Closer Readings Commentary

Between the Waters: Learning History with the Hobcaw Barony Website Project

By Betsy Newman*

Funded by NEH, Between the Waters is South Carolina ETV’s new transmedia website that introduces the historic South Carolina coastal estate, Hobcaw Barony, to a digital audience. Hobcaw Barony is a powerful lens through which to study many strands of American history. Home to Native Americans, enslaved Africans and African Americans, Hobcaw Barony was formed as a land grant to the Lords Proprietors and part of the Lowcountry Rice Kingdom. It later served as the hunting retreat of financier Bernard Baruch and a haven for world leaders, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

Learning in a Digital Environment

Friendfield street, 1905

Visitors to Between the Waters embark on a self-directed virtual tour of Hobcaw, moving down the roads and rice canals, entering the buildings, reading texts, watching videos, and listening to the stories of former residents, relatives and historians. This immersive, interactive approach to learning is particularly effective with today’s students, digital natives who are at home in educational environments. Between the Waters provides a multimedia setting in which they feel comfortable, stimulated, and competent, and confirms the value of their digital skills as they learn. 

According to a 2009 study by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy,** this approach has significant implications for educators. For example, a student who spent time exploring Between the Waters wrote the following:

When working on it I can become totally absorbed and lose track of time. I’ve found that when I’m interested in something, such as this, I’m much more likely to give it my mental energy. It’s fascinating to see how extremely problematic things have been presented in a neutral way, which allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions.

Site Navigation

There are several navigational options for Between the Waters, all of which can be applied to classroom work and scaffolded by teachers:

    • Nettie-Kennedy wedding
  • Explore.  This approach is the most intuitive. Students scroll down the opening shot of a rice canal and fly over the trees until they come to several buttons. Here they have the choice of watching the introductory video; getting help with the navigation options; or exploring on their own. When they click on the “Explore” button they go to a map of the property, and from there click on hotspots that take them to focus sites around the propery.

    Each focus site has a number of hotspots leading to “pop-ups” with text, photographs and video, and multimedia   “pages” features. Using this completely self-directed method, students follow their interests and learn at individual rates. 
  • Take a Scavenger Hunt.  Using a scavenger hunt strategy, a teacher can take a more guided approach to teaching with Between the Waters. Students select or are assigned a theme to be found under “Trails”; for example, they might pick the development of African-American Religion. As they explore the site, they search for pop-ups and pages features on the designated theme. A theme might be assigned to a group, in which case group members could compete to be the first to find certain predefined types of evidence, or the most information about the given topic.
  • Follow a Trail.  This approach, in which students might choose or be assigned a trail to follow, is more scaffolded than the Scavenger Hunt. There are forty trails available to users via the “Trails" option in the navigation bar.These provide a navigational framework based on a specific interest or topic, including historical themes, people, aspects of material culture and consulting scholars. Clicking on a trail in the drop-down menu causes a gray navigation bar to appear below the top bar with the name of the trail and “Next Stop.” Clicking on “Next Stop” takes the user directly to a pop-up or pages feature about the trail topic. Jenkins cabin interior

Regardless of which navigational scheme a student uses, the interactive mode of learning exemplified through Between the Waters lends itself to individual exploration. Once the students have gathered information independently, they can share their findings with other students through small group discussions, written reports, or presentations to the entire class.  

Lesson Plans

There are six lesson plans available from a dropdown menu on the top navigation bar. Based on the South Carolina Social Studies Academic Standards, they use Between the Waters and other sources to extend the application of the website into classroom activities.

The lesson plans were written by Lisa Ray, a nationally certified, retired social studies teacher with 26 years of experience in the South Carolina public school system; Lewis Huffman, retired social studies education associate for the South Carolina Department of Education; and Kelly Hogan Kinard, the Between the Waters public humanities scholar.

 *Betsy Newman, is the producer of Between the Waters. She is also a producer for South Carolina Education Television (SCETV).

** "Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” Nov 2, 2009. Digital publication by The Aspen Institute, June 14, 2016. [Accessed Nov. 10, 2016] The quote continues:

The use of digital media and popular-culture texts not only stimulates young people’s engagement, motivation, and interest in learning but enables them to build a richer, more nuanced understanding of how texts of all kinds work within a culture.

The article continues:

It may be tempting for teachers and administrators who are themselves uncomfortable with new media to view digital and media competencies as “add-ons” to basic learning in “reading, writing and, arithmetic.” These competencies are, however, new forms of foundational learning.