Creating Historical Thinking Timelines with Online Software

James Miles

James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

Teaching summer school provides the unique and overwhelming situation of covering extensive periods of history in condensed classes over a few weeks: In this case, I needed to teach the Canadian 20th century in approximately three weeks. I was forced to be creative in helping students understand the scope of historical periods, without resorting to sweeping (and boring) four-hour daily lectures that merely skim the surface.

This summer, I allocated myself approximately 2.5 days to teach World War II (a somewhat daunting task, especially knowing that Canada’s role must be focused on, yet you also want to address the context and significance of what is happening in the rest of the world). In desperation, I turned to some online tools I had heard of through colleagues.

I am definitely not on the cutting edge of new educational technologies, and I tend to cringe when they are proffered as revolutionary solutions or used in the same breath as ‘21st century learning’ (ugh…sorry). Being forced out of my comfort zone by time constraints, I explored a few websites that I thought might be useful for incorporating historical thinking into a timeline activity, which would cover WWII and hopefully not just in a superficial manner.  

My goal was to find online software that was both free, user-friendly, and could be used to embed primary documents and address historical significance. I suggested several options to my students, with most selecting Tiki Toki or Time Glider. Both sites offer free basic versions of their software that allows students to create public websites of their timelines that are easy to access, share and assess. There are multiple other options out there, but these worked for my class. 

For simplicity, I divided the assignment into three sections:

First, I gave the students 18 events/developments in WWII (see below), most of which pertained to Canada’s involvement in the war. Students had to create an online timeline using the events, finding and embedding at least one primary document for each (photograph, audio clip, government document, newspaper article, etc.), as well as explaining in 2-3 sentences ‘what happened?’ 

Secondly, students had to categorize the events into three areas: the war in Europe, the Home Front, and the Pacific War.

Thirdly, students then had to choose five events that they considered to be most historically significant, in relation to Canada’s involvement in the war. Students then justified their significance with a short written response, using criteria we had already established in previous classes.

How did it go?

The quirks and glitches of the various software programs being used proved frustrating at first (I spent about an hour or so rushing around the computer lab putting out fires), but eventually the students became comfortable manipulating the software and I circulated and watched as students constructed some impressive and professional looking timelines. Two examples from students who were willing to share there work can be found here and here.

The informal feedback I received from my students was generally positive with students enjoying the ability to play around with their timelines; personalizing and adding to their work (with various photos, other images and audio clips) that would prove difficult with paper and pencil timelines.

Strengths of this assignment

  • Students got to see and hopefully understand the scope of the war and Canada’s involvement in it.
  • It enabled students to see the causal relationships between some events, such as the attack on Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong with the internment of Japanese-Canadians.
  • It required the use of primary documents and some basic online research.
  • It encouraged students to establish and consider historical significance rather than simply experiencing the war as a chronological list of events all with the same importance.


  • The research done for the primary documents was often superficial with students resorting to quick Google images searches, which the led to the repetition of many images across the timelines.
  • Equal accessibility is always an issue when using computers/devices and (working) internet, as you will inevitably have students whose internet or device was broken, nonexistent or on the fritz.  
  • The difficulty in selecting what events to include, as it becomes easy to go overboard with 30+ events that dilute the focus of the timeline

If I did this project again I would…

  • Set more specific criteria for what primary documents could be embedded in the timelines, and consider adding sourcing activities to the assignment.
  • Spend more time modeling and explaining research skills and the use of reliable resources.
  • Provide a follow up activity in which students would compare their choices of historical significance to other students, leading to a class discussion around the judgments made by students.
  • Consider ways to incorporate the concept of cause and consequence

The Events* (not necessarily in chronological order)

  1. WWII Begins  - Germany Invades Poland
  2. Canada Declares War on Germany
  3. Battle of the Atlantic
  4. British Commonwealth Air Training Plan established
  5. National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) passed
  6. Battle of Britain
  7. Dieppe Raid
  8. Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour
  9. Battle of Hong Kong
  10. Canadians taken POW in the Pacific War
  11. Japanese Canadians sent to Internment Camps
  12. Invasion of Sicily and Italy
  13. Battle of Ortona
  14. D-Day/Invasion of Normandy (Juno Beach)
  15. Liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands
  16. Victory in Europe Day
  17. Dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  18. Victory over Japan Day

*I want to make clear that I am very aware this is a Canadian-centric list and that several key events are missing! Other events of the war were covered, just not as part of this assignment.