2. Background: academic transformation meets information age

The PATOIS project derives from two related but distinct developments that have coincided over the last ten or more years. On the one hand there have been considerable changes - some would argue turmoil - in the nature and institutions of academic work in the UK. These changes, derived in part from high-level government policy, have had a disproportionately large impact on professional approaches to teaching and learning in all academic disciplines. Simultaneously, the rapid growth of communications and information technology has altered forever the way that organisations and individuals communicate with each other. Through the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), academics in the UK - archaeologists among them - have been well placed to exploit these new technologies, not least through the development of a Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) (Ingram 2002): one part of an emergent information environment that encompasses all levels of researchers, teachers and learners. The growth of the Internet is widely known and referred to in many of the papers in this journal, but the transformation of higher education in the UK is less well understood. Consequently it is worth spending time on both of these to improve understanding of the challenges that face all interested in creating digital resources for teaching and learning, in archaeology and in other disciplines.

Information as zeitgeist

A study from the University of California at Berkeley recently suggested that the Internet is doubling in size every twelve months - and perhaps considerably faster (Lyman and Varian 2000). This networked landscape of digital resources presents significant new opportunities, but these benefits are offset by growing problems of resource discovery (e.g. Dempsey and Greenstein 1997). Technologies exist that can help to integrate diverse datasets, presenting users with a seamless information environment (Miller 2000). Such technologies are beginning to have an impact on archaeology (e.g. Austin et al. 2002) and appear in various plans for future developments in archaeology and the wider heritage sector (e.g. Gray and Walford 1999; Kilbride 2002b). Resource discovery is far from the only problem (Eiteljorg 2000). Research data are often presented in formats that are most appropriate for the research community - which means that teachers and students may have problems interpreting the datasets, let alone seeing the significance that is attached to them (Kilbride 2000b). The problem is exacerbated by strategies for digital preservation that necessitate the presentation of data in non-proprietary formats (Richards and Robinson 2000; Austin et al. 2001). Consequently, data requires processing before they can even be used in familiar software products by those with a wide range of IT literacy.

All these problems are minor, however, in comparison to the sudden and almost complete revolution in the availability of information in archaeology and the academic sector generally (inter alia, Harnad 1991; Huggett 1995; Holtorf 1999; see also Internet Archaeology 6 and Exon et al. 1999). The changes associated with this sudden rush of information and technology are of historical proportion (Hobart and Schiffman 1998), and have generated new forms of social interaction (Cherny 1999). Indeed, the information age has generated such excitement that policy makers encourage us to hurry, embracing change with all speed. High-level political direction points to the risks of failing to 'achieve the transition to a knowledge-based economy' (inter alia Commission of the European Communities 2000, 4).

Facing up to Institutional change

"The information revolution is having an impact on the academic sector in part because the sector is itself ready for change"

The uses and abuses of the Internet and allied information technologies are much discussed, but it would be quite wrong to think that this sudden information free-for-all and new communications age are driving these social and economic changes single-handedly. This is true in the academic sector, as in others. Universities can be isolated from external pressures posed by changes in communication, if not actively hostile to them. One may point to the relatively limited impact of television or radio on the pedagogy of the academic community to see that novel modes of communication, even though they may have revolutionary social and political consequences, can have negligible influence on academic discourses. The information revolution is having an impact on the academic sector in part because the sector is itself ready for change. This is keenly felt in teaching and learning, but it impacts on the research and administration too.

The university sector in the UK has undergone significant change over the last few years, and continues to do so. These changes have had many pressure points, but three important themes are worth summarising: a questioning of organisational structures in the light of mass access, a questioning of the role of higher education, and a critique of the intellectual traditions it purports to defend and transmit. In the 19th century, a binary tradition of 'open' versus 'academic' institutions gave rise to distinct forms of polytechnic and university education. This binary tradition was abolished in 1992 and the number of universities doubled. Throughout the 1980s, the number of students entering higher education increased, to the point where government targets expect 50% of the school-leaving population to enter university: a target that has already been met in Scotland. In short, higher education is no longer the choice of a small elite; it is viewed as a necessity for all, providing educational infrastructure to support a changing skills base. The managerial and organisational challenges this presents are not insignificant, and have been the subject of detailed scrutiny (e.g. Dearing 1997; Cubie 1999; Greenaway and Haynes 2000). The logic of this expansion is partly based in economic and social theory. Hypotheses of post-industrial knowledge economies and catch-phrases about information societies proliferate (e.g. Bell 1973; 1976; Giddens 1990). This has immediate implications for education and the sorts of knowledge traditionally associated with the university. This hoped for connection between higher education and changes in market economics is not universally welcome (Williamson and Coffield 1997).

The question of organisational competence and the soul-searching about the role and value of higher education is compounded by confusion over the precise nature of the intellectual tradition that universities purport to sustain. In a 'post-secular' age, some would have us believe the whole enlightenment project is itself under threat (Zizek 2000). Post-modernism is often cited as the villain of the piece, but equally, if not more, to blame is the tunnel-vision reductionism that afflicts all disciplines. Obscure, pessimistic and often misguided, post-modernism does at least offer re-integration round a common intellectual core which myopic specialisation cannot (Lyotard 1984). This intellectual ferment, allied with a self-examination of purpose and competence has brought change to the academic sector. It is not yet clear how these changes will be resolved, but it should not be presumed that they are to the benefit of the universities, their staff or students. As one commentator has recently argued:

'The implications for the university of both post-modern and post-industrial change ... are hard to exaggerate. Like all large structures in a post-industrial society ... it is threatened with redundancy' (Scott 1996, 243)

Although the wider context has been turbulent and at times disheartening, there have also been clear improvements. Viewed from the perspective of academic disciplines, archaeology has fared relatively well: change has at least brought expansion. Student numbers have grown (of course), and so has the number of academic staff employed to teach them, though growth of the former has easily outstripped the resources of the latter. Managerial challenges have resulted, not least in the classroom, since many of the traditional approaches to teaching are ill-suited to the expanded numbers. For example, whereas field trips and field classes were once widespread, the large numbers of students make them less achievable. Moreover, the increased attention to the quality of learning among higher educational professionals has fostered a needed critique of traditional methods. A concern for quality is now embodied in the Quality Assurance Agency whose, at times controversial, activities include periodic subject reviews and subject 'bench-marking' (Malone 2000, 741; QAA 2000). Archaeology has, however, tended to do well in such reviews. Simultaneously, the foundation of an Institute for Learning and Teaching has focused attention on professional standards among teaching staff in the UK. Most importantly, the work of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) has shown that these changes are not just superficial, but are supported by practical action. Although archaeology remains awkwardly attached to history and classical studies - the needs and challenges of these dissimilar disciplines diverge - the contribution of the LTSN Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology cannot be underestimated.

Teaching and learning meets information age

The Internet and computer-mediated learning is a repeating theme among the new techniques proposed for higher education. The prospect of high volume and flexible communication make computerised interaction attractive to students and staff alike. The worst abuses of computer-based learning are well known but, used appropriately, the computer can support and supplement a range of activities previously impossible. Distance learning through network technologies allow students to alter the times and places of engagement with staff and with teaching materials. Virtual or managed learning environments allow the integration of pedagogical and administrative functions. Virtual departments and virtual field trips have been attempted (Spicer and Stratford 2001; Hughes and King 2002). The 'portalisation' of Internet resources has also allowed for the development of carefully structured Internet-based interactions with diverse content (Stuckes 2002). Research by the LTSN has shown that archaeologists are keen to exploit these opportunities (Reynier, pers comm). While there may be a relative lack of experience in computer-based learning for archaeology, there is nonetheless a clearly articulated desire to use Internet resources in teaching and learning.

This desire to exploit computers for teaching archaeology is at least ten years old. In 1992, the Teaching Learning Technology Project (TLTP) established a consortium of fifteen academic departments precisely for this purpose (Campbell 1994). TLTP provided a robust model of multi-media hypertext resources for archaeology, where students were led through a formal curriculum that covered many aspects of an undergraduate curriculum in archaeology. TLTP Archaeology was cutting edge in its time, and its experiences have been constantly and deliberately considered in the development of PATOIS. From a historical perspective, the TLTP Archaeology modules have suffered from the changes in computing over the last ten years, so while the content was strong, migration to new operating environments has been challenging. This process was exacerbated by the lack of long-term financial support to sustain long-term provision of content in a rapidly changing technical environment. Moreover, the structure of the tutorials as self-contained packs created the prospect of staff being unable or unwilling to deploy them where they did not converge with existing curricula or where there were conflicts on the detailed subject matter. It is ironic that this should happen when the consortium building the modules was so inclusive. Some have been critical of TLTP, but there are many aspects of it that deserve credit: it was completed on time and to budget, to the specifications that were set in the brief; it has given many in archaeology experiences of computer-based learning; it has greatly enhanced the IT skills of many in archaeology; and it has shown that long-term benefits require long-term sustainability. These are lessons from which PATOIS, and others can learn.

Thus, the PATOIS project derives from two important but distinct trends: the growth of Internet-based information services and movements within the academic community that seek to expand access without reducing standards. There are historical precedents from which it has drawn, and there is a proven need that it seeks to fulfil.


Last updated: Mon Sep 23 2002

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