4. Ambitions, Expectations and other Challenges

As with many projects, unlimited ambition is constrained by the realities of funding and practicalities of available resources. The electronic resources available to the ADS are immense, but students have only limited amounts of time and energy to learn about them, and JISC has only a limited budget to fund that learning. So, as well as issues associated with effective learning and its nurturing, the PATOIS team were also forced to respond to issues such as how do we review and evaluate our work, how to ensure compliance with professional standards, and what resources are most congruent with the outcomes we seek to achieve. These are challenges faced by all educators, not just those using electronic resources and not just those in higher education either. It is worth taking some time to explore each of these in turn; considering them here may provide food for thought to others hoping to develop electronic resources.


"Technical standards matter for three broad reasons: compatibility, accessibility and maintenance"

Standards now matter for higher education in ways that they perhaps have not mattered previously. External monitoring and internal audit are now the norm - not just for teachers but also for the deployment of technology. Indeed, the ADS itself is a standards body, charged with promoting and developing standards for the use of computers in archaeology. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that technical standards represented an important element in the brief for PATOIS, reinforced by the JISC's own insistence that the project team follow a code of conduct (Grout and Ingram 2001; Bremner and Napier 2002). In our experience, technical standards matter for three broad reasons: compatibility, accessibility and maintenance. These are seldom distinct but pervade the culture of web-resources. Compliance with standards can appear intimidating, but in fact can be managed relatively easily, provided some basic steps are taken from the outset.

Addressing the challenge of compatibility involves recognising and attempting to cater for the needs of different users and their different computing environments. Many different Internet browsers are used within higher and further education. Given that the PATOIS project was funded by a national organisation to support activities across the whole university and college sector, it stands to reason that any resources developed would have to be compatible with the sorts of technology used by that broad community. The only way to know this is to survey the sorts of facilities that different institutions use. The results of such a survey are hardly surprising, but important nonetheless. Certain types of resource are ruled out almost instantly - such as streaming video or sound - since the sort of bandwidth necessary to access such resources is not readily available. Some emergent technologies hold real prospects in the long term. Various institutions have made plain their intention to deploy virtual and managed learning environments, though these have not yet had much impact in archaeology departments. Similarly, educational metadata remains a subject for discussion, even if the principle of applying it is widely accepted (UKOLN 2000). In each case, the only response is the rigorous application of standards. So, while many browsers may render HTML differently, providing that the underlying HTML is of a high standard, there should be no loss of content. Likewise, Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) may alter the appearance of a page, but the impact can be reduced if the HTML is meticulously produced. While different elements required by educational metadata remain a source of discussion, Dublin Core remains a common standard for the time being. In summary, standards are themselves is subject to change - XML is not yet widely used by archaeology tutors, and a single metadata schema for education may emerge - but these questions of forwards compatibility do not present insurmountable problems if handled sensibly.

"Accessibility is not simply a technical issue, but it also extends to language and concepts too. Making resources intellectually accessible is at the core of the educational process, so the time spent thinking about accessibility is time well spent"

Issues of compatibility are closely related to those of accessibility. There are a number of browsers used to support partially sighted or otherwise disabled users who may not be able to use more common technologies. This can present a real challenge to the development of web resources, not least since the education sector has to comply with the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act. This legislation opens the door to legal redress should a student be denied access to education on account of a disability. In practice it means that classrooms should be accessible by wheelchair, or audio equipment installed where necessary. For Internet resources it means that web pages need to be competently produced, conforming to accepted thresholds of technical compliance. PATOIS has dealt with this challenge in a number of ways. As with compatibility, an obvious solution is to employ rigorous quality assurance on pages produced. It has also required consideration about colour schemes and fonts, since these can seriously impair or enhance the experience of students with colour blindness or dyslexia. It is an area where more recent versions of HTML come into their own, since cascading style-sheets - which are used in Internet Archaeology - allow much greater control of output than traditional HTML. There is guidance available on these topics, but the most reliable and immediate way to deal with such issues is to speak directly to users. Thus, at least one student with visual impairment was able to talk us through the issues as she found them, and this led to subtle but comprehensive changes in colour schemes. As an aside, it is perhaps not an accident that we have ended up with a colour scheme not that dissimilar to that used by Internet Archaeology. Accessibility is not simply a technical issue, but it also extends to language and concepts too. Indeed, making resources intellectually accessible is at the core of the educational process, so the time spent thinking about accessibility is time well spent.

The prospect of making comprehensive changes to the tutorial packs should send shivers down the spine, since the maintenance of large websites can be a Herculean task. The amount of work involved can be reduced and managed provided the original content is carefully constructed. However, as TLTP has shown, even the most carefully constructed electronic teaching and learning materials can become outmoded where there is no maintenance. The Internet, where content is unstable to start with, introduces the prospect of regular link checking, in addition to any other maintenance. Indeed, the first PATOIS pack has already been through one complete check and overhaul of web links, and another is planned. For the tutorials to last, this will become a regular, if largely invisible part of the work of the ADS. However, the use of appropriate standards makes this long-term maintenance easier. Not only does it facilitate automated changes, it also ensures that subsequent editors can understand the code used by the authors.

Identifying electronic resources for the tutorials

The look and feel of the PATOIS tutorials is in part prescribed by the standards of accessibility, compatibility and maintenance to which we aspire. The content of the packs reflects the aims and objectives set by the consortium. However, the content was also prescribed by the sorts of electronic resources available to us. The PATOIS project was set the task of packaging existing material into manageable teaching blocks - not creating digital content. Although there has been some digitisation work, this has largely been supplementary to the main task. Digesting content has been more important than digitising: it was necessary to spend some time considering content that the ADS makes available and identifying suitable elements for inclusion in the tutorials. Identifying data for inclusion in the section on Monument Inventories sounds simple because the ADS offers one large monument inventory in the form of ArchSearch - but even this area needed work to identify detailed studies for students in the midst of so much data. Therefore, in addition to a guided tour of the whole resource, there is a detailed study of the archaeology of Walmgate in York, the home of the Council for British Archaeology. When addressing the selection of the example to be used in tutorial two, although it is not the largest project archive available, the excavations at Cottam were quickly identified as the optimal data archive since it is supported by a broad range of electronic resources that could easily be presented within the tutorial. This includes the publication of the site in Internet Archaeology. Consequently, in examining the Cottam archive it is relatively easy to cross-reference the published report. Similarly, the tutorial on Internet Archaeology suffers an embarrassment of riches: the trick was to identify articles and sections that fitted into the cross-cutting themes. Moreover, the tutorial is open access, while the journal is funded through subscriptions. Consequently, though the whole run of issues is presented, parts of the tutorial concentrate on Issue 1, which is free. Again, there is little substitute here for spending time reading and digesting the different themes that Internet Archaeology offers. This produces some apparently perverse results, but for good reason. For example, one section of the Internet Archaeology tutorial looks at visualisation, and Issue 8 of the journal focuses on this theme. An obvious approach would be to direct students simply to read Issue 8 and use solely the content there to support this section. In fact, we have tended to use content from right across the journal precisely because we want to introduce students to the whole range of ways that images are used. Issues of subscription and registration aside, if students read the visualisation theme after working through the module, then they will do so with a range of examples already in mind, and should thus be better prepared to understand and evaluate the claims and arguments presented there.

Of the four tutorials, only the interdisciplinary study has required access to new datasets. Supported by various of the groups and scholars involved in the Christ Church Spitalfields research project, work towards this pack has also generated an archive of material. At the time of writing, both the teaching pack and the archive are under review so the detailed content of both is still liable to minor change. Even so there are a number of key issues that present themselves, and which would be worth contemplating for other projects. In the first place, intellectual property rights are complicated, especially for a project that ended several years ago, was supported by many different funding bodies, and for which the management committee was wound up. Chasing all the contributors and seeking their support can be time consuming, but is very useful not just to ensure copyright, but also to encourage interest in the project from many of the people most able to support it. Secondly, the excavations at Spitalfields presented unusual ethical issues about the handling of human remains. The digital archive and teaching pack reflect these issues.

"Preparing web-based teaching resources is much more than simply preparing a few web pages - production values matter"

Therefore, available resources are a factor in the development of the content of tutorials. The content available to ADS is extensive and provides access to a greater range of resources than was needed for the purposes of the PATOIS project. But we have found that there is much more to building teaching materials than simply providing content online. Themes need structure, and content needs to be selected carefully. Two conclusions seem to emerge from this experience. On the one hand there are clear advantages to presenting more electronic resources than are strictly needed for teaching and learning purposes. If the theme has been successfully presented, students should be able to explore the issues that surround the theme using the additional available resources. That is precisely what has happened in the first two tutorials, and is a hoped-for outcome of the third and fourth. The implication is that online teaching resources should digitise much more content than they will specifically use. On the other hand, there is no substitute for taking time to understand and rigorously scrutinise the content in use - and the content not used. The conclusion is perhaps rather bland, but it follows from this that the writing of content is a specialist and detailed task that cannot be undertaken without a reasonable investment in time and effort to understand the content. Preparing web-based teaching resources is much more than simply preparing a few web pages. This echoes many of the conclusions of those involved in electronic publishing: production values matter.

Review and evaluation

Review and evaluation of PATOIS materials have been painstaking: there is a proliferation of surveys and questionnaires, and there is little to be gained by completing more. Even so, this has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole project, and is undoubtedly one reason for the relative ease with which the materials have slotted into the curriculum of various institutions. Peer-review has certainly enhanced the quality of the materials, has encouraged a feeling of ownership over the resources and has acted as a means to disseminate the tutorials. It is perhaps the most important recommendation to carry forward into other projects.

If the tutorials are to have any lasting impact, then it stands to reason that they need to be used in a variety of institutions. If the tutorials are to be used in various institutions, then they need to be built into the different curricula that these institutions offer. For that to happen, partners from these organisations need to have a hand in the construction of tutorials. PATOIS is not so much an ADS project as a collaboration of staff at a number of partner institutions. Staff in a variety of institutions have been kind enough to spend time discussing their various needs, providing a 'wish-list' of digital teaching resources. This 'needs analysis' was supported by a brief infrastructure and pedagogical study that described the configuration of current teaching practices and curricula, and revealed the infrastructure available to support the deployment of ICT within institutions. These initial analyses were repeated several times over, and formative evaluation was repeated after development of the first two packs to see how closely our efforts matched the sorts of outcomes that partners expected: evaluation of the third and fourth packs is now in progress.

These analyses created a detailed specification for each tutorial. Classic issues of design were discussed and it was decided that things like consistent navigation, were essential. Though conceptually obvious, this creates tensions where it is the intention to present 'real' datasets to users. There is a trade-off between primary data and the sorts of consistent navigation expected. This has entailed work for the project team, partly to mould the underlying datasets and partly to build an interface through which many different datasets might be presented. Not surprisingly, academic staff wanted to present the tutorials in the context of curricula that already existed rather than having to create whole new courses. It was also apparent that the optimal time for such materials to be introduced came in the second year of undergraduate study. This tends to be the point in the archaeology curriculum just before students start to specialise. It is also a realistic entry point for advanced students in related disciplines, and is easily within reach of most amateur interest groups and a knowledgeable public.

For reasons discussed in more depth below, materials are presented as a structured, formal engagement rather than an open-ended negotiation. The 'needs analysis' spelled out the need for clearly articulated aims and objectives for teaching and learning - students should have a clear and attainable outcome from each tutorial. This marks out the project from others where the aim is to facilitate access through unstructured, but more student-orientated learning. However, because the PATOIS tutorials teach students about how to use the extensive resources of the ADS, unstructured learning is possible.

The idea of a structured engagement raises specific design concerns. The TLTP project realised at an early stage that students disengage from learning if the sole mechanism of presentation is reading what is presented on screen and then clicking through to the next page. Students have little insight into their own understanding of the issues being discussed when it is presented as a simple text. Hypertext does allow limited interactivity: TLTP has also shown that context-sensitive feedback improves greatly the student experience of learning. Feedback allows students to orientate themselves, knowing how far they have gone and how much more they have to do. It also provides affirmation, showing that they have understood the material being presented. PATOIS presents Javascript question and answer sessions throughout the tutorial, and revision questions and answers at the end of each section. In addition, links to external sites are carefully controlled so that we can harness external sources without losing the overall navigation of the website. These, together with clearly stated aims and objectives at the start of each section, are designed to support the student experience of learning.

The 'needs analysis' also ruled out certain approaches. Some of these have already been touched upon, but it was instructive to assess the uses that staff expected to make of the tutorials. Teaching staff had little desire to use the packs for formal assessment, though they would be willing to set exam or essay questions based on them. PATOIS certainly should not attempt to replace the more individualistic style of their own lectures or seminars with homogenised ADS resources. The review and evaluation of the modules showed clearly that staff did not want resources to replace their teaching, but rather to supply resources to support and extend their own goals. Nor for that matter was it sufficient to present large amounts of material and presume that this would be sufficient. It was also clear that the areas PATOIS could support best were areas of ADS expertise.


Last updated: Mon Sep 23 2002

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