A Story Maps Journal Example–Grayson County Historical Sites

This week in the digital pedagogy workshop we learned about Story Maps, a free version of the most widely used digital map software, ArcGIS. To demonstrate how Story Maps works, and to get participants started on their own mapping projects, I created a project called “Grayson County Historical Sites.” I thought it would be interesting  to visually display the location of all 130 state historical markers that are located in Grayson County, Texas (home to Austin College for you non-locals) and to create a content-rich presentation connecting the marker locations on the map with textual narration, images, videos, and links to further information about each site. So far I’ve added about a dozen of the sites to my project, but that’s enough to show off a lot of what Story Maps can do. Here’s an embedded version; scroll through the side panel and navigate around the map.

You can get a further sense for the capabilities of Story Maps by visiting their gallery of public projects, where you can browse through dozens of attractive mapping projects organized and searchable by subject matter and template.

The full professional version of ArcGIS is installed on machines in several of the computer labs on campus, including those in the library and the IDEA Center. So that is available for more sophisticated and complex mapping projects. But as a starter experience with GIS, Story Maps offers a surprisingly rich set of features, is free to use, and can be accessed anywhere you have a network connection. It is completely web-based, so there’s no need to download or install anything on your own machine. Projects are created and stored on the ArcGIS website, where users have 2GB of storage. That’s an ample amount, especially because any media files you add to a project are stored elsewhere. You just need to create an account, or use your existing log-in credentials if you already have an ArcGIS account.

The “Map Journal” template is actually one of a number of layouts you can use to combine your map with other content that you bring into the project space. But I think it is the most versatile of those layouts. The presentation area contains two primary spaces: the “main stage,” where your map is displayed, and the “side panel,” which holds the content and material that you connect to the map. There is a flexible set of tools that allows you to create dynamic interactions between the side panel content and the content (location points, shaded regions, etc.) on the map. I’ve included a number of these features in my example project above. Projects can be kept private or made public via a URL to a location on the ArcGIS website. In addition, projects can be easily embedded on other websites, which is what I have done here.

For this example, I’ve pulled in material from a variety of sources on the web. I started with the historical information section on the county’s website, and as I explored the information there I imagined how much more effective the presentation would be with a visually appealing format such as Story Maps. I searched for other resources as well, using Google’s image search for photos, filtering the results to return only those “labeled for noncommercial reuse.” I also searched on the photo repository site Flickr and found images with Creative Commons licenses. Of course, I could have created my own media, but I didn’t have the time right now to do that. The text of the sections in the side panel is taken from the historical markers themselves.

Now it’s possible that such a map project already existed somewhere online…I didn’t find one. And when you use maps in a class, you might well make use of already existing maps and map projects. But there is a value in creating your own, and in having your students do so. For students in particular, to actually build the map and the associated content is a generative act of learning, meaning that because they have actually constructed the project rather than simply looked at someone else’s version of it, they are far more likely to have created the knowledge structures in their minds that will persist in long-term memory.

As with all web-based projects, there are several issues to keep in mind. You need the appropriate permissions, attributions, and credits for any content, such as images and videos, that you bring into the project. Also, because all media used in the project are stored across various web servers and repositories and accessed by URLs, any change in their location or address will cause them to disappear from the project unless you update the address. And of course you need a reliable internet connection to work on and view the project.

If you’re interested in learning more and weren’t able to make the workshop this week, just let me know and we’ll make some time to get you up and running. I’ve also created a workflow guide to the main steps of the process, and there are also tutorials on the Story Maps site. We look forward to featuring faculty and student map projects here on DP@AC!

2 thoughts on “A Story Maps Journal Example–Grayson County Historical Sites

  1. Just thought it might be useful to see what this tool looks like on a mobile device (this is Chrome browser on Android). It opens after a moment and does include some (but not all) of the features in the pc version. But the main, significant element that is missing is the sidebar. Without that, I’d say this tool has to remain a pc/mac-only tool. That makes sense given how information-rich it can be, but still might be useful to someone out there. 🙂

  2. That’s interesting…you caught a moment when I was playing with a different background map 🙂

    Actually, the sidebar is not missing in the mobile version. There is a tap gesture to toggle back and forth between the side panel and the main map, and a swipe gesture to navigate among the various side panel sections. So while I would not try to construct this project on a mobile device (apart from using the device to take pictures/videos), I think you can access and interact with all of the content on a phone or tablet.

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