Thinking Critically with ClioVis

ClioVis creator, Dr. Erika Bsumek, an associate professor at UT-Austin, recently joined us on campus to lead a workshop on using ClioVis, an interactive digital timeline tool. Like TimelineJS and other digital timeline tools, you can plot points on a timeline, create summaries of those items, and attach images to them. ClioVis goes above and beyond these other tools in a few big ways:

  • it’s much more interactive and allows users to create connections between items
  • the interface is very easy to use
  • it’s easy for students to collaborate in groups.

It’s clear that Bsumek is passionate about pedagogy and this is evident in the design and the thought she and her team have put into making it work to further students critical engagement with history. Because ClioVis has tons of great tutorials on how to use the tool, I just wanted to highlight a few things I loved about it here.

Shows a timeline created with ClioVis of the long 19th century with a smattering of interconnected dots with items like Battle of the Alamo, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Mexican-American War
This is an assortment of items added by faculty, staff, and students at our workshop. You can color code the different items by categories (e.g. wars are marked in bright blue). You can click on any of the items to expand them and see the photo, references, and description of the event. You can also drag lines between events to make and label connections.

Interactive: One of the things I love most about ClioVis is how interactive it is. TimelineJS, for example, is essentially a powerpoint embedded into a timeline — it’s fairly unidirectional and doesn’t really encourage deep exploration. In contrast, ClioVis is interactive at its core. Although, like TimelineJS, it has a presentation mode (e.g. you can make more linear arguments), its main mode is a clickable, interactive timeline. Students can drag lines between items to make connections and then reflect on what links these events. This functionality fosters critical thinking as students work to find and articulate the relationships between the items on the timeline.

Connection Details -- lists the relationship between two events
If you draw a connection between two events (in this case, the “Battle of the Alamo” and “Texas Joins the Confederacy”), ClioVis prompts you to describe the connection and to add references.

Collaborative: Since this tool is designed with students in mind, it allows for a lot of collaboration between students if used in the classroom. Multiple students can work on a timeline simultaneously (we were working with nearly 20 people in the room on one timeline during the workshop with no issues). It includes a built-in chat so that students can engage in discussion on the side or ask each other questions while working on the project from different locations. Students can build on each other’s work with this format in some ways that could be really productive. Bsumek, for example, asks students in a large Intro to Native history weekly in groups to map out key items from the textbook and work to draw connections between items collaboratively (e.g. what changed when Europeans came to the U.S. – how did this impact Native peoples?). This is a great way to use this tool, because if each student adds 5 items to the timeline and there are 5 or 6 students in the group, each student now has a much more robust list of events to build connections between.

Easy to use: TimelineJS, for example, requires using excel and you don’t always see the fruits of your labor instantly. Teaching students to use it requires teaching them a variety of skills (albeit important skills), but it doesn’t really make it a plug-and-play option, especially for undergrad classes, and most of the KnightLab tools are not functional for collaboration. The ClioVis interface is really easy to use, and will function in ways familiar to most students who have used web tools. The tutorial videos on the ClioVis site will be great for students to reference if they forget how to use certain features. This has the potential of working well with all college students lower level undergrad and even high school classes.

Shows the timeline on the right, and the prompts to create an event on the left.
Users click “Create” –> “Create Event” and prompts to describe their event pop up on the left side. Each timeline allows each user to upload up to 10 images or to use images from the web. It also allows for adding descriptions, dates, audio clip urls, references, and assigning a category.

Exportability: It’s also really easy to export all of the content from a timeline to a word document that lists all of the content, connections, etc., which would make this both easy to grade and easy to convert timelines into notes for studying and/or archiving.

Name of the event: Henry David Thoreau resides at Walden Pond
Date of the event: 07/04/1845
Image URL:
Description: Henry David Thoreau lives at Walden Pond for roughly two years.

1) Publication of Nature to Henry David Thoreau resides at Walden Pond, "Nature provides the intellectual foundation for American Transcendentalism."
2) Henry David Thoreau resides at Walden Pond to Anarchists
3) Henry David Thoreau resides at Walden Pond to American Civil War, "Thoreau dies during the Civil War, but of tuberculosis, not in a battle."
4) Henry David Thoreau resides at Walden Pond to Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, "Civil Disobedience is tragically misunderstood"
An example of an exported item within a larger .doc export.

Graduate applications: Bsumek also discussed that she’s used ClioVis with students to map out a particular historiography — how it has changed over time — and for students planning research projects to begin to build a timeline of the historical context. Both of these would work very well for this!

Areas for improvement: While I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of ADA requirements with digital tools, I suspect this doesn’t meet all requirements for accessibility, though the export to a Word document does make it machine readable. I also wish it could handle dates a little more nimbly — it requires a month, date, and year for all items (for both start and end date) though it only displays start and end year. I also wish there was a way to crop a timeline in the export process to only show the desired range of years.

Overall Assessment: This is an incredible tool, and one that is clearly a labor of love for Bsumek and her team. For an educational tool produced outside of a tech company, this tool functions really well, and it’s one that I’ll use in my classes to come. I’m so grateful that Prof. Bsumek was able to share this with us and our campus!

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