Intriguing structures: Timelines

I enjoy finding visualizations that enhance understanding in different ways. In the recent past, I explored the use of calendars to share resources and support self-directed learning (Public Domain Day calendars). This week I was exploring graphic and interactive timelines. Although you might think that timelines are only useful for presenting a visual overview of historic periods, they can also deepen understanding, provoke further exploration or enhance retention and retrieval. Some timelines are presented as a static image while others feature intriguing interactive features.

What is a timeline (in your understanding)? When I began exploring, I thought of timelines as horizontal lines with text and images that highlighted significant events, people, objects, etc. over a specific time period. In my past experiences, I had found them useful to show students how ideas developed, the breadth and depth of historic events and related objects, and the changes in beliefs around teaching and learning.

What I found this week is that timelines can be thought of in two ways:

  • as a time or project management tool;
  • as a method of understanding/learning about historic or chronologically organized events, people, things, etc.

My interest is primarily in supporting or enhancing learning so I’ll focus on the 2nd group. These kinds of timelines have some shared characteristics but the actual structure, level of detail and focus can vary widely. While historic examples of timelines were somewhat limited to one iteration or presentation (an image or document), technological advances have allowed a greater creativity and flexibility.

The historic timeline shown on the left “A New Chart of History” is a static yet amazingly detailed and comprehensive timeline developed by Joseph Priestley, a British scientist and multi-subject teacher and philosopher. Priestley developed this timeline to help his student understand the history of empires and changes in power.

two timelines side by side
Timelines: 1769 vs 2023

The current immersive experience of history on the right “The Museum of the World” is a joint project of the British Museum and Google. It divides the world timelines into the major regions with time running ahead of you as you move deeper into the space. There are various filters for the types of history you want to explore and you can see fine lines that connect events and objects across time and space.

Many of us will want to develop much simpler timelines and there are many different ways to create useful and visually appealing time charts or maps. Many of the different companies that provide online timeline makers also have free templates you can use to explore your ideas. They all emphasize the importance of defining your purpose and scope first. I’d also suggest you test out what each one of them means by “free to use” plans. The limitations may make it useless for your purposes. It may be worthwhile to subscribe for a month or year to test your ideas.

And if you are an instructor who wants to explore the implications of your timeline design, check out this story by researcher Sara Di Bartolomeo: Timelines are not always lines: An evaluation of different timeline shapes. Her team researched the impact of horizontal, vertical or spiral timelines.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief introduction to the possibilities of timeline structures in teaching. I’d appreciate hearing if you actually use this infographic structure in your future teaching. You can email me at sylviar at educomm dot ca

Refs and resources:

Priestley’s Timelines, Infographics Lab, University of Oregon

A New Chart of History (image), by Joseph Priestly, Wikimedia

Types of timelines, Lucidchart

A Quick Guide to Timelnes and Different Types of Timeline Templates, SlideUpLife, Medium, Jul 3, 2020.

Timelines of World History, Wikipedia – visual examples include vertical Timeline of natural history, and the more complex ChronoZoom a free open source project that visualizes time on the broadest possible scale.

Timeline Maps, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Timeline Graphic Organizer, Lesson Plans by Anna Warfield, StoryboardThat

Examples of infographic timeline templates:;;; etc.

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