to the question. This article was very direct and revealing regarding the U. S. / Soviet deal and the details of how a wider crisis was averted.

One participant in Group 1 used transcripts of White House meetings available on the web site History and Politics Out Loud.6 This site included numerous transcriptions including one from October 26, 1962, where President Kennedy refers to the deal he struck with Chairman Khrushchev, but it was an explanatory note preceding part of a transcript on the day that contained the information this participant needed. The note clearly explained, in one sentence, the meeting between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin and the resulting deal. Another participant used a site he had prior knowledge of called OnWar.org and found a paragraph that provided a concise description of the Kennedy/Khrushchev deal. The last participant learned about the quid pro quo using an online exhibit on the crisis from the Library of Congress? The exhibit included a short three paragraph explanation of the crisis that described the quid pro quo.

Finding Two: Teacher learners need mediating pedagogical structures when using large and medium size archival historical collections for historical inquiry.

Group 2 was asked to use a specific collection of 275 documents of varying length on the Cuban Missile Crisis from the Yale Law School’s Avalon Project.8 The design of the site provided participants with a schematic structure within which to consider the question. In addition, access to the site reduced participants’ dependence on web search skills and enabled them to work with authentic and relevant documents. Despite these advantages, we found that access to the entire Avalon collection on the Cuban Missile Crisis proved to be more problematic than helpful with regard to the participants’ task. Only 1 of the 10 participants in this group who did not know about the quid pro quo between the U. S. and USSR learned about it from reading documents on the site.

The Avalon collection on the Cuban Missile Crisis is taken from the Foreign Relations of the United States Series of the U. S. Department of State, which is also available on the Department of State web site.9 Documents on the Avalon site are listed in chronological order on a title page using descriptive titles such as, “Memorandum from Acting Secretary of State Ball to President Kennedy.” Four informational items are provided at the top of the list of documents including a preface, sources, a list of persons, and a list of abbreviations. Although the documents are numbered sequentially, document dates are not included in the titles.

Participants were told to read the document titles and if appropriate click on the link to load the document and scan the documents to determine the relevance of the document to the question. Participants recorded all the documents which they accessed10 while researching the answer to the question. On average participants scanned or read 11 documents ranging from 3 to 21 documents per participant. In addition, they recorded the documents which were of direct value in addressing the question. Participants accessed over 100 different documents, but only used 33 individual documents to answer the question. Seven documents were used by 2 or more people, with no single document being used by more than 4 of the 11 participants in this group.

All 11 participants in Group 2 expressed frustration with their task. Problems included the difficulty of encountering documents that were not relevant as well as being distracted by documents that appeared to be relevant only to end up without significant value. Only one of the 10 participants who did not know about the Kennedy/Khrushchev deal was able to construct the answer from her work with the collection. She along with 3 other participants in the group read one of the five critical documents provided to group three. This document (#91 in the Avalon collection), was a message from Khrushchev to President Kennedy and contained direct evidence that the quid pro quo had been, at least, proposed. In the document Khrushchev wrote,

I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive. We are willing to carry this out and to make this pledge in the United Nations. Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States, for its part, considering the uneasiness and anxiety of the Soviet State, will remove its analogous means from Turkey.

Although one participant in the group with access to all the documents was able to pick this passage out, the other 3 participants who said they read the document did not benefit from the passage. They focused on other information in the document or underappreciated the specific passage’s importance.

The documents covered in the collection ranged from the first document, a briefing paper for President Kennedy produced October 1, 1962, to the last document, #275, which contains notes from a meeting between U. S. intermediary James Donovan and Fidel Casto in January, 1963. The distribution of documents selected by participants in Group 2 was skewed toward documents listed earlier in the index with 20 of the documents used listed between 1 -100 and only 13 listed from 101-275. As might be expected, there were an abundance of documents produced during the height of the crisis from October 16 to October 28. These documents were numbered from document #16 to #107. Participants in Group 2 did focus on these documents, demonstrating that they had some prior knowledge of the event, but did not benefit from this access. Seventeen of the 33 documents used by participants were among this group and nine of the 11 participants in the group accessed documents from October 16 to October 28. Six of the 7 documents used by more than one participant in the group were also from this time period. Although we have some reason to believe that participants thought the first 100 documents were more useful, we partially attribute the more active use of the first half of the collection to either fatigue or time constraints as they proceeded through the collection. This finding provides evidence that participants proceeded in a linear fashion from document #1 to the last document.

Participants in Group 2 also made selections because the Kennedy or Khrushchev names appeared in the document titles. In fact, fifteen of the 33 documents used by participants in the group had Kennedy, Khrushchev, or both leaders’ names in the title. This represented nearly half of the documents in the collection with President Kennedy’s name and nearly all of the documents with both Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s names. The selection strategies used by participants did result in them accessing the most relevant documents in the collection, but despite this access participants were mostly unable to construct meaningful answers.

Finding Three: Highly structured experiences with online historical resources facilitate the achievement of narrow historical inquiry instructional objectives.

Participants in Group 3 were given 5 documents11, which were carefully selected for their relevance to the question. Six of the 8 participants in this group who did not know about the quid pro quo between the U. S. and the USSR learned about it by reading this series of letters. We believe that the letters functioned as a story which when read in sequence enabled these six participants to respond successively to the question. The story like qualities were, we believe, highly pedagogic thus fulfilling our research desire to provide group three with a structured learning activity.

All five of this group’s documents were communiqués between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev, although only three of the documents had the leaders’ names in the titles. The story told through the group’s five documents opened with document #44, a letter from Kennedy to Khrushchev on October 22, which outlined the American objections to the placement of medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Although the letter is short, it sets the tone for the crisis, with Kennedy assuring Khrushchev that he wants to provide an honest portrayal of the American position, but also warning Khrushchev of American “determination” to prevent the Soviet Union from disrupting the “balance of power.” This letter creates the tension that is necessary in narrative. Participants who read this document had immediate access to the pressure which faced both leaders.

The story made available to Group 3 through the 5 selected documents maintained a consistent cast of characters, the main players being President Kennedy, Chairman Khrushchev, and United Nations Secretary General U. Thant. The story line twisted and shifted and these changes were clearly marked. For example, Khrushchev responds12 to Kennedy’s letter of October 22 by suggesting that Kennedy consider the crisis if the roles were reversed. In the letter, Khrushchev suggests that Kennedy be empathetic to the Soviet position. He asks Kennedy to think about the Soviet Union’s options given that the Soviet Union is an equal superpower. Only toward the end of the letter does Khrushchev take a more aggressive tone, saying that unless the United States backs down the Soviet Union will be “forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate in order to protect our rights.” The general tone of the letter moves readers out of the “eye to eye” no holes bared conflict mode in Kennedy’s letter that the Cuban Missile Crisis is often portrayed as, to a more personal and reasoned mode.

The story continues to unfold with Kennedy and Khrushchev ultimately seeking a peaceful solution, but only arriving at that solution or “plot conclusion” after a dramatic proposal by Khrushchev. The proposal, which marked the most significant movement in the story, occurs in documents #91 and #95 (the fourth and fifth documents provided to Group 3). In document #91 (dated October 27), Khrushchev proposes that the United States remove missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union’s removal of Cuban missiles. The suggestion is made in the middle of a letter with little advanced notice. Khrushchev compares the U. S. distress over the close proximity of missiles in Cuba with Soviet concerns over U.S. missiles in Turkey. He reasons that if the U. S. can justify missiles in Turkey, then the Soviet Union should be able, using the same logic, to justify missiles in Cuba. After laying this groundwork, Khrushchev makes his proposal.

Kennedy accepts Khrushchev’s terms in a letter dated October 28 (document #95), with a certain vagueness that hints at the intrigue of the actual deal. Kennedy wrote,

If you will give your representative similar instructions, there is no reason why we should not be able to complete these arrangements and announce them to the world within a couple of days. The effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions would enable us to work toward a more general arrangement regarding “other armaments”, as proposed in your second letter which you made public.

The editors of the Avalon collection inserted a note at the end of the passage above indicating that the “second letter” was document #91, Khrushchev’s letter which contained the proposal that the U.S. remove missiles in Turkey. Participants had to infer that the “other armaments” Kennedy mentions were in fact the missiles in Turkey. Six of the eight participants in Group 3 that did not know about the quid pro quo prior to reading the documents were able to make this inference.

Finding Four: Residual learning effects are related to reflective thinking which occurs during and after using digital historical resources.

We had participants complete a third version of their paragraph on the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis two months after the research activity and discussion. Participants were asked the same question: “How was the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved?” Twenty-eight of the 30 original participants wrote a third paragraph. It is important to note that all 28 participants who wrote the third paragraph had access to the correct answer as a result of a reflective discussion which took place after the research. The discussion lasted approximately 15 minutes and primarily focused on the story of the quid pro quo and the pedagogical implications of each method used to attempt to answer the original question.

Twenty-five of the 28 (89%) participants correctly referenced the missile removal quid pro quo agreed to by President Kennedy and Chairmen Khrushchev in their third paragraph. Seventeen of the 30 original participants (56%) identified the quid pro quo in the second paragraph after the research and three of 30 (10%) knew about the deal prior to the research. Nineteen participants (68% of those who wrote the third paragraph and 82% of those who mentioned the quid pro quo in their third paragraph) mentioned Turkey by name as the location of the missiles that the United States agreed to remove. We did not find any appreciable differences according to their group membership among the 25 participants who recalled the quid pro quo and the 17 who recalled Turkey by name.

We analyzed the substance of the answers to determine if there were any differences in terms of how participants contextualized the quid pro quo. We looked for two things in participants’ paragraphs, 1) references to President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev and 2) references to a secret meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Our analysis showed us that the structured research group who had access to 5 specific documents (Group 3) were the most successful at contextualizing their answer.

Sixteen of the 28 participants who wrote the third paragraph mentioned President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev by name. Participants in the structured group that used the 5 selected documents (Group 3) were twice as likely to have mentioned Kennedy and Khrushchev as participants in the unstructured group which used Google (Group 1) and the semi-structured group which used all of the Avalon collection (Group 2). On our second measure of contextualization (reference to the secret meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin), participants in group 3 were again twice as likely to mention the meeting in their third paragraph as the other two groups. This meeting was mentioned in the discussion, but not directly in any of the Avalon documents.

We believe group three’s success was a consequence of what we think was a more authentic experience. The participants in group three engaged a carefully selected set of primary historical documents, whose selection served a focused pedagogical purpose related to the “story” of the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They engaged the documents in an online environment which allowed for recursive reading and the ability to see the documents as part of a larger collection. Group three’s work was supported by follow up discussion that focused squarely on the documents they read.

Discussion and Conclusions

We believe that the initial success of the unstructured research group that used the Google search engine (Group 1), while surprising, does make sense given the conditions of this research. Participants in this group researched a subject in the Cuban Missile Crisis that was common enough that high quality resources addressing the topic were widely available and easily accessed online. Participants were able to access these high quality sources by doing a simple Google search using terms such as “Cuban Missile Crisis” or “resolution to Cuban Missile Crisis.” The resources participants used were listed on the first page of results and were directly available as opposed to requiring additional searching and browsing on a web site made available through the search. Participants in this group also had adequate prior knowledge to make use of these resources. We found that the organizational structure of the Web enabled participants to quickly and efficiently access valuable resources. Given the conditions present in this study, namely that the topic being researched was part of a common body of knowledge and that participants had ability to make use of resources made available through general web searches, we believe that search engines such as Google can be pedagogically valuable.

Unlike our findings with Group 1, we were not surprised with the lack of success in the semi-structured research group (Group 2), which researched the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis using the full Avalon collection on the topic. Participants in group 2 were given a daunting task and little pedagogical assistance. We did not intend to set up this group for failure. Instead, we wanted to simulate what we believe is very common pedagogical practice. We know that K-12 social studies teachers and social studies methods instructors often send their participants to specific web sites to conduct research. We also know that many of these sites (such as Avalon) are not suited for most non-expert uses, at least not without significant pedagogical support. We confirmed that the participants in our study were not equipped to make effective use out of the Avalon archive in the given time. We strongly suggest that web developers take into consideration the needs of users when developing their sites and more importantly that teachers develop pedagogical structures for their participants when using sites such as Avalon to complete tasks such as the one we constructed.

We did construct a pedagogical structure for the structured research group (Group 3). The intervention we took with this group was significant. We not only pre-selected documents, which eliminated this task for participants, we also selected specific documents that we believe told a story. We believe the activity constructed for this group represented a reasonable compromise between the more inauthentic experience of participants in Group 1 and the authentic but daunting experience of Group 2. The selection of the 5 documents for Group 3 required a significant level of teacher knowledge and involvement. The teacher in this activity had to essentially complete the semi-structured research group’s task in order to find the appropriate documents. This type of work requires that K-12 social studies teachers and social studies methods instructors be highly skilled in historical research and grounded in historical content.

With finding number 4 we found that participants in group 3 who used the 5 pre-selected documents were more likely to retain contextualized knowledge about the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This finding suggests that discussion will support activities that are designed to fit with the structure of the actual discussion. The class discussion following the research focused on the 5 documents that were made available to the structured research group. The members of group 3 were asked to contribute in a more substantial way at the start of the discussion given that they had read the documents. Without these participants, the discussion would have been teacher-centered and less authentic. Ideally, all participants would have participated as a result of reading the 5 documents, but their ability to engage in dialogue was enhanced by the opening exchange on the 5 documents and their significance.

We recommend that web developers consider the limitations of online historical resources and consider how they might increase the value of those collections by including pedagogical materials. We also recommend that social studies teacher educators and K-12 teachers carefully select and prepare web based historical resources for use in their class and that any use of these documents be supported with follow up discussion.

1 The NAEP National History Test is part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The 2001 Nation’s Report Card in U. S. History is available online at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ushistory

2 http://wwvv.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/avalon.htm

3 Not all students were necessarily using digital historical resources.” Some students, namely students in the unstructured research group, used resources that did not meet our standard for digital historical resources which are electronically reproduced primary source texts, images, and artifacts as well as the constructed historical narratives, accounts, or presentations that result from digital historical inquiry.

4 At the time of this work the site was listed number 4 on the Google search results page.

5 The article was originally published in the Cold War International History Project Issue 5 Spring 1995 and is available from the National Security Archive at George Washington University at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/moment.htm

6 http://www.hpol.org

7 http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/colc.html

8 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon

9 http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/

10 Accessed in this context means that the document was loaded on the students’ computer, scanned, and possibly read in depth.

11 Students in the structured research group were told to read documents 44, 61, 84, 91, and 95 in the Avalon collection.

12 Khrushchev’s response is contained in document #61 titled as a letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy. This was the second document in the group of 5 made available to The structured research group.


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John K. Lee, Georgia State University

Philip E. Molebash, San Diego State University

Copyright University of Northern Iowa Fall 2004

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