Grant vs. Lee on the Small Screen
One thing about the Civil War that’s clear for teachers and students is that there’s no shortage of good textbooks that treat every aspect of the war between the states. Any good library will have dozens, if not hundreds, of volumes from histories of battles and photographic tours of sites to personal memoirs and biographies. Add an iPad app that takes this scholarship to a new level with details of its causes, major battles and the conflict’s aftermath.
MultiEducator’s Civil War: America’s Epic Struggle shows what’s possible by turning an iPad into a curriculum delivery device, but also shows how to take it to the next level. At $4.99, the program is reasonably priced and available at Apple’s App Store. With 250MB of content, it is one of the largest iPad apps available and took nearly 10 minutes to download and install over a WiFi connection.
It’s worth the wait because Civil War has a lot to offer for a middle- or high-school history class. The main screen is the first stop on the trail from Fort Sumpter to Appomattox Court House. There are 17 categories of Civil War details on the left side of the screen, from the Causes of the War and Biographies to Medical Care and the goings on in Washington. Each section has anywhere from 3 to dozens of individual citations within them. All told, the app has the raw material for hundreds of actual lessons.
There’s a good video overview and every social studies teacher will love the Major Battles, Maps, Statistics and Economics sections, which can help make sense of the progress of the war. At any time, you can search the entire app for a topic, place or person.
The documents, photos and ephemera of the period are generally well chosen and work well with the written and audio material. One excellent section deals with a look at Americans of different ethnicities, from Chinese to Native Americans. On the other hand, it is textual material without any images or videos.
The maps are generally excellent with little Union and Confederate flags or photos of the commanders indicating troop movements. It really gives a great overview of complicated battles to view them from this 20,000 foot perspective. There’s a nice timeline, but, unfortunately, the teacher can’t write on top of the maps to add comments or point out items of interest and there’s no single map that shows all the battles, which would have helped form the big picture.
The videos, on the other hand, aren’t as well done. While some are excellent, others are sloppily put together. They can be run full screen but the material has several rough transitions and extraneous sounds, like the actor reading Grant’s comments on the war clearing his throat in the middle of his speech. One of the videos stops abruptly at the same place every time it’s played for no reason.
Overall, I was disappointed by the carelessness with which it was put together. For instance, the app has Presendation instead of Presentation in one section, but maybe it’s a subtle way to get students to proofread their homework. One of my biggest frustrations is that the software contains five period songs with the lyrics, but you can’t listen to the music while going over the lyrics. Plus, the music marked as “All Quiet on the Potomac” is actually “We are Coming Father Abra’am.”
The biggest problems of Civil War: America’s Epic Struggle is not of MultiEducator’s doing but limitations of the iPad itself. Without support for showing material with a projector, the material is limited to viewing by only a handful of students at a time, unless the entire class gets the software. Plus, as is the case with most apps, the Civil War material can’t be directly printed, which is a shame, considering the wealth of material it has. At any time, the teacher can email any item to students or to themselves to print it.
The fifth app from MultiEducator’s History on the Go series, the company plans several more over the coming year, including a look at John F. Kennedy. Warts and all, the Civil War: America’s Epic Struggle is a tentative first step towards turning curriculum into an all-encompassing absorbing experience that history lessons should be. I can’t wait to see what their next app looks like.
+ Lots of compelling material
+ Can send material via email to students
+ Multimedia elements
+ Good maps
- Can’t print or show material with projector
- Long download
- Can’t print
- Sloppy videos