Timelining for Every Classroom

When I was in grade school, I only heard about timelines in history classes. Recently, though, it seems timelines (and timeline creation tools) have been popping up in every grade level and classroom. These aren’t your mama’s timelines — and they’re not just for history anymore.

Students can timeline the steps in a math problem, the process of a science project, and the events in a novel. I taught the concept of timelines by having students create one of their lives. Then, we’d work as a class to create a timeline of the school year, adding to it each month.

We also tried to build a single timeline that included every historical fact we learned in any subject throughout the year. The idea was that we’d add to it as we learned more. I draped strips of brown paper in a halo around the walls of my classroom. We did a pretty good job of adding to it for a few months, but inevitably we ran out of room or realized we hadn’t left enough space for the 18th century.

Which is one reason web 2.0 timeline tools are so great – technology does away with those logistical space issues. You can include entire articles, websites, videos, and photos on each point, but the timeline can still fit on your computer screen.

Lately, I’ve heard of half a dozen FREE internet-based timelining tools. So I decided to try them all out. They’re all useful, but they’re not all useful for everyone. Some are great for older students, who need to create more in-depth timelines. Others are easy-to-use even for younger kids. Some allow students to fill out a form and have the site create the actual timeline, while others require students to use their own graphic design skills.

Below, I describe what I found and include samples of each tool. If you’ve got any others to add, please leave a comment!


Ease of Use: Advanced
Good for: class-wide projects; students creating their own content
Features: lots of customization; can upload various filetypes
Glitches: doesn’t look like traditional timeline; users must be 13 or older
Link: http://www.capzles.com
Sample: Click the sound icon, to the right of the controls, to hear the soundtrack. Click the ‘capzles’ logo in the bottom left corner to open the timeline on the Capzles site. There, you can click on an image and then click “show details” for more information (the “show details” link doesn’t work on the embedded sample).


My friend and former partner teacher Sarah Waling recently sent me a link to Capzles, which was actually the impetus for this blog post. It definitely takes timelines to whole new level. Of all the tools I looked at, Capzles looks the least like a timeline. And that’s by design — it’s marketed more as a collaborative, social, digital storytelling tool. That’s what makes it so robust, but also what makes it imperfect for many classroom settings.

First, the good. Capzles is definitely in-depth. Users can upload various files (PowerPoint, images, Word files, videos, etc.) directly from their computer to accompany each bullet on their timeline. In fact, you can group multiple files together, so they’ll be displayed as “stacks.” You can also type directly into the timeline using the “blog entry” feature. Users also have multiple customization options, like changing the font, adding a location tag, and even adding a soundtrack to your timeline.

As with all robust tech tools, though, added customization sacrifices ease-of-use. Of all the timelining tools, Capzles took me the longest to use, but partly that was because it’s not really ideal for a traditional timeline. To create the above timeline, I tested the various types of input Capzles allows. I liked the blog entry for input, but then the thumbnail displayed on the timeline was just a default ugly image icon that had nothing to do with the event. I thought about the stack, but then users see two thumbnails and have to click on the one they want. I liked the main file upload for showing a photo and description, but I needed to use stack to add videos. In the end, I decided to use both the upload and stack options because of the ugly thumbnail for the blog input, but that meant I had to download and upload all the images and videos from my computer – I couldn’t just embed them. That also meant I had to find a place to paste the original link, for due credit.

There were a few other glitches in terms of using Capzles to create traditional timelines: things aren’t scaled to show how close or far apart they happened. And by default, the site tags events with the date you created them, so you have to change them to the date they happened, but you need the FULL date, not just the year or this won’t work (in the above sample, I used January 1 if I didn’t know exact date). I also decided to include the date in the title to make it resemble a true timeline.

And because it’s a social networking tool, things are set to ‘private’ by default, so you have to set them to public for others to view. (To do this, you have to click ‘edit’ after loading each file.)

Still, I definitely see potential for using Capzles in the classroom for some projects. It could be really good for a class-wide or long-term project, where every student is adding a lot of files/details to a single event. For example, a friend suggested using it in an AP history class, where each student is responsible for a single event on a class-wide timeline. The work they put into that single event is equivalent to a research paper. It’s perfectly designed for students creating their own content (photos, Word documents, videos, etc.), so it would work great as a tool for students to track their progress on a project.

And I really like the soundtrack option (which offers an opportunity to discuss fair-use copyright laws). The following Capzle, on the financial meltdown, is a great example of using a soundtrack to help tell a historical story. Don’t forget to click the sound icon, to the right of the controls, to hear the music:


Ease of Use: Intermediate
Good for: current events; collaborative projects
Features: robust; can collaborate; can add images, links and videos
Glitches: “featured” timelines aren’t always G-rated
Link: http://www.dipity.com


For a long time, it seemed Dipity was the only name in the web 2.0 timeline world. I can see why — it’s got just about everything. Users have a virtually limitless amount of space to create multi-media timelines, where they can add images, links and videos. And because everything is embedded, you can click on a video or image to see the source directly. Users can also allow other users to edit a timeline, which is great for collaborative projects.

Dipity has been around for a while, so it’s perfected a lot of its timelining features. For example, if things overlap on a timeline, you can use user-friendly thumbs-up or thumbs-down buttons to sort them by importance. This is very useful, although the site still will only display a maximum of four events on the same date (any more than that isn’t visible, unless you specify different times of day).

Like with Capzles, you can add “locations” – either place name or latitude/longitude — to events to see them on a map (only one location per event). Users can then interact with your presentation as a map, a list, a timeline, or a flipbook (though the map never fully worked for me). Anything created on Dipity can be marked as public or private, which is ideal for school kids who might be creating something like a timeline of their lives.

Like every website these days, Dipity has added some social networking features. Some of these can be useful in the classroom — you can “follow” timelines of interest so, for example, you’ll get notified if a timeline creator adds an event to their “Arab Spring” timeline. You can also “like” and “+1” timelines.

The form to create Dipity timelines is fairly detailed, especially in comparison with some of the tools discussed below. But that allows users to do a bit more. For example, you can pull information directly from Twitter, Digg, and other sites by giving Dipity a hashtag to track. This can be great for current events — you could pull anything tagged as #2012election and create an instant timeline — but it’s also risky, as this will include ANYTHING with that hashtag, regardless of relevance or appropriateness.

In that same vein, Dipity is more of a public (than educational) site, so some of the featured timelines on the homepage might not always be G-rated.

In the end, I think Dipity is a great timelining tool for high school and some middle school students. It’s robust but not too difficult to use, so it’s a good tool for more in-depth projects. And with its ability to pull directly from Twitter, savvy teachers could use it to create current events timelines in a jiffy.


Ease of Use: All levels (can be more or less complex, based on user)
Good for: teaching students how to lay out timelines
Features: my favorite tool; collaborate with other users; more layout control
Glitches: no location/map interface; can only embed YouTube videos; requires creating layout
Link: http://prezi.com


You might be asking, “Isn’t Prezi a presentation tool?” You’d be right. But it just so happens to also offer a perfect interface for creating timelines. In fact, it’s generally my favorite timeline creation tool.

Just like Dipity and Capzles, Prezi allows for collaboration, so it’s a good group project tool. But unlike those other sites, Prezi requires users to create their timeline from scratch. While this can be time-consuming (it requires more than just filling out a form), it definitely helps students understand the overall concept of timelines. They’re forced to think about scale and layout. And unlike on paper, they have virtually infinite space to build their timeline.

And, by uploading images and embedding videos and links, they can make their timeline a multi-media one. Prezi automatically embeds YouTube videos, which is great if your school allows YouTube. If not, students can still embed videos, but they have to upload the films from their computer.

The main reason I name Prezi as my favorite is its versatility. No matter what topic you’re covering, whether kids are working alone or in groups, and no matter how proficient students are, Prezi will work. Students can make a Prezi timeline as in-depth or as simple as necessary — creating one in a few minutes or over several weeks. And the tool isn’t doing any thinking for them. Students have to decide the best way to communicate their timeline, which is a great opportunity to build higher level thinking skills.


Ease of Use: Beginner
Good for: quick, simple projects; younger students
Features: most basic of listed tools
Glitches: must upload images; can’t embed videos or locations; ads
Link: http://www.timetoast.com


TimeToast is, by far, the most basic of all the timelining tools listed here. For each event, users simply write a title, write a caption, select a drop-down date, and optionally upload an image or add a link(s).

The beauty of TimeToast is definitely in its simplicity. And the site works well within that simplicity, even offering users two ways to view timelines: text view (table) and timeline view.

As with simple tools, most of the negatives related to TimeToast have to do with what it doesn’t do — users can’t embed videos; users can’t embed online images (you have to upload the images from your computer); users can’t just put the year — they have to put the exact full date; users can’t write descriptions longer than 500 characters; users can’t share their timelines unless they make them public to everyone.

For most short, simple timeline projects, none of that really matters. But teachers should be aware that TimeToast also displays advertisements. The site is educational-focused, so I’ve never seen any inappropriate ads, but it’s important to be aware that they’re there.

I could definitely see teachers using TimeToast with younger students, especially shortly after students first start building and reading timelines. It’s an easy-to-use tool for simple timelines.


Ease of Use: Beginner
Good for: simple projects; younger students; basic collaborative projects
Features: collaboration; create own url
Glitches: freezed up a few times; viewers’ interface not user-friendly
Link: http://www.xtimeline.com


I found xTimeline on one of my favorite websites, Go To Web 2.0. (This site is an overwhelming list of virtually all web 2.0 sites on the internet, but it’s searchable, which makes it a bit more manageable.) Of all the timelining tools I tried out, this one gave me the most problems. A lot of that is because I couldn’t get it to display my timeline the way I thought it should.

That said, I did like the tool, especially in comparison with TimeToast, which is very similar. Like TimeToast, xTimeline is pretty easy-to-use and it targets the educational community. But its user interface is a bit cooler, and it offers a few more features. For example, users can embed or upload media (just one per event); users can add just the year OR the date and year OR a time span; users can create a customized url for their timeline; and users can upload or download events.

Like TimeToast, there are two viewing options for xTimelines — an event list or a timeline. And like some of the more robust tools, the site allows users to collaborate on a timeline and also offers some social networking features (comments, fans, etc.).

However, although I really liked the samples on xTimeline, I couldn’t figure out how to get my timeline to work like those. Specifically, I couldn’t get my descriptions to display on the main timeline — only on the event view. Overall this is a minor issue, but it definitely soured the tool for me, and I could see students getting frustrated.

Plus, some of the features were a bit glitchy. For example, it took a really long time to upload some of the media. Often, the entire timeline took quite a while to load. And, as some of you may notice above, the embed feature doesn’t always work properly.

If you can get xTimeline to work as it’s meant to, it could be a good solution for simple projects or even for group projects, especially in some of the lower grades. But with the glitches I experienced, I’d probably stick with TimeToast — at least for now.


Lesson Integration Ideas

Elementary Classrooms

Grade: 1-6
Subject: Science and English Language Arts
Objective: The student will be able to communicate the procedure of a science experiment.

When I taught 4th grade to mostly English language-learners, it was always difficult to get my students to write out the procedure of a science experiment, even right after they had completed it. We spent a lot of time learning to read and write directions in class, and a timelining tool could have helped with that process.

To start, a teacher can tell students they’re going to do an experiment as a class and record the steps. The teacher can take photos of the students completing each part of the experiment and then display them, out of order, on a projector. The teacher can then ask students to work as a class to organize the images and write step-by-step directions for what the class did in each step.

The teacher can use a simple timelining tool, like TimeToast, to record the students’ directions and can post each step with the corresponding image. Afterwards, students could work alone to complete a similar assignment (older students could create TimeToast timelines, while younger kids could emulate this in their notebooks).

Middle School Classrooms

Grade: 4-8
Subject: All subjects using project-based learning
Objective: The student will be able to organize  and track all the pieces of a long-term project.

I work with a lot of middle and high school teachers who utilize Project-Based Learning in their classrooms. There’s a great benefit to PBL — students are engaged, motivated and learn a ton of content. On top of that, though, students also learn important soft skills, like working in a group and time management.

Timelines can be a great help when it comes to those soft skills. Students can use programs like Capzles to plan out their projects — what date they’ll finish their abstract, when they’ll complete their research, etc. As students complete various tasks, they can upload the finished product directly to the timeline (or add a link to their work). Then, everything is in one place and, if it’s a group project, group members can divide the work and then access one another’s completed products.

High School Classrooms

Grade: 9-12
Subject: History
Objective: The student will be able to research and communicate important events in history.

No matter what your class is studying — European history, American history, world history — you can use a digital timeline to help your students jigsaw information. Take a look at a chapter, unit or even entire year of study, and separate the content by major events or time periods. Have students sign up for one of the events. Then, have your class create a collaborative Capzle. Each student is responsible for adding his/her event, with relevant links and information, to the timeline.

If students make mistakes or omissions, you can have them correct the errors themselves. When it’s finished, the entire class can use the timeline as a study guide for a summative exam.


Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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2 Responses

  1. Great list of resources! I never thought of using Prezi for timelines before, but it definitely makes perfect sense, especially when you want to zoom in on specific events and then zoom out to show the big picture. Another great timeline resource is http://www.tiki-toki.com I’ve only played around with it a little, but it makes some beautiful timelines as well.

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