Showcase: Collaborative Timelines

In Niall Ferguson’s latest work, he gives an unequivocal description of contemporary education’s deficiencies (emphasis mine):

“For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a ‘trilemma’: should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just ‘one f***king thing after another’?”

ᔥ Rebecca Brown
To teach the historical skills of chronology and causality – “why and how their predicaments arose” – I have students make annotated timelines. But I’ve abandoned the paper-and-pencil approach in favor of collaborative online work using the tools Prezi and Dipity.


We’re all familiar with Prezi, the flexible, zooming presentation editor. Less well known is Dipity, which is a tool specifically for making timelines. But whatever tool you use,  follow certain guidelines to make this more than just a regurgitation assignment:

  • Emphasize that each event should include the historical context: not just what happened during the event, but what caused it and how it set the stage for later events.
  • Mandate that students select appropriate pictures – if not a directly relevant historical image, then an image serving as a metaphor for the event. For example, an image of the earth splitting open during an earthquake to represent Diocletian’s division of the Roman Empire.
  • Give guidance about how many events to use.
  • If using Prezi, remind students to use the “Path” feature to zoom from one event to another.

Here’s a sample assignment I gave to students – it’s a WWII Timeline. (download handout + rubric). It’s very basic since it’s the first timeline assignment I ever gave.


This is a content, critical thinking, skills assignment all wrapped up in one. Content acquisition is student-driven, since they need to find relevant events to put on the timeline. In selecting which events to put on the timeline, they are also processing, since they need to evaluate the relationships between and significance of events. And it’s a great skills assignment, since they gain experience using a powerful presentation tool.

Both Prezi and Dipity allow for simultaneous collaborative editing, which makes this assignment something that students can complete individually or collaboratively, in class or at home, with maximum time efficiency.


The tool you use for this – Prezi or Dipity – depends on what your learning goals are. Dipity is designed specifically for timelines, so it automates the layout process and allows students to focus on the content. If your goals for this assignment are more content-driven, use Dipity.

Prezi, on the other hand, is a general visual editor. This means it has more flexibility than Dipity. While Prezi does have a built-in timeline layout, it lets students be much more creative in designing their own. Additionally, Prezi is more likely to be used in other contexts and courses. If your goals for this assignment are more skill-driven, use Prezi.

Student Exemplars

Further Reading

Fellow COETAILer Rebecca Brown has a concise summary of how she used Dipity and other tools this past year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *