Initiate, Innovate, Collaborate: A New Model for Humanities Computing Teaching and Resource Development

Grazyna Cooper
Paul Groves
Peter Karas
Sarah Porter
Humanities Computing Unit
University of Oxford
13 Banbury Road
Oxford, OX2 8QQ

This session will consist of four papers which will look in some depth at the humanities computing training, teaching, support and development services which are taking place at the University of Oxford, with the overarching theme of initiating activity, innovating to keep up with changing trends, and collaborating with academic faculties to our mutual advantage. Applications of Information Technology in humanities subjects at Oxford University go back to the early seventies. Over the last two decades we have arrived at a structure, which, we hope, maximises the usefulness of computing technologies within the Humanities faculties at our University. Oxford University has dispersed, widely distributed, de-centralised computing facilities and many networks: college networks, faculty networks, departmental networks and library networks. We provide a central place to explain to humanities scholars the opportunities which IT can provide and help them to make computers a tool of their own.

The first two papers will present an interesting contrast of the complementary services provided by the main training and support section of the Humanities Computing Unit, the Centre for Humanities Computing (CHC), and the newest addition to the HCU's activities, the Humanities Computing Development Team (HCDT). The second two papers describe in detail three of the collaborative teaching and research projects which the HCU has worked upon during the academic year 1998-9.

Skills 2001: an IT Odyssey

Grazyna Cooper

Introductory Summary

The Centre for Humanities Computing, one of the components of Humanities Computing Unit at Oxford University Computing Services was one of the earliest centres of its kind in the academic world and has grown organically in response to the needs of its users and relevant developments in Information Technology.

This paper describes the model developed by the Centre for Humanities Computing, for working with humanities scholars in applying Information Technology in their studies and research.


The Centre for Humanities Computing has had a long experience of teaching IT skills. In the past 8 years, the Centre for Humanities Computing has developed introductory all-day workshops for the Humanities scholars. However, the mushrooming of techniques and resources is continuously forcing the unit to evaluate, change and refine the methods of teaching Information Technology to humanities scholars. We are now creating subject-specific courses to enable scholars to understand fully what is available to them electronically in order to enhance their work.

Modules Taught

1.) Current Teaching Programme

Our teaching is structured as far as possible to reflect different abilities or amounts of knowledge in Information Technology. This is accomplished on two levels:

Both these forms enable us to fine tune the courses better and match them to the needs of the participants.

Our teaching programme is divided into the following modules:

2.) Future Teaching Programmes in the planning stage

We will also consider briefly the two other major centres for Humanities Computing in the UK: Glasgow University and King's College, London. We will compare and contrast the way they structure their courses with what is being offered at the Centre for Humanities Computing at Humanities Computing Unit.

Strategies for Publicizing and Marketing our Services

We reach scholars through our workshops, the Humanities Computing in Oxford Newsletter, seminars with invited speakers, the Humanities Computing Unit web pages, and our face-to-face on-demand advisory services.

If we are to be of real benefit to humanities scholars, we have to keep upgrading our own skills. This is a pressing and permanent factor in our work. Every year more and more students come to us who are already knowledgeable about Information Technology. We have to keep up with the changes in the level of expertise we have to offer, from those who are already relatively computer literate to those who do not have the rudiments of using a keyboard.

Since the Dearing Report,[1] Information Technology training is increasingly seen as an indispensable part of graduate and indeed undergraduate training. Our Unit is well placed to monitor this field and keep its skills and training programmes up to date. A major aspect of our services and a major point in our mission is to offer humanities scholars continuity from year to year.


We are developing increasingly sophisticated courses at the Centre for Humanities Computing and we will explain the changes which we are currently making with an historical overview of the past situation. Courses for different faculties can have a common core, but we also need to customise courses for each faculty's needs. This is initially time-consuming but it is always challenging work. We have to consult with members of different faculties and their IT committees. Overall, we must be sympathetic to a wide range of disciplines and their requirements and work together with them in mutual support.

The Humanities Computing Development Team

Sarah Porter

Oxford University's Humanities Computing Unit has recently added a formal development component to its activities in Humanities Computing. The Humanities Computing Development Team works in innovative partnerships with members of the humanities faculties to develop new teaching and research resources for use both within and without the University. This is a new approach to the integration of IT into the University's activities and one which presents interesting and very particular challenges to the working process of the staff of the HCU, and expects a great deal of flexible working on the part of the academic staff. This paper outlines the background to the new Team, the needs within the University that it aims to meet, reports on the major issues which have emerged in its first nine months of operation, and makes some recommendations for the future.


In parallel with its support, training and information dissemination activities which have been described by Grazyna Cooper, the Humanities Computing Unit also has a history of cutting-edge development activities; most recently this has included the Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature Project (Lee, 1998). These projects have all had successful outcomes and produced academically-rigorous research and teaching materials which have been much used. However, these projects have occurred on an ad-hoc basis and according to the particular research interests of the HCU, but have generally had little involvement from the other departments and faculties of the university, and thus have impacted little upon the teaching and research activities.

It can seem ironic that whilst the HCU contains centres of national and international expertise in the use of technology for research and teaching, these centres have had only a limited impact on the University itself. Whilst the OTA, CTI Centre and CHC can offer advice and direction to those with an interest in implementing IT into their teaching or research, they do not have the resources to carry out this implementation, or to employ additional staff for short-term development projects. Funding from IT components of grants has often gone to specialists outside the university. It was therefore proposed that a new element should be added to the existing work of the HCU, to bring together the expertise of grant-funded components like the Oxford Text Archive and the Computers in Teaching Initiative Centre and the local expertise of the Centre for Humanities Computing, with project-based development.

Other Initiatives

Many other institutions have already encouraged a higher level of IT integration into research and teaching with the provision of centralised group of dedicated staff who are responsible for specialist technical advice and development activities. These include the Technology and Teaching Initiative at the University of Virginia; the Education Technology Services at Penn State University; Brown University's Scholarly Technology Group, and McMaster University's Humanities Computing Centre amongst others. These initiatives operate on various levels of formal collaboration and different funding models, each of which has experience to offer to a new venture such as that which we proposed.

Survey of IT Activity in the Humanities

Oxford University is rich in primary and secondary resources, and in high levels of scholarly activity in research and teaching. In digital resource development and use there are also pockets of intensive activity but the idiosyncratic and highly distributed structure of the University means that this activity is not communicated or disseminated as much as it could be, particularly in the humanities where teaching tends to be located within colleges rather than faculties. The University Computing Services decided to explore how much current activity there was by carrying out a paper-based survey of the two thousand humanities staff in February 1998. The survey asked the staff to present their views and experiences of using of IT in research and teaching.

146 valid questionnaires were returned and provided some interesting results. 95 per cent of those staff are currently using IT in their research, and 56 per cent are currently using IT as part of their undergraduate teaching. Responses indicated that most respondents would like to expand their current IT use into new areas, but this is not currently possible due to lack of time (cited by over 90 per cent) and training (cited by over 60 per cent). The activities of the CHC are clearly much needed, despite the last seven years of successful training events.

A Humanities Computing Development Team

The second section of the survey dealt with a proposal that a Humanities Computing Development Team (HCDT) should be set up. This suggestion came about because of a lack which has long been perceived within the HCU. All the ingredients for successful IT-based humanities projects are present in Oxford: dedicated staff; high-quality collections of resources; expertise. However, the lack of collaboration between individual academics, faculties and the centres of expertise such as the HCU have meant that high-level activity is not as widespread as it could be. The HCDT should be able to work more closely, and for longer periods of time, with Oxford academic staff in the development of collaborative projects where academic content should be selected and created by the academic partner, and decisions about the technical structure of the project should be made by the HCDT. This model drew upon similar programmes in a number of institutions as described above, but in particular sought advice from the University of Virginia's Technology and Teaching Initiative (Thomas, 1997).

Collaborative academic activities are traditionally not widespread within the humanities and this is as true at Oxford as anywhere else. We were unsure how positive the response would be that academics should play a part in these highly collaborative ventures. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, that 65 per cent of respondents indicated that they would be willing to work on a collaborative project with the HCDT in the future and, in fact, 45 projects were suggested for development. The scope of these projects ranged enormously in detail and in ambition, from a simple 'put course materials and reading lists onto the Web' to complex three-dimensional simulations of archaeological data, over a space and time continuum. They also crossed the broad spectrum of humanities faculties which the HCU aims to serve: modern languages, English language and literature, history, archaeology, classics, philosophy, but also law, environmental studies, and anthropology.

Projects for 1998-9

The positive responses were sufficient to convince the Computing Services that the HCDT would provide a much needed service, and funds were allocated to a Team for one year, with plans to begin operation in autumn 1998. We now had to confront the issue of convincing academic staff that the initiation of a collaborative project with the HCDT would be a good use of their (limited) time. A formal call for project proposals was issued with a comprehensive project application form, and resulted in twelve complete project proposals from which the first round of projects were selected. The project selection was carried out in consultation with the University's Committee for Computing in the Arts (CCA), which oversees the activities of the HCU. The committee is made up of eleven representatives from the University arts and humanities faculties and thus plays a valuable role as a bridge between the HCU, the faculties and the University's high-level IT committee. Selection was based on a number of factors: potential breadth of use; commitment to the project; realistic and well thought-out goals; and a 'start-up' factor of how quickly work could begin upon the project. From these, four projects were selected and have run from October 1998 to March 1999.

Lessons Learned During 1998-9

Issues which have emerged so far have been the question of continued funding of our activities; the conflict between the research and teaching interests of individual academics, and the faculty committees to whom they report; the lack of experience in building IT development costs into research grant applications; the ongoing support and upgrading of IT-based services; the distribution of labour involved in an IT project between academic content, design and development. These issues will be evaluated at the end of the first six months of operation (in March 1999) and will be discussed in some depth in this paper.

Three of the projects undertaken by the HCDT during their first few months were the Database for the Archaeology 'Hillforts of the Ridgeway' project, online learning materials for Chinese, and the Theology faculty digital library project. These projects presented very different technical and pedagogic challenges which will be discussed in this paper. Crucially, the three projects also required us to be work within three different 'constellations' of project partners, consisting of HCDT - academic - faculty - other partners which shaped the demands and pressures of the projects.

The Hillforts of the Ridgeway Project

Peter Karas

Oxford's Institute of Archaeology tries to involve its undergraduates as much as possible in 'real life' archaeology. Each student takes part in on site digs at the Hillforts site in their first year. Each new site is dug by succesive generations of students. This allows novice archaeologists to focus their skills whilst in the longer term a picture of the ancient landscape of the Ridgeway area emerges. Lifelong learning students from the University's School of Continuing Education work with the undergraduates to work towards both academic and professional qualifications.

There is a long tradition of the use of databases in archaeology, a result of the need to catalogue and analyse large bodies of complex data. However often, the use and manipulation of the data is the reserve of research staff, and students are seen more as data entry staff in a second stage of 'on site' recording.

The Ridgeway database differentiates itself from this norm in that the project was devised with both teaching and research needs in mind.

The aims of the Database project are twofold.

This dual purpose is reflected in the collaboration of the HCDT with staff from the department of continuing education and the archaeology department. The choice of a popular relational database management system allows students to train with a vocationally valuable tool and allow the flexibility of analysis desired by Research staff. To cater for this multiple functions of the database a number of graphical interfaces have been designed, ensuring ease of use by both novice and advanced users. Development has focussed around a series of prototypes allowing constructive feedback form users. Other issues include the development of an easily maintainable help system and tools to customise the database.

In its first phase, the database has been networked within Oxford to allow the addition of records to the database by staff and students. In its second phase, the database will form the centre of a web site dedicated to the Ridgeway Project, which will provide background to the site and give guided, step-by-step instruction to the use of the database by external users.

The project has been a unique experience in the way that it has relied upon the close cooperation of a number of very different parts of the university, to their mutual benefit. Training and teaching expertise provided by the Centre for Continuing Education, and academic rigour by the Institute of Archaeology. Through a process of constant feedback and revision of design a tool which is usable on a number of levels has been created.

The Chinese Institute web site project involves the collaboration of HCDT staff with the Centre for learning Chinese as a foreign language. The Centre for learning Chinese is a new initiative within the faculty of Oriental studies, which was set up to provide a focus for excellence in the teaching of Chinese. The projects main aim is to deliver teaching materials which have been developed in a closed environment over the internet. The first step involves the development of a core of digital graphical and textual information under guidelines set out by the HCDT. This archive of material is then reused in several interactive teaching applications, delivered over the internet. Eventually users progress through tutorials will be monitored, allowing the teacher to build a profile of each student's online activity.

The areas of study have been carefully selected to make best use of the technology, for tasks which will benefit most from its use. We have been given strong pedagogic direction by the academic partner who has made thoughtful decisions about when technology has a place, and when it does not. Our first exercises are a good example of this approach: undergraduates who study Chinese frequently study ab initio and therefore need to work intensively to acquire a good level of familiarity with the Chinese character set. Learning the stroke order for the characters is an essential part of understanding the characters, but this is boring and difficult when done from paper. Use of animated characters in interactive exercises allows the student to practice in a more flexible and stimulating environment.

The use of the internet to deliver such materials have important implications for student access both within the university where students have free access to networked terminals within colleges and for distance learning. The ability for students with disabilities which might otherwise affect their attendance in class, to hand in coursework at times more suited to their needs is also an attractive facet of the project.

As in the case of all computer application development the most challenging aspects of the work have been consolidating the academic partners with realistic technical goals. This can only be achieved with close contact and a mutual understanding and respect. The HCDT method encourages selection of such working partners and projects have proven to be a success for this reason.

Reading List Digitisation Project For Theology

Paul Groves

This paper explores a small-scale, but influential library digitisation project undertaken by Oxford's newly-established Humanities Computing Development Team. Topics covered include: a general background to the project; its objectives (for the library and faculty concerned, for the HCDT, and for the university as a whole); the choices made over which material to digitise; and a discussion of the technology selected (and / or rejected) for the project.


Following a proposal by Susan Lake, of Oxford University's Theology Faculty Library, for a medium-scale digitisation project (circa 8000 pages of text), the HCDT was asked to carry out a pilot project (for c.700 pages of text). To maximise the benefits of digitisation, the material digitised comprises out-of-print monographs, off-prints of high-demand chapters in books, and articles in journals - all from core Theology reading lists.


The objectives of the full project are: to enhance the Teaching and Research capabilities of the Theology Faculty, to relieve space and staff pressures within the faculty Library, and to provide enhanced forms of learning.

It is anticipated that the main use of the online texts, will be simply for students to print them out and use them at their leisure. However, the texts will also be searchable, not just the bibliographic information (as in the online library catalogue), but the texts themselves, making resource discovery much easier. Moreover, since there is no practical limit to the number of copies of a text in circulation, no student or researcher will be denied access because that text is "out".

Whilst many of the books to be digitised will no doubt be retained in the main part of the Theology Faculty Library, it is hoped that digitisation will allow much of the other paper material (mainly old runs of journals) to be moved elsewhere, freeing up space for new acquisitions.

Perhaps most importantly, the project can also be seen as a case study for digital library projects in a wider context within Oxford, particularly in the light of the aims of the study 'Scoping the Future of Oxford's Digital Collections'[2] which aims, amongst other things to:

Thus is can be seen that, despite the initial modest objectives of the HCDT pilot, the project may be quite influential. It explores some of the issues of the main study on a small scale, and investigates factors not just from a library professional's perspective, but also from IT skills, academic, and funding perspectives.

Pilot Content

In order to make the HCDT's pilot project of some practical use for teaching (as well as establishing the foundations of the full project), it was suggested by Jeremy Duff who teaches within the Theology faculty that the project should concentrate on the reading list for one paper. The paper chosen, Mark, was picked for a number of reasons.


From a technical point of view, the project is concerned with the following issues:

Conclusion and Impact

It can be seen that the project is a partnership between the HCDT, the Theology Faculty Library, and Theology Faculty academics, each party contributing their own expertise and resources.

The pilot system will be used by first-year undergraduates during the 1999 Michaelmas term. The project will report back on its technical and other findings, and so feed into other similar projects as well as the Scoping the Future survey which may be considered by other faculties.

HCDT: the Future

The most crucial issue which is under current consideration is the future operation of the HCDT and the closely connected issue of its future funding. These issues have already been hotly debated and are still far from being resolved. The Committee for Computing in the Arts has indicated that it strongly believes the HCDT should continue to be funded centrally by the University, so that the Team can continue to select projects on a merit basis rather than with financial backing. However, is it appropriate that expert development services should be provided to academics without any financial contribution being made by that project or individual? Are we genuinely carrying out collaborative activities with benefits for each partner, or is one partner providing a service for another? These issues not only impact upon the services within Oxford but have implications for the future of humanities computing in a wider sphere, and as such will be given careful consideration.

Detailed reports about the Humanities Computing Development Team projects, and links to test versions of the project resources are available from <>


  1. The Dearing Report, or the Report of the Commission Enquiring into the State of UK Higher Education, was produced by a UK government initiative and published in1998.

  2. Information about the Scoping Oxford's Digital Collections study is available from <> or by contacting Stuart Lee at the University of Oxford.