How business models shape educational sites

The internet has added a new dimension to what and how we can learn about the past. But the way educational sites are resourced can influence how the material is presented.

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An e-mail telling me about “the world’s largest history resource” led me to many fascinating discoveries this week. For instance, that Princess Diana’s death is seen as the top historical event of the 20th century; that the Ford Edsel was launched 45 years ago on Wednesday; and that Frutowr for Lentyn is fruit and almond milk cake in mediaeval English.
I was, if you haven’t guessed, looking at history sites on the web. With school and college terms starting, it seems an appropriate time to see whether the internet has made much difference to our knowledge of the past. Also, more generally, how people are managing to fund expensively-produced and not obviously revenue-generating educational material.
There seem to be three main categories of site: commercially-funded; amateur or for-the-love-of-it; and the BBC.

Public funding underwrites smart content

The BBC is funded by us Brits one way or another, and it has been under fire recently for dumbing down its television output. Maybe, but its educational content on the web certainly isn’t dumb. The history section is quite one of the most engaging spots I know. I usually keep away from online games (don’t understand the rules), but I could not resist an invitation to raid a monastery, in the Viking Quest game. I had to choose where in Norway to get my ship built, what route to take and what crew to choose. Then I headed off to kill monks on Lindisfarne. I made it back but with so few silver coins that my chief sent me off in disgrace to work on a cod fishing boat. It may sound dumb, but it isn’t. During the game, I learnt what the main Viking towns were like, what a berserker is (a berserk warrior), how to build a longship and much more. A painless (except for the monks) and amusing way of absorbing knowledge.
Also typical of the whole BBC history approach. Solid features are interwoven with games that take advantage of the internet’s abilities: the kings and queens timeline has plenty of content but also a game to put them into the right order. The kids section has a mass of material backed up by games: what is that clock doing in an anglo-saxon home? It must be great fun working on this stuff – and it doesn’t have to make money.

When visitors have to be sold on history

Which is of course why commercial operators complain about the BBC’s privileged position. Looking at the History Channel’s website, I can see why. It has to use every trick in the book to generate revenue – advertisements are everywhere and we are implored to buy videos of programmes wherever possible. The site is rich, with particularly good On this Day material (there is even an automotive entry for every day of the year, hence my news about the Edsel), but it is not particularly easy to use. I found articles, speeches and other links on Churchill, but only by using the search engine – the main navigation structure is strangely unhelpful.
Another solidly commercial site is The History Net. This has an ingenious device for delivering good material while making money at the same time: it draws material from history publications, sells subscriptions to them alongside, and surrounds the whole with a hedge of advertisements. A good service for visitors, and presumably money-making as well.
I cannot say the same for “the world’s largest history resource”. This site is sponsored by BT, took six years to develop and has “direct links to more than 25,000 sources of fascinating information”. Well, maybe, but nearly all those sources are simply addresses, phone numbers and map links for anything with a vaguely historical dimension. So I can find out where Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood is, but nothing else about it. Not even a link to its own website. The reason, it seems, comes back to money: the site hopes to make its living by persuading institutions to pay for a “premium listing”,which inludes a web link. There is some useful content, including a timeline and the oxymoronic “History News” (where I learned that Princess Diana’s death had been voted more significant than the outbreak of the second world war). But mainly this is a themed yellow pages: why does it pretend to be so much more?

Labours of love look for donations

I greatly admire people who spend hours of unpaid time broadcasting valuable information to the rest of us. Steven Kreis is an academic at Florida Atlantic University who seems to have given up sleep in favour of teaching the whole gamut of European history, and creating a splendid website,, to publish his lectures. Most usefully, he gives us links to other sites produced by similar enthusiasts. James L Matterer politely asks visitors to donate $5 each to keep going, but otherwise this amazing site is a labour of love. It is a portal to other sites, mostly to do with food – they include Mr Matterer’s own Boke of Gode Cookery (complete with the recipe for the Frutowr for Lentyn). But there are non-food sites too, including The Pestilence Tyne – more than you need to know about the Black Death – and an academic essay on worker’s cafés in Victorian America. Eccentric? Surely – but let us praise eccentrics who spend their time spreading knowledge without expecting more than the odd $5 donation.

First published 06 September, 2002
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