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When Textbooks and Social Media Collide

A professor at a Christian liberal arts college in Michigan puts textbooks together with social networking to get students jazzed about historical events.

Right around the time that the term "social networking" was starting to roll off the tongues of school administrators and teachers, Christian Spielvogel was already deep in the throes of a project that would combine the next concept with traditional textbooks.

The year was 2007, and Spielvogel, now an associate professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, MI, was experimenting with the idea of implementing gaming and computer simulations while on sabbatical at the University of Virginia. Having conducted intensive research into the public memory of the Civil War period, Spielvogel wanted to "un-romanticize" public perception of the conflict and create a more realistic, engaging, and even risky learning experience for high school and college students.

Using the University of Virginia's Valley of the Shadow digital archive as a guide--and funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for financial support--Spielvogel developed an online reenactment and multiplayer role-playing simulation that takes place during the American Civil War.

Spielvogel used documents featured in the Valley of the Shadow archive, which includes more than 100,000 digitized letters, diaries, and newspaper articles. He identified 25 of the most interesting people and used that information to develop comprehensive biographical sketches that tell students more about how their characters' economic class, gender, race, and religious background shaped their identities.

Testing the Multi-Player Sim
Known as Valley Sim, the online simulation allows high school and college students to explore the wartime period through the perspective of former residents from two warring communities in the Shenandoah Valley. Students assume one of these 25 different "characters" and then react as their character would have reacted to pivotal wartime events that took place in Virginia's Augusta County and Pennsylvania's Franklin County.

Little did Spielvogel know at the time, but his creation would become an early example of how computer gaming can be successfully combined with education. "At the time, there had already been some efforts made to develop games and simulations with most of them based on single-player models," said Spielvogel, "but the whole idea of a multiplayer experience that allowed a group to become involved in the game and interact online was still pretty new."

Like all pioneers, Spielvogel ran into challenges in his attempt to introduce multiplayer gaming into educational circles. Because Valley Sim is customized around a specific experience, for example, developing plots and backgrounds necessary to create a complete experience for users--and for teachers who needed control over the characters and scenarios--took many hours.

Piloted at Pennsylania State University, Valley Sim has been used in traditional, hybrid, and online formats, and has been tested by more than 80 secondary teachers. Spielvogel, who has used the role-playing game in a communications class focused on the missteps of the Civil War, said he's seen a nearly 100 percent interest in adoption among its users.

"Teachers see it as a great way to get their students invested in history," said Spielvogel, "and the students spend a lot of extra time getting immersed in the experience."

Spielvogel is in the process of integrating Valley Sim with original textbook material authored by historians Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia and Joan Waugh of University of California, Los Angeles. He was recently selected as a fellow in the Kauffman Foundation's inaugural Education Ventures Labs Program, where is he completing this new "social e-textbook" prototype and scaling the technology for use in other large, introductory "gateway" or general education college courses.

"Some of the student feedback on Valley Sim indicated the need for a broader political, economic, and military context to help students understand individual motivations during the Civil War period," Spielvogel explained. "We're answering the call by evolving the project into a social e-textbook and collaborating with prominent civil war historians to get that done."

E-Textbook Development
Pointing to the predicted 100 percent to 200 percent increase in digital textbooks over the next few years, Spielvogel said he sees more innovation ahead in a category that he helped pioneer more than four years ago.

"There is serious game development in the future for education," he said, "and it will only increase as digital textbooks become Web-based and open the doors for more opportunities to integrate dynamic, student-centered learning experiences into what has traditionally been a static and passive medium for students: games and simulations."

The transition to interactive, dynamic textbooks will come with its own set of challenges, according to Spielvogel, who said game developers aren't always the best candidates for creating educational games, and teachers don't typically know the technical ins and outs of developing games.

"On one hand, the developers lack a strong foundation in the education sector, and, on the other, academics can't always develop games that students will find fun and entertaining," said Spielvogel. "That gap will have to be bridged before gaming can become a substantive piece of the learning experience."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at


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