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Time Travelers: With interactive documentary project, Austin is first city in nation to put its history into citizens' hands

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Watching the dinosaur lumber across the same creek bed where he caught tadpoles, searched for arrowheads and collected rocks, Nathan was simultaneously fascinated and frightened. His friends called to him, but he was so captivated by what he saw and heard that he just could not look away.

Fortunately for Nathan, he was in no real danger other than being late for third grade recess. The dinosaur was merely an animated figure in the interactive documentary, “Austin Past and Present,” which is enabling students in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to “experience” history as never before and learn on a multi-sensory level.

Karen Kocher
Karen Kocher, a lecturer in the Department of Radio-Television-Film, is applying her filmmaking skills to new media to create interactive, multimedia documentaries.

Over the last six years, Karen Kocher, a lecturer in the Department of Radio-Television-Film (RTF) at The University of Texas at Austin, has created a multimedia tool for people of all ages to learn about the history of Austin, Texas by making the wealth of archival photos, film footage and historical documents at the Austin History Center available in an easily accessible, user-directed format.

The culmination of her work, “Austin Past and Present—An Interactive Digital History,” was recently produced in a two-disk multimedia and video set. The DVD content has been incorporated into the social studies curriculum at the AISD, thanks to support from the MFI Foundation.  It also has been loaded in computer terminals throughout the Austin Public Library and in four interactive kiosks that are being installed throughout the city of Austin this spring.  The project makes Austin the first city in the country to bring its history to its citizens in an audio- and video-rich, interactive format that enables users to digest historical vignettes as they move and work throughout the city.

“Austin Past and Present” tapped more than 160 archival sources, including the Center for American History, the Texas State Archives and Austin’s first TV station, KTBC, owned by Lady Bird Johnson, to take audiences on a multimedia journey through the city’s history from 300 million years ago to the present day. The project marks a new form of documentary that moves away from the linear, film medium toward a non-linear, user-directed medium that leverages multimedia technology.

Map of Texas showing Ouachita Mountains from Austin Past and Present's 'Before There Was Austin'video icon WATCH A VIDEO CLIP (QuickTime) from Austin Past and Present: “Before There Was Austin.”

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“History is not necessarily one tidy, linear story. It’s sometimes the culmination of many complicated, concurrent stories,” said Kocher, whose film credits include associate producing “Chicano!: A History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” and serving as assistant editor on the conjunto music history documentary “Songs of the Homeland,” both of which aired on PBS.

“While I came from a traditional documentary film background, I soon became interested in new media and its potential applications for documentary,” she added.  “In a traditional documentary form we are forced by the linear nature of the medium to find one primary story. With non-linear technologies, we have the opportunity to weave together multiple stories to tell a much more comprehensive story.”

Using the software program, Macromedia Director, Kocher and her team created two user pathways. One is an interactive map of the city where users can click on an area to learn more about events, people and locations relevant to the area. The other is a narrated video segmented into eight time tours chronicling the area’s history, from its geological formation to present day.

The result is an engrossing experience, thanks to the video and graphics quality expected from television and the user-directed experience expected from a computer.

Austin Past and Present kiosk installed at the Austin History Center
An Austin Past and Present kiosk installed at the Austin History Center.

Teaching the Digital Natives

These attributes, along with archival photos, film footage, historical audio, text, graphics and illustrations made “Austin Past and Present” appealing to the AISD, which is using the multimedia documentary in its second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth and eleventh grade U.S. history curriculum.

Last summer, a group of AISD teachers developed curriculum to coincide with the multimedia documentary. The curriculum was rolled out this spring.

“The video and multimedia programs reside on a central computer server enabling teachers to download it to their classrooms to facilitate classroom instruction. We also have the DVD set in each of our libraries to enable individual or small group learning activities,” said Joe Ramirez, interim supervisor for social studies curriculum at the AISD.

According to Dr. Robert Bruce, associate dean for the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment at The University of Texas at Austin, today’s students are often labeled as “digital natives,” meaning they have spent most of their lives surrounded by technology, such as computers, cell phones, cameras, PDAs, videogames and other multimedia.

“To a certain degree, student-learning styles have adapted in response to these technological options,” said Bruce. “Information is available everywhere in a variety of formats, and today’s students have learned and are continuing to learn how to access and process that information.”

“My students are of part of the technology age, and they expect quick response times and a variety of information,” said Carol Belmont, a fifth grade teacher at Odem Elementary School. “One of the lessons focuses on desegregation at the old Anderson High School. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, the images gave students the opportunity to ‘get into’ the picture and create a dialogue – talk about your experiential moment!”

Time Tour Biographies: This screen from Austin Past and Present shows how biography photos appear when displayed without text. Photo of Lalo Campos, the first Mexican American radio personality in Austin
Time Tour Biographies: This screen from Austin Past and Present shows how biography photos appear when displayed without text. To view the biographical information, users can click on the photo. This photo by Rene Campos shows “Lalo” Campos, the first Mexican American radio personality in Austin. From Town in Transition: 1950-1975.

While the topics are Austin-specific, they create a bridge to lessons about U.S. history, according to Ramirez. For example, the eighth grade lessons on the settlement of Austin are taught within the context of the settling of America in colonial days.

“This has been a great launching point for teaching my students about primary sources,” said Michael Massad, a third grade teacher at Patton Elementary School. “These artifacts brought history to life for them.”

According to RTF Assistant Professor Kathleen Tyner, an expert in media education and author of several books, including “Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information,” it’s no surprise that students are responding favorably to this way of learning.

“Interactive media allow students to use all their senses and approach educational content in idiosyncratic ways that best fit their interests and learning style, and ultimately enable them to create a customized process of discovery that’s not confined to a linear path,” said Tyner.

Removing the White Gloves

Communities across the country have local history centers and archives that preserve and provide access to information documenting the local area. While history centers aim to educate their communities, they also are responsible for preserving historical artifacts, which often means limiting access to more delicate objects such as photographs, diaries, letters and old newspaper clippings.

Geo-Tour:Zilker: This screen from Austin Past and Present shows the detail with which users can view each area. Every icon links to informational pages with text and photos. The map also features animations like the butterfly in flight shown here
Geo-Tour: Zilker: This screen from Austin Past and Present shows the detail with which users can view each area. Every icon links to informational pages with text and photos. The map also features animations like the butterfly in flight shown here. From Geographic Tour: Zilker.

There is a trend toward making historical information available in a more digitized, user-friendly manner. The City of Philadelphia offers SoundAboutPhilly, a series of customizable sound-seeing tours accompanied by dynamic mapping, audio, text and photos.  Likewise, Ellis Island in New York hosts a Web site enabling online passenger records searches. The City of Austin, however, is the first to provide such a comprehensive history in a rich, truly multimedia format.

“There’s a phenomenal archival collection at the Austin History Center, yet there’s a level of ‘white glove’ care that must be taken when handling these artifacts. Those factors coupled with the number of newcomers to the area created this interesting tension,” said Kocher. “There are dozens of stories to be told in those archives, but they can be difficult for the average person to access.”

“We embraced this project because it is so keenly aligned with our mission and will enable people of all ages to learn more about the community and the rich history we all share,” said Susan K. Soy, archivist and manager of the Austin History Center, part of the Austin Public Library.

In working with Kocher on the multimedia project, the Austin History Center recommended material from its archives and conducted reproduction work in its photographic lab so that the historical documents could be included in the most accurate manner.

In March, Austin Past and Present was loaded onto 300 public access computers throughout each of the 22 Austin Public Library locations.  In April and May, four Austin Past and Present kiosks are being installed in locations around the city, including Austin City Hall and the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

“The DVD technology, which is portable, is particularly well-suited for those of us with small segments of time to devote to any one activity,” said Soy. “The information in ‘Austin Past and Present’ can be enjoyed in small portions.”

“We’ve found that the more ways we can engage and present information from the History Center, the more people use the collection archives,” added Soy. “And we want people to use these important historical resources.”

To learn more, visit Austin Past and Present online.

BY Erin Geisler

PHOTO of Austin History Center kiosk: Christina Murrey

ON THE BANNER: (left) A flooded Congress Avenue, 1935 (Photo: Stuart Strong)
and (right) Congress Avenue, 2005 (Photo: Karen Kocher)

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  Updated 16 April 2007
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