In the state of Indiana (where I grew up), Indiana history is taught in fourth grade. Right now, my upcoming digital history project is set to highlight an important event in Indiana history and is targeted for use in fourth grade Indiana classrooms. Thus, I need discover how to create a project that is engaging, educational, and appeals to both fourth grade students and their teachers. In order to better understand the audience for this project, I conducted two user research interviews. I interviewed one female fourth grade student and one female fourth grade teacher. Both subjects were from the same school in Noblesville, IN. If time allows, it would be interesting to interview a male fourth grade student and at least one more teacher to see how their options differed from the two subjects I interviewed. The thoughts and options I received challenged me to rethink some aspects of my project, but also gave me encouragement that I was on the right track.
Interviewee #1: Female 4th Grade Student, Age 9
In my interview, I asked several questions about sports, games and other activities she like to do in her spare time. This student reinforced what I already knew about children in Indiana — they love to play sports! She not only play soccer, but is also thinking about playing Volleyball too. She also loves to play games — both traditional board games like Monopoly and Yahtzee, and computer games. He favorite computer games are played online; she calls them “business games.” In these types of games, she get to, for example, run a virtual farm where she has control over what go on, buying and selling animals, providing them with food, etc. with virtual money she has earned in the game. Naturally, this conversation led to questions about what types of technology she uses on an everyday basis. She has her own iPad and also admits to using her mom’s computer as well, mostly to play online games.
When asked how she best likes to learn about history, she replied: “I just like to learn through games.” She says it helps the material “stick with her better.” She thinks that learning through games is a great way to keep remembering the material because she can keep playing the games, over and over. When asked what would make a history website educational but also fun, she replied that would like it to have rewards for getting something right. She imagined earning virtual badges as she moved through the material. She also mentioned that is would be a good idea to watch a video and then take a short quiz at the end. She summed up her point by adding: “I just want to say, that it seems like a lot of kids like to have… like, a lot of fun in it — not like a bunch of reading about a certain subject.”
From her responses, two things stood out to me: the desire to turn everything into a game and the use of technology in her daily life. First of all, almost everything that she described enjoying was in the form of a game. She enjoying playing sports. She enjoys playing board games. She like playing computer games where she can complete missions and earn virtual money/points. She learns best in school by playing games. She imagines a good website as one that give rewards (virtual badges) for learning material, and includes quizzes (a form of a game, in trying to get the answers right). Secondly, she uses technology like iPads and computers on a daily basis. She uses the Internet to play games or download apps. She believes that other students would rather learn by having fun (playing a game) instead of just reading text.
This tells me that in order to be engaging to a fourth grade audience, I need to include some sort of game element to my project. I need to create some sort of way for them to earn something or accomplish some task. If they view learning as a game, it will (in her words) “stick with me better.” Also, her observations tell me that fourth grade students are avid users of technology and the internet. An educational website is no longer cool “just because you get to use the internet to do it.” Children today are surrounded by great quality Internet content. A history project must rise to that standard to be engaging.
These insights challenged me to think of how to incorporate a game component and reward system into my project. While I originally wanted to include something interactive, I didn’t quite know what to do. Now I have clear sense of what they would find fun and engaging. I also know to try to keep long sections of text to a minimum and focus on telling the story through game play.
Interviewee #2: Female 4th Grade Teacher, Age 47
In the interview, I asked several questions about the availability of technology in the classroom. If students cannot access the internet in school, then there is little point in created a website targeted for classroom use. Thankfully, this teacher assured me that they had serval options for access the Internet including a set of 6 classroom iPads, one classroom desktop computer, and the opportunity to visit a computer lab or have a mobile laptop lab come to their classroom.
Next, I asked about the Indiana history textbook. I wondered what topics and teaching materials were lacking or limited in the current book. The teacher indicated that the textbook was very lacking in both regards. She explained: “We hit a section where it’s the Revolutionary War and they talk about Indiana’s involvement, but there’s only one page on Indiana’s involvement in the war. So I’d like to see our role there…” Even though it is a textbook specifically designed to tell about Indiana’s history, it seems to focus on overarching historical narratives. She lamented that “we know the bigger picture but we don’t have enough about Indiana.”
She also mentioned that the text book leave out a lot of important teaching materials. “It’s like we’re missing everything that we need!” she commented. She would appreciate having the textbook supplemented by additional primary sources, articles, and videos. In another part of the interview, she expressed interest in having audio clips of actors reading speeches given by famous Hoosiers so that students could feel like they were actually talking to them.
I also asked what types of historical skills the teachers were focusing on in fourth grade. She says they teach geographic and analytical skills like reading maps, graphs, charts, and timelines. They also focus on reading skills. She tries to get them to discover which details support the main idea. She also wants them to differentiate between important information and interesting information. Finally, she want to instill in them an “appreciation for us as a State, and as a people… our role in living here and making it better.”
When I asked what topic she might like to see presented in a digital history project, she immediately mentioned George Rodgers Clark and the Siege of Fort Sackville. She also mentioned topics having to doing with the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. Unbeknownst to her, I had selected three possible topics for my project. The Siege of Fort Sackville was my number one choice. Her immediate recognition that this was an important event in Indiana history that had received limited attention in their textbook cemented in my mind, that Fort Sackville would be my topic going forward.
Finally, when asked about how a website could be engaging to students, teach them something about Indiana history, and be helpful to you as a teacher, she immediately responded with one request: that it be easy to navigate. She explained that “I’ve been to sites where you can’t find the things that you’re looking for. So [it would need to be]… easy to get around the site.” She also is looking for “engaging, eye-catching images — photographs of important people and places and events from our state history.” Finally, she asked for a question/answer type of component, where the “kids can read or listen or watch something and then there’s some questions about it and they could actually write their answers or submit their answers.”
These comments tell me that a digital history project which expands on an important event in Indiana history (especially the Siege of Fort Sackville) and gives specific details of the role that Hoosiers played in the event, is in high demand. Teachers want their students to be exposed to primary sources — seeing and hearing the perspectives of famous and everyday Hoosiers and learning about the role they played in the state. They also want them to be able to read primary sources for themselves and to find the main ideas and supporting details. In order to do this, I need to incorporate primary source material. It would also be helpful to include some maps or charts for them to interpret so they can expand their skills. I also need to give some historical context to the project, but focus on the individual roles that Hoosier played in history. I need to make the site easy to navigate. It needs to be clean, but eye-catching. It also needs to have some sort of assessment component that the teachers can use to determine what their students are learning from the site. While this is a tall order, I will proceed, using these comments to set my goals. I will use them to guide my approach to this project’s content, interactivity, interface and user engagement.