Teaching the Humanities with Digital Resources

Paper Delivered at the Digital Resources for the Humanities Conference, July 1-3 1996, Somerville College, Oxford.

Dr Michael Fraser
CTI Textual Studies
University of Oxford


Since this paper belongs to the 'as we may think' strand of the conference it consists of a few thoughts on the place of digital resources in the teaching of humanities disciplines. I will attempt to provide a short overview of computer-assisted teaching and learning in the UK; particularly concerning those applications which have been developed through national initiatives. I will then highlight one or two of the recurring problems with computer-assisted learning in humanities disciplines. The paper, for those who may wish to depart early, can  be distilled down to two or three fundamental points: that many humanities disciplines are and will be poorly served by packages which are designed to replace whole or substantial parts of courses - courses on computer if you like (or simply courseware). That the humanities is better served by an approach which places digital resources alongside other traditional resources. That perhaps a sensible way to proceed is to attempt an integration of material from existing and future digital resources with the flexibility of maximum tutor and student input.

Humanities Courseware: An Overview

The United Kingdom is extremely fortunate to have a number of national schemes which are designed to aid the integration of technology into Higher Education. The best known include the Computers in Teaching Initiative (founded back in the ancient days of 1984), and the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme. In addition we have the Information Technology and Training Initiative, the Combined Higher Education Software Team whose remit is to negotiate national HE site licences for software on demand, and also the New Technologies Initiative, with its recent off-spring, the JISC Technology Applications Programme, are funded to implement and assess state of the art IT in HE, both at institutional and discipline level.

I work for the Computers in Teaching Initiative, a collection of 24 centres funded to promote appropriate uses of computers in 24 subject areas. There are centres dotted around the UK for physics, biology, and chemistry; for economics, geography, and sociology; and in the humanities, for history, music, modern languages, and recently, art and design. And the centre for Textual Studies for which I work. A curious centre which has been granted to the promotion of computers in the teaching of largely text-based subjects - literature (in all languages and periods), literary linguistics, theology and classics, philosophy, and then the slightly more bizarre, theatre arts and drama, and film studies (which is rapidly turning into media/cultural studies). There is, as you can imagine, some overlap with the centres for history, modern languages and art and design. You will have to excuse me as I concentrate mainly on computers in the disciplines that Textual Studies supports. Modern Languages, in particular, I leave to one side believing that language learning lends itself to the use of computers in teaching more than most humanities disciplines.

The original CTI, established in 1984, had the declared aims of 1) to promote a greater awareness of potential of IT amongst all (including students) for teaching & learning in HE; 2) facilitate the development of skills in the use of computers in the teaching process; 3) encourage the development of courses in universities using computers by the provision of appropriate courseware; 4) evaluate the potential and assess the hardware/software and requirements for successful introduction of IT. The CTI was really the forerunner of the TLTP. Funding was allocated, at an average level of £70,000 with matching funding from the institution. A typical project had a full-time person for two years and a cluster of networked microcomputers.

By early 1987 there were a total of 139 projects. Around 16 of these directly related to the arts and humanities with a further 10 in modern languages. Two (Bangor and Exeter) concerned the implementation of computers across the faculty of arts (for which Exeter got 14,000 and Bangor got 27,000), five related to the teaching of history and archaeology (Glasgow, Hull, York, Southampton, Leicester), three for teaching classical or biblical languages (Manchester, Durham, and Leeds), three for literary and linguistic computing (Oxford, Ulster, Glasgow), two for the teaching of logic (Kings College L, Leeds and St Andrews joint), and one, at Liverpool, for the teaching of politics. There were also a couple of unusual projects. One rather far-sighted the other less so. Swansea received 19,000 to place terminals in halls of residence rather than departments, whilst Strathclyde received 152,000 to kit all their departments with Sinclair QL workstations.

A number of the projects have long since vanished. Others however, have evolved over the years and certain institutions now have an established tradition in connection with computers and teaching in a particular discipline. The Oxford project (Oxford Test Searching System) I found rather curious, because I suppose had never heard mention of it before. The project aimed to develop and test computer software for searching and analysing text. The further details explain that the OTSS project permits PC access to the set texts of Oxford's undergraduate language and literature courses stored on the mainframe VAX. OTSS was used in the teaching of Classics, Italian, and German. It sounds suspiciously like an implementation of the Oxford Concordance Programme, developed in 1976 and ported to the PC around 1984. In fact this is what it was. The PC interface was simply a version of Kermit which sent the OCP commands to the VAX and then returned the results to the PC screen. Apparently wiser students realised that it was easier to log straight into the VAX and invoke OCP from there. The final achievement of OTSS listed is that it was instrumental in bringing together people who have an interest in computing. 'In a fragmented institution such as Oxford University, this is considered a significant achievement'. OTSS, however, vanished and Oxford still receives criticism for its lack of computers in humanities teaching within the University's faculties. At the University of Durham the project Didaskos for the teaching of biblical Greek has also disappeared. I know, because I was one of the last few who used it to learn biblical Greek. The department now would make few claims for using computers in undergraduate teaching.

There is also a familiar connection between certain projects and institutions. The DISH project at Glasgow continues to support computing in history and archaeology and Glasgow, of course, have the CTI Centre for History. It is the lead site for the TLTP Archaeology consortium and is currently in the process of creating core resources for historians for Phase two of TLTP. Glasgow of course also has the STELLA project about which we will hear more later. Southampton continues with the HIDES project for the teaching of History. The computing in the arts project at Exeter has become the Pallas Project, and Bangor now has an institutional TLTP project, "The Implementation of CAL Across the Campus" (though whether this is a natural evolution from the first CTI project I do not know). Ulster, having received CTI funding for developing TAP (Text Analysis Program) for use at Ulster went on to receive TLTP money to re-develop TAP for Windows and the Macintosh. The manuals for the new TLTP product are remarkably similar to those produced for Ulster's VAX. Important to bear in mind since the guide still recommends a familiarity with certain concepts that undergraduates would have been taught at Ulster but not necessarily in undergraduate literature courses universities elsewhere. Project CONSTRUE at Manchester which taught undergraduates using the TLG and PHI CD-ROMs of Greek and Latin literature, as far as I know still exists (at least it's still in our Resources Guide). The Learning Latin Computer package at Leeds continues to be available for machines which can still run DOS.

The CTI report published in 1989 observed that there could be no one correct way to develop the use of computers in teaching. Whilst the report acknowledged that single university departments acting on their own are usually too small to achieve the benefits of computers in teaching, it also argued against following CTI with any sort of rigid centralised plan for computers in UK university teaching. In any case some form of collaboration between universities was usually most beneficial.

It is at this point that the current Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) enters. The programme has had around 33 million pounds (nearer 75 million if including institutional contributions) of central funding for the creation of courseware which, to quote one of the catalogues, aimed to 'make teaching and learning more productive and efficient by harnessing modern technology'. It is no coincidence that the programme was launched in 1992 at the same time as the government-backed expansion of numbers in higher education. The words 'productive' and 'efficient' by harnessing modern technology say more about the process of getting students in and out of university than it does about the quality of teaching or learning, the language of the factory floor perhaps.  More telling, perhaps, is the statement, 'new and innovative ways of delivering higher education to our students can only be highly beneficial. However, to successfully implement these new methods will require a commitment from each institution to rethink its teaching and learning strategies'. In other words computers are always a good thing. The discipline-based CTI, in its mission statement, strives for the integration of learning technologies where appropriate.

From the view of the humanities, save for perhaps Modern Languages, the TLTP is rather disappointing. Phase one of the TLTP, whose products are now available, has eight projects catalogued under the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (out of a total of 43) whilst Phase two, available now or within the next two years, include (out a total 33 projects) around three humanities projects. Admittedly, the Modern Languages consortium has been left to one side. However, it would seem that current nationally funded projects for the humanities are actually less than the number of projects funded during the first phase of the CTI. As I noted above one or two of the current TLTP projects are direct descendants of their CTI parents. The music consortium at Lancaster and the broadly titled 'CAL in the Humanities' from the University of East Anglia are exceptions. The CAL in the Humanities project has developed Toolbook shells for the study of film, drama, and poetry. These products are too recent to be properly evaluated but the creation of a shell which a tutor or student can fill with primary and secondary material of their choosing has been relatively successful in the development of The Poetry Shell and its implementation in the Dream of the Rood poem (an ITTI project).

Digital Resources

Whilst the number of CAL projects for the humanities in the UK seems to have actually fallen over the years there has been a rapid increase in the number of computer-based products published for the humanities researcher. This is probably a good thing, that courseware development has decreased whilst digital resources have increased. I am talking only about visible courseware; products created and disseminated with a potentially wide audience in mind. Just as tutors will continue to write lectures from scratch and plan whole courses for a single department so too is there a place for integrating computers by a single tutor into a single course using, for example, the World Wide Web, or some other home-brewed solution. The difficulty is often not in creating the content or substance but in the design and programming of the form.

In 1973 Joseph Raben wrote the following in the first volume of the bulletin of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing:

"A final concern for the immediate future is computer-assisted instruction. Those who predicted an instant success with machine teaching have learned, like the early enthusiasts of machine translation, that the processes of learning are as complex as those of communication; indeed, they have much in common, especially their refusal to submit to simplistic analysis. Humanists trained to approach subjects which have no readily visible hierarchical structure may already have mastered the philosophy of multi-branched searching techniques that will bring computer assisted instruction out of the drill and practice phase into the broad realm of true learning - that is, self-teaching. If humanists do not involve themselves in this new application, it will, by default, become the province of merely mechanical minds, a means of thrusting information into the unwilling students and another triumph for technological impersonality over humanity. If humanists do not concern themselves with directing the future of computer-assisted instruction, they will have themselves to blame when only those factual aspects of a subject which most readily lend themselves to objective presentation drive out the intangible, the nuanced in our approach to humanistic learning."

When the CTI Centre receives as a response to a survey undertaken that yes, professor Lapping does use computers in his teaching, and yes that use is a word processor for the creation of lecture handouts then one does wonder how, after over ten years of initiatives, does one promote the integration of technology. However, the growth in networked and CD-ROM-based resources for the humanities might just be the means by which the future of computer-assisted learning in the humanities can be directed.

The large number of science-based TLTP products suggests that the certain aspects of the science disciplines lend themselves to courseware (especially the mathematical sciences). The education of a humanist, however, proceeds by discussion, the formulation of arguments and opinions, the experimentation with ideas and their communication to peers and professors. There are few text books in the humanities and thus it is not surprising that courses on computer do not lend themselves to this approach either. Courseware for the humanities is of the greatest benefit within a single department, often for a single course. However, whilst few academics have the time and motivation to create courseware from scratch they do have a natural yearning to teach, and to teach their own research, and to teach the research of others when the colour of that research fits the picture of the subject painted. The first report on the CTI, followed by the policy of the TLTP, is towards the creation of material by groups or consortia of departments. On the one hand a committee, following a classic courseware model, might reduce the content to some lowest common denominator, whilst on the other, a consortia is better placed to create access to a large group of resources linked by some common theme.

If it would be foolhardy for an academic to set out on the road to creating their own digital resource which was more than a set of web pages to support the teaching of a specific course then it is equally as wise to respect the role of the publisher in the creation of the digital resource. We would not expect an academic or even a collaboration of academics to write a book, proof it, desktop publish it, typeset it, print it, bind it, and distribute it. Academics have traditionally had a close relationship with publishers who often advise on all stages of the publication of a book. The importance of the publisher in the creation and distribution of digital resources is becoming apparent. On the one hand we have Chadwyck-Healey who are happy to accept proposals, set up an academic advisory board and do the bulk of the work in-house, on the other we have Cambridge University Press who maintain an informed distance from the project until it is ready for publication, just as they might with someone's monograph. Once publishing houses have created and work within frameworks similar to those currently used for the publication of academic books then will it be possible for small groups of like-minded (if not single) academics to publish digital resources and ensure that they are reviewed and assessed on the same basis of the monograph.

The Glasgow history TLTP project, 'core resources for historians' is an interesting example of attempting to weave a via media between simple courseware and a digital resource. The project, one of the phase two projects, aims to produce material for the teaching of topics such as the French Revolution, Church Reform 1049-1125, the Reformation, the 1848 revolution, the division of Europe between 1944-1949. Whilst the title of the project suggests that these topics are taught everywhere by everyone, a sort of national HE curriculum for history, the description of the project's aims have a slightly different emphasis. The final products are described as tutorials, "the principal goal of the History Courseware Consortium is to produce and distribute widely computer-based tutorials which help to teach the large number of history students in higher education more efficiently whilst enhancing the quality of student learning ... Consortium tutorials might be thought of as 'enriched lectures' which introduce subjects, provide illustrative examples and inspire students to read further". The emphasis of these tutorials, however, is less on them being courses or even lectures but rather document or source collections. The products are flexible enough to permit the tutor to devise paths through the material and add further core resources as they see fit. As it stands at present the final product can only really be described as an enriched lecture after the tutor has got their hands on it. Another project which has these two aspects: the collection of digitized material and the promise that the tutor will be able to create on-screen tutorials from the digitized material is the JTAP-funded project managed by Stuart Lee. The Wilfred Owen Archive (held in Oxford) will be digitized and an interface devised through which tutors might create tutorials with hyperlinks to the digital material of the Owen Archive, not so dissimilar to the Isaac Rosenberg World Wide Web site.

The Perseus Project is one of the most successful resources designed for teaching, available both on CD-ROM and over the Internet. Once again it is a collection of resources loosely connected by their relevance to the study of ancient Greece. The primary source material is surrounded by various tutorial aids. The CD-ROM edition of Perseus permits customised paths through the vast database. The Web version includes guides written by others and records of experiences of having used the resource in the classroom. It is a well-funded project advised by academics in the field, distributed by an international publisher.

The average undergraduate course is a mixture of lectures, seminars, the odd tutorial, and much working on one's own or in small groups armed with a reading list. The reading list contains books, chapters of books, articles. These are kept in the library on shelves next to other books, other periodicals. The students might confine themselves to the specified item on the reading list or, if they've managed to crack the library system, browse in elsewhere in the section or in entirely different sections. A great deal of browsing goes on in the humanities.

Many of the items on an undergraduate reading list will have been written by academics for academics to disseminate their thoughts. They will, however, have been recommended for reading by students. The majority of digital resources have been constructed (or advised upon) by academics for their peers. Do they, however, appear on undergraduate reading lists? The probable answer is on the whole no, they do not.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Dead Sea Scrolls Revealed CD-ROM contains images, video clips, three-dimensional reconstructions, explanatory texts, scholarly contributions by video, images of artefacts and scrolls. A collection of resources loosely connected by a not terribly good iconic front-end. Robert Kraft at Pennsylvania was most impressed by this digital resource and promptly recommended its use for his course on first century Judaism and Christianity. It was browsable by students but this was not enough. He wished to draw their attention to specific images and texts on the CD-ROM. There not being a table of contents or even a search engine he had to devise his own method. This involved writing an index to the raw files on the CD-ROM and then advising his students to use a word processor to view text files and Photoshop to view the images he specified. The front matter of the CD-ROM he bypassed in order to gain access to the contents.

The future, one suggests, lies in convincing the academic world that digital resources are like printed resources. Digital resources, like their printed counterparts, are the source of ideas, discussion and exploration. Digital resources are excellent browsing resources, perhaps more so than traditional libraries and those other chapters not specified on the reading list but there in the book in front. Computers may not be much good at assessing the strengths of a students' argument but they are particularly fine at giving a quick answer to the wanderings of a student's mind. Students can do research on the fly and maybe even enjoy it.

Digital resources, the electronic publication of traditional scholarly research, will continue to increase even if resources specifically for teaching do not (resources largely for schools not included). How then best to exploit these resources in the teaching of undergraduates? First, they can treated like books which are in the library which students may use if they feel so inclined. Second, specific sections of a resource may be identified on a reading list with the opportunity to browse the rest of the resource if one feels so inclined. Third, we could try harder than this and attempt a middle way between the floating digital resource and the all too specific courseware application. We have seen something of this in the Perseus Project and will do also in the TLTP History Consortium and the digitzation of the Owen Archive. Microcosm, a well advertised product from Southampton claims to do much of this through the creation of a links database, though reports of it working easily and continuously whilst outside the safe confines of Southampton are sparse.

If TEI-SGML is the route by which future digital resources are set to travel then it should be possible to create an interface which will display, query, and browse material from, for example, the Chadwyck-Healey fulltext databases. Ideally, however, one would prefer the interface not to be tied to one publisher or format. A world wide web-like interface which the tutor can easily set up to access selected poems from the English fulltext database, images from another CD-ROM or networked source, some secondary material from, say, a TLTP project, further resources on the Web, together with the tutor's own material and the students' feedback (perhaps via an email discussion list or by way of one of the new virtual chatworlds) would go someway in preserving those two important aspects of humanities learning: the sources under discussion and the discussion itself. Logos Research Systems, for example, have recently released a new version of their Bible Software which permits the inclusion of hyperlinks to WWW pages within the electronic books which makeup their electronic library system. The Logos Bible Software is one of the best examples of an integrated digital library which permits the maximum flexibility and configuration on the part of the user. Probably a pity that the whole thing is not encoded in SGML.


To conclude then. Professor Lapping or Dr Piercemuller can decide to use computers within the teaching of a humanities course not simply because it's a computer and therefore, in the spirit of the TLTP, must be good, but rather because there is a digital resource available which contains a significant presentation of relevant material and just happens to require a computer. Lapping can currently use computers within a course by presenting material especially created for a particular course - perhaps over the WWW or using an already developed shell (such as the Poetry Shell) which might require little more preparation than assembling material for a coursepack.

Professor Lapping will probably accept a digital resource on the following terms: on the basis of peer acceptance and peer review; on the basis of anecdotal evidence of its effective use within other departments at other institutions; if it is perceived as continuing and enhancing, rather than turning upside down Professor Lapping's pre-existing educational model. It might even be accepted if it is shown that his students love it (even if he doesn't).

That CD-ROM, reviewed in the current issue of Lapping's favourite refereed journal, can be purchased for the library where students might consult it if they wish. It might, however, make an entry on their reading list - or perhaps only part of it will. On other hand the CD-ROM or (more likely) networked resource might come complete with a facility specially for people like Lapping where paths through a collection of material can be created together with appropriate comments, scathing remarks, and witticisms that Lapping cares to make. Finally, the tutor's authoring system has been created apart from specific digital resources and rather than creating and annotating paths through just one digital resource Lapping is able to annotate his whole lecture course by means of resources on CD-ROM, the World Wide Web, and on his own shared hard disk. Courseware on computer yes, courseware on computer for the humanities yes, but courseware which attempts to bring together the technological innovation with the particularly human process of teaching the humanities. Computers used for their own sake can encourage the teaching of new things badly. Computers employed to encourage those things which the humanities academic has always been good at, will permit scholars to do those things better.