Digital resources in Humanities education

Harold Short
Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London
Strand, London WC2R 2LS, UK

Panel session

We are witnessing an explosion in the development of on-line digital resources that are of relevance in humanities research and teaching, from small-scale resources, such as single-subject databases or a single electronic text, to very large sets of material, such as text corpora, image banks and very large databases.  Some of these resources are text or image only, but increasingly teachers and students have access to mixed-media materials.  In some cases access is controlled by password or requires payment, but there is a substantial body of material that is freely available on the World Wide Web.  Some of the resources have been created within the context of a carefully directed project, while others have been developed by a lone enthusiast following her/his own idea of how best to collect and present the materials.

This phenomenon offers many new opportunities for teaching and learning in the humanities, but also presents a substantial rage of challenges. This panel will seek to identify some of the challenges, and to report on efforts that are being made to address them.  The proposed format is for each of the five panelists to speak for 10-12 minutes on their particular subject, leaving at least 30 minutes for open discussion.

Integrated access to hybrid resources: the MALIBU Project
Astrid Wissenburg, Project Manager, King's College London

MALIBU is a 'hybrid library' project in the UK's 'Electronic Library' programme (eLib).  It is a 3-year project, running to January 2001. One of it's objectives is to create a uniform framework for students, teachers and researchers to locate resources, whether in digital or non-digital form - print, manuscript, physical objects, etc. (The term 'hybrid' is used to describe this mix of the digital and the non-digital.)  The project will also define and establish, at least in prototype form, a range of new information services at the three major participating institutions - King's College London, Oxford University and the University of Southampton.  A key element in the project is the close involvement throughout of groups of users from a wide range of humanities disciplines, and at various levels, including undergraduate and postgraduate students, lecturers and researchers.

Although this is a UK project, the problems it is addressing have a much wider relevance, and it has established formal links with related projects in Europe and North America.  The presentation will give a brief outline of the project, but will emphasise the issues it is seeking to address, and the implications for teachers and learners in the humanities.

Resource identification and description: the UK Arts and Humanities Data Service
Harold Short, King's College London

The Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) in the UK is a new national service whose role is to co-ordinate the development and dissemination of digital resources in the humanities.  Among its initial priorities are establishing standards for the identification and description of digital resources, and developing a national integrated catalogue and the means to access and search it.

The presentation will report briefly on the structure of the AHDS, and on its progress in developing a distributed integrated catalogue. It will outline the shortcomings of current practices in resource identification and description, and the way in which the new developments seek to overcome these.  It will also touch on the problems and possibilities of engaging the wide range of stakeholders in this enterprise, including academics, higher education institutions, funding bodies, library, museum and archive communities, and commercial interests, such as publishers.  Although its main focus is the UK, the AHDS is proactive in collaborating with projects and institutions outside the UK, and therefore its work is seen has having a relevance to new modes of teaching and learning elsewhere in Europe and farther afield.

Use and misuse of on-line resources: implications for methodology
Gerd Willee, University of Bonn

Humanities tend to be looked at as rather 'old-fashioned' disciplines, unlike the sciences, and the most common 'remedy' proposed is 'Buy them computers and make them use the internet'! This might be a good idea for experienced researchers, but is rather doubtful if applied to learning students.

The methods of the Humanities are not based on the mere collecting of facts - which can be done quite easily with the aid of computers - but on thinking about facts and the relations between facts. Nowadays we can expect new students to know how to use computers, how to surf the net, but they are not skilled in working with and thinking about information, in making conclusions properly, in comparing opinions. They very often confuse the thoughtless collection of piles of information with 'scientific' work. They enjoy communicating with virtually everybody, but too often have nothing of substance to communicate.

This presentation will emphasise the important aspects of 'traditional' methods in the humanities and the need for the availability of large quantities of information to be accompanied by the 'traditional' skills of critical assessment and analysis.

Management of Large Scale Web-projects: problems and opportunities
George Welling, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

When the project From Revolution to Reconstruction (and what happened afterwards) was started in 1994 its main objective was to teach students of the Arts faculty of Groningen University basic computing skills. But since then it has evolved into one of the most frequented web-sites with historical content. What started as a by-product of teaching has become the kernel of several academic courses.

One course focuses on the production of new material for the project and still resembles the course from which it all started. A more advanced course has been developed where students learn to improve the hypertextuality of the project: close reading the various parts of the project, they decide how to make links between texts, to make implicit references explicit.

To work with several groups of students on a project for which we have not planned an end still requires a set of strict rules and a good organisation. Restructuring the whole project from a state of "organized chaos" to its present state took us about a year. This has shown the necessity of planning before starting something like this. The presentation will discuss the difficulties and the opportunities that arise in a project like this, and the lessons that may be learned which are relevant both to planning and to running web-based courses.