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I have been waiting to write that title for well over a year now.  After a delay of over 5 months History SPOT is finally ready to launch!   

Research Seminars, Lectures and Conferences

History SPOT is brimming full of podcasts from IHR seminars, conferences and lectures from 2009 to the present.  In addition to our extensive archives you will have access to all new podcasts from the IHR in the coming months and have the opportunity to discuss, comment upon and debate their content online.   

SPOTLight

In addition to the podcasts themselves History SPOT contains an archive of SPOT Newsletter reviews and abstracts which have thus far appeared on this blog along with various other additional resources.  The SPOT Newsletter will be growing over the coming months adding opinions, additional facts and information, and mini bibliographies.

Historical Research Training

History SPOT presents to you for free and for the first time material from our research training courses and from our expertises as a research institute.  Initially we have provided two research handbooks: one on the subject of Databases for Historians and another on podcasting.  More will follow soon.

Interact

History SPOT is not just a place to search for content it is also designed so that you can interact with the subject matter.  When you listen to one of our podcasts let us and other users know what you think.  Is there something that you disagree with or do you have something to add to what our speakers discuss? 

In addition you can create your own profiles, take part in social networking through Groups and Friends and create basic web pages.  You can also write your own blog posts and discuss our activities with each other in various group forums. 

Click below to access the site

 

 

History SPOT will be in Beta Mode for approximately one month while we iron out the final glitches and errors, however we would very much appreciate your feedback.  Do you like the new site?  Is there anything that you don’t like?  What could we do better?  Is there anything missing?  Please do let us know at History.spot@sas.ac.uk or through the Contact UsLINK option on History SPOT.

At some point soon I will write up another blog post here about the road to launch but in the meantime please do register for History SPOT, have a look around, and let us know what you think.

I hope you enjoy the site!

Matt

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And finally…

This is my final post relating the discussion held at our June workshop on Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery.  I hope you have found it interesting although you will probably have seen already that the discussions posed more questions and difficulties than they answered.  Today I will sum up the discussion held on course structure:

Most of the issues involved in planning an online-only course are pedagogical in nature, and in many ways are similar to those that arise when planning face-to-face courses. An example of this includes the need to control the ‘learning curve’: with more guidance and ‘hand holding’ provided in the earlier components of a course (especially the exercises) changing as the course progresses so that the student receives less direction and are forced to think critically and with discernment for themselves.

The nature of exercises were discussed, and it was agreed that where students were forced to draw on material not supplied by the courses itself (e.g. from an archive or library) that it was important that the exercises be as generic as possible. This would also allow an element of choice on the part of the student, making the course more particularly interesting to them.

  • A seamless student experience was seen as being essential, masking any transition between technologies or delivery platforms that may actually exist.
  • Editorial control over the content of courses was something that needs to be thought about, both in terms of minor tweaks but also in terms of more substantial periodic updates. The content needs to be maintained – so for example if it draws upon external resources and those change, the content needs to reflect the changes.
  • Courses will need to be clear on their content, and the assumptions being made of the students (both in terms of their technical capabilities and their research skills level.

The costs and time necessary to create technologically advanced online training resources is also very significant (and often underestimated). Specifically it was suggested that certain elements of explanation (especially about performing practical or mechanical tasks within the course) – the kind of instruction that would take very little time in a face-to-face context – could be handled more speedily in a screencasting format than through textual description.

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At our workshop Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery it was generally agreed that many historians were hesitant to use blogs and wikis although different age groups vary in this.  The age cohort is worth bearing in mind when setting up a course – often a younger age group will be able to cope and understand new technologies better than older groups (although this is not always the case and must be approached cautiously).  Whilst Google has transformed searching on the internet it is a paradigm for online teaching.  People tend to think that they already know how to search when they actually don’t.  Plus library catalogues are beginning to lose functionality to appear more available to the ‘Google-generation’. 

The issue of ‘googleification’ in library catalogues has been discussed somewhat in-house.  Established librarians and historians don’t generally like it (that at least seems to be the consensus).  I find myself in agreement here.  The loss of functionality seems to be a backward step especially if it is just to pander to those who want something familiar and are unwilling to learn.  That said, there is a fine line here between unwillingness to learn and the necessity to learn.  I recall a discussion held in another workshop that I attended at the IHR recently on digital editing projects.  It is very easy for those of us who work in the realm of e-learning and digitalisation to just assume that everyone knows what we are talking about.  We sometimes forget that we only learnt these things because it was part of our job to do so.  It took time.  The question, then, is how do we create training resources that students can understand and relate to whilst at the same time feed into that process some of the more complex digital knowledge that they may one day require?  No easy task!

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At our workshop held in June on Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery the issue of user support and the role of the tutor came up as a complex problem for the online environment.  Here is a summary of what was said on the subject:

It is important always to place any individual resource or part of a training course into the overall intellectual/educational/historical context of the theme or subject – in other words so that whilst the student is dealing with a detailed aspect of the course, they are aware of the wider significance of that aspect.  A substantial support effort will be required for any online course, tutor-led or otherwise. The support would not simply be to provide technical assistance to students having difficulty accessing the material, but would need to be offering help with the content.

But how do we provide user support?  It is not enough to provide forums as students need synchronous/asynchronous help.  Although ‘chat’ can be one way to deal with this problem it requires someone to have the chat regularly checked and not all people know how to use chat effectively. 

There is also a related problem here in the role of the tutor.  How do you avoid the problem of the tutor being viewed as having all the answers (i.e. students go to the tutor for answers rather than work it out amongst themselves)?  This is a difficult problem which is obviously not restricted to online teaching, but nonetheless presents particular problems for this format.  A tutor needs to find the right balance between having an overbearing effect on a class and avoiding the trap of neglecting the class.  Clear rules of engagement therefore need to be set out.

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After the presentations given at our workshop on Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery we broke up into several groups to discuss the issues involved.  This proved to be a highly useful exercise. One part of that conversation focused on the problem of students having no face to face contact on online only courses and whether or not there are any ways to get around that.  It was generally decided that it is best to have some kind of face-to-face contact as student groups gel better and trust one-another more once they have met in person.  Where this is not possible careful use of virtual classrooms and forum discussions were considered a way forward (although far from perfect).  It was also highlighted that there is a considerable difference between long and short courses in this regard. 

i.          Virtual Classrooms

A virtual classroom makes use of microphones, webcams and conversation tools on an online environment to create a virtual representation of a classroom.  At its heart it is just a more complex conference call (such as can be achieved through Skype) with additional tools.  There is usually a whiteboard where tutors can upload slide shows and pdf’s and scribble notes.  Students can communicate with other students or with the tutor through the use of a text chat function or as audio through a microphone.  The Open University, for example, uses Elluminate (now owned by Blackboard) as their virtual classroom.  They have found that in general virtual classrooms works best with small groups of ten or less – otherwise there is too much noise and loses cohesion.  Although virtual classrooms can provide an excellent ‘live’ session it is more difficult to control and run smoothly than a traditional face-to-face tutorial. 

ii.         Forum Discussions

Forums have become an essential part of many online courses.  The group however generally viewed them as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than a useful tool.  It was felt that it is too easy for learners to lose track of a thread or to be overwhelmed or annoyed where there is too many forums to follow.  Forums require constant supervision and moderation as discussions can easily become unintentionally aggressive and argumentative and comments can easily be misconstrued. This leads to a lot of work for the moderator.  However, forums were still considered a useful way forward if used well.  Forums can deliver general chat as well as directed discussion and even those that do not contribute will gain something from following the threads.  Shy people who might not contribute in a face-to-face situation might be more willing to say what they think in this environment and students in general might be more willing to challenge each other.

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At the workshop held by the IHR on Tuesday this week we held presentations from myself, my colleagues at the IHR Simon Trafford and Mark Merry (IHR Training), and Chris Williams, Stuart Mitchell, and Wendy Mears from the Open University History MA course.  Over the next few days I plan to briefly summarise what each of us said (in general terms) and say a little about the subsequent conversation that occurred in the break out groups.  Today, I will begin with the first part of my own presentation a discussion of online training that already exists online.

In the humanities there is very little in the way of online courses.  The Open University are the big exception of course.  They provide various short courses, a foundation and undergraduate degree programme and a History MA.  Most of these contain a face to face element and the provision of physical books, pamphlets and associated materials.  Their online content is largely structured through the use of an open source virtual learning environment (VLE) named Moodle.  Moodle (which I will talk a bit more about next week) is the same VLE system that we are using for the research training in History SPOT.  The OU also use Elluminate! a Virtual Classroom which provide live lectures and seminars online.

But there is much more online with regards to the OU than their actual courses. For starters the OU have developed a ‘taster’ website recently rebranded as Learning Space.  This site provides potential students free course content and exercises as a draw toward the larger tutor-led courses.  The OU is also very proud (and rightly so) of their podcast content on iTunes-U.  As of 16 May 2011 the OU could boast 35,000,000 downloads from their store with the vast majority deriving from overseas interest.  The OU are by far the most popular source of academic content on the iTunes platform.

The University of Oxford have developed around 15 short courses in History and History-related subjects.  Included in this number is a highly popular and well-regarded Advanced Diploma in Local History.  This is a 1 year part-time course delivered entirely online.

In 2007 the University of Warwick attempted to build and gain accreditation for an online only MA in History.  The attempt ultimately failed to materialise but the extensive hard work that was put into developing the course can still be found on their website and is well worth a look.

These examples are far from the only ones around, but there really is not much else or at least not much else that can easily be found.  One item that I did not mention on the day, but occurs to me as related enough to mention here are two JISC-funded repositories for the upload, download and discussion of Higher Education teaching materials.  These are;

Humbox 

Jorum 

I’ll end today’s post with a few bullet points showing some of the features and tools that most of these online courses use or planned to use.

  • Use of a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) such as Moodle; Blackboard
  • Podcasts/Vodcasts (audio and video recordings of lectures; interviews etc)
  • Virtual Classrooms
  • Email; Telephone communication (with tutors)
  • Face-to-face elements – occasional seminars; summer schools

Next week I will talk a little about the second half of my presentation and in the process give you a sneak preview of the upcoming History SPOT platform.

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Earlier this week the IHR held an afternoon workshop on the topic of developing online research training and course delivery.  The event attracted around 20 people from various professions and bringing with them differing expertise.  In all the event was a great success with a good deal of discussion taking place concerning the nature of online training, best practice and limitations in comparison to traditional face to face courses. 

It quickly became apparent that the ideas concerning online training that we, at the IHR, are currently considering are very much the same as that which the Open University and others are already grappling with. 

It was interesting to note that the OU spend around 3 years developing their online courses much of which is concerned with getting the processes behind the scenes right.  Having ourselves experimented with an online course on Moodle (which I hope will one day see the light of day!) I can easily see how time consuming it is just getting the sign-posts inserted into useful places, not alone the length of time it takes to consider course structure and design.  You can’t just upload a face to face course ‘as is’ and expect it to work!

I think for me, personally, the workshop helped to bring to focus a very simple issue with regards to online courses: Are we able to translate everything that we do in face to face teaching and training onto an online platform and make it equally as useful and understandable for the learner?  We decided that no, it was not possible, at least not entirely. What we did realise was that training about resources and processes can work very well online (perhaps better in some cases) but that discussions concerning concepts and ideas is much harder to put across.  Palaeography is one such topic which we felt an online course could work even better than face to face.  Students catch on to this type of training at greatly varying speeds and traditional training can end up holding back some students and losing others somewhere in the wilderness.  Yet, in an online setting students really would be able to go at their own pace and, due to the nature of the training, would probably lose very little in the translation from the real world to the digital.

Tomorrow I will continue to talk about the workshop with a little bit about Online History Course that are already on the Internet.

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