Editorial - Keeping the Learning in Computer-Based Learning

William Kilbride* and Michael Reynier**

Cite this as: Kilbride, W. and Reynier, M. 2002 Editorial - Keeping the Learning in Computer-Based Learning, Internet Archaeology 12. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.12.17

Political rhetoric about knowledge economies and learning societies really ought to be an educationalist's dream. Add to that the revolutionary power of electronic media, and an insatiable hunger for archaeology among the public, archaeology teaching should be well placed to flourish. In England, the Department for Culture Media and Sport has just closed its call for interest in the multi-million pound Culture Online programme. The New Opportunities Fund has already spent fifty million pounds on digitisation alone, while the Heritage Lottery Fund is encouraging heritage agencies to distribute their data sets online. The JISC continues to expand its information environment, investing most recently in virtual learning environments. In Europe, the 6th Framework promises a single European Research Area, and grid technologies allow high quantities of data to empower an information society - supported by the millions of euros already invested in 'e-content'. All of these programmes, and many many more, provide openings for archaeologists to invest in training, teaching and learning.

How can archaeology, in particular staff and students in our educational establishments, take best advantage of this information-rich, digitally-empowered learning society?

In 2000 the LTSN Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology conducted a Needs Analysis survey on staff teaching archaeology in UK Higher Education (Grant and Reynier 2001). Among the questions posed was one asking what types of teaching (lectures, seminars, group work etc.) staff currently used. The majority of respondents (in a sample of c.20% of all teaching staff) reported that they used an array of teaching methods chiefly comprising lectures (c. 95%), seminars (c. 86%), student presentations (c. 80%), fieldwork (c. 75%) and laboratory work (74%). Those staff who reported using computer- or web-based teaching methods measured 37%, the lowest of any of the teaching methods cited.

These figures might have been taken as a salutary warning that computer-based learning (CBL) was not taking off in archaeology, as it perhaps has done in other disciplines. But to think this would be wrong. In a follow up question staff were asked which types of teaching they wanted to develop in the future. Predictably, the numbers of staff wanting to develop their core teaching methods were much lower. Twenty-nine per cent wanted to improve their lectures and less than 10% wanted to enhance their fieldwork teaching. But well over half of the sample (c. 58% ) reported that they wanted to develop computer-based learning (Grant and Reynier 2001). In fact CBL, was the only teaching method where more staff wanted to develop it as part of their teaching than were already using it.

So there are good grounds for targeting the development of CBL in archaeology, and all the more reason to welcome the present publication. But just as it is wrong to interpret a lack of practice with a want of interest in the case of CBL, it would also be wrong to equate the desire to develop CBL teaching with a guaranteed improvement in student learning. There are as many studies showing a decline, or at least a flat line, in the student experience as there are pointing to an improvement following the introduction of CBL. Of course in some cases reverses in student learning result from the fundamental misconception of what CBL is. Thankfully we are leaving behind us the era where to post your lecture notes on the university intranet made you an 'online teacher'.

But the jury is still out on how successful the 'all singing, all dancing' resource has been. Some studies in the UK report that students are spending on average only fifteen to thirty minutes interacting with resources that have taken months to generate at huge financial cost (Cann 1999). While there are growing doubts about whether the students who do stay the course are actually learning, or are simply being amused.

All this may seem unnecessarily negative. But perhaps the pendulum of CBL is beginning to settle. From online lecture notes to 'edutainment' perhaps we are only now beginning to find our way to harness the vast potential of the computer for effective, deep learning. And, perhaps to our surprise, it has as much to do with what the student does away from the computer, as what goes on in the 'cyberversity'.

At the heart of the matter are two truths. Firstly, students want, like, need and above all expect contact with staff. (Monteith and Smith 2001). CBL may have been caught in pedagogical misunderstanding, with staff seeing online resources as central to the learning experience, while students understand it to be 'added on' value, a non-essential educational perk, with the main learning still coming directly from the lecturer.

Secondly, learning is most effective where some element of application is present (Kolb 1984). For many students 'getting it' means 'doing it'. Again, there may be confusion here. For many archaeologists 'doing it' means getting your hands dirty; measuring artefacts, using surveying equipment, digging or analysing chemical materials. With most departments possessing teaching collections, laboratories and analytical equipment, it just doesn't make sense to translate this part of learning to CBL. It does make sense, however, to use the power of computers to do the one thing that can't be done in the department: reconstruct the past. No surprise, then, that virtual reality has taken up a lot of time and resource in archaeology CBL.

"Appreciation is not the same as understanding. To understand the past, to learn about it, there is no substitute for real experience."

Ironically, however, it may be the use of some digital resources in the educational context that has promoted the sense of CBL as 'added value', marginal or 'a bit of fun' for many students and not the effective learning tool the lecturer intended. This is not to denigrate their value: in some cases they are vital to our appreciation of the past. But appreciation is not the same as understanding. To understand the past, to learn about it, there is no substitute for RE - real experience.

These insights are not particularly novel and it is encouraging to read in the pages of this issue that many new CBL projects work hard to get the balance of activity and medium right. But what about the rest of us? Those of us who did, initially, paste our lecture notes on to the web and were proud to be engaging with the new technology suddenly feel out of our depth; those of us with ideas but neither project grants nor the willingness of colleagues to invest the time necessary? What initially seemed a fairly simple teaching method has proved to be more complex. We've forgotten something along the digital highway: that point about good teaching being all about staff contact and hands-on experience.

Don't misunderstand the point of this argument: it is very far from being a Luddite nostalgia for the 'good old days'. It is about ensuring that we concentrate on the 'learning' in computer-based learning, and not let the 'computer-based' bit mesmerise us. As well as websites, images and animations, the web also gives us access to huge stores of real archaeological data. Measurements, chemical breakdowns, finds catalogues, SMRs. It's all being formatted for long term preservation, much of it available from the Archaeology Data Service (ADS). The ADS is about archaeology, data and service - and the prime consumers of that service are the people who pay for it: researchers, staff and students in higher and further education.

The possibilities are limitless. But for illustration, imagine having your students download a data set of measurements made from Palaeolithic bifaces from Africa, Europe and Asia (this data, and much more, is already available through the ADS). The data set can be made to be different for each student, or the same for the whole group. Still on their computers you can ask them to plot length against breadth for different geographical regions. Are there differences? How might you explain them? Do your findings confirm or confound so-and-so's theory? Calculate the mean weight and standard deviation of bifaces at site X and site Y. What do the means tell you? What do the standard deviations tell you? Do you think the same human group made each set? And so on.

In making use of digital research data in this way computers allow students to interact with real archaeological data that they would normally find hard to access, giving students the opportunity to develop and practice key archaeological skills on interesting and important sites. Staff, too, can gain. The data are renewable (no fears that one false click could scramble years of your work and definitively no hours wasted making up 'false data') and it can be adapted to suit the needs of individual programmes (it is worth emphasizing this point since the 'not made here' argument is one of the most commonly used excuses not to use teaching resources, and one that certainly inhibited the uptake of the archaeology TLTP software, in spite of the very wide consortium involved in their creation). It can also, if required, be used again and again, either with slightly different data or with precisely the same data for each cohort.

The articles in this issue show some of the very best recent applications of computer-based learning in archaeology, and collectively provide vital guidance (reminders?) for those in the survey that wanted to extend their knowledge. These projects describe learning first and foremost, then technology and its application second. Covering all sectors of education from primary through to professional development, a number of themes emerge. On one hand, the Internet does unexpected things to the contexts of learning, but we should be careful to ensure that these contexts are well managed. On the other hand, computer-based learning seems to thrive in contexts where there is already an independent digital resource available. It is remarkable that none of the authors here go into much detail about digitising content - in most cases they find new outlets for existing materials. However, there is a temptation to confuse digital content for education, and this should be resisted or both will be stifled.

Other articles remind us that there is a clear relationship between the skills of the workforce and the skills that they are taught in university. Attitudes to life-long learning on one hand and career professional development on the other mean that long perceived divisions between academic and professional archaeology may in fact be less obvious than is often thought.

"Computer-based learning needn't be computer-centred learning."

Most of the articles here show the contexts of good learning are not always easily managed on the Internet, but are critical to the teaching and learning process. In one case, differences in time zone between teacher and learner lead to unexpected problems for a curriculum (Lohse et al.). In another case, it is argued that for computer-based learning to be effective, there has to be a certain congruence between the content and the medium, and a very detailed understanding of the sorts of infrastructure and equipment available to the students, all of which drives towards a necessity for technical standards (Kilbride et al.). Computers are not always the most appropriate means to teach - but deployed wisely they can support many diverse teaching methods, such as small group teaching, field trips, and role-play (e.g. Catling and Rankin, Moorhead, Wace and Condron). Computer-based learning needn't be computer-centred learning.

It is clear that the Internet and communications technology generally take control of the contexts of learning from the teacher. If not appreciated adequately, this can cause problems, but it also creates the potential for students to establish their own contexts for learning. Any threat posed is further offset by the ability to present complex and rich data sets. Data-driven teaching can make some of the most complex and at times intractable data sets "come alive" for students, at all levels. Research and learning are brought closer together insofar as students at all levels may end up using the same sorts of resources as leading practitioners: it is the activity and the degree of contextual support that differs. So, some data sets may be mediated, with rich and self-contained content (such as Johnson, Catling and Rankin, Moorhead). Others may be more open ended, providing the tools for students to investigate and explore more freely (Lohse et al., Mowat, Kilbride et al.). In each case, the learning tasks are only preliminary, and the basic data source is not exhausted.

The projects reported here stand out because in every case the author has been asked to consider very carefully the real learning outcomes of their projects and how the tools they have created could have worked out differently. None of the authors here have presented a web site or database without describing precisely and thoughtfully the ways in which such resources have impacted on teaching. This should be a sine qua non of all this investment in learning technology, but it is often overlooked. There remains a real danger that, in the rush for content, we fail to undertake the vital step of turning data into information. We would do well to remember Laurillard's warning that not all learners are ready to be researchers (1995). In the digital age, good teaching will remain a balancing act between open-ended research and structured engagement.

"There remains a real danger that, in the rush for content, we fail to undertake the vital step of turning data into information - good teaching will remain a balancing act between open-ended research and structured engagement."

Research skills remain problematic, even after many years of practical experience. Archaeology has always relied on diverse and at times obscure skill sets among its practitioners. There is wide acceptance that this is one of the attractions of the discipline, but there is less certainty as to how that should be described. Collis argues that field workers need to find a more rigorous programme of career development, and that this could be facilitated by a better understanding of the skills that they already have. Consequently, an agreed matrix of skills and expertise could help fieldworkers and others chart not just the size of the profession but also the relative strengths and weaknesses of the skill set available. Along similar lines, Aitchison has mapped the abrupt and material changes encountered by professional archaeology in the last thirty years. The need for training that he discusses has recently been tackled by a relatively new body, the Archaeology Training Forum, and is placed here in the context of the professional standards of the Institute of Field Archaeologists.

And what is this all for? Where does this take us? Why bother teaching or learning archaeology at all? In an important article, Copeland feels his way towards an unexpected answer. He points out a basic symmetry between the political desire to inform students about citizenship and the heritage sector's interest in teaching students. This symmetry suggests that teaching students about the historic environment is not just about old buildings or monuments: it is more fundamentally about how students live in the world. Echoing much recent discussion of the historic environment as a force for the future and the power of place to combat social exclusion (also see Ward this issue), Copeland reminds us that our responsibilities are not just to conserve the past: good archaeology teaching should also be conversant with political, social and economic realities of the present. In Copeland's argument we return to the political rhetoric with which we started. Even so, before we can exploit the opportunities these investments give, we may need to remind our political masters that archaeology is about more than the relict horizons of human endeavour.

"Teaching students about the historic environment is not just about old buildings or monuments: it is more fundamentally about how students live in the world"

There is much that can be done to support learning in archaeology, and this issue of Internet Archaeology is a useful and practical example of the kinds of resources we need. But what it comes down to is this: data-driven CBL is something all teaching staff can do. No great technical expertise is required. It can fulfil a wide range of the skills identified in the archaeology benchmark document. And best of all, students see it as an integral part of their learning, not as 'added value'. In short, data-driven CBL comes a lot closer to being the efficient and engaging way to learn we had all hoped for in the 1990s. Better late than never.


Cann, A.J. 1999. 'Approaches to the evaluation of on-line learning materials'. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 36(1), 44-52.

Grant, A and Reynier, M.J. 2001. 'Teaching Archaeology, now and in the future: the role of the LTSN Subject Centre'. In (Rainbird P. and Hamilakis Y. eds.)Interrogating Pedagogies: Archaeology in Higher Education. British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 948, 29-35.

Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Laurillard, D., 1995 'Multimedia and the changing experience of the learner', British Journal of Educational Technology 26, 179-89.

Monteith, M. and Smith, J. 2001. 'Learning in a virtual campus: the pedagogical implications of students' experiences.' Innovations in Education and Teaching International 38(2), 119-127.

* William Kilbride
User Services Manager
Archaeology Data Service
Department of Archaeology
University of York
King's Manor
York YO1 7EP
Phone: +44 (0)1904 433954
Fax: +44 (0)1904 433939
Email: wgk1@york.ac.uk

** Michael Reynier
Archaeology Co-ordinator
College House
University of Leicester
Leicester LE1 7RH
Tel: +44 (0)116 252 5040
Email: mjr19@leicester.ac.uk


Last updated: Mon Jul 29 2002

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