Sharing expertise in the use of information and communication technology to enhance teaching and learning in the humanities

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Frances Condron

    Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University

  2. 2. Helen Beetham

    Education - Open University, Language Studies - Open University

  3. 3. Catherine Bennett

    Psychology - University of York

  4. 4. Peter Twining

    Education - Open University, Language Studies - Open University

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Sharing expertise in the use of information and
communication technology to enhance teaching and learning in the

Humanities Computing Unit University of

Faculty of Education and Language Studies The
Open University

Dept of Psychology University of York

Faculty of Education and Language Studies The
Open University


New York University

New York, NY




digital library

The ASTER project (Assisting Small-group Teaching through Electronic
Resources) is a collaboration between the universities of Oxford, Surrey and
York (lead site), and University College Northampton. It is funded by the
Higher Education Funding Council for England, through the Teaching and
Learning Technology Programme phase 3. Since autumn 1998, ASTER has been
exploring how new technologies can support staff and students to make better
use of small-group teaching, be it as tutorials, seminars, workshops,
laboratories or other practical classes. This demonstration will introduce
two aspects of ASTER's work:
1. Findings from the survey of the use of information and
communication technologies to support small group teaching in a
range of humanities and other disciplines.
2. ASTER's collaboration with other projects in the UK to create a
prototype digital library of case studies.

1. The ASTER survey ()
In 1999, ASTER undertook a series of surveys in UK higher education
institutions to identify good practice in the use of new technologies for
small-group teaching. We were interested in the tools and resources being
used, and the contextual factors which determine the success or otherwise of
implementing new technologies in teaching and learning. Another key issue
was to identify disciplinary differences, and to explore why these came
about. A questionnaire was sent out by email to thousands of academics in
Britain and beyond; 40 academics were interviewed by telephone; 30 case
studies were carried out in 1999 and 2000. The case studies cover a range of
subjects: archaeology, art, chemistry, classics, engineering, english,
mathematics, physics, psychology, theology. The case studies and reports
from the surveys are available from the ASTER Web site ().
Findings show that a range of C&IT tools is being used before, within,
and after classes, to support and enhance dialogue between students and
tutors. Moreover, there are disciplinary differences in the choice of tools
used to support teaching and learning. While some digital resources act as a
medium through which dialogue occurs (communication tools such as email,
chat and discussion lists), the majority of the ASTER case studies document
indirect support. Computer-mediated communication, and the communications
features of virtual learning environments, directly support dialogue, and
are popular in the arts, humanities, and psychology, though ASTER found
minimal use by physicists and chemists. Multimedia tutorials (often
providing introductions to subjects) and simulations, where available, can
ensure that students have sufficient skills to continue with the course -
thus they are popular in physics and engineering, covering mathematics;
language drillers are used to support vocabulary acquisition and grammar,
but not widely used in English literature or fine art, for example. The
ASTER survey found that students were directed to multimedia tutorials for
independent study, freeing up face-to-face meetings for more advanced
discussion. Finally, preparatory readings may be accessed via the Web,
through a Virtual Learning Environment, or on CD-ROM. Such resources offer
limited support for dialogue, though they are popular in the arts,
humanities and psychology (and presumably the social sciences); limited use
was made of such resources to support undergraduate teaching in the physical
These differences in the use of new technologies to support small-group
teaching are a result of several interconnecting factors. An obvious reason
is that the subject content of any resource needs to fit the course being
taught, and digital resources are not currently available to cover all
university courses! However, we found that other factors are at play.
Discussion classes are vital to support students' acquisition of subject
expertise and jargon, and to engage in academic discourse, both verbal and
written. However, opportunities for discussion between students and tutors
are reliant on the balance of teaching methods used (lectures, practicals,
seminars etc.), and class size, both of which vary between disciplines and
institutions. Electronic tools can support discussion, mediating between
individuals, though previous experience in using tools either for research
or teaching by students and tutors influences their perception of the value
of these tools.
The ASTER project attempts to pull together these areas of research in
teaching practice and the use of new technologies. While the ASTER survey
has not been able to gather information on teaching practices across entire
institutions, or nationally for all departments in a given subject area, it
has nevertheless revealed differences in teaching practices between
disciplines. These differences are not clear cut, the number of ASTER case
studies is relatively small, and our findings cannot be taken as
representative of UK higher education as a whole. However, they raise issues
that deserve further attention (ASTER 2000 and Condron 2001 discuss the
findings in more detail).

2. Sharing expertise: the prototype digital library of case studies ()
One of the many problems facing those involved in making effective use of new
technologies in education is locating relevant information that can support
and enhance their endeavours and avoid duplication of effort. This is
particularly problematic in the area of new technology for a number of
reasons, including: the rapid rate of change of technology; the vast amount
of work taking place in the area; and the lack of adequate co-ordination of
information between the different organisations, institutions and
individuals involved.
The higher education funding councils of the UK have spent millions of pounds
on supporting staff development, through special units within institutions,
and research and dissemination projects such as the Teaching and Learning
Technology Programme (TLTP), the Forum for the Development of Teaching and
Learning (FDTL), and the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN). These
programmes all support fixed-term projects. Such projects aim to disseminate
their findings and resources, and have an impact on higher education
practice within the limits of their funding, at least in part because these
are often measures against which their success is judged. In many ways,
projects are competing with each other to raise their individual profiles,
so that they are seen to be successful and are thus more likely to attract
further funding. For the user community, keeping informed of current
developments is challenging - there is currently no central service
coordinating the sharing of information between projects and the academic
In order to start to support the user community more effectively, four TLTP
projects (all UK-based) came together in spring 2000 to develop a model for
supporting access to our case studies of teaching practice (the projects are
ASTER, EFFECTS, SoURCE, and TALENT). We ended up with a
model of a central service for staff development. This model was based on
the results of a national survey of staff developers, and a prototype
digital library of case studies on the use of information and communication
technologies in teaching and learning. As TLTP projects, we share a common
focus on learning technologies, though our model of a central service covers
higher education in general. Our projects are due for completion in autumn
2001, and no service is yet in place to archive and disseminate our tools
and resources after closure.
The prototype digital library that we have established consists of a central
database containing only descriptions of the case studies, and a
user-friendly interface. The case studies themselves remain on the server of
the project that created them. This simple description glosses over the
effort that went into creating the database - we saw the need to follow
international standards from the start, to support sharing of information
and use of common terminology. Case studies were described using metadata
(inspired by the Gateway to Educational Materials - GEM - in the USA)
populated with vocabularies drawn from the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors
(educational terms). Further work is taking place to map terms across
various current national and international educational thesauri. The
original database is driven by Apple's Global Object Economy, but in
extending the metadata and technical interoperability standards we are
porting it to an SQL database.
The design of the user interface was the result of lengthy research. We ran a
national survey which helped us to identify four key groups of potential
users of a central library. This resulted in the design of four access
routes, aimed at academics (focussed on their subject), staff developers
(focussed on pedagogy), educational developers (concerned with technology)
and senior managers (with interests in strategy). Controlled vocabularies
were developed for each of these categories, and used to catalogue case
studies. An individual case study could contain information relevant to one
or more of the categories.
The process of designing a digital library of case studies highlighted the
need for projects to retain ownership of their work, both so that a user of
the database can recognise that the case studies it holds are the result of
diverse working practices, and for the projects to retain their visibility
and independent profile. This need for projects to have a high profile is
one of the greatest barriers to collaborations of this sort. It was overcome
by enabling each project to maintain its own customised Web interface to the
one shared database. In addition, the process of vocabulary development has
highlighted important areas of debate in understanding features of the
learning environment and learning interactions. Further research in this
area is clearly essential.



Investigating the Use of Electronic Resources in
Small-Group Learning and Teaching


Using electronic resources to support dialogue in
undergraduate small-group teaching: the ASTER project

ALT-J - Association for Learning Technology


ASTER (Assisting Small-group Teaching through Electronic Resources)
EFFECTS (Effective Frameworks For Embedding C&IT with Targetted Support)

SoURCE (Software Use, Re-use and Customisation in Education)
TALENT (Teaching and Learning with Network Technologies)

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC