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A Digital Dream

Online tools enhance Colonial Williamsburg’s educational mission

The restoration of Williamsburg “will develop in American citizens a deeper love for their native land as they come to understand the things that happened here, without which the foundations of the federal republic could not have been securely laid.” — The Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin

When the Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller Jr. began planning the restoration of Virginia’s colonial capital, they envisioned a beautiful place where Americans could be reminded of their country’s beginnings and rekindle the patriot spirit that gained momentum in Williamsburg in the 18th century.

Today, Colonial Williamsburg is the largest American history museum and stands on the bedrock of a mission to tell the nation’s origin story. And there is a new, ambitious goal, one that Goodwin and Rockefeller could not have imagined. Using digital tools and thought-provoking storytelling that is based on factual research, a team of innovators is working to build the world’s largest virtual museum of American history.

Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area is a classroom where lessons about the lives of early Americans can be learned through the skills of the trades, through artifacts uncovered by archaeology and through exhibitions in the Art Museums. And through onsite seminars and more recently through online sessions, the Bob and Marion Wilson Teacher Institute offers educators the tools to use history to spark their students’ imaginations.

But for students, teachers, and lovers of history, the digital universe can also be a destination and Colonial Williamsburg is determined to make its online presence a trusted source of fact-based and thoughtful scholarship.

Education is one of the pillars of a fundraising campaign to ensure that this work can continue. In 1928, Colonial Williamsburg Inc. was formed as a vehicle to carry forward the education program related to the restoration of Virginia’s colonial capital. The action carried with it a mission that continues to drive the Foundation’s work today.

The first book to carry the Colonial Williamsburg copyright was authored by Rutherford Goodwin, the son of W.A.R. Goodwin. The book, published in 1935, was promoted as an account of important events in Williamsburg and contained maps showing prominent buildings and sites.

Colonial Williamsburg’s dissemination of its educational message expanded to films and video, a quarterly magazine, digital channels and social media, and in 1990, an institute for teaching teachers was founded.

Mia Nagawiecki, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president of Educational Strategy and Civic Engagement, is leading a team that is imagining how the Foundation can transform its online presence to meet the most essential needs.

“We’re seeing now that not only is there very little instructional time for social studies, particularly in elementary school, but there are also very little to no curriculum materials for the teachers,” Nagawiecki said. Noting that civics education has declined drastically, she continued: “This is part of our core challenge and opportunity.”

History scores on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show declines across all history themes tested, including democracy, culture, technology and world role. And while all 50 states require some form of instruction on civics or government — and nearly 90% of students take at least one civics class — the instruction often does not include any form of debate or critical discussion of current events or simulations of the democratic process, all of which would reinforce the factual instruction.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual Constitution Day Civics Survey conducted last year found that less than 50 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government. Another quarter of Americans couldn’t name a single one.

The Foundation’s online presence, Nagawiecki said, must allow people to dive deeply into content that interests them while also leaving entry points for those who can’t name the three branches of government and no longer remember why Patrick Henry was important to the nation’s founding.

But how to do that? Nagawiecki and her team see a few avenues to be traveled.

Innovation Studios

Created in 2023, Colonial Williamsburg’s Innovation Studios are home to a team that is creating digital content. It is led by Liz Covart, whose Ben Franklin’s World history podcast will be center to the work. But precisely what will surround it has not yet been determined and Nagawiecki says that’s intentional. To move forward deliberately, research — specifically a digital audience study — is needed.

“The main purpose of this digital audience research is to discover how we can reach and serve some audiences’ needs that perhaps we don’t serve as well right now,” Nagawiecki said. “We want our intended audience to tell us instead of assuming that we know.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “But building it from scratch enables us to completely reimagine it — not from a position of what do we want to do but what do people need.”


The flagship website will be rebuilt to encourage and enhance onsite visits and promote the engagement that can be found only here. This includes implementing a system that will make the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library’s vast digital primary source documents and digital media archives more accessible.

“This will be the place where folks can find the Colonial Williamsburg-specific content that they can engage with,” Nagawiecki said.


This dormant domain will return as a curated history and civics curriculum website that can be used by teachers in all 50 states. It comes in answer to a long-expressed need by classroom teachers and museum educators. Ultimately, the information contained there will go beyond the colonial period to span the breadth of all American history.

“We are inviting other leading history and civic education organizations to be partners on the work with the intention of creating the go-to space for teachers and students for trusted content that doesn’t exist right now,” Nagawiecki said. Through such partnerships, the site can have a greater impact as a collective for teachers, students and museums.

One such partnership takes advantage of the popularity of short animated films. Colonial Williamsburg is working with Baker & Hill, a graphics design company that has done work for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, to produce a series of films for second graders about daily life in colonial Virginia.

Bob & Marion Wilson Teacher Institute

Over the summer, nearly 500 teachers are expected to take part in onsite seminars, with another 200 set to attend virtual institutes, and there are plans to expand the reach of Teacher Institute to local teachers with events during the school year. A new educator resource library is in the works and that will ultimately be complementary to and integrated with history.org.

And the institute will get a new home. The Georgian building on South England Street constructed in 1955 for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is being renovated to accommodate the classroom, workspace and other needs for staff and visiting teachers.

As all this happens, the digital team is focused on introducing the sights and sounds that bring people to the Historic Area while also raising Colonial Williamsburg’s profile as an educational institution.

“People care about what’s familiar to them,” Nagawiecki said. “The data show that the younger generation in particular make their decision on whether to go somewhere based on how they experience it digitally first.

“If we want and need to attract a younger demographic of visitors, we need to understand that that’s their behavior and therefore give them that entry point. Because for these younger generations, Colonial Williamsburg is not a known entity. The landmarks of Colonial Williamsburg are not familiar to them. They are not meaningful to them. And so we can help make them familiar.” 

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