Once Upon a Time: Web-based Timelines in the Classroom

Last week, Dana Milstein and I led a faculty-development roundtable on the online timeline design app Tiki-Toki. The app has become popular in academia over the past year or two because it provides a simple, user-friendly way to create professional-looking, interactive timelines. While a timeline-building app might have obvious applications for a history class, we used the roundtable to explore ways to adapt it to literature and writing classes. I’ll explore some of those here.

First, a bit on how it works. A free Tiki-Toki account allows you to create one timeline site (though there’s nothing stopping you from creating multiple accounts with different email addresses). You set the time scale for your timeline — which, depending on your topic, could be centuries, years, days, hours. You populate the timeline with “stories,” which are essentially micro blog posts that you identify with a time marker, placing them chronologically on your timeline. These stories can contain a range of multimedia including text, images, video, PDFs, and hyperlinks to external websites. They can also be sorted into various categories you invent for your timeline. So, if you’re creating a timeline of — say — the Harlem Renaissance, you might have different category tags for key people, works of visual art, music, literature, or political events.

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. Moments from 2010 - 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline: http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/55/The-Fight-for-Democracy-in-the-Middle-East/

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. The background image shows a political rally. Five text boxed show stories on the timeline. Moments from 2010 – 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline: http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/55/The-Fight-for-Democracy-in-the-Middle-East/

There are a few clear reasons why Tiki-Toki has caught on in the academy over the past few years. For one, it provides a dynamic alternative for assignments that ask students to represent historical research. Unlike a static, text-based researched report, the digital timelines students design allow users to explore the content in a way better suited to the digital age: while users might choose to move through the timeline chronologically, they also have the option to jump around, to navigate by theme or category, to interact with the content in original ways. Likewise, because the multimedia format allows for hyperlinking and embedding multimedia in the stories, users can dive deep into the moments that interest them most, leading outward into further resources on the web.

It seems obvious that a tool like this — and similar open-source apps — should find a natural home in the history classroom. But what about literature and writing classes? Dana and I asked the participants in our roundtable, who were all Great Works of Literature instructors, to imagine possible applications for timeline-building within their own contexts. We asked them to consider how timeline-ing could add to their classes. A few speculative answers:

  • Students could create timelines about characters in literary works to better understand their trajectory, especially in works that have non-linear chronology (i.e. a timeline of Odysseus’s journey or one character’s trajectory through the single-day novel Mrs Dalloway)
  • Students — or groups — could create timelines of cultural movements from which works emerged (i.e. timeline of the Harlem Renaissance or western Women’s Rights movements)
  • A whole class could create timelines tracking the influences of key ideas or key works up to the present day (i.e. a timeline of works responding to Sophocles’ Oedipus plays)

For those who are interested in getting students to represent their knowledge and analysis in ways that go beyond the straightforward prose essay, these kinds of projects offer something new and exciting. They lend themselves to extreme creativity, collaborative knowledge-making, and the incorporation of contemporary digital composing skills within the study of classic literary texts. Of course, they also raise new challenges for assessment, but that’s a topic for another post.

I want to close by speculating on a few possibilities for how Tiki-Toki could be used in a different context: self reflection on learning. In a history class or a literature class, timelines allow students to represent their research and analysis skills. What would happen if we asked students to timeline their own experiences as learners? How could they use their digital literacy skills and the adaptive possibilities of Tiki-Toki to better understand themselves as developing writers and learners?

Many freshman composition courses include some sort of literacy narrative assignment. Typically, these projects ask students to reflect on their past lives as a reader or a writer, often asking them to show through storytelling one important factor that has made them the literate person they are today. Many composition courses begin with such a project. At the beginning of a course in college-level reading and writing, a project like this allows students to gain confidence, both by asking them reflect on the complex literacy skills they already possess, and by allowing them permission to write confidently about something they know well, their own biography. 

Rather than asking students to reflect on a single moment from their literacy past, Dana and I have both started asking them to create digital projects that put these moments into the broader context of their literacy development. (Dana calls her version of this assignment a Literary Autobiography.) Some students choose to use the timeline to represent the various influences on their reading lives — everything from family influences to literature and pop culture touchstones. By contrast, some students use the timeline format to explore their lives as writers, presenting excerpts from important creative and school-sponsored writing projects they’ve done throughout their lives. For example, one student chose to reflect on her history writing and giving speeches, and using the multimedia capabilities of Tiki-Toki, was able to include actual video clips of her public speeches as the basis for her reflection.

Whenever I have my students create something experimental or creative like this, I always ask them to reflect on the experience in a more straightforward essay that accompanies the assignment. Since the overall project is about literacy, students often make compelling analogies between the digital literacy skills they had to employ in this project and the overall literacy history they were trying to represent. The experimentation, in essence, supports their discovery of what, exactly, literacy means to them.

The second example of a reflective timeline-based assignment comes out of my work this semester with George DeFeis’s Business Policy 5100 capstone course. All BPL5100 courses require students to work in groups on a large-scale business simulation called Glo-Bus. In the Glo-Bus simulation, students design a business strategy for a fictional company, and through the accelerated time of the simulation (1 week for the student equals one year of  the business), they compete with rival teams to see who can make the most profitable company through 15 years of business strategy.

At the end of the semester, Professor DeFeis asks his students to prepare an oral presentation in which they explain how they approached the simulation, pointing out their key decisions as a company, and explaining what they ultimately learned about business in the “real world” through this experiment. As a teacher, I have a lot of respect for this kind of assignment. The simulation gives students a rich and complex experience that they can then analyze and synthesize in their final presentation. Unlike oral presentation projects that ask students to base their content purely on external research (say, a presentation on Dell Computers), this project asks them to present on their own experience over the semester — something about which we can reasonably expect them to have authentic expertise. To create a convincing presentation, students must take ownership of what they learned in the course by critically reflecting on both their successes and their mistakes.

This assignment seems perfectly suited to Tiki-Toki. Groups could construct timelines of their own business, making separate stories for the key decisions they made. In each story, they could embed images from the simulation interface to show the data they consulted, while in the text of the story itself they could reflect on the way they reasoned through the choice. Not only would building the timeline allow students to examine the decisions they made in more concrete detail than they usually achieve in the abstract through their oral presentations, they would also leave the project with a professional-quality archive of their simulated business experience.

Obviously, I see many intriguing possibilities for incorporating timeline-based projects into college classrooms. I could go on. Dana Milstein and I are hoping to host another roundtable workshop in the spring that would take a more interdisciplinary focus, including ways that the software could be used in non-humanities courses. Keep tuned to the Schwartz Institute workshop page for more details as they develop. To access the materials we distributed at the November 18 workshop, click here.


  1. Anne McGrail says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I used tiki-toki in my Intro to Women Writers class last fall. All of the students enjoyed working with the software, and a few students used it for their final projects. This is in a community-college context. Check it out here:

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