What are the benefits of co-creating a curriculum with digital archives?
In my role at Jisc I often talk about the different ways in which digital technologies can enhance learning and teaching when they’re designed effectively into a course. To give just two examples – teaching and support staff can use digital technologies to help students become active learners and co-creators of knowledge; in doing so they can support the development of students’ digital skills for both study and employment.
But what does that look like on the ground? We’ve put together a new set of HE member stories so that you can delve into some of the detail of recent effective digital learning implementations.
Taken together, the case studies cover too much ground for a single blog post so here I want to look at just three, from the universities of Cardiff, Liverpool and Loughborough. Each of these institutions is exploring working with digitised archival collections and taking its own distinct approach to using them to provide richer learning experiences and to engage students as active, independent learners and researchers.
‘Google for dead people’
The University of Liverpool has developed a new undergraduate module, taught for the first time in 2017/18, called ‘panopticon and the people’. It uses a range of digital archives containing text, images and other forms of content to give students an opportunity to engage directly with primary resources while exploring the history of crime and punishment.
In this module the 60 or so students each use the free Digital Panopticon archive to identify a single offender to study – and then go on to learn techniques that enable them to explore contemporary news reports and other sources across a variety of digital archives, so they can uncover their subject’s previously hidden, cradle to grave life story. The Digital Panopticon offers them plenty to choose from – it contains millions of records from around 50 datasets relating to 90,000 people convicted at the Old Bailey.
Perhaps surprisingly, students carry out their archives-based research together in campus-based labs: lecturer Dr Zoe Alker says this makes it easier to support students face to face and it allows them to discuss emerging findings as well as any issues that crop up. The students on Zoe’s module can also explore a 3D model of an 18th century prison design using virtual reality headsets.
One student likened this digital search and analysis process to ‘Google for dead people’. The richer understanding of crime and punishment that the process supports has been widely welcomed by the students on the programme. Zoe has had plenty of positive feedback; she highlights the fact that “the process de-centres the classroom dynamic and invites students to get hands on with primary research”. The new skills in digital research and in communicating their findings will support them in their ongoing studies and also make them more attractive to future employers.
Turning students into scholars
While the University of Liverpool created a new module for its experiments with digital archives, Cardiff University is looking at ways to embed digital collections into its existing history curriculum. Here, second year students studying the history of medicine have been working with the UK Medical Heritage Library (a three year initiative, joint funded by the Wellcome Library and Jisc, to digitise over 15m pages of 19th century medical texts) and using the material as part of a programme to, as Professor Keir Waddington puts it, “develop their abilities as active researchers rather than consumers of information”.
The history department wants to investigate whether students at this level can engage successfully with the opportunities that digital archives present – can they learn the disciplines of historical study and research as well as the digital techniques that they’ll need? Is this too much for them to tackle? The Cardiff case study suggests not.
Keir reports that students are learning how to build on any pre-existing digital skills and transfer them into an academic environment, and also showing clear evidence of greater engagement. He tells us that group discussions are becoming increasingly animated and more students are staying behind after classes to take the conversation forward and develop their ideas.
Cardiff’s experience shows us not only that undergraduate students can learn and apply the necessary techniques – but also that they embrace the opportunity enthusiastically. It’s too soon to say how this fresh burst of enthusiasm will affect outcomes. But, within the university, lessons are already being learned and some activities (notably those connected with geomapping) are being revised and redeveloped so that future cohorts at Cardiff will have an even better learning experience.
Gaining new skills and confidence
Meanwhile at Loughborough University lecturer in digital history Dr Melodee Beals is taking her own approach to using digital archives with undergraduate students. And here, as students get to grips with primary sources and develop confidence in their own ideas and critical skills, they’re starting to push for more such opportunities. As one student says in the case study:
“[I] gained so many new skills through this module and really enjoyed applying history in other ways using these skills”.
Melodee’s broad aim is to develop good, independent academic skills among the students and so they are being taught to develop a profound understanding of what resources are, how to identify the ones you need, how to evaluate them and how best to analyse their content. And in putting this new knowledge to work the university is taking a creative approach, for example, by using gaming techniques and role playing to help students develop their understanding of what motivated historical figures to act and behave as they did.
I’d urge you to take a look at the three case studies above for some useful insights into embedding digital archives into teaching. While each university takes its own approach, some of the take-home messages are common to all. I’d sum the main ones up as follows:
- Have a clear idea of what learning and teaching outcomes you want to achieve – digital technologies are tools to help you get there, not an end in themselves
- Don’t assume students have appropriate digital skills - treat them all as ‘digital apprentices’ and teach them the specific skills that will help them while they study and then make them more attractive to employers
- Make sure that teaching staff have access to any support they need in developing their digital skills or incorporating digital learning and research activities into their teaching
- Be prepared to experiment and accept that sometimes you’ll try things that don’t work
Even when it’s difficult the benefits are worth it. One student at Loughborough summed up the experience:
“This has been one of the most helpful modules of the whole degree. If the module was undertaken at an earlier period of the course it would have been a great benefit to the rest of my degree. It has more than prepared me for further study.”