2. Background on education and information technology

2.1 Tutorial teaching and its role in the curriculum

Traditionally, the tutorial has been the cornerstone of undergraduate education at Oxford University, and although few other universities can afford to devote similar levels of resources to their teaching, small-group teaching is nevertheless an essential feature of undergraduate education in the UK. Seminars and tutorials provide opportunities for discussion and debate, ideally with all participants playing an active role. In this respect they are a vital means of supporting students' learning (Marton et al. 1997, 184-97). In small-group teaching, however, we are observing the end and not the process of learning, as most of the thinking and testing comes with private study. The students are at different stages of personal development, their problems and ways of dealing with them are not the same, and their responses to teaching vary (Perry 1981; Boud et al. 1993). Confronted with this situation, the teacher must be a good listener, versatile, and capable of modifying delivery to match the needs of the current class.

First and final-year students have different expectations and requirements of tutorials. Social demands are high in the former group, the main preoccupation being how to assimilate the process of academic discussion. For finalists, greater intellectual demands are uppermost but they now have the confidence and knowledge for quality debate.

Teaching and learning strategies are generally driven by assessment, and at Oxford the tutorials are structured to meet the summative assessment criteria (weekly essays and written exams). This does tend to limit the potential of tutorials for encouraging experimentation. However, we have found that a degree of experimentation is possible, as best suits the needs of individual students for understanding. For example:

2.2 Supporting new students in reading archaeological texts

Before 1950, there was little research into higher education principles. Since then, a considerable databank on student learning has been assembled through extensive interviewing procedures (Brown and Atkins 1988, 150-57). As a result, effective student learning has been re-instated as the heart of educational policy.

The seminal research into student learning was carried out by Marton, Pask and others (Marton and Säljö 1976; Pask 1976; Schmeck 1988; Marton et al. 1997). They used reading an article, which presented a clear argument supported by evidence, as the means to investigate how students approached the task of reading and making sense of the contained information. Surprisingly, most students chose one of two ways, i.e., either a deep or a surface approach, which was independent of discipline. Those choosing the deep approach actively looked for meaning in the text, questioning arguments and relating the new material to previous knowledge and experience. By contrast, the surface learners searched the text for specific facts that they expected to be questioned on and memorised them. Understanding tends to be achieved only through the 'deep' approach, which involves a qualitative change in a person's view of reality.

These choices were never intended to be rigid categories, merely to show that students have a preferred learning style arising from their perceptions of the task, experience and prior knowledge. It is also apparent that students tend to use more than one learning style and that this is influenced by several factors, including the assessment methods used for individual courses, and tutors' attitudes.

Reading illustrated texts

Educational research has concentrated on student appreciation of written texts. What of our abilities at reading and interpreting visual text and understanding the power and influence that imagery and its symbolism can exert on the human mind? Most students arrive at university equipped with good reading skills but limited visual literacy. Imagery is a broad category, ranging from natural objects and pictures, to symbols, mental images, reconstructions of reality and projections (Avgerinou and Ericson 1997), making a critical familiarity with this medium essential.

"...students must be textually, visually and numerically literate, as well as capable of critical analysis"

Archaeology has developed highly sophisticated and stylised techniques for recording and evaluating evidence. Reconstruction is the principal means of interpreting this evidence and presenting it as an immediately accessible insight into past activities. There are accepted guidelines for genres within the discipline; from English Heritage's guidelines on preparing archives, to textbooks and syntheses of regions and periods. To appreciate these modes of conveying information, students must be textually, visually and numerically literate, as well as capable of critical analysis.

Using essay writing as the chief means of learning in the tutorial system reinforces a student's reliance on the printed word. This can be limiting for first year students who lack practical and field experience and have yet to learn the diverse ways of presenting archaeological material evidence, much of it visual.

Interpretative illustrations of the evidence may strongly influence and shape (academic) attitudes to the past. Too often, the visual prompts in the original reports that give rise to these reconstructions of events have been interpreted as objective records, rather than subjective re-creations of material culture (Molyneaux 1997). Some archaeologists even reject traditional methods of presentation, as Tilley (1994) does for representing settlement patterns with distribution maps and plans, because of the false sense of objectivity they project.

A recent article on a Mesolithic settlement at Fife Ness, Scotland, illustrates the complex role that images can play in enhancing the meaning of written text (Wickham-Jones and Dalland 1998). The excavation and finds from this site are reported and both traditional site plans and a searchable database of stone tools are included. Further, there is a detailed analysis and discussion of the stone artefacts of the settlement in relation to others found in Scotland, and the article concludes with two artistic interpretations of the site. The term artistic is used cautiously, as Mary Kemp-Clarke drew the reconstruction, but the site plan remains unattributed. This division of labour is common in archaeology, as fieldwork is carried out by teams, with specific tasks allotted to individuals. Elaborate reconstructions are created after excavation and analysis have taken place, and in this case the illustration has built upon the authors' analyses to show flint tools being made and in use. The wind-break, the hearth, and the activities of fishing and hunting birds are not represented in the excavation. Also significant is the family group: a woman and children getting on with life in a period where the image of 'Man the Hunter', although no longer dominant, is still prominent.

As a further example: when viewing Greek Painted Pottery archives (e.g., the Beazley Archive, and collections made available through the Perseus Digital Library), students need to be aware not only of how such an unprovenanced artefact can be dated, the artist identified, and insight into many different aspects of daily life in Classical Athens revealed by this highly refined visual language, but also how totally different meanings, if any, might be conveyed to non-Greeks, moderns and others not in the original and intended audience.

These are simple examples showing how new students can be encouraged to take a more critical approach to reading archaeological texts. All this can be confusing for the student. Students new to archaeology would be greatly assisted by having simple frameworks for interpreting images and illustrations within texts, giving them the tools with which to extract the meanings embedded in these visuals and make comparisons with similar information derived from accompanying texts. Our workshop on using the Internet, images and archaeology was devised to investigate problems in visual literacy like this, and to explore the general topic of the use of images in archaeology education.

2.3 Using C&IT in tutorial and other teaching

Reilly and Rahtz's survey (1992) shows that, even ten years ago, C&IT had widespread application in archaeology, totally transforming practice. A more recent survey by the Archaeology Data Service shows that computing in archaeology is standard practice (Condron et al. 1999). Curricula have had to adapt to ensure that students are equipped with the skills necessary to work with the results of archaeological research, so that they can join the profession. In the past twenty years there have been several major initiatives seeking to extend the use of electronic resources in archaeology education. These have provided both new learning resources (for example the multimedia courseware developed as part of the TLTP (Teaching and Learning Technology Programme) initiative, Campbell 1995, and more recently resources by the Archaeology Data Service), and support for academics in creating and using C&IT in teaching in general (for example the former Computers in Teaching Initiative, and the current Learning and Teaching Support Network).

Many more projects have taken a generic approach to the use of C&IT in university education, again most notably through the TLTP initiative. One of these is the ASTER project, a recently completed investigation into how electronic resources can support small-group teaching across a range of disciplines. Condron was a researcher for ASTER, and the case studies documented in this article contributed to the ASTER project. ASTER could only make general comments about the use of C&IT in tutorial and seminar teaching, as there were too few case studies for individual disciplines to gather an overview of subject-specific practices. It is still difficult for researchers to find evidence of innovative teaching practices, as there are limited opportunities for academics to advertise or publish their teaching, and any rewards are based on archaeological research. Guidelines for the most recent Research Assessment Exercise carried out in the UK (April 2001) stated that:

Teaching materials are admissible if they can be shown to embody research outputs within the RAE definition, but the preparation of teaching material in itself is not accepted as a research activity for the purposes of the RAE.
Guidance for Panel Members, section 2.24.

and the results of teaching and learning development programmes may not be recognised as relevant research:

A department has elected to participate in activities funded by the HE funding bodies, e.g. by assigning a member of staff to the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, which reduces the research output of that individual.
Guidance for Panel Members, section 2.26.

Using or extending C&IT in education is an expensive exercise and requires much time and effort on the part of staff and students to make the changes effective. There is, as yet, limited evidence for students benefiting from the use of electronic resources in university teaching, though surely considerable support amongst academics for exploring how they can be used most effectively.

2.4 The Internet as a teaching resource

Archaeology is a highly visual subject as excavated evidence is interpreted mainly through reconstruction. It is this interpretative nature of archaeology through language and visual expression that is so formative of public opinion and influential in resisting change. The Internet is fast becoming the medium of choice for presenting these reconstructions to the world, as the images can be produced relatively easily, cheaply and, above all, communicated everywhere instantaneously.

The Internet is an ideal storage medium, especially for images, providing us with easy access to a wide range of data and opinion, and an invaluable resource for our teaching (our workshop explores the range of images currently available online in more detail). It is beneficial to learning, provided that the evidence remains freely available to corroborate the interpretation offered. The outcome of our peer observation and case studies revealed that students have difficulty understanding the basics of the discipline and assessing so much information, in the light of their very limited knowledge. Some guidance is required in order to enable students to develop their critical and interpretive skills by recognising the theoretical and methodological bases of reconstructions and detect bias, as attractive presentations can be seductive.

The Web provides access to digital resources and technologies that can be used in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research. The sheer wealth and diversity of material is both a strength and a challenge of the Web, as it requires users to acquire specific searching skills and to be selective and critical readers. One encounters a far wider range of material online than in libraries, which can be taken advantage of in many ways. Online texts can also present challenges to readers expecting to encounter material in a linear fashion. Internal and external links provide multiple paths through a document, enabling flexible use of the material but this is also potentially disorienting, especially for readers unfamiliar with the subject matter being discussed.

Resources on the Web may be grouped into the following categories, all of which can vary enormously in quality:


Students (and staff) will need support in finding and accessing Web resources, both if they are new to the discipline, and if the Web resources require special plug-ins. Finding and evaluating online material can initially be very time consuming and frustrating, though these are important skills to have and should transfer to other areas of students' work. A parallel problem is that some students may use the Web as a first point of call for coursework, yet they may be uncritical of the material they find online. The Humbul Humanities Hub provides a catalogue of peer-reviewed Web resources for UK higher education, though there is as yet no catalogue documenting how Web resources have been used for teaching.

Plagiarism is a problem, both for staff creating Web sites, and students copying information without referencing their sources. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) has funded several projects across the UK on the problem of plagiarism and the Web, and is in the process of establishing a new support service in this area.

2.5 Assessment

Ideally, a variety of methods should be available to test the wide range of student abilities, based on agreed and reliable criteria which are fair, and measure only capability at understanding. Task-involving evaluation (formative) is more effective than ego-involving assessment (summative) for learning (Black and Wiliam 1998).

Formative assessment is more in keeping with the aims of education, namely, a personal understanding of reality. We derive meaning by interacting critically with what we are learning, actively seeking connections between ideas, and changing the way we experience the world. The duty of the teacher is to create the conditions in which understanding is possible, as undergraduates are learning about the world indirectly through the descriptions of others (Laurillard 1993). Understanding may be demonstrated when knowledge is applied to a new situation. It can thus be measured, at least qualitatively (White and Gunstone 1992).

Feedback may provide the information on performance essential for improved learning (Hounsell et al. 1997; Black and Wiliam 1998; Torrance and Pryor 1998). For the process to be formative, two sequential actions must be taken by the student:

  1. a gap must be perceived between the desired goal and the present state of knowledge or understanding
  2. action must be taken by the learner to close this gap, to attain the desired goal.

The teacher is there to discern and interpret the gap. The key factor in formative assessment is clear goals that are realistic but challenging, achievable, and understood by everyone through negotiation. Goal mismatch can, however, be a major obstacle to learning.

Good teaching is essential to effective learning but how might this be evaluated and improved? Peer observation, in conjunction with feedback, reflection and discussion, provides a useful opportunity to explore individual teaching practice in depth. Instant feedback is an advantage and changes can be quickly tested and implemented. As monitoring one's own teaching effectively is difficult, the comments of a disinterested outsider are invaluable.

The tutorial, where face-to-face interaction occurs between one or two students and their teacher, seems to be the best means of achieving both good teaching and effective learning. Thoughtful incorporation of C&IT into teaching may, however, provide other learners with a good approximation of the tutorial situation.


Last updated: Wed Aug 21 2002

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