Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Kinder, Gentler Timeline (?)

So Alice Hickox of the Beck Center put me on the trail of a new piece of timeline software last week. xtimeline is a typical enough web 2.0 service that went live last summer. Predictably, it allows you to build timelines on any subject. The results are actually quite nice:

(The timeline actually looks a lot better if you look at it in its native environment, where the width and height aren't restricted.)

As you can see, you get scrolling. You get photos. And you can even embed video within the timelines. The interface for posting the events to the timeline are very straightforward: the basic sort of forms you would expect to see on such a website (or on my Google Forms Timeline).
Each timeline can have multiple authors and can (obviously) be embedded in different websites or the blog of your choice. You can track the history of modifications made to events on your own timeline and revert back to a previous version of the event if something goes terribly awry. xtimeline also spaces events appropriately. What this means is that when there's a lot of events, the timeline shifts its units, as you see in the gap between Hemingway's birth and the next event. (You can do this same thing with Exhibit, but it's hard-ish.) Another advantage: you can upload photos directly to xtimeline, rather than having to use photos that are already hosted somewhere. This is a small thing but is important for making the process as simple as possible for those who don't know how or where to upload their own photos. All in all, I would have to say that the process of building a timeline on xtimeline is easier than it is when using Exhibit.

< aside >: Interestingly, xtimeline bills itself as a sort of social networking site. You can find other timelines to "like," make friends, and leave comments for each other timelines. Each timeline also comes with links so that you can embed the timelines wherever you want (as I've done above). In many ways, its interface resembles that of YouTube. But I don't really anticipate that this will be the next high-priced Google acquisition. I can understand the pedagogical purpose for timelines (you'd hope so at this point, huh?). And I can understand their value for news organizations and the like. And I can even understand that many people would have fun building something with a new tool. But I don't really think that people are going to be rabidly building and sharing these. Timelines are not, I'm afraid, going to go viral in the near future. < /aside >

However, for all the ease of xtimeline, there are some definite things that detract from the experience. The most important, in my book, is the process for building a timeline collaboratively. The best way to do this should be to start a "Group," have others join the Group, and in the language of an xtimeline blog post, "work together on creating timelines." The blog post indicates that the Group creator will have admin controls over every timeline in the Group. Furthermore, it says that the Group creator will be able to specify granular control over whether members can "modify all events (full cooperation) or only modify events they have created (limited cooperation)." Wow! That sounds great! It means that my students wouldn't be able to change each other's events or delete them on accident.

But it turns out that nothing in the Groups works the way it should. You cannot create a timeline within a group. Rather, you have to create one on your own and then post it to the group. Group members do not automatically get access to the timelines in the group to which they belong. What's more, I'm a Group creator (my group has one other user, the indomitable Erin Sells) and I have no controls over what the other Group members can do with the timelines (which is just as well, I suppose since they can't really edit them). I have been able to add Erin as an Editor to both of my experimental timelines. But I don't see the promised controls. And while it wasn't difficult to make her an Editor, it still took a step or two more than I would have liked. Using Exhibit, I know more or less who has control over the data (everyone, if you give them direct access to the spreadsheet; only me, if you use Google Forms).

That's the main problem. There are other problems with different xtimeline features. For instance, a very nice and easy way to start a timeline is with an RSS feed. I took the feed from this blog, put it in xtimeline and within 5 seconds, it spit out this timeline. But we all know that what is appealing about RSS is the way that it pushes events/information toward you. So what you'd expect from a timeline generated from an RSS feed would be that it would continue to get updated via RSS. That's not the case. You can go back and add more events via the RSS feed. But that gets a bit tiresome. (I wonder, however, what you could do if you ran a Yahoo! Pipe through xtimeline...). For the record, I think you could run a dynamic RSS feed through Exhibit, but I haven't tried to do this yet.

Some other advantages Exhibit has over xtimeline:
  • You can do text searches or display events from only particular categories within Exhibit. I've been unable to find something similar in xtimeline.
  • You can host your timeline wherever you want.
  • The above means that you don't get any ads, which are small but still there on xtimeline. Ads + educational tool=problem, in my mind.
  • Exhibit can have multiple timeline bands. xtimeline gives you two. In reality, two is what you need most of the time, but as the Victorian Age Timeline demonstrates, it can be useful to have others. Plus you can grab and drag the different bands with Exhibit and they scroll at different rates. And we all like pretty.
  • Because you are responsible for writing the HTML for your Exhibit (at least until I finish [or start] my documentation), you have much more control over what your timeline will look like. Of course, this involves knowing HTML and some CSS. But it turns out neither of those is that hard to pick up once you get going.
  • Exhibit works very well to generate a timeline. But the timeline is only one possible facet. The other views, especially Google Maps, add several other ways to interact with and view your data. And these extra modes of visualization increase the learning possibilities for your students.
  • Exhibit is open source. Thus, it has indie cred.
Now, I have to admit that I'm partial to Exhibit. I have to be, otherwise I've spent a lot of time working on it for, well, for my own education, I suppose. I've also not spent nearly as much time with xtimeline, so I might not get its ins and outs yet. Finally, I would suspect that xtimeline is working to fix things like the Groups functionality (although I've seen nothing to suggest it) and would be very surprised if they didn't integrate it with Google Maps.

xtimeline is still perhaps the best solution for someone who doesn't yet have a mystical Exhibit tutorial to work from or who wants the easiest tool for creating a timeline. It's worth playing around with.

N.B. Inspired by xtimeiline's capabilities, I have just tested the Exhibit-based timelines I've been working with, and I'm pleased to report that I can embed video in them. (Granted, YouTube does the hard work with the hosting and the embedding codes.) For an example, go to the Google Forms Timeline and restrict the results to the "Video" event type. It does seem to be fickle depending on which browser you use, by the way.

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