Home | Project Proposal

Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literaure

I. Statement of Activity

The creation of virtual seminars will supply a necessary tool for distance learning as well as a role model for other academics to see how effective modern technology can be used in delivering remote educational resources.

la. The virtual Seminar

The notion of a seminar is central to most Humanities disciplines. In this students are asked to analyse a particular topic (in this case a literary text,) and report on their findings.The seminar system combines both tuition and discussion developing the students' analytical and research skills. However, there are two problems with the current situation. First, due to financial constraints many institutions face a staff/student ratio that prohibits the continuation of seminars. Second, even when running, a seminar is limited purely to the views of the handful of students that attend, allowing for very little crossdiscussion between seminar groups either within or outside of the institution.

IT has the potential to overcome both of these problems. It can be used in a very cost-efective manner, and it makes possible the interaction and construction of very large self-organising communities. Such phenomena as electronic newsgroups, mailing lists, and bulletin boards are one very visible manifestation of this abilityWhere such groups have been unsuccessful or intellectually vacuous it has generally been because of a lack of focus or clear motivation, such as that given (in the academic environment) by the traditional seminar The virtual seminar is an attempt to preserve the best aspects of traditional humanities teaching, using the potential offered by new media and new capabilities.

The focal part of the project will be the development of a facility known as the 'path creation scheme'.This will allow teachers, researchers, and students to utilise data made available in an archive of material on the subject of First World War poetry to

create their own personalised virtual seminars (i.e. the construction of 'paths' to help navigate through the archive). By providing this we are seeking to explore the potential highlighted in the JISC paper Exploiting Information Systems in Higher Education (hereafter referred to as the JISC Issues Paper) of using the network to access learning materials to support both students and teachers:

Users will be able to select those elements that are relevant to their own needs and put together a personalised curriculum


In using the WWW as the basic technology, but enhancing it with the 'path creation scheme' we hope to change the way many Humanities users currently interact with the Internet. Rather than simply passively browsing, they will use it as raw material for the creation of their own virtual educational resources, again reflecting JISCs own observations on the importance of the World-Wide Web as expressed in §71 of the JISC Issues Paper:

There has been enormous growth in the use of electronic information tools over the past few years, in particular the World Wide Web (WWW)...The WWW brings together three major principles: hypertext, logical markup and global networking.

Students and teachers will be able to access the virtual seminars constructed using the 'path creation scheme' in their own time and from locations outside of the seminar room increasing the potential for 'The Learning Experience' identified in the JISC Issues Paper.

In addition we will mount three virtual seminars, presenting examples of on-line lecture notes, hypermedia essays, and a seminar itself. These will act as models for other academics to follow.

Ib. Background: 'Isaac Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches"

Our experience in the field of virtual seminars comes from many areas, such as work in the area of hypermedia computer based learning packages (notably our development of The Poetry Shell under the ITTI project), and digitisation of large primary resources (e.g. the Leverhulme Computers and Manuscripts Project at Oxford). Equally relevant is our development of a pilot-project based around the poet Isaac Rosenberg. We are therefore seeking funding to build on the success of this project, utilising our skillsin developing on-line teaching material, negotiating copyright, evaluation of the product, etc.

The World-Wide Web site 'Isaac Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches" went on-line inAugust 1995 and has been attracting over 400 accesses a month. It presented the user with a virtual seminar based around the poem 'Break of Day in the Trenches' . The user was asked to comment on the poem without knowledge of its historical context (see Figure I ). He/she was then presented with an archive of material both literary and historical which they could browse around using the World-Wide Web's hypermedia environment. On exiting, they were asked to re-analyse the text. Their comments were mailed automatically to the editor of the site and archived so that other users could see previous analyses.

Figure 1 - Screenshot Figure1: Sample Page from pilot
Virtual Seminar 'Isaac Rosenberg's
'Break of Day in the Trenches"

This on-line seminar attracted extensive publicity. It was mentioned in The Guardian, The Times, and the journal The Web. It was described as 'innovative' by Alan Liu, designer of a major Literary Web site, The Voice of the Shuttle and is already being used in teaching both nationally and internationally. As a result of the Rosenberg project we now believe that demand for such resources is high; that the subject matter itself was extremely popular (and suitable to the virtual serninar); and that by using theWorld-Wide Web we were employing the most appropriate technology available. Further Information about the Rosenberg project can be found in Lee, S. D., 'World War One on the World-Wide Web', Computers and Texts (newsletter of the CTI Centre for Textual Studies), Issue 10 December 1995, pp.3-5. The developer was also awarded a grant of £1,000 to write a report for the Support Initiative for Multimedia Applications (SIMA) entitled A Case Study: Teaching on the WWW Isaac Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches'.

Ic. Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS)

The setting of Oxford University Computing Services is conducive to advanced research into Humanities Computing. OUCS is the home of the internationally-recognised centre of excellence known as the Centre for Humanities Computing. Not only does this act as a focal point for Humanities Computing in general, it is also a disseminator of information relevant to the subject through a series of publications and a very popular World-Wide Web site known as HUMBUL (the Humanities Bulletin Board). Affiliated to the Centre for Humanities Computing, as component parts of the Humanities Computing Unit, are a series of other projects, mostly externally funded, but all based at OUCS. There is the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) Centre for Textual Studies (funded by the HEFCs of England,Wales, and Scotland, and DENI in Northern Ireland); the internationally-acclaimed Oxford Text Archive (the largest archive of electronic texts in the world); and the British National Corpus (an electronic Corpus of over 100 million words of modern-day English),. Important here is that the communications network established by the CTI Centre (through electronic discussion lists, newsletters and other publications) will allow news and information about this proposal to be quickly disseminated throughout the constituency of academics it is most likely to interest.

II. The Project

Ila. Path Creation Scheme

A Virtual Path is like the traditional 'web' notion to be found in hypertext literature, representing the user's interaction with the database. The 'path creation' scheme will work as follows. The user will be able to access the archive with specific privileges allowing them to assemble the data. This will be monitored by a logging-on process in which the 'path creator' registers themselves giving details of their name, department, and electronic contact address. Using a hierarchical menu system they will be able to choose and access particular digital resources (e.g. images, texts, transcriptions, sound files, video clips). At each instance they will have the facility to automatically record the address for this piece of data. At the end of their interaction with the archive they will have collected a complete HTML document with all the links to the various files contained in it. This can be annotated on-line with their own notes (e.g. explaining to the student why they are looking at a particular piece of data, or what they should be analysing when they go there).These completed HTML documents could be used as personalised virtual seminars, on-line essays, research notes, or lecturing aids. It is also envisaged that these will be archived for other people to access and use, thus building up a repository of virtual seminars and teaching aids.

Using this technique and with reference to the on-line seminars (IIb) as models, users will be able to create their own virtual seminars drawing from an on-line archive of material on the WWI poets, as well as other material on the First World War. This will entail the ability to select various pieces of data (poems, letters, images, sound clips, video files), annotating them with their own comments and creating their own web teaching resources automatically (as detailed above).

To create the archive of digital resources we will draw on existing experience at Oxford represented by such bodies as the Text Encoding Initiative. Copyright issues have already been overcome by permission being given to use this material from Mr Isaac Horvitch, Literary Executor of the Isaac Rosenberg Estate, as well as from other copyright holders . However, any further insights we gain into the problems of copyright will be passed on to our users reflecting the concerns expressed in §66 of the JISC Issues Paper.

This subject matter has been chosen for a variety of reasons:

a) It is an extremely popular subject that is taught at all levels, including Schools, FE, and HE institutions. It will be applicable to students of literature, history cultural studies, and information technology
b) Using an established series of contacts developed with the Rosenberg project we can draw extensively from material from the literary estate of Isaac Rosenberg, and a number of other information sources, reflecting the desire to 'provide users with access to many large and diverse specialist collections across the UK' (JISC Issues Paper, §116).
c) The topic will provide the opportunity to incorporate various multimedia elements, e.g. photographs from the War, sound recordings of interviews, and film footage.

IIb. Creation of Example Virtual Seminars

Three virtual seminars will also be created to provide models of what can be done.These are necessary to provide a demonstration of the potential of the virtual seminar and also for evaluation of the 'path creation scheme'.As noted the delivery platform these will be theWorld-Wide Web. To facilitate debate and interaction we intend to tie these in with an on-line discussion system, such as the IRC (Internet Relay Chat). This will allow students who have explored the virtual seminar at one institution to interact with students from other HEIs thus expanding the whole learning experience.

Using the model of 'Isaac Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches" the user will be presented with an initial document and asked to record their comments.They will then be presented with a selection of resources to compliment their research allowing them to gain a greater insight into the original question. Finally on exiting they will be asked to provide further analysis. The proposed tutorials will cover: I ) A linear introduction to First World War poetry; 2) A comparison of poem development, using the original manuscripts of different WWI poets; 3) Unknown at present.

III. Meeting the Objectives of J-TAP

IIIa. Demonstrating Effective Use of Existing Technology

This project will above all seek to show to teachers, students, and researchers how one can efectively use an existing technology (the World-Wide Web) for on-line learning in Higher Education. In many ways this, it is hoped, will inspire other academics to produce similar virtual seminars in other areas of the humanities but at the very least it will allow them (through the path creation scheme) to easily produce their own instructional resources.

IIIb. Engendering New Users

The ability to create one's own virtual seminars will allow new users to design and construct their own computer-based learning packages.

IIIC. Benefiting Higher Education and Enhancing Existing Teaching Methods

Dissemination of resources via the World-Wide Web is becoming more and more important these days.The 'path creation scheme' will be beneficial to all HEIs shifting the focus of Web interaction from that of passive browsing to actual creation of resources. Furthermore, the standard seminar so common in the humanities (but under pressure because of financial constraints) will be maintained in a virtual environment also enhanced by allowing the field of response to widen beyond the institution itself but to a national and international level.

IIId. Increasing Computer Literacy

It is still common that humanities undergraduates finish their degree courses with very little computing knowledge.This project will introduce the students to some basic knowledge in computer based learning, the World-Wide Web, hypermedia environments, as well as the enhanced capability of interaction that InformationTechnology allows. It is hoped that students, using the 'path creation scheme' will begin to present their own hypermedia essays and seminar notes.This is in keeping with general changes in pedagogic practice.

IIIe. Saving Costs

Cost saving with this project comes in several forms.The facility to construct one's own seminars via the 'path creation scheme' means time and money will be saved. Lecturers, researchers, and students will gain access to a lage amount of digitised material which would otherwise be unavailable (or highly costly to reproduce and disseminate using standard print technology). They will be able to design their own World Wide Web documents that point towards the various pieces of data. This could save the lecturer and researcher a large amount of time and money in assembling their own 'virtual seminars' or on-line lecturing notes. The three on-line seminars will also save time and money in terms of preparation and teaching hours.

IIIf. Linking With Other JISC Initiatives – The Arts and Humanities Data Service

The importance of the new JISC-funded Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) can not be overlooked. By August 1996 the AHDS will have been running for several months, and this project will conform to its recommendations on storage, dissemination, and access. The kind of resources created under theVirtual Seminars is potentially important to the AHDS. In addition, it will seek to promote the availability of its resources through mechanisms to be established by the AHDS. This is deemed of the utmost importance as it is in keeping with JISCs own mission of stimulating and enabling 'the cost effective exploitation of information systems'and the provision of a 'high quality national network infrastructure for the UK higher education and Research Councils'communities' (JISC Issues Paper 1.0, ).

IIIg. Enfranchising Several Educational Sectors

First World War poetry is an exceptionally popular area of teaching and is one in which a wealth of resources can be used. By mounting the on-line seminars on theWorld-Wide Web these teaching resources will become available to all HEIs throughout the country. Equally important is the fact that the access to this will be democratised, i.e. regardless of status students, lecturers, and researchers will all have access to the same resources and facilities.

IV Management Structure

The whole project will come under the auspices of the Humanities Computing Unit based at Oxford University Computing Services, under the management of Mr. Lou Burnard. The project will consist of one research officer funded for two years whose responsibilities will be the development of the'path creation scheme', the dissemination of material giving information about the project's development, and the digitisation of the resources used. In addition they will also be involved in the creation of the example virtual seminars. Supervising this will be Dr. Stuart Lee, who will ofer advice on the academic content, liaising between the project and the literary executor of the Isaac Rosenberg estate, and the contacts at the other information sources. Dr Lee will also be responsible for making sure the project meets the proposed deadlines.

We heavily endorse the idea of the 'focused club' and due to the fact that this is a small-scale project it is felt that staff would benefit from joining one in a related subject. Furthermore, we would be happy to co-ordinate one which brings together other humanities-based projects.

V. Timescale

The proposal requests funding for two years.This work-plan is as follows:

Year 1

Year 2

VI. Budget

Year I
Salary for RS1A Research Assistant: £20,000
Hardware/Software needed to digitise material and create on-line seminars (includes a personal workstation, scanner, and supporting software) £4,000
Consumables/Travel/Accommodation £1,000
Total £25,000
Salary for RS1A Research Assistant £21,000
Extra hardware to include storage of digitised material £1,000
Consumables/Travel/Accommodation (To include dissemination of report, purchasing of source material, copyright invoices) £3,000
Total £25,000
Total amount of money requested £50,000 over two years

Cost of network access and other overheads will be met by Oxford University.

Original Document Dr. Stuart Lee
HTML Conversion Paul Groves
Page created: 07-Oct-1996
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