User Responses to Online Teaching of Literature

  1. 1. Sarah Porter

    Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University

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The use of technology when teaching the humanities has traditionally been faced with a number of challenging issues, including problems of re-use of information, user and staff resistance, and lack of IT awareness. Two projects based on the teaching of literature using the WWW have taken different approaches to their use of web technology in a learning situation: using the WWW as a tool to deliver largely unmediated text resources direct to the desktop, and using the WWW to create hypermedia, interactive seminars based around collections of texts. This paper draws together and contrasts findings of formal evaluation of each approach, and makes some comments on their implication for the design and use of web technology in teaching the humanities.


Evaluation of the eLib funded 'On demand Publishing in the Humanities Project' (hereafter ODP project) brought out certain key findings regarding the use of web technology to create and deliver online teaching materials. The ODP project ran over a two year period (September 1995 - August 1997) with evaluation in various forms taking place over the last eighteen months of that period. Substantial sets of evaluative data were collected, including statistical data relating to use of the materials, interview transcripts, questionnaire data, and the findings of focus groups and show-and-tell sessions. An overall pattern of responses was collated and presented in a paper at the Digital Resources in the Humanities Conference (Porter and McRory, 1997) which focussed on students and tutors responses in three areas: whether users were willing to make digital resources a central part of their studies, whether they had sufficient IT skills to make appropriate use of the technology, and whether their patterns of working could be adapted for the digital medium.

Difference of approach The ODP Project took at resource-centred approach to the implementation of digital resources. Whilst academics had input into the selection of materials, and in some cases added to these materials with their own essays and overviews, their interaction with the project was equivalent to the role that they would play in the selection and provision of traditional library resources to students. That is, the academic had sole responsibility for selecting materials for inclusion in the project's textbase according to the content of their courses, and some ongoing input in terms of advising the project team on providing training and support to students, but in general added no further pedagogic structure or content to the textbase. The textbase was intended for private study or guided use in the classroom, but was not intended to replace traditional teaching; in general, most of the materials allowed students access to primary resources, with a minimum of cross-reference and commentary, and without the benefit of a directed or guided route through them, which contrasts strongly to the tutorial-based structure of the Virtual Seminars Project. Tutorial and seminar time is used separately from the textbase, with the materials used exclusively for individual study. In contrast, the Virtual Seminars project has taken a tutorial approach, by providing materials within a tutorial-style, subjective context, with a framework of commentary custom-written for the medium by an academic. In addition, the Virtual Seminars project has broadened its scope away from simple information provision using the WWW, by adding a range of interactive tools. These include a concordance generator which a user can employ to manipulate texts within the textbase, search tools, and a custom-built framework which allows a student to compare digital manuscripts in close detail. A discussion forum using hypermail allows students to interact with other users and to build an archive of responses. Each individual user's own interaction with the materials and progress can be monitored. The range of tools and design of the web-based tutorials creates a challenging and innovative learning environment, which requires adaptation and assimilation by staff and students if it is to be used in a classroom setting, or for individual study. The Seminars intend to provide a more complete pedagogic experience for the student; this intention is supported by the addition of further teaching instruction materials which are intended to help tutors make best use of the medium in teaching.

The approaches of the two projects have many similarities; however, it is the pedagogic relevance of the differences in approach which is of key interest and which will be considered in the comparative evaluation. Contextand structure for the ODP materials was given in the classroom; the Virtual Seminars Project instead aims to include some of this direction and context within the tutorial materials themselves. This difference in approach will form a strong element of the evaluation.

Analysis of Response

The responses from the ODP project raised issues which have fed into evaluation of the 'Virtual Seminars' project in two areas:by providing a sound evaluation methodology which can fruitfully be applied, and by providing a basis for direct comparison between two projects which have many common facets, but which also demonstrate a number of distinctly different approaches. A substantial section of this paper will look at the different approaches taken by the projects and look at the effect that they have had upon the users' perceptions. Users perceptions of the materials will illuminate the positive and negative aspects of each approach. Of particular interest and importance will be the parallel comparison of the response of students and tutors staff who have used materials from each project in their teaching and learning experiences.

Drawing from experiences of the ODP project, evaluation of the Virtual Seminars project will focus on feedback from targeted user-groups, and less formal evaluation based other data, such as adhoc response forms. User groups, consisting of tutors and students, based in a number of Higher Education Institutions in the United Kingdom will be asked to respond the questionnaires, some interviews, and focus (discussion) groups. Some quantitative analysis of responses will be carried out, based upon responses given to a structured questionnaire, and some usage statistics. Qualitative feedback, with full answers and personal responses, will be collected using structured discussion (or focus) groups, and open questions within a questionnaire. Additional data will draw upon provision for automatic collection of user (staff and student) responses by employing feedback forms within the tutorials themselves; analysis of the form-based responses.


Responses will be collated for each project in certain areas, namely:

% implications for teaching and learning;
% technology's role as an information provider in teaching;
% implications for resourcing of tutors;
% implications for IT training and support;
% adapting patterns of working to technology.
The response data will be compared in the light of the two approaches to the use of WWW technology to teach the humanities as detailed above, and the pros and cons of each methodology described in terms of user responses.

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Conference Info

In review

"Virtual Communities"

Hosted at Debreceni Egyetem (University of Debrecen) (Lajos Kossuth University)

Debrecen, Hungary

July 5, 1998 - July 10, 1998

109 works by 129 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (10), ACH/ICCH (18), ALLC/EADH (25)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC