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Browsing Jisc digital resources on a tablet
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Browsing Jisc digital resources on a tablet
©Jisc and Matt Lincoln

What’s the point of digital resources? A Digifest discussion

How do students use digital resources? How does this change the way we teach? Digifest speakers reveal how creative teaching, and co-creating with learners, can turn online archives from passive stores of information to spaces for innovation.

In The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s play about a clash of educational cultures, Hector reflects on what he sought from university as a young man: “I wanted somewhere new. That is to say old. So long as it was old I didn’t mind where I went. […] Cloisters, ancient libraries… I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone.”

A redbrick university disabused him of the mix-up, but in the decade since Bennett’s play we have become just as likely to assume the opposite: that learning is inextricable from the smell of dust-laden PC fans and overheating plastic.

In fact, when it comes to capturing and reproducing teachable content for higher education (HE), the most common technologies are now fairly antiquated. Virtual learning environments (VLEs), PowerPoints and podcasts have all been around for years without substantially changing the way we teach.

However, with digitised resources, more is easily available to students, teachers and researchers than ever before – and growing every year. The question is, what meaningful use can be made of it?

Demystifying sources

What digital resources can do for starters, says Raphael Hallett, professor of history and director of the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, is “demystify the idea of the historical source” and help students experiment using primary texts much earlier in their degree.

Hallett highlights an undergraduate module on witchcraft in early modern England, designed using Jisc principles of digital literacy. Let loose on the Early English Books Online platform (delivered via Historical Texts) in week one, students are asked to examine anti-Catholic propaganda pamphlets, choose one and annotate it. Year on year this builds a repository of source commentaries.

“The great thing”, says Hallett, “is that it is a collective resource. An MA student writing a dissertation on ‘the demonic’ during this period received access to the feedback, so it fed into postgraduate research as well.”

Teaching has the potential to turn online archives from passive stores of information into resources that students themselves can reshape. Hallett insists that this module is “only possible through the process of digital encounter – it is not possible as hard copy”.

However, he still converts his students’ commentaries into physical copies. It’s a curious paradox:

“students still really like the sense of ownership that comes from an encounter with material texts, but that is only possible through online editing. It counters the idea of the digital as the loss of the textual: this is reborn as text and students like that.”

Risky presentation

To take full advantage of this, Hallett suggests universities need “a new student epistemology” which he characterises as “the hyper-visualisation of knowledge, ideas, arguments”.

Leeds’s MA in Health, Medicine and Society makes extensive use of the UK Medical Heritage Library for precisely this reason, that its infographics re-appropriate the collection for classroom use by linking the visual, photographic and literary.

“Jisc took a risk presenting the library in this way,” concedes Hallett, “but it is probably the most innovative way of presenting information that I’ve seen and certainly the most attractive to undergraduates. Even if it’s just to get them more curious about the collection, it’s a very good way of beckoning them in to primary sources.”

Livelier seminars

The UK Medical Heritage Library is also a key resource for Keir Waddington, professor of history at Cardiff University, who uses it to structure undergraduate courses on 19th-century public health. Waddington finds that students’ “first instinct is to reach for the digital rather than the material”, and agrees that packaging research attractively means “we can get students looking at data in different ways, not just turning up in the classroom with source-packs.”

This, in turn, means seminars can be more lively and focus on working with a range of sources:

“we can get students to follow things through in a more creative fashion – looking at disease terminology and how it shifts over time, for example – because the tools are available to do that more quickly and easily. Speeding this up allows you to ask more interesting questions in seminars.”

Cardiff’s second-year course in digital technologies and history, meanwhile, places emphasis on the way students can use web-based packages to examine and interpret historical evidence by themselves. “The first part is very much training students, developing skills,” Waddington explains. “The second part is guided projects: mapping where people died on the Titanic, for example, or how medieval kings moved their courts across Europe.”

For Waddington, it’s about “instilling a sense of curiosity and excitement in terms of what information students can find and what innovative things they can do with it – the questions they might ask, directions they can go, mistakes they can make.”

Playful pedagogy

The challenge has always been how to combine play with pedagogical rigour. Technology-enhanced teaching brings with it the need for an assessment revolution.

By and large, regardless of the extent to which digital content is integrated into curricula, assessment methods remain very traditional; exams and coursework essays are blunt mechanisms for gauging the effectiveness of student learning.

Universities have, amid understandable concerns about quality assurance in an era of league tables, been slow to explore the potential for online discussion, collaborative digital projects or even public engagement in student assessment. There is no precedent for examining innovative outputs.

Assessment diversification is, however, being explored at LSE, where senior learning technologist Darren Moon remains sceptical about resource-driven digitisation projects, which he feels are “often low-hanging fruit, well within the comfort zone of both tutors and educational developers and technologists, and often detract from larger organisational issues such as assessment practice and student engagement."

Engaging students

“Resources themselves do not engage students,” he cautions,

“activity engages students, and banks of resources gather dust if they are not used as part of assessment”.

For Moon, “essays represent a huge amount of student time, effort and investment we don’t get any additional value out of as an institution.” Instead, what the LSE wants to do is “create a series of exercises and activities that give students a feeling of greater value as part of the wider school community.”

The most radical example has been in collaboration with international relations on its third-year visual international politics module, which is using student-produced videos as part of its assessment. Designed in partnership with course convener and professor of international relations William Callahan, the course asks students to create 10-minute documentary films to give them hands-on experience of using digital storytelling to craft their own messages.

Now in its third year (and oversubscribed every time), the course has found “a balance between visual and textual practice” that Moon believes gives students “a far more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the decisions involved in visual politics”, namely how visual sources can be used as political agents. These films then become sources in themselves for subsequent years to analyse.

Student as producer

The potential doesn’t stop at teaching and assessment. Within a digital curriculum, it becomes much easier to think about students as potential collaborators.

Student Voice 

Watch LSE's video, which highlights key findings from their Student Voice project.

LSE's Student Voice project asked 100 students about what teaching, learning and technology could look like at LSE in three years’ time. It drew inspiration from the 2010-2013 “Students as Producers” project at Lincoln University and many universities are now following its lead in consulting with students about their expectations for digitally-enhanced teaching.

Moon is encouraged by current levels of conversation around students as co-producers of knowledge and active partners in course design. Hallett agrees it’s only a short step from co-creating resources with students to the co-creation of curricula: “the empowerment to change the curriculum is fed by the empowerment students feel when more in control of resources they can find and material they can refer to.”

Students have, of course, always been able to suggest topics for research projects. What technology offers is scope to set their own agendas. If the next step in digital resource curation is as expected – guest comments on archives, annotations that can be accessed and saved by others – then students will be a crucial part of that research community. In effect, they will become researchers.

Teaching-led research

“There is research-led teaching,” emphasises Waddington, “but there’s also teaching-led research. Lecturers are often doing admin, we’re not always having exciting research conversations among ourselves – those conversations take place in seminars.”

But students are paying for the privilege of being taught, and research repeatedly shows that they remain wary of self-directed study, especially online. “Students still need instructions,” warns Hallett; “they need to be directed and allowed to play in ways that are affirmed by the tutor. If we just send them in they will struggle, but if we give them frameworks, criteria and guidance, they tend to be much more adept.”

We have as yet a very incomplete and inconsistent picture of how students use – or want to use – digital materials, not to mention take part in structured research and learning activities outside the classroom. The assumption that they will automatically engage with web-based course components as enthusiastically as they do social media is premature.

More work remains to be done on the reasons for students’ non-use of the myriad technological resources available to them.

Wrong questions

For that reason, the role of technology in universities must be driven from the outset by a clear understanding of intended use, and Moon believes that today “we’re asking many of the same questions we were ten years ago” – and they’re the wrong ones. VLEs, for example, “will inevitably pale in comparison to Facebook or Google, so in terms of giving students a real, compelling reason to use institutionally provided tools we’re always at something of a disadvantage.”

The right questions, he maintains, are oriented not around particular tools or resources, but how students self organise: “if we see zero engagement on Moodle, but it has to be happening to complete the task, they are doing it, so it’s happening elsewhere – where? How?”

For students who are on campus all the time – “is it even right”, he wonders, “to expect them to use an online communication platform as well? And does it matter, so long as we get the structure of activity and assessment right?”

iPad generation

2019-20, Moon estimates, will see the first cohort of undergraduates to have had iPads in the classroom since Key Stage 3, for whom technology-enhanced learning is the norm. What will they confuse learning with…?

UK Medical Heritage Library

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Muscle illustration
©Historical texts
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The UK Medical Heritage Library stores over 66,000 works from 19th-century medical texts, all digitised across a three-year period by Jisc, the Internet Archive, the Wellcome Trust and university libraries from around the UK.

The library sports an eclectic selection of health-related subject matter, from medical practices to sport, nutrition and pseudo-scientific disciplines like phrenology and hydrotherapy. All publications have been digitised with full colour page images, pdf downloads and searchable OCR texts, as well as an open access ethos that enables researchers to cross-search the collection alongside those held at the British Library, amongst others.

Its purpose was to dramatically extend the Medical Heritage Library in the US, but it reinforces work done elsewhere in Victorian studies, including Gale’s Nineteenth Century Collections Online, University of Birmingham's British Pamphlets Online, and various newspaper archives.

What’s most innovative about the UK Medical Heritage Library, however, are the tools allowing visitors to explore the collection using a variety of different creative visualisations: timelines, ngrams, dendrograms, maps, sunbursts. These highly aestheticised access points allow users to choose their own way of entering the catalogue, offering multiple pathways through the material which only serve to make the potential interpretations more intricate and insightful.

Browse the UK Medical Heritage Library (via Historical Texts). 

Join the discussion at Digifest 2017

This is the second in a series of features on topics that will be covered at this year's Digifest, which takes place on 14-15 March 2017.  

Dr Raphael Hallett from Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence will be speaking during day one of Digifest for his talk: 'Surfing in the Shallows' or 'Creative Bricolage': how are our students using online resources? If you're not attending in person, we'll be livestreaming this particular session as part of our online programme

Keir Waddington from Cardiff University will be taking part in our day one workshop, designing digitally-enhanced curricula and LSE's Darren Moon will be a panel member during our debate, 'institutional visions for a digital student experience', which will take place on the morning of day two. 

Full details for all this year's sessions, can be found in the Digifest 2017 programme. Join the conversation on Twitter using #digifest17.