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The civil rights unit was designed to last for 10 class sessions. Each class period lasted approximately 90 minutes. Each of the teachers began the unit by introducing the purpose of the unit and the overarching unit problem. They then presented an introduction to the Civil Rights Movement as a social phenomenon.

Once the introduction was completed, the teachers divided students into seven two- or three-student data gathering groups. Each of the groups was assigned two specific events within the database (e.g., “Birmingham” and “Albany”) Paired events represented two pivotal episodes within a particular change strategy strand. Often, the paired events represented different strategies and outcomes. Each group used the “guide” scaffolds available in DP to collect data relevant to their two assigned events. Students were given two class sessions to complete data gathering activities.

Once students completed their data gathering, the teacher combined the groups to form five expert presentations groups. Each group was required to assume the role of “consultant” to a specific activist group or organization: the US Government, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the Black Panthers/Separatists, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These groups were required to utilize the data they had collected in the previous activity in order to develop multimedia presentations that provided persuasive arguments for the predominant change strategy advocated by the organization they were representing. As with previous groups, each presentation group had access to a computer with the DP environment. A student presentation tool integrated within DP provided a pre-defined structure for the presentation and tools, and allowed students to link supporting multimedia evidence from the database to help support their arguments (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. The DP student presentation tool.

The presentation groups were given three class sessions to plan for and create their presentations. Groups were required to use the storyboard template to plan their presentations, then receive approval from their teacher prior to creating their presentations using the DP tools. On the final two days of the unit, each of the groups gave their presentations to the class using the presentation tool.

The researchers observed each classroom session. In addition, the class sessions were videotaped. Approximately one week after the end of the unit, one of the researchers conducted the post-unit student and teacher interviews.

Results and Discussion

As stated previously, this study seeks to: (1) determine if multimedia-supported learning environments may help encourage greater learner engagement with an historical problem, (2) determine if multimedia-supported learning environments facilitate learners’ acquisition of historical empathy and recognition of competing perspectives regarding an historical problem, and (3) explore how structured inquiry activities and support structures embedded within multimedia learning environments may impact students’ epistemic assumptions about history. Each of these areas is discussed below.

Student Engagement with the Problem

Analysis of observation and classroom video data suggested that students participating in the DP unit appeared to be highly engaged with the central problem and maintained that engagement throughout the unit. Student interview data indicated that students believed that their experiences with the multimedia environment positively impacted their level of engagement with the historical content. For example, when asked what was different about this unit, one student stated: “…we got to see like actual footage of things that are going on right now, I mean we could’ve watched the video of all of it. I think it was a lot more interesting to have those little clips we could look at and just actually see, like half of it.” When asked what he thought was important about the unit, another student said, “…“it changed [my views] because we got to look at people’s, like, views on like what’s happening. Not just reading about what happened. We got to see people’s opinion on it and how everyone had a different, like, perspective of what went on.” Another students stated, “…that it really makes you think, I mean, put yourself in what happened back then compared to now. I see how much things have changed throughout history, that makes history fun.”

Several students also implied that their use of the multimedia database would assist them with retaining the information more effectively than if they were to read the information from a textbook. As one student stated, “…I think it makes it more enjoyable, I don’t know, maybe that’s just me, but I like it a lot and being able to watch the video footage and things like that just kind of reinforces it and makes it kind of stick in your mind…I’ll retain it more and it beats reading out of the book, unless you have a photographic memory.” A second student stated, “It [the multimedia] helped me because I’m a visual learner and when I look at pictures while I’m trying to learn about something and I’m looking at pictures of people and I’m seeing videos and I can hear their voices, it sticks in my mind better than if I just read it on paper…”. Another student discussed how the resources available in the DP database greater breadth of knowledge regarding the Civil Rights Movement:

“Cause, you know, everybody knew Martin Luther King, and everybody knew about the SCLC, NAACP, but they never knew about the Greensboro Four or the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Malcolm X, I mean, you know a little about Malcolm X, but not as much, and [the database] helps us out…”

Students’ dialogue during in-class discussions also demonstrated a high level of engagement and depth of thought, particularly during student group presentations. In the following dialogue, a group representing the MFDP was arguing that the federal government wasn’t involved enough, and the teacher pointed out that there might be other factors that influenced the effectiveness of the federal government:

T: “What, then, is the major problem with the federal government trying to enforce law?”

S1: “Well, they didn’t enforce it enough because they were afraid that people would stop voting for them…”
T: “Well, but there you’re right, but who’s resisting this change most, class?”
S1: “The government.”
T: “State governments are. It’s hard to get something done at the federal level if the states are so resistant, most definitely. So they were fighting those kinds of episodes and I think that’s why the federal government was slow to get some things accomplished.”
T: “Other questions for this group?”
S1: “But you also saw, in Little Rock, how well it worked. Those kids got to school all right…”
T: “Um-hmm. And where else did it work well?”
S1: “University of Mississippi.”
T: “And where else?”
S2: “Alabama.”
T: “University of Alabama, yeah. Three very landmark cases…”
In this example, the teacher was pointing out that there may have been mitigating circumstances related to the lack of effectiveness of the federal government in certain situations. However, even after the teacher let the group “off the hook” by asking for questions from the audience, group members persisted with a discussion about ideas that they were able to support with factual evidence from the period under study. Such persistence suggests authentic engagement with thinking about historical issues. The students were interested in the problem not because the teacher directed them to discuss it; they were genuinely entertaining the issue.

Data also demonstrated that students were able to effectively engage in dialogue with their peers and use artifacts available in the DP database to debate competing perspectives regarding civil rights issues. In one group presentation, students used a political cartoon from a Montgomery, Alabama newspaper to argue that self defense advocated by the Black Panthers was not an effective means to bring about social change. The cartoon depicted a figure representing the Black Panthers and a figure representing the Ku Klux Klan pointing at each other through a mirror. However, a student in the audience debated the accuracy of the message presented in the cartoon:

T: “What have we got here?”
S1: “It’s showing that they’re both [Black Panthers and KKK] looking kind of the same. It’s a cartoon.”
T: “So, what’s this about?”
S2: “It’s showing the, trying to show the strong similarities between the two groups.”
S3: “They’re both using violence to get their way.”
S4: “You don’t see the difference?”
S3: “Hmmm?”
S4: “I mean, the KKK, they’re the ones who started the violence. The other group, they were just protecting themselves. That’s the big difference.”
In this example, the student took issue with the analysis that the KKK and the Black Panthers were using similar tactics. He was able to analyze the message presented in the cartoon and effectively discuss how the cartoon may have misrepresented the position of the Black Panthers. In addition, the student was able to apply knowledge of the period to assess the validity of arguments made in an historical artifact of the period. One could argue that if the student were not actively engaged in analysis of the position presented by his classmates, he would not have been willing (or able) to analyze the historical artifact and provide a valid criticism of his peers’ use of that artifact to support their position.

The teachers implementing the unit also believed that the multimedia available in the DP database facilitated student engagement in the topic. One teacher commented, “Decision Point I thought was great because it’s multimedia at its best. There were speeches, there were songs of the time, there were newspaper articles, magazine articles, there was, of course the interactive essays and then they were getting to put that together in a multimedia presentation, which is what they like to do. And I never saw a time when I didn’t think that they were not involved. I thought they were always engaged…”. The second teacher stated that the structure of the DP unit may have had a positive impact on students who had typically demonstrated a lack of interest in history. He said, “I’m thinking of two students in particular…they were more engaged in the content and I think that shows when we started getting into the slides and the music and even the documents and discussions and the small group discussions I noticed they were more attentive…”. This teacher continued by describing the differences he observed in the two students:

“One Malcolm X student was not very motivated in the past, didn’t have a lot of skills, didn’t exhibit a great interest for school at all, but really took this project and ran with it. He just loved it. He showed that genuine interest and was doing his work without having to have any prompting by me, which was unusual. And the Black Panther group, that student, he would sleep, show up late, sometimes wouldn’t come…chronic absenteeism, but he was there every day. Their presentation was one that I wasn’t expecting to be outstanding, and it really was. I think overall it was a good presentation, but for them it was tremendous.”

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