Initiate, Innovate, Collaborate: A New Model for Humanities Computing Teaching and Resource Development

multipaper session
  1. 1. Grazyna Cooper

    Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University

  2. 2. Paul Groves

    Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University

  3. 3. Peter Karas

    Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University

  4. 4. Sarah Porter

    Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University

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Initiate, Innovate, Collaborate: A New Model for
Humanities Computing Teaching and Resource Development

Humanities Computing Unit University of

Humanities Computing Unit University of

Humanities Computing Unit University of

Humanities Computing Unit University of


University of Virginia

Charlottesville, VA





This session will consist of four papers which will look in some depth at the
humanities computing training, teaching, support and development services
which are taking place at the University of Oxford, with the overarching
theme of initiating activity, innovating to keep up with changing trends,
and collaborating with academic faculties to our mutual advantage.
Applications of Information Technology in humanities subjects at Oxford
University go back to the early seventies. Over the last two decades we have
arrived at a structure, which, we hope, maximises the usefulness of
computing technologies within the Humanities faculties at our University.
Oxford University has dispersed, widely distributed, de-centralised
computing facilities and many networks: college networks, faculty networks,
departmental networks and library networks. We provide a central place to
explain to humanities scholars the opportunities which IT can provide and
help them to make computers a tool of their own.
The first two papers will present an interesting contrast of the
complementary services provided by the main training and support section of
the Humanities Computing Unit, the Centre for Humanities Computing (CHC),
and the newest addition to the HCU's activities, the Humanities Computing
Development Team (HCDT). The second two papers describe in detail three of
the collaborative teaching and research projects which the HCU has worked
upon during the academic year 1998-9.

Skills 2001: an IT Odyssey
Grazyna Cooper

Introductory Summary
The Centre for Humanities Computing, one of the components of
Humanities Computing Unit at Oxford University Computing
Services was one of the earliest centres of its kind in the
academic world and has grown organically in response to the
needs of its users and relevant developments in Information
This paper describes the model developed by the Centre for
Humanities Computing, for working with humanities scholars in
applying Information Technology in their studies and research.

The Centre for Humanities Computing has had a long experience of
teaching IT skills. In the past 8 years, the Centre for
Humanities Computing has developed introductory all-day
workshops for the Humanities scholars. However, the mushrooming
of techniques and resources is continuously forcing the unit to
evaluate, change and refine the methods of teaching Information
Technology to humanities scholars. We are now creating
subject-specific courses to enable scholars to understand fully
what is available to them electronically in order to enhance
their work.

Modules Taught
1.) Current Teaching Programme
Our teaching is structured as far as possible to reflect
different abilities or amounts of knowledge in Information
Technology. This is accomplished on two levels:
Through a questionnaire before the start of each
course to ascertain the student's level of Information
Technology competence
Through an evaluation form at the end of every course
to find out how useful the courses have been and what
the participants got out of it.

Both these forms enable us to fine tune the courses better and
match them to the needs of the participants.
Our teaching programme is divided into the following
Induction Talks to Humanities Faculties (Introductory
level course aimed at postgraduates)
Undergraduate Training Afternoons (Introductory
Humanities Training Days (Full day workshops for
postgraduates and academic staff: giving an overview of
the process of research related to electronic and
computer techniques available) Subject-Specific IT
Training Afternoons (Aimed at postgraduates)
How Scholars Can Research on the Web: Scholarly
On-line Resources and Search Engines
Techniques for Publishing on the Web: HotMetal and
Good Web Design
CAUDIT: Creating, Analysing and Using Digital Text.
(Aimed at postgraduates and staff)
TESS: Text Encoding Summer School (An international
workshop aimed at scholars working on their own text
encoding projects)

2.) Future Teaching Programmes in the planning stage
Bibliographies, Bibliographic Databases &
Bibliographic Software (A one day workshop for
postgraduates and academics)
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Fonts But
Were Afraid to Ask.(A one day workshop for postgraduates
and academics)
Essential IT Skills for Lecturers

We will also consider briefly the two other major centres for
Humanities Computing in the UK: Glasgow University and King's
College, London. We will compare and contrast the way they
structure their courses with what is being offered at the Centre
for Humanities Computing at Humanities Computing Unit.

Strategies for Publicizing and Marketing our Services
We reach scholars through our workshops, the Humanities Computing
in Oxford Newsletter, seminars with invited speakers, the
Humanities Computing Unit web pages, and our face-to-face
on-demand advisory services.
If we are to be of real benefit to humanities scholars, we have
to keep upgrading our own skills. This is a pressing and
permanent factor in our work. Every year more and more students
come to us who are already knowledgeable about Information
Technology. We have to keep up with the changes in the level of
expertise we have to offer, from those who are already
relatively computer literate to those who do not have the
rudiments of using a keyboard.
Since the Dearing Report,1. The
Dearing Report, or the Report of the Commission
Enquiring into the State of UK Higher Education,
was produced by a UK government initiative and published
in1998. Information Technology training is
increasingly seen as an indispensable part of graduate and
indeed undergraduate training. Our Unit is well placed to
monitor this field and keep its skills and training programmes
up to date. A major aspect of our services and a major point in
our mission is to offer humanities scholars continuity from year
to year.

We are developing increasingly sophisticated courses at the
Centre for Humanities Computing and we will explain the changes
which we are currently making with an historical overview of the
past situation. Courses for different faculties can have a
common core, but we also need to customise courses for each
faculty's needs. This is initially time-consuming but it is
always challenging work. We have to consult with members of
different faculties and their IT committees. Overall, we must be
sympathetic to a wide range of disciplines and their
requirements and work together with them in mutual support.

The Humanities Computing Development Team
Sarah Porter

Oxford University's Humanities Computing Unit has recently added
a formal development component to its activities in Humanities
Computing. The Humanities Computing Development Team works in
innovative partnerships with members of the humanities faculties
to develop new teaching and research resources for use both
within and without the University. This is a new approach to the
integration of IT into the University's activities and one which
presents interesting and very particular challenges to the
working process of the staff of the HCU, and expects a great
deal of flexible working on the part of the academic staff. This
paper outlines the background to the new Team, the needs within
the University that it aims to meet, reports on the major issues
which have emerged in its first nine months of operation, and
makes some recommendations for the future.

In parallel with its support, training and information
dissemination activities which have been described by Grazyna
Cooper, the Humanities Computing Unit also has a history of
cutting-edge development activities; most recently this has
included the Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature Project
(Lee, 1998). These projects have all had successful outcomes and
produced academically-rigorous research and teaching materials
which have been much used. However, these projects have occurred
on an ad-hoc basis and according to the particular research
interests of the HCU, but have generally had little involvement
from the other departments and faculties of the university, and
thus have impacted little upon the teaching and research
It can seem ironic that whilst the HCU contains centres of
national and international expertise in the use of technology
for research and teaching, these centres have had only a limited
impact on the University itself. Whilst the OTA, CTI Centre and
CHC can offer advice and direction to those with an interest in
implementing IT into their teaching or research, they do not
have the resources to carry out this implementation, or to
employ additional staff for short-term development projects.
Funding from IT components of grants has often gone to
specialists outside the university. It was therefore proposed
that a new element should be added to the existing work of the
HCU, to bring together the expertise of grant-funded components
like the Oxford Text Archive and the Computers in Teaching
Initiative Centre and the local expertise of the Centre for
Humanities Computing, with project-based development.

Other Initiatives
Many other institutions have already encouraged a higher level of
IT integration into research and teaching with the provision of
centralised group of dedicated staff who are responsible for
specialist technical advice and development activities. These
include the Technology and Teaching Initiative at the University
of Virginia; the Education Technology Services at Penn State
University; Brown University's Scholarly Technology Group, and
McMaster University's Humanities Computing Centre amongst
others. These initiatives operate on various levels of formal
collaboration and different funding models, each of which has
experience to offer to a new venture such as that which we

Survey of IT Activity in the Humanities
Oxford University is rich in primary and secondary resources, and
in high levels of scholarly activity in research and teaching.
In digital resource development and use there are also pockets
of intensive activity but the idiosyncratic and highly
distributed structure of the University means that this activity
is not communicated or disseminated as much as it could be,
particularly in the humanities where teaching tends to be
located within colleges rather than faculties. The University
Computing Services decided to explore how much current activity
there was by carrying out a paper-based survey of the two
thousand humanities staff in February 1998. The survey asked the
staff to present their views and experiences of using of IT in
research and teaching.
146 valid questionnaires were returned and provided some
interesting results. 95 per cent of those staff are currently
using IT in their research, and 56 per cent are currently using
IT as part of their undergraduate teaching. Responses indicated
that most respondents would like to expand their current IT use
into new areas, but this is not currently possible due to lack
of time (cited by over 90 per cent) and training (cited by over
60 per cent). The activities of the CHC are clearly much needed,
despite the last seven years of successful training events.

A Humanities Computing Development Team
The second section of the survey dealt with a proposal that a
Humanities Computing Development Team (HCDT) should be set up.
This suggestion came about because of a lack which has long been
perceived within the HCU. All the ingredients for successful
IT-based humanities projects are present in Oxford: dedicated
staff; high-quality collections of resources; expertise.
However, the lack of collaboration between individual academics,
faculties and the centres of expertise such as the HCU have
meant that high-level activity is not as widespread as it could
be. The HCDT should be able to work more closely, and for longer
periods of time, with Oxford academic staff in the development
of collaborative projects where academic content should be
selected and created by the academic partner, and decisions
about the technical structure of the project should be made by
the HCDT. This model drew upon similar programmes in a number of
institutions as described above, but in particular sought advice
from the University of Virginia's Technology and Teaching
Initiative (Thomas, 1997).
Collaborative academic activities are traditionally not
widespread within the humanities and this is as true at Oxford
as anywhere else. We were unsure how positive the response would
be that academics should play a part in these highly
collaborative ventures. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore,
that 65 per cent of respondents indicated that they would be
willing to work on a collaborative project with the HCDT in the
future and, in fact, 45 projects were suggested for development.
The scope of these projects ranged enormously in detail and in
ambition, from a simple 'put course materials and reading lists
onto the Web' to complex three-dimensional simulations of
archaeological data, over a space and time continuum. They also
crossed the broad spectrum of humanities faculties which the HCU
aims to serve: modern languages, English language and
literature, history, archaeology, classics, philosophy, but also
law, environmental studies, and anthropology.

Projects for 1998-9
The positive responses were sufficient to convince the Computing
Services that the HCDT would provide a much needed service, and
funds were allocated to a Team for one year, with plans to begin
operation in autumn 1998. We now had to confront the issue of
convincing academic staff that the initiation of a collaborative
project with the HCDT would be a good use of their (limited)
time. A formal call for project proposals was issued with a
comprehensive project application form, and resulted in twelve
complete project proposals from which the first round of
projects were selected. The project selection was carried out in
consultation with the University's Committee for Computing in
the Arts (CCA), which oversees the activities of the HCU. The
committee is made up of eleven representatives from the
University arts and humanities faculties and thus plays a
valuable role as a bridge between the HCU, the faculties and the
University's high-level IT committee. Selection was based on a
number of factors: potential breadth of use; commitment to the
project; realistic and well thought-out goals; and a 'start-up'
factor of how quickly work could begin upon the project. From
these, four projects were selected and have run from October
1998 to March 1999.

Lessons Learned During 1998-9
Issues which have emerged so far have been the question of
continued funding of our activities; the conflict between the
research and teaching interests of individual academics, and the
faculty committees to whom they report; the lack of experience
in building IT development costs into research grant
applications; the ongoing support and upgrading of IT-based
services; the distribution of labour involved in an IT project
between academic content, design and development. These issues
will be evaluated at the end of the first six months of
operation (in March 1999) and will be discussed in some depth in
this paper.
Three of the projects undertaken by the HCDT during their first
few months were the Database for the Archaeology 'Hillforts of
the Ridgeway' project, online learning materials for Chinese,
and the Theology faculty digital library project. These projects
presented very different technical and pedagogic challenges
which will be discussed in this paper. Crucially, the three
projects also required us to be work within three different
'constellations' of project partners, consisting of HCDT -
academic - faculty - other partners which shaped the demands and
pressures of the projects.

The Hillforts of the Ridgeway Project
Peter Karas

Oxford's Institute of Archaeology tries to involve its undergraduates
as much as possible in 'real life' archaeology. Each student takes
part in on site digs at the Hillforts site in their first year. Each
new site is dug by succesive generations of students. This allows
novice archaeologists to focus their skills whilst in the longer
term a picture of the ancient landscape of the Ridgeway area
emerges. Lifelong learning students from the University's School of
Continuing Education work with the undergraduates to work towards
both academic and professional qualifications.
There is a long tradition of the use of databases in archaeology, a
result of the need to catalogue and analyse large bodies of complex
data. However often, the use and manipulation of the data is the
reserve of research staff, and students are seen more as data entry
staff in a second stage of 'on site' recording.
The Ridgeway database differentiates itself from this norm in that
the project was devised with both teaching and research needs in
The aims of the Database project are twofold.
To aid in the analysis of recorded materials. A flexible
database allows for powerful exploration of field data. Such
data exploration is the culmination and ultimately the
purpose of excavation.
To train students in the practice of on site recording and
in the use of databases.

This dual purpose is reflected in the collaboration of the HCDT with
staff from the department of continuing education and the
archaeology department. The choice of a popular relational database
management system allows students to train with a vocationally
valuable tool and allow the flexibility of analysis desired by
Research staff. To cater for this multiple functions of the database
a number of graphical interfaces have been designed, ensuring ease
of use by both novice and advanced users. Development has focussed
around a series of prototypes allowing constructive feedback form
users. Other issues include the development of an easily
maintainable help system and tools to customise the database.
In its first phase, the database has been networked within Oxford to
allow the addition of records to the database by staff and students.
In its second phase, the database will form the centre of a web site
dedicated to the Ridgeway Project, which will provide background to
the site and give guided, step-by-step instruction to the use of the
database by external users.
The project has been a unique experience in the way that it has
relied upon the close cooperation of a number of very different
parts of the university, to their mutual benefit. Training and
teaching expertise provided by the Centre for Continuing Education,
and academic rigour by the Institute of Archaeology. Through a
process of constant feedback and revision of design a tool which is
usable on a number of levels has been created.
The Chinese Institute web site project involves the collaboration of
HCDT staff with the Centre for learning Chinese as a foreign
language. The Centre for learning Chinese is a new initiative within
the faculty of Oriental studies, which was set up to provide a focus
for excellence in the teaching of Chinese. The projects main aim is
to deliver teaching materials which have been developed in a closed
environment over the internet. The first step involves the
development of a core of digital graphical and textual information
under guidelines set out by the HCDT. This archive of material is
then reused in several interactive teaching applications, delivered
over the internet. Eventually users progress through tutorials will
be monitored, allowing the teacher to build a profile of each
student's online activity.
The areas of study have been carefully selected to make best use of
the technology, for tasks which will benefit most from its use. We
have been given strong pedagogic direction by the academic partner
who has made thoughtful decisions about when technology has a place,
and when it does not. Our first exercises are a good example of this
approach: undergraduates who study Chinese frequently study ab
initio and therefore need to work intensively to acquire a good
level of familiarity with the Chinese character set. Learning the
stroke order for the characters is an essential part of
understanding the characters, but this is boring and difficult when
done from paper. Use of animated characters in interactive exercises
allows the student to practice in a more flexible and stimulating
The use of the internet to deliver such materials have important
implications for student access both within the university where
students have free access to networked terminals within colleges and
for distance learning. The ability for students with disabilities
which might otherwise affect their attendance in class, to hand in
coursework at times more suited to their needs is also an attractive
facet of the project.
As in the case of all computer application development the most
challenging aspects of the work have been consolidating the academic
partners with realistic technical goals. This can only be achieved
with close contact and a mutual understanding and respect. The HCDT
method encourages selection of such working partners and projects
have proven to be a success for this reason.

Reading List Digitisation Project For Theology
Paul Groves

This paper explores a small-scale, but influential library
digitisation project undertaken by Oxford's newly-established
Humanities Computing Development Team. Topics covered include: a
general background to the project; its objectives (for the
library and faculty concerned, for the HCDT, and for the
university as a whole); the choices made over which material to
digitise; and a discussion of the technology selected (and / or
rejected) for the project.

Following a proposal by Susan Lake, of Oxford University's
Theology Faculty Library, for a medium-scale digitisation
project (circa 8000 pages of text), the HCDT was asked to carry
out a pilot project (for c.700 pages of text). To maximise the
benefits of digitisation, the material digitised comprises
out-of-print monographs, off-prints of high-demand chapters in
books, and articles in journals - all from core Theology reading

The objectives of the full project are: to enhance the Teaching
and Research capabilities of the Theology Faculty, to relieve
space and staff pressures within the faculty Library, and to
provide enhanced forms of learning.
It is anticipated that the main use of the online texts, will be
simply for students to print them out and use them at their
leisure. However, the texts will also be searchable, not just
the bibliographic information (as in the online library
catalogue), but the texts themselves, making resource discovery
much easier. Moreover, since there is no practical limit to the
number of copies of a text in circulation, no student or
researcher will be denied access because that text is "out".
Whilst many of the books to be digitised will no doubt be
retained in the main part of the Theology Faculty Library, it is
hoped that digitisation will allow much of the other paper
material (mainly old runs of journals) to be moved elsewhere,
freeing up space for new acquisitions.
Perhaps most importantly, the project can also be seen as a case
study for digital library projects in a wider context within
Oxford, particularly in the light of the aims of the study
'Scoping the Future of Oxford's Digital Collections'2. Information about the Scoping
Oxford's Digital Collections study is available
from <> or by contacting Stuart Lee at the University of
Oxford. which aims, amongst other things to:
document, analyse and evaluate Oxford's current
digitization activities, as a basis for assessing the
effectiveness of the various methodologies used;
investigate the possibilities for building on the
existing project-based work and for migrating it into
viable services for library users;

Thus is can be seen that, despite the initial modest objectives
of the HCDT pilot, the project may be quite influential. It
explores some of the issues of the main study on a small scale,
and investigates factors not just from a library professional's
perspective, but also from IT skills, academic, and funding

Pilot Content
In order to make the HCDT's pilot project of some practical use
for teaching (as well as establishing the foundations of the
full project), it was suggested by Jeremy Duff who teaches
within the Theology faculty that the project should concentrate
on the reading list for one paper. The paper chosen, Mark, was picked for a number of
most first-years take the Mark paper, therefore there is a high demand
for these texts
there is a well-defined core to the paper, making it
possible to isolate key texts
most college tutors have responsibility for some
students taking Mark,
leading to a wide impact within the faculty
Jeremy Duff teaches Mark,
and is prepared to take responsibility for coordinating
the academic parts of the project

From a technical point of view, the project is concerned with the
following issues:
Digitisation and optical character recognition of the
texts concerned
Evaluation of the pros and cons of a variety of
delivery and indexing systems; XML\SGML; Adobe Acrobat;
non-proprietary image systems, etc.
Implementation, testing, and final evaluation (based
on feedback from its use in teaching) of one such system
for the pilot project
Support for Classical Greek (and to a lesser extent
Hebrew) character sets over the World Wide Web, for
example through the use of Dynamic Font technology
Integration with the University wide online library
catalog, OLIS

Conclusion and Impact
It can be seen that the project is a partnership between the
HCDT, the Theology Faculty Library, and Theology Faculty
academics, each party contributing their own expertise and
The pilot system will be used by first-year undergraduates during
the 1999 Michaelmas term. The project will report back on its
technical and other findings, and so feed into other similar
projects as well as the Scoping the
Future survey which may be considered by other

HCDT: the Future
The most crucial issue which is under current consideration is
the future operation of the HCDT and the closely connected issue
of its future funding. These issues have already been hotly
debated and are still far from being resolved. The Committee for
Computing in the Arts has indicated that it strongly believes
the HCDT should continue to be funded centrally by the
University, so that the Team can continue to select projects on
a merit basis rather than with financial backing. However, is it
appropriate that expert development services should be provided
to academics without any financial contribution being made by
that project or individual? Are we genuinely carrying out
collaborative activities with benefits for each partner, or is
one partner providing a service for another? These issues not
only impact upon the services within Oxford but have
implications for the future of humanities computing in a wider
sphere, and as such will be given careful consideration.
Detailed reports about the Humanities Computing Development Team
projects, and links to test versions of the project resources
are available from <>

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia, United States

June 9, 1999 - June 13, 1999

102 works by 157 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (19), ALLC/EADH (26), ACH/ALLC (11)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None