Online Tool 'PrimaryAccess' Lets Youth Make Documentaries; Research Will Examine How Much New Technology Enhances Student Learning in Social Studies

Aug. 30,  2007 -- The online movie starts with an image of three men shaking hands. Instead of a deep adult voice telling the history lesson, a boy’s voice recites, “In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, segregated schools were declared unconstitutional. This landmark decision sparked the modern Civil Rights movement.” The image zooms out, from one man’s face to three, showing viewers George Hayes, Thurgood Marshall and James Nabrit, lawyers who argued the U.S. Supreme Court case.

This wasn’t a PBS production. Rather, it was an online film created by a middle-school student.

Middle and high school students are making their own short documentaries, thanks to the University of Virginia’s Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education. Center co-director Glen Bull, professor of instructional technology, and research scientist Bill Ferster of the Curry School of Education have developed a Web-based application, PrimaryAccess, which allows teachers and students to tap into original materials archived on the Internet through institutions, such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“PrimaryAccess offers teachers another tool to bring history alive,” said Ferster, who pioneered the first digital nonlinear editing system for film and video and has worked with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Working with Primary Source Learning, a consortium of Northern Virginia schools focusing on the use of technology in the classroom, the center will conduct a rigorous quantitative assessment of PrimaryAccess, supported by a $154,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. At least 20 teachers and up to 600 middle school students will take part in the study.

“We want to assess the affect of using multimedia to incorporate primary source documents into social studies teaching to see if it influences learning outcomes,” Bull said. The study will look at experimental and control groups in middle and secondary social studies classes.

PrimaryAccess is the first online tool that allows students to combine their own text, historical images from primary sources, and audio narration to create short online documentary films linked to social studies standards of learning. Since the first version was developed in collaboration with the University of Virginia Center for Digital History and piloted in a local elementary school in 2005, more than 6,500 users around the U.S. and in other countries have made their own short movies, according to Ferster.

Rhonda Clevenson, program director of Primary Source Learning, tested PrimaryAccess with a group of students in a summer program, and said the tool is easy to use and shows what students can do with primary source materials.

“PrimaryAccess is designed for learning and for assessing what students have learned about topics,” said Clevenson, who works with Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church public schools.

Teachers have created 1,728 lesson plans and added almost 11,500 primary source images to the database. They are able to pre-select a group of images to accompany topics within their curriculum. Students then may choose from those images, but they have to write the script that goes along with them. That gives them practice in written expression of their knowledge, Bull pointed out. They also add narration, recording their own voice, and in a few easy steps, the students have created their own mini-documentary, about two minutes long for this project.

“Tools that allow students to learn visually as well as verbally can significantly enhance learning when coupled with appropriate pedagogy,” Bull said, citing recent studies that are showing the benefits of learning through multiple methods.

PrimaryAccess includes an integrated search tool to access online collections of primary source documents. As part of the study, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with its extensive holdings of online primary source documents related to the nation’s history, will work with the researchers and educators to identify resources most applicable to K-12 social studies learning objectives. Primary Source Learning, through the Library of Congress’ “Teaching with Primary Sources” program, brings to the study an organized Web-based collection of images under headings of subjects, grades and Standards of Learning requirements.

Under the new grant, the Smithsonian will provide art images as an impetus to explore social studies and history. Teachers will develop lessons their students can draw from to make their own short movies connecting art and history.

The match between the Primary Source Learning bank of materials and the PrimaryAccess formatting is a dream-come-true for Clevenson.

“PrimaryAccess saves teachers hours in making lesson plans. It’s a very effective teaching tool,” she said.

The initial phase will focus on the 1920s and 1930s, which Bull called “the dawn of emerging media,” meaning radio and film and recordings.

PrimaryAccess is one of several initiatives the U.Va. center is working on to explore innovative digital technologies for K-12 education. Other projects target math, science and language arts. See the center’s Web site at, or go to At the PrimaryAccess Web site, click on “Make Movie”
and log in as “Guest.” Follow the three steps from there.

Bull, who co-directs the U.Va. Curry center with education professor Joe Garofalo, noted findings from a survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project on how much our society, and especially younger members, are using the Internet and will continue to do so. It’s time to figure out how to enlist the technology to work in the classroom and build on students’ attention and engagement, Bull said.