4.3 Sustainability

Over the last decade millions of pounds have been spent on learning technology initiatives, not all of which have been successful. For example, the Archaeology TLTP program, set up to create Computer-Aided Learning (CAL) materials for use in undergraduate archaeology teaching, found itself in difficulty due to its reliance on stand-alone programs which quickly became obsolete. Timing perhaps was not on the side of the TLTP program which originated in 1993 before the real advent of the Web. While early discussions about the SCRAN concept three years later initially envisaged the delivery of digitised resources on CD-ROM, the Internet came along as a viable medium just in time for the project to be based on the networked delivery of assets from the start.

SCRAN has aimed to design for sustainability at various levels of its operation - from developing a licensing structure to bring in a viable income stream, to digitising to archival standards to ensure a high resolution copy is always available for the upgrading of network surrogates when possible. From an educational point of view, the decision to make every single digitised item available as a discrete resource through the searchable SCRAN website has been a key factor in future-proofing. Since its inception, SCRAN has supported the development of many articulated materials; that is, resources assembled together for a specific educational purpose such as a multimedia essay. Once an individual resource is embedded within such a package, however, it becomes locked into the particular perspective, subject area, and educational level that the author has defined for it. In adding each individual resource (such as images, sound files and video clips) within packaged materials as a separate item to the searchable SCRAN resource base, SCRAN has aimed to ensure that all resources remain timeless and capable of reuse and repurposing at any level within education.

SCRAN's experience of working with lecturers bears out this demand for versatility. Different meanings are inevitably placed on the same materials by different users. For example, while an archaeology lecturer might focus on the provenance and age of the necklace, the disc and the pin (Figs 52-54), an art college student might use them as the basis for design inspiration, or a language teacher in primary school might draw on them as a stimulus for a composition exercise. Similarly, a geologist, an archaeologist, a botanist and a painter would respond in very different ways to the landscapes in Figs 55-57.

Fifteen beads arranged into a necklace Disc-headed pin Disc
Figure 52: Fifteen beads arranged into a necklace Figure 53: Disc-headed pin Figure 54: Disc
Maol Chean-Dearg A beach, Melness, Sutherland Aerial photograph of the Bay of Firth, Orkney
Figure 55: Maol Chean-Dearg Figure 56: A beach, Melness, Sutherland Figure 57: Aerial photograph of the Bay of Firth, Orkney

Supporting this flexibility of access and interpretation can, however, be problematic. One of the greatest challenges to online resource provision is to make resources easy to find by users with very diverse goals in mind. Most online searching works through text-based keyword searches, such as the Quick Search on SCRAN where you would enter 'broch', for example, to find resources on that topic. Most search engines also support quite a sophisticated syntax to allow users to target their searches more carefully; 'broch not orkney' would eliminate from the search all brochs which are in Orkney, for example.

"One of the greatest challenges to online resource provision is to make resources easy to find by users with very diverse goals in mind"

This seems straightforward enough until you start to address the problem of providing a sufficiently comprehensive description of the resource for it to be picked up by all kinds of users searching from many different perspectives. For example, while SCRAN holds thousands of images of people with interesting hair-styles, a search on 'hair' has relatively poor results, simply because most images of people are not documented with their hair in mind. Another problem results from the fact that a spade may not always be a spade - it could be described as a rake, a fork or a trowel, in which case it would not necessarily be picked up by a search on 'spade'. The captions attached to the SCRAN images depicted in Figures 58 and 59 are another case in point - written by different contributors, they provide very different backgrounds to the resource. Unsurprisingly, research in this area has revealed the subjectivity of human description, by highlighting the diversity of vocabulary that different users attach to the same image (TIRCs 2001) as well as the significant amounts of time involved in documenting individual objects.

Piper and penguin Piper Kerr and emperor penguin
Figure 58: Piper and penguin Figure 59: Piper Kerr and emperor penguin

Work is in progress at SCRAN to improve consistency in the cataloguing of resources and to provide more supportive methods of end-user searching in the future. Indeed much work is being done around the world to develop standards and methods for providing descriptive metadata that will improve retrieval of images (such as the JISC-funded research project FILTER) or to develop novel search techniques, such as content-based image retrieval (Institute for Image Data Research).

Search challenges aside, the logical conclusion to making resources available to the end-user as individual items is for the resource provider to assist users in selecting and organising objects, and constructing their own representations of them. SCRAN's Exhibitor software represents one possibility and the development of other such user-friendly assembly tools will be the focus of developments at SCRAN in the coming months.


Last updated: Wed Aug 28 2002

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