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5.0 Looking for answers…

Kelly (2001) describes his dilemma as a 'previously uncritical promoter' of new media in the classroom, who realised that he actually didn't know whether using online materials helped his university students to learn introductory history better. So he designed a year-long classroom experiment comparing groups of students who used the same readings, but in different media. The results? Students using online texts displayed 'a higher level of recursive reading' than the control group using conventional texts; carefully placed hyperlinks between material covered later in the course (Marx) and material covered earlier in the course (Locke and Hobbes) apparently did encourage students to form connections between eras and 'think like a historian'.

This is the sort of information that is good to have8. However, such experiments are time-consuming to design and evaluate, and can be awkward to implement, and so I wouldn't suggest that all interested public archaeologists should necessarily do the same. It may be actually impossible when dealing with a general public audience rather than a cohort of students — feedback is not easy to obtain. But as more and more research is being done on topics like these, we can simply reap the benefits of others' labour; there is enough information available now that we may be able to derive many design principles from others' work.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, hypermedia is a strange hybrid that has emerged from developments from many fields (Cotton and Oliver 1997, 11). It seems logical, then, that broad consultation may help us to understand it more.

There is abundant relevant literature in educational psychology, hypertext theory, Web usability, museum studies, human-computer interaction, adult education, sociology/ethnography of cyberspace, information design, and philosophy of information. In the interests of concision, here I will only discuss educational psychology, and that only briefly. Many recent publications in this area are relevant to the specific challenges of representing archaeological information online. Researchers in this field have recently looked at everything from how people's beliefs about knowledge form and change, to exactly how people read and remember. Some questions that have been tackled during the last several years are as follows:

This is merely a smattering of research questions, the answers to which aren't simple and can't be effectively summarised here but are extremely relevant to our endeavours. But here's one fascinating recent experimental result to mull over: Readers are much more likely to judge a statement as true if it's printed in a highly visible colour against a white background, than if it's printed in a less visible colour (Reberl and Schwarz 1999). This is the kind of specialist information we might like to know if we're consciously working with the concept of 'truth', as archaeologists often must.

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