Using digital resources in three case studies
Mark Childs, Centre for Academic Practice/School of Theatre Studies (ARCHES project), University of Warwick
One of the questions concerning the involvement of technology with learning and teaching is whether there is a specific pedagogy associated with this involvement. In the companion article to this paper (Childs, 2004) the following questions attempt to summarise this debate:
“if (technology) does modify learning, does it always do so in a sufficiently uniform way to enable us to define a coherent change in learning and teaching practice that we can label “e-pedagogy”? Or do we just have a list of new learning methodologies that are only connected by the requirement to plug something in first?”
The findings of three recent case studies may make some contribution to this discussion. All three were evaluated as part of the ARCHES (Antiquity-Related Collections Harnessed for Educational Scenarios) project. The project is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) as part of their Exchange for Learning (X4L) programme and has the aim of making collections of digital resources available to the education sector, and in developing ways of making these resources easily usable within learning and teaching (Eales and Dempster, 2004).
The ARCHES project aims to:
- develop a means by which digital resources can be re-purposed for different learning and teaching activities
- develop learning and teaching activities that draw upon various digital resources.
- evaluate these developments
- produce guidelines to good practice in re-purposing and using resources in learning and teaching. (Childs and Dempster, 2003).
The project therefore presents an opportunity to examine whether or not a definable and coherent e-pedagogy exists in the specific case of the use of learning materials in an online environment.
Setting up the learning situations
The module that constituted the first of the learning and teaching activities carried out as part of the ARCHES project was Society, Stage and Text 1 SST1 – Greek and Roman Drama, a first year module taught by Dr. Hugh Denard. This is part of the undergraduate degree taught at the School of Theatre Studies. The module involved students working in an IT suite with individual networked PCs. They could therefore individually access the Internet and THEATRON.
THEATRON is an acronym of Theatre History in Europe: Architectural and Textual Resources Online (Eversmann, 2001). The THEATRON project created a series of virtual reality models and associated text in order to create a means by which students could explore in three dimensions theatres that no longer exist. Additional resources are available, such as further reading and links to relevant websites. The THEATRON project also created a range of digital images and animations.
The sessions consisted of some didactic elements, with the lecturer talking through the resources, and some activity-based work. The activities were listed on the course website, which also had website links. The activities involved finding and evaluating web resources, and working through tasks using the THEATRON software. Students passed reviews of websites onto the lecturer, which were then uploaded onto the course website for comment by the other students. The activity-based work is therefore referred to as problem + resource-based work, since both apply.
After the sessions, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a randomly selected sample of students, 10 in all, in a series of three small groups. The evaluation was conducted in two sections, the first dealt with technical and accessibility issues with using the technology, the second asked the students to indicate their reactions and experiences with resource-based learning. The similarity of responses across the three groups indicates some degree of reliability, but the sample is too small to constitute a formal evaluation. However, the nature of the responses should indicate possible areas for study in future evaluations.
The second case study involved the use of web-based resources in the Theatre Studies module SST2 – Places of Performance. Second year students worked in an IT suite for the first session with individual networked PCs and could access the Internet and the THEATRON software. For the remaining sessions students and lecturers held seminars in a networked classroom and had access to the Internet via a single laptop. Sessions consisted of some didactic elements, with the lecturer talking through the resources, and some presentations by the students, each one of whom selected a particular theatre to research and presented their findings to the class. The activities were listed on the course website, which also had links to useful external websites. The students could use the THEATRON software, resources on the website and the library for researching the content of their presentations.
A focus group was conducted with the group and the two lecturers at the end of one of the class sessions. The questions were placed within the context of the previous evaluation of ARCH 3. The questions that were raised with the students were based on the findings of the previous evaluation, and comparisons made with the previous module.
The third case study used the ARCHES software for a learning activity within the Classics and Ancient History Department on the subject of the Romanisation of Greek culture. This software enables lecturers to store and catalogue images, animations and videos and associated descriptive text. Lecturers and students can then use the software to discover and combine images from the collections in “albums” to which they can add their own text. These albums can then be used as the basis for presentations, as parts of learning packages or as the basis for group discussions, in short they are “learning objects”. Moreover, the images and the albums in which they have been used are automatically hyperlinked, which means that over time, the additional text added can build into a larger multidisciplinary repository.
The activity required the students to explore the resources in the ARCHES repository and, within groups, select images to support or counter the argument that the degree of Romanisation was considerable and write text around these images within an album. These albums were then used as the basis of a presentation to the rest of the class. The students were observed creating the presentations, and questioned while doing so. After the presentations were conducted, questions were asked of the class as whole.
Learning issues related to the first case study
The degree of students’ unfamiliarity with this type of activity was unexpected. The initial aim of the evaluation of the ARCHES project was to compare the ARCHES software with other resource-+ problem-based learning. The results of this trial suggested that the ARCHES evaluation needed to be extended to the use of resource- + problem-based learning in general.
The preliminary evaluation here indicates that the students’ biggest issues were with:
- being overwhelmed by the amount of information supplied.
- Identifying the degree of work that was required
- Confidence in the validity of the knowledge they were constructing
- Confidence in the relevance to the curriculum of the knowledge they were constructing
- Awareness of any “missing” information, i.e. whether they had covered all the areas of the syllabus that they were required to know.
The collaborative learning aspect of the work was welcomed, but for widely different reasons. For example, the two students in the second focus group (labelled ‘E’ and ‘F’) made the following comments:
E: “I found the reflection really useful.”
E: “(Putting) the reviews on the website was flattering.”
E: “If you’re having problems, seeing how other people have done it can jump start me.”
F: It was scary.
F: I thought “everyone’s going to think I’m thick or stupid”
F: I made more effort (after first submission had been posted) because everyone’s going to read it. (Q: Have you submitted anything else?) No I haven’t finished it, yet. I will do when it’s ready.
The conversation between students E and F demonstrates the issues faced by self-confident and less self-confident students across different learning platforms. E-learning still exposes students to their peers, even though it is not as confrontational as face-to-face learning.
Comparison with lectures
Individual students differed over whether they preferred lectures or p+r-based learning, all agreed the optimum arrangement is a combination of both within the overall degree. One group’s comments were interesting in that they identified their preference for a blended approach within a session, including lecturing, p+r-based learning, and lecture+resource based teaching, i.e. using the resources across the websites within a lecture. Although this latter is only possible within an IT suite, as an approach it was met with particular enthusiasm by the students.
Learning issues related to the second case study
Students also commented in this case study that the difficulty when faced with Internet-based resources is to know what is and isn’t relevant. For this reason the information was mediated by the lecturers by
- setting generic questions for the presentation
- selecting specific websites for the students to read
- specifying a select reading list.
When questioned as to how they would feel without this mediation by the lecturers the class responded non-verbally, but which was unmistakeably a mixture of horror and distress at the idea.
Students were asked about their feelings about conducting presentations. Comments were that they helped because they provided additional motivation to look over the resources during the course; the tendency otherwise would be to leave too much to the end.
One of the concerns students had expressed in the first case study, which was raised in the discussion of this case study was in relation to the validity of knowledge constructed by the students as opposed to knowledge presented by the lecturer. This concern seemed self-evident to the students.
“(looking at websites) you don’t know what is, what isn’t right”
However, this unease was addressed within the structure of the module, through the work being presented to the lectures within class.
“If we have missed something out it can be picked up in the seminars.”
i.e. because the resource-based work was reported in class and was commented on by the lecturers meant that the students’ constructed knowledge could be validated and completed by an authority on the subject.
The possibility of an alternative mode in which lecturers supported the process, but the final content of the course would be determined by what the students had discovered was suggested to the students. This idea was met with considerable resistance by the students, who felt that they would still need to be informed as to which parts of the knowledge they had accumulated was right and which was not.
Although the course website contained either the information the students needed or direct references to the places where the information was contained, students still stated that the seminars were invaluable. A student comment was that:
“There’s still more in the seminars than on the website”
which was expanded upon by one of the lecturers for the module
“Although the website contains all the information, it’s in the seminars where we pull it all together.”
Learning issues related to the third case study
During the first hour of the session the students were engrossed in their task, adapting easily to using the software, and collaborating effectively in developing their presentations. Although few students had practised using the software beforehand, by chance these constituted at least one student per group, which sped up the process of creating the presentations.
The presentation part of the seminar was effectively done, with students using the albums created in the software fully within their piece to class. Half of the presenters also used the hyperlinking functionality of the software. The software links images of a work with the record on information about the work itself. By clicking on an image contained within the presentation, this information can be accessed. Instead of cutting-and-pasting information from one part of the repository to another, the students that exploited this functionality of the software simply clicked on the hyperlink within the document to call up this additional information. This was an unforeseen potential of the software since this feature had been built into the software to aid the discovery of resources and it had not been anticipated that it could be used in presenting the information.
During the brief discussion at the end of the session, the students’ responses to the use of the software were very positive. They valued the ability to search only relevant images and draw them together with text. They described the process as easier than using PowerPoint, and much easier than creating webpages using SiteBuilder. Suggestions for further use were to draw in images found on the Internet (which cannot be done due to copyright problems, although they could be linked to via inserting URLs into the body text of the presentations) and extending the repository to support other modules.
Further feedback will be obtained at the end of the course when a full focus group evaluation will be conducted.
Analysis of the case study evaluations
The evaluations indicate that the implementation of these e-learning programmes were successful, and that specific pedagogical practices for the effective use of digital resources can be identified and developed. For example:
- anxieties about identifying the degree of work that is required can be addressed by providing a template structure for the information
- difficulties in finding information can be overcome by selecting specific websites or creating a separate repository for the students to use
- Confidence in the validity of the knowledge they are constructing can be addressed by following up the resource-based task with an in-class seminar
In combination, the evaluation of these case studies indicates that any move away from content-driven courses, to a combination of content and process-based courses, would need to be undertaken incrementally, with considerable reassurance given to students about the validity of their work. The role of lecturers as not only filterers of information (in order to reduce it to manageable amounts) but as authorisers of knowledge (to reassure students that what they have found out is correct) needs to be incorporated into any research-led (and resource-based) learning strategy. The act of sharing and reflecting upon the results of their resource-based research in a face-to-face situation within a classroom has, according to the participants in this study, been invaluable to their learning.
Whether these pedagogical practices constitute an e-pedagogy is open to doubt, however, for the following reasons:
- all of the activities involved blended approaches. The technology has been used in conjunction with class-based activities throughout all of the case studies. The two aspects are so closely integrated that separating them is not possible.
- all of the aspects discussed in evaluations are simply variations of issues that occur in face-to-face learning. The issues of constructing and validating knowledge, of searching through, and being overwhelmed by, information, and effectively collaborating to present knowledge to each other, are all issues that pre-date technology. The presence of the Internet and digital repositories have simple exacerbated the problems and presented more alternative solutions.
- the skills required of the students are largely simply extensions of skills required for non-technological skills, e.g. finding and organising information, communication and collaboration, analysis and reflection.
It could be argued that those elements that are simply concerned with the effectiveness of the technology (not only just how well it works, but whether or not it actually works at all) and the students’ competencies at operating the technology are relevant to e-learning based activity alone. Issues that arose in this capacity include:
- What are the technical and accessibility issues involved with using the software and hardware required for the activity?
- What are the additional learning prerequisites needed to undertake the activities that use technology?
However, our perception of these issues being separate from other pedagogical issues is simply due to some tools falling within our definition of technology in this context and some not, the distinction due largely to our degree of familiarity with them. Even chalk on a chalkboard has issues of usability and accessibility (e.g. can our students see red chalk on black? can we reach the bit at the top?). Again it cannot be proved that these are different problems in essence, but are simply extensions of already existing principles, simply extended into a more complicated technical environment.
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick
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Childs, M. and Dempster, J. (2003) “The ARCHES project”, retrieved on 22nd January, 2004
Childs, M. (2004) ‘Using technology to support learning: is there an e difference?’ Forum No. 27, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick, Spring 2004
Eales, S. and Dempster, J. (2004) Creating an exchange for learning
Eversmann, P.G.F. (2001) The THEATRON project – Guide to good practice; a manual for teachers, unpublished report