5. Reality bites in the classroom

As noted, various institutions have used PATOIS in their own curricula, and have reported a variety of successes and failures in doing so. On the whole the reactions have been positive, but the experiences tend at this stage to be anecdotal; it will take some time for a more consistent narrative to develop. Even so, the PATOIS team has been struck by the range of learning styles that students employ, by the range of settings in which learning occurs, and by the number of institutions that have used the tutorials.

How students learn

Research on how students learn recognises different styles, and that different styles of learning can produce different results. Entwistle, for example, describes the difference between student approaches to learning and how staff hope that students learn (Entwistle 1997). He notes that students display broadly three different approaches to learning. These may present themselves simultaneously in the same student at the same time, depending on the learning task being undertaken.

'Surface learning' presents itself as a simple survival skill: an ability to cope with the demands of the course. It is characterised by an ability to recall salient facts, and repeat given topics, but a relative inability to question authorities or generate and support alternative hypotheses. The consequences are difficulty in making sense of new or competing ideas, and a certain degree of pressure and anxiety about study. In contrast, academics want students to betray the characteristics of 'deep learning', which stretches beyond critical thinking to a more generalised self-critique and awareness of the sociology of knowledge. It is characterised by an active interest in a course and its content, and a willingness to challenge received views of important topics. Allied to these two approaches is a more subtle 'strategic approach'. In deploying a strategic approach, students gear their efforts to the perceived preferences of their teaching staff. Strategic learning is characterised by a desire to obtain the rewards of assessment and evaluation as a form of self-fulfilment, discarding tasks that are not perceived as producing immediate rewards. Consequently, strategic learners can present themselves as deep learners at the right times, and thus obtain the rewards which accrue, but only if the assessment mechanism genuinely rewards deep learning. Strategic learning includes knowledge of how to learn when it is necessary. It also places assessment at the heart of academic endeavour for staff and students alike, since if the assessments do not genuinely reward deep learning, then students are unlikely to achieve the intellectual self-determination which lecturers, particularly in arts and humanities disciplines, regard most highly. Worse still, if assessment is poorly framed it may encourage surface learning, and thus undermine entirely the academic's own perception of the project of higher education.

This compressed diversion into educational psychology is worthwhile, since anecdotal evidence shows that PATOIS has supported different approaches to learning. Only a much more detailed and perceptive analysis can sustain the conclusion that these represent deep, surface and strategic learning in the terms that Entwistle describes. However, the observed behaviour of students shows that different approaches were taken. In at least one case there was strong evidence of strategic learning, when students pursued numerous questions on the tutorial in response to assessment. In another case, one student deviated from the main thrust of the tutorial, indulging in a more engaged reading of the related links that contextualised the tutorial. There may be many reasons behind this, but it is also the sort of self-determined engagement characteristic of deep learning. As Ramsden notes, 'lack of interest in the material studied, or a failure to perceive relevance in it was related with a surface approach, while interest was related to a deep approach' (Ramsden 1997, 201). In this case, it is worth concluding that the tutorial was at least not at odds with a deep approach. The real trick, however, would be to encourage both the ambition and skills of those engaged in superficial approaches to engage in a deeper analysis. This is not easy since the sorts of multiple-choice questions to which we were restricted risk rewarding rote learning. Consequently, the observation of students engaged in different learning styles is very important. Provisionally, the design and subject matter of the tutorials, and the way in which they are deployed by staff shows that PATOIS can support deep and strategic approaches to learning.

The contexts of good and bad learning

"Students are astute judges of teaching materials - they are aware of the sorts of skills they would like to develop, and are not easily put off if they can see an obvious gain for themselves"

It seems the accepted wisdom of students that university IT labs are not good places to learn. This is not to say that computer-based learning is inappropriate as much as to say that IT labs can provide major distractions over which the students have no control. One striking feature that research for the PATOIS project made apparent is the range of computing facilities available to university students. On one occasion students were presented with a PATOIS tutorial in a completely new facility, early in the academic year during serious disruption to the network. This ought to have been a disaster for the tutorial, and as the session continued it became clear that students were being forced to work hard simply to maintain access to the resources. Unexpectedly, however, this particular group responded admirably, distinguishing the troubles they were having with the network from the learning experience, content and objectives they were working towards. It is certainly true that few of the students completed the tutorial, but this seems to have had a perverse effect: of all the groups who worked through the tutorial, feedback indicated this particular group was the one most likely to return to it. Access statistics broadly confirm the view that they did indeed return, and have made a small but discernible change to the ADS user profile. A flippant conclusion may be that universities would benefit from a little more network disruption. A more realistic conclusion, however, is to suggest that students are astute judges of teaching materials. They are aware of the sorts of skills they would like to develop, and are not easily put off if they can see an obvious gain for themselves.

In contrast, one group were presented with the second section of a tutorial without having been presented with the introductory section. Entry points for the tutorials are restricted and one of the designated starting points was selected by the group. Both sections had already been through rigorous scrutiny, and had been deployed without any serious problems in two other institutions. However, on this occasion the teacher involved reported that the students reported feeling lost, that they were disorientated and largely unable to complete the tutorial. This came as an unwelcome surprise to the PATOIS team because the careful preliminary evaluation had not shown this to be a problem. The only practical explanation for the divergence of experiences was that the amount of time students spent in the tutorial working through section one seems to orient the students, who then are confident and self-assured in the second section. This would explain why no such problems were reported in first evaluations.

In conclusion, the contexts in which good learning takes place are unpredictable, especially when network technology is used. This is an area where, surprisingly, there is little research among archaeologists and heritage managers, considering the large amounts of money currently being spent developing networked teaching resources.

Not made here

It has been particularly gratifying that the tutorials have been deployed in a number of different institutions and to a variety of different audiences. Undergraduates at four universities have used the first two packs as parts of their curriculum, and taught postgraduate courses at two other institutions have used them also. The coming academic year should see that increase. This level of use may seem small, but at the start of the project we were very concerned in case we suffered from the so-called 'not made here' syndrome. Universities are right to protect their own teaching and learning, since they are ultimately responsible for the degrees they award. The conferring of degrees is no light undertaking, so universities are often slow to entrust teaching and learning to outsiders. There are a number of reasons peculiar to this case that may explain why universities are willing to use PATOIS. This is perhaps a key consideration for others undertaking similar activities in the future.

In the first instance, the ADS was founded as a consortium of universities. It is a national service funded for and by the education sector, is staffed by researchers and academics, and is based in a university archaeology department. To that extent the ADS is part of an established infrastructure that members of staff recognise and to which they can relate. Many of the institutions that have used PATOIS - though not all - have a role in managing the affairs of the ADS and so do not view the ADS as an outside agency at all. Indeed, many of the staff involved are among the most active stakeholders in the ADS. This sense of community ownership of the ADS is a very basic but very powerful antidote to the 'not made here' syndrome that we feared at the outset. The PATOIS tutorials are not the work of the PATOIS team alone; they represent a great deal of work by a great many people working together to develop useful tools for research teaching and learning in archaeology.

On a more practical level, the tutorials are actively supported and promoted by the ADS itself. For several years now, the ADS has offered demonstrations of its resources for students and researchers in every university archaeology department in the UK. These offers have resulted in a variety of invitations to speak to staff, students, researchers and administrators in many different universities. As well as talking to researchers, the ADS can now readily extend that provision to undergraduate courses by directing students to PATOIS and the tutorials available there. The relationship between PATOIS and the ADS's outreach and communications activities is very strong. It provides a very real possibility of students having a PATOIS tutorial supplemented by an invited lecture or seminar from a member of the ADS. This practical support to the tutorials may make the difference to their long-term success.

Even without this supportive environment, there are two inherent aspects of the pedagogy that make PATOIS attractive. The ADS is one of the lead bodies for standards development in electronic resources for archaeology. It also supports a vast and expanding set of resources to help researchers. It also validates technical aspects of applications to major grant-giving bodies, it writes guides to good practice and is on the advisory committees of numerous projects and initiatives. The academic sector routinely looks to the ADS as a source of data and for advice about standards; these are the themes covered in PATOIS. The ADS user community would be very surprised if the ADS started giving advice about the Bronze Age or how to prepare a radiocarbon sample. PATOIS does not attempt to teach all aspects of archaeology, only that part of archaeology about which the authors have expert knowledge such as digital archives or data standards. Moreover, because these resources are inherently concerned with computer technology, the computer is an appropriate medium for supporting that learning; indeed it would be hard to imagine presenting these materials in any other way. Thus, even without the supporting environment, there are reasons why PATOIS should be attractive. Congruence between the themes and the method of delivery work to the advantage of the tutorials.

Disseminating teaching and learning resources is hard work. TLTP showed that, even with a very wide consortium it can be difficult to persuade partners to use resources that they have not created themselves. There are particular reasons why PATOIS is relatively well placed, but these would not be sufficient to ensure long-term success. There is still a lot of work to do, and it is far too soon to suggest that the work of dissemination has been a success. If it is a success, then this will partly be because of the narrow scope of subject matter and partly because, in this case, the medium suits the message.


Last updated: Mon Sep 23 2002

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