My annual report for the 2012-13 academic year stares at me from an undisturbed corner of my desk. I’m tempted not to fill it out. It’s not that I’ve spent the past year in blissful inactivity. It’s just that what I’ve produced has no place on this form.

For the past 12 months I’ve moved from writing articles for refereed journals to creating digital products for high-school history teachers. These include lesson plans, sets of original documents, instructional videos, and short assessments of historical thinking. With my team of graduate students, we’ve eliminated the middleman. Rather than seeking a publisher, we upload our materials directly to the Internet and leave them by the proverbial digital curb. For free. To date, we are closing in on a million downloads.

None of this was by design. Until 2008, when Abby Reisman tested our “Reading Like a Historian” curriculum in five San Francisco high schools, I was content to publish in venues that confer gold stars on my annual report. Reisman showedthat students who used our curriculum not only outperformed peers on tests of historical knowledge but also grew in reading comprehension. When district officials asked us to make our materials available to every San Francisco teacher, we created a simple Web site and uploaded 75 PDF’s.

It soon became clear that teachers were forwarding links to friends elsewhere. After six months, we had 50,000 downloads; 200,000 by the end of the first year. Before I could learn to say “Drupal,” I was over my head in the difference between HTML and XTML, user studies on how people read on the Web (they don’t, they skim), how to storyboard, shoot, and edit Web videos (first I had to learn what a storyboard was), and how to navigate Google Analytics to track users by state, city, county, and zip code. As our user base expanded, answering e-mails become unwieldy. Before long we had a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and a Twitter account.

from Pocket


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