As many of you know, we have been hard at work for the last two years with UT’s Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) trying to bring our 17-year-old website, Texas Beyond History, into the 21st Century. We are happy to report that this complicated “makeover” is nearly complete and promises both esthetic and functional improvements. The project transforms our main entry portals as well as educational activities and interactive graphics originally programmed in Adobe Flash into a more modern technology accessible on many more platforms. This will allow viewers –whether in the classroom or in the field–to use tablets and, to a lesser extent, cell phones, to engage in TBH’s interactive learning activities, open interactive charts and maps, and fully utilize the resources of the website. TBH will have a fresh, new look but more importantly should function more smoothly.
Website technology has advanced exponentially since the founding of TBH in 2001, when Steve and I, along with student website developer Meg Kemp, unveiled the website and the first 20 site exhibits. At the time, we were excited to offer many interactive features for maps, graphics, and student learning activities using Flash technology. The “cat’s meow” for its time, this program provided exciting tools to incorporate animation and other interactive capabilities in maps and graphics (e.g. opening up stratigraphic layers in a profile map). Unfortunately, Flash is no longer being supported by many browsers and has been dropped altogether by Apple and some newer Android devices. Viewers who use Apple products, particularly iPads and Mac books, may have been encountering blank pages where our traditional TBH interactive maps and Kids Only revolving carousel should be.
As further complication, TBH was designed for “mousing” on a desktop or laptop, before touchpad navigation came into vogue. Many of our interactive scenes where users “mouse over and click” on segments of paintings to access more detailed information and site-specific photos of evidence (ie., Frank Weir’s remarkable painting of a prehistoric burial scene from Loma Sandia cemetery) cannot be utilized on these devices. As might be anticipated, this is a particularly critical problem in the classroom, and for K-12 teachers in particular, as schools increasingly are providing individual tablets for student use. For LAITS, the process has been especially challenging due to the volume of Flash content on TBH and markedly different formats in each of the Flash activities. There has been no “one size fits all” solution to reprogramming this content. Over the last year, however, LAITS web developers engineered a process to strip out content and imagery and then recreate the 40+ interactives using HTML5.
Along with the technical changes, there also will be a new look for TBH. Instead of the interactive Texas sites map, TBH will soon have a colorful and streamlined portal for accessing all of the website sections. (A revamped version of the familiar TBH map page will be accessible in a section called Site Explorer and made functional for all browsers.)
Rollout of our revamped website is slated for sometime this Fall (2018). This is particularly important because TBH is heavily used in university archeology classes as well as in 4th and 7th-grade classrooms. We continue to receive emails from Social Studies teachers who have been stymied by the non-working Flash activities, but are anxious to once again use educational interactives such as “Through the Eyes of the Explorer: Cabeza de Vaca on the South Texas Plains.” Older students (even university students, according to Texas A&M professor Alston Thoms,) have used the kids Flash activity “Stratification in Action!” to better understand complex stratigraphic processes such as that which occurred over thousands of years on the Medina River at the Richard Beene site, on which the activity is based.
This summer (with Steve back at TARL just in time for the TBH review process!) we will continue testing the updated website, checking new functions, and kicking the tires, so to speak. It is a painstaking process with numerous technological bugs lurking in the 60,000+ files that comprise TBH. Fortunately TBH Associate Editor Heather Smith and Education Advisor Carol Schlenk have been able to join in the effort. While change can be difficult (if not agonizing), we at TBH are determined to embrace the opportunity to usher this much loved and critically acclaimed public education website into the modern era. We are grateful for the time and dedicated efforts of the LAITS staff and student technical assistants.
And as for what lies beyond the website revamp process, Steve is already at work creating new plans and a vision of the future for TBH. Stay tuned!