Posts Tagged ‘training’

A few weeks ago the IHR held an afternoon workshop on the topic of digital tools.  We were promoting the fruits of a JISC-funded project called Histore, from which we will develop guidance and information about digital tools useful for historians.  Amongst these, will be two modules that will appear on History SPOT in late August.  The modules relate to one another and are on the topics of semantic mark-up and text mining for use by historians.  Both modules are designed as introductions to the tools for beginners with little or no knowledge of what they do or how to use them.  Last week I posted up a summary of the workshop on the Histore blog, but due to its relevance to History SPOT, I thought it worthwhile to repeat it here.

This blog post first appeared on 9 July 2012 on the Histore blog: Digital tools Workshop – overview of the breakout sessions

Our recent workshop on digital tools for historians has given us plenty of food for thought.  Do historians want training in digital tools?  The answer seemed to be yes (although admittedly we might have been talking with the already converted).

Do historians have time or incentive to undertake training in digital tools?  Ah!  Now we have a problem.  The overwhelming response during our breakout sessions was that there was little incentive or guidance within the profession in regard to digital tools.  Indeed, newly off the press a British Library study funded by JISC has confirmed that Generation Y at least (that is, those born between 1982 and 1994) are not as ready to use complex digital tools as is often assumed.  The report Researchers of Tomorrow: The research behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students (2012) suggests more tailor made training is required, although it also agrees that there remains a reluctance to undertake such training unless it is already recognised as essential to students current researches.

A further problem presents itself on this subject that was touched upon in our breakout sessions; there is a lack of basic knowledge about what tools there are to achieve research tasks.  There is no advice as to how easy or difficult those tools are to use (including how much time and cost it will take to learn).  Neither is there much advice on how tools can be adapted and used in historical research in general.

Sample page from the Text Mining module in development


These are all serious impediments that historian will need to address, as digital tools can offer exciting new opportunities to learn things from our textual heritage.   Group 2 from our breakout sessions, for example, argued for digital tools training to be included within undergraduate tuition.  This, they argued, should be viewed as fundamental research skills and be given as much weight as non-digital skills tuition.  Group 3 suggested adding digital tools training to skills workshops as a means of adding to the PhD ‘package’.

What was interesting, that came out of all three groups, however, was a feeling that such dedicated training is not generally where they, themselves go to learn these skills, nor something that they want to necessarily go through to achieve their initial aims.  They liked to dip into a subject to learn what they need, and then if it is useful enough consider a full face-to-face or online course.  Group 1 emphasised that if they need to learn something about a digital tool they will generally Google it and find the information on forums, blogs, and wikis.  Indeed, many participants had used free training materials found through these methods.

Nevertheless, such searching relies upon the fundamental need to know what tools exist in the first place and which are useful to research.  Group 1 discussed the need for a central location where such information could be found by historians.  It was pointed out that the Arts-Humanities.net provides such a service.  It was interesting that few in the group were aware of this.

In all, it would appear from the discussion in our breakout groups, that historians want more easily available information on what tools there are and how these might be applicable to their own research.  They want to be able to find out a little bit about these tools quickly, and, where possible, gain a basic knowledge of how they work and what can be done with them, before considering spending their time on a training course.  What type of training course was, however, not quite made clear.  Do historians want face to face training on specific tools or techniques?   Or would they prefer online courses?  Perhaps a mixture of both?

From these discussions it would appear that our approach with the two HISTORE modules (one on semantic data and another on text mining) was the right one.  We are creating two relatively short freely available modules that introduce each subject and which suggest what historians can potentially gain from using such tools.  The modules are broken down into sections which work through the process from the basic to the more complex (although they are not intended to give everything you would want to know about the tools).  These then, are introductions.  The first section of each course will introduce you to the tool and can be read within 30 minutes (probably more like 10 if you don’t do the exercises).  From there you can go further if you would like to gain a basic grasp of the tool.  In some cases that might well be enough for what you need.  At the very least the modules should enable you to judge for yourself whether more training and time should be spent learning about the tool.

Over the course of the next week we shall post brief bullet point notes from each of the breakout sessions, so you can see a little more of what was said.  Soon after this, we will also post the audio and hopefully video from the presentations given at the workshop.  By the end of August we hope to have the modules ready for release and so we will be talking a little more about these very soon!

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Last week I attended the 2012 e-book and e-content conference at UCL which took a look at the current landscape of e-learning.  It was a really interesting day and I came away with various ideas for how the IHR might improve and distribute its online training content in ways that are useful for a variety of learning approaches. 

I was particularly struck by a thread that bubbled along throughout the day that technology might well be able to achieve wonderful things but at the end of the day it is the user who decides what is useful.  As Anthony Watkinson argued, the user will not necessarily go for the ‘Harley-Davidson’ of technological equipment but the ‘all-rounder’ that skimps on some elements whilst providing the essence of the experience (and provides enough usefulness) at a more reasonable price. 

From the various statistics that were displayed throughout the presentations it seemed very much to me that students will use e-books where a print version is unavailable or when they feel it is not worth their while making a trip to the library.  Print, therefore, remains the preferred reading format (at least for now) but the convenience and better availability of e-books (especially, it seems, for those many students who will write their assignments at the last moment!) makes the digital option increasingly popular. 

There are, however, many obstacles to the dominance of the e-book, not least because students still generally prefer physical books when available.  Delivery format, for example is complex.  The ipad and kindle use two different and competing formats that also differ from that used for other devices.  Cost to the individual or institution is also problematic.  Publishers need to make a profit but many options open to libraries and students remain cost-prohibitive. 

So what does all this mean for History SPOT?  We already host a variety of handbooks on research training topics such as Databases, Podcasting, and Search engines.  Very soon we will be adding more, but none of these are available for download or in an e-book format – you have to read from the website or print them off.  It would be great if we could provide those resources in other formats such as pdf and epub. 

Would this be something that you would find useful?  If so please do comment below or email us at history.spot@sas.ac.uk.  We’d love to hear your thoughts!



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With the launch of History SPOT the Institute of Historical Research have also launched a brand new handbook written by our own Dr Mark Merry on the subject of designing databases for historical research. Mark is the primary tutor on our various Databases course and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of database structure and function. As such this handbook provides both tuition and guidance for historians on what purpose a database should have and, once built, what can be done with it.

The handbook basically provides an introduction to designing databases for use in historical research; providing an overview of important concepts – both historical in nature and in terms of databases – that the historian will need to consider before embarking upon designing a database. It also provides a number of starting points for overcoming certain design problems that specifically affect historians when they come to wrestle their sources into a database.

So for anyone out there who wishes to make better use of databases, needs a refresher, or would simply like to gain a glimpse at the type of training we can offer on a face to face basis please check out History SPOT and Mark’s Databases handbook.

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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.   


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.


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!


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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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I think it is safe to say that the Open University are considered the leaders in distance learning and online training.  In the UK they have certainly experimented with new tools and technologies long before other universities have even realised that those tools exist.  I was therefore very pleased when three representatives of the OU MA History course kindly agreed to give a short presentation of their experiences at our recent Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery workshop.  I already knew that the OU use Moodle as their virtual learning environment (VLE for short) which is the same system that I have been learning to use over the past year for the IHR.  I was also aware that their courses generally provided face to face sessions and textbooks and CD’s delivered to students.  What I was much less clear about was the difficulties that they had to tackle (and continue to tackle) to translate complex subjects into usable online resources.  Chris Williams, Stuart Mitchell and Wendy Mears stated that it takes them three years to develop an online course.  That is much longer than we have to develop training courses ourselves but then ours will be that much smaller and more narrowly focused.    

Stuart stated that they generally make two basic assumptions about their students.  First, that each student will have at least a basic IT literacy that includes using the internet.  Second, that they have at least an undergraduate knowledge of history, historical skills and common terminology.  However, these assumptions were also shown to be the main difficulty involved in developing online courses.  Not all students do have the same knowledge and expertise as each other.  This is relatively straightforward to deal with in a face to face setting, but all the more harder online.  The OU library therefore provides a support IT helpdesk for its students.  Each year a face to face or virtual session is offered to deliver basic navigation advice to students.  In addition an online helpdesk provides students the opportunity to offer advice to students individually on a need-to-know basis.  Content is also a problem.  Content has to be broken down into gobbets otherwise texts are unwieldy and unmanageable – imagine, for example, trying to explain the complexities of Foucault online in one big chunk!  It just wouldn’t work. 


Further Resources:
Open University History MA course pages

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Two weeks ago we held a workshop on developing online research training particularly focused on the History profession (see my previous posts).  Of course my post at the IHR asks for me to develop online training courses (not so much the content but the infrastructure and design) so the topic of the workshop was intricately linked with focusing and enhancing our future plans.

At that workshop my colleagues, who are employed to develop the content of these courses both online and face to face, gave a brief talk about what the IHR provides in terms of research training, how successful that has been and where we plan to take it in the future. 

Simon Trafford began with a brief rundown of what the IHR offers the Historical community.  The common room and library are foci for historians.  The 50+ seminar groups a place for learning, teaching and scholarly debate.  The various publications and e-publications a furthering of academic knowledge and the research training programmes an opportunity to help both new and older academics make the most of their skills. 

As an institute set up to aid research both nationally and internationally the IHR have always tried to reach beyond its London base.  However, the continued tendency for training uptake to derive from the London region continues to be a challenge.  The IHR have, however, had some success in broadening its appeal.  Various summer schools are held to make it easier for visiting scholars to gain something from the IHR in a short period of time and at a time when their own institutions’ demands are less.  The IHR have also undertaken a programme of regional training events – taking our expertise out to other areas of the country.  More recently the IHR have begun to develop a greater online presence for its research training, which brings us to the second half of the presentation, given by Mark Merry. 

Mark Merry told the audience about the IHR’s three phased approach to developing online training.  The results from Phase One will be made available with the launch of History SPOT when several handbooks derived from our own expertise and training courses are provided free of charge.  These handbooks (named Historical Research Handbooks) are meant as reference guides that can be dipped into or read as a whole.  They will tackle methodological, theoretical and practical problems related to their topic and, hopefully, act as a hook to our face to face courses and, in the future, online courses.  Phase One also includes additional online material for our face to face courses.  We hope to provide something a little extra for those who attend a course with the IHR. 

Phase Two will present ‘tutorless’ courses on various subjects that can be undertaken at a learners own time and pace.  These courses will emphasise interactivity and communication between users (community support) as well as providing various assignments, exercises and activities.  Phase Three will develop out of these resources new tutor led courses entirely provided in an online environment.  These courses will include virtual lectures, seminars and discussions and will be tutored by an expert in the field of study.

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