As we teach specific topics in our classes, it is easy to lose the forest for the trees by looking at the topics in isolation from one another. For instance, a European history course might cover the various wars between France and Germany, but in examining a specific war, it might lose the context of the wars being part of an ongoing disagreement over control of border regions where people of both French and German heritage live, or perhaps deeper issues of national identity.
Similarly, we can also lose the wider context of thought development in more conceptual fields. As an undergraduate I took a modern philosophy course that examined thinkers from Descartes to Kant. But we covered each thinker more or less in isolation from others, and it was only later as a graduate student that I fully comprehended the link between thinkers as a progression of understanding of what knowledge is. This common thread was lost in the weeds of trying to understand each particular thinker as an undergraduate.
Digital timeline assignments are one way to solve this problem by having students represent thinking as a conversation over time or as an unfolding of underlying principles over a sequence of events. They provide a simple way to visualize the progression of ideas or events in terms of common themes. Understanding these themes provides students with the mental hook onto which they can hang the views of individual thinkers or theories, as well as the progression of events, to both better understand the particulars and better retain the information.
Plus, digital timelines can make the subject come alive for students through imagery, narration, video, maps, and other media. They require students to think about how to represent underlying ideas visually, which helps them think more deeply about those ideas. Moreover, they help students develop 21st-century communication skills, which increasingly involve communicating ideas visually.
Digital timelines are difficult to develop with common desktop apps, such as MS Word and PowerPoint. But there are a number of free and simple software applications that make it easy to develop attractive digital timelines. Here are some of the best options.
Padlet is a popular whiteboard that can host discussions and group projects in lieu of the LMS forum. Like many systems, it comes with convenient templates to start you off, including a timeline template. The timeline template gives students a horizontal dotted line on which they can attach content in a variety of forms, including text, audio, and video. An advantage of the system is its simplicity. One disadvantage is that students can add content only to the center timeline itself, and so students would not be able to add fields above or below the timeline that represent overarching concepts to tie the individual pieces together.
Canva is my go-to source for making graphics such as title slides for presentations and infographics. Unlike Padlet, which only provides a blank timeline template, Canva has thousands of templates pre-filled with content. Students can browse all the options, pick the one they like best, and then swap out or modify any of the elements in it. This allows for tremendous flexibility in design and thus almost unlimited potential for creativity. Plus, students can download the result as a PDF, image, or video or share it with others as a webpage link. The downside: Canva has a steeper learning curve than other systems.
Sutori is a timeline creation tool that allows students to build a two-column vertical timeline scrolling down the page. Students can add not only the same wide range of content that is possible with Padlet and Canva but also interactions, such as quizzes and commenting. For this reason, Sutori touts itself as good for hosting lessons as well as timelines. Additionally, it is fundamentally designed for collaborative development, which makes it good for group projects.
Flippity is a free website that hosts templates for creating games, study aids, tournament brackets, and more. Interestingly, it creates the product by downloading a Google Sheet into the student’s Drive account for hosting the information. The student then just swaps out the sample information in the spreadsheet for the content that they want. This makes Flippity the easiest to use of the systems covered here, but it is also the least flexible in terms of appearance and types of content it can hold.
Timeline JS is similar to Flippity in that it gives the student a Google Sheets template for entering their content. The differences are that it has greater functionality than Flippity, which allows the student to produce a more attractive result, and the timeline scrolls horizontally rather than vertically. The timeline appears at the bottom of the page, and clicking items on the timeline opens up the related content above it.