Dr Matthew Nicholls Wins Guardian Higher Education Award for Teaching Excellence

It may not quite be the Oscars, but the recent Guardian Higher Education Award ceremony in London was certainly an exciting night out, and I was delighted to come home with the award for Teaching Excellence. The award recognised my work in using digital modelling of ancient cities in my University teaching – both my large model of Rome, now nearing completion, and my course on Digital Silchester. Those projects have been the subject of various other posts and articles, by me and others, so I thought I’d post some thoughts here about the evening and the award itself.

The call for entries was circulated in mid-October, just as the academic year was getting underway. The University collected nominations and decided which ones to enter; my suggestion for the HEA-sponsored Teaching Excellence category was selected and I was asked to write a series of 300-word paragraphs outlining my work, describing how it was delivered, stating its outcomes with relevant evidence, and listing any funding received. At this stage I was not particularly hopeful about the outcome; the entry process did not allow for any pictures to be added to the strict word count, and as mine is such a visual project I thought that this would limit how well I could convey it to the judges.

In early December, however, I was excited to learn that I had been shortlisted (alongside the University of Nottingham’s 5-year pharmacy degree programme). To be one of two shortlisted entries was extremely gratifying, given the level of competition. I was pretty sure that I would not go on to win: all the other entries in the awards scheme, including Nottingham’s, seemed to be big projects run by groups of people, whereas mine is essentially an individual piece of work – albeit one strongly and consistently supported by my department and by the wider University. But to find out, I would be going to the awards ceremony in London in the new year.

The 26th of February eventually rolled round, and I headed down to London in a very smart chauffeured car with Gavin Brooks, the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Teaching and Learning), and David Carter, one of my Faculty’s Associate Deans. The Guardian was hosting the awards in style at 8 Northumberland Avenue, a distinguished Victorian hotel building off Trafalgar Square now restored (after a period as offices for the Ministry of Defence) as a very grand conference venue. There were between two and three hundred people there, representing the shortlisted universities and the sponsors of the various awards.

I had been shortlisted for a BUFAVC award for Learning on Screen in 2013, so the format of the evening, including the long and increasingly tense wait for one’s own award category to come round, was familiar. After an hour or so of high-decibel mingling over some very nice canapés and Champagne, we moved into the large ballroom, set out with tables (bearing yet more canapés) facing the stage. The evening’s host was Victoria Coren, who writes the poker column for the Observer. She moved fairly briskly through the award categories, keeping the evening moving along with good humour.

The announcement of each category’s winner was preceded by a little video in which the chairman of the judging panel made some remarks about the field of entries – a high standard, difficult to choose, and so forth – and then a sentence or two about why they had chosen the winner (without revealing who it might be). The first intimation that I might have won came when the judges for the Teaching Excellence award said that they had chosen to reward a scheme that was about teaching, rather than about organising teaching – David and I had time to exchange a could-it-be? sort of glance, and then ‘University of Reading’ was announced as the winner – a really exciting moment. A burst of rather loud and lively music and some flashing lights gave me time to walk up to collect my trophy and pose for pictures, with Victoria Coren and Stephanie Marshall, the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Academy.

David had prudently brought his iPad along and hooked up to the venue’s wifi to Tweet a series of images and messages. Like most events of this type now there was an official Twitter hashtag and a live video feed of messages, so we enjoyed seeing ours scroll past, and then seeing nice emails, FB posts, and Tweets pouring in.

The excitement of winning a trophy at a big national ceremony was wonderful, and the sort of thing that does not come often in a career. The trophy is on my desk, my mother has a copy of the photos, and the whole thing left a warm glow that will, I should think, last a while. That apart, though, I was particularly glad about two things.

One was the recognition for the support I’ve enjoyed from my departmental colleagues and students, and from the wider University. They have all consistently supported me through allowing me to try unusual new modules, through TLDF, Digitally Ready, and UROP grants and a University Teaching Fellowship, and more broadly through an environment that genuinely encourages innovation and the use of technology in teaching practice. Reading is very supportive to those willing to try something new, or adapt a practice or technology to their own subject.

The second, connected to this, is that the HEA in judging the award chose to recognise a project that is essentially the creation of me as a single academic, which links my research straight into my teaching. The other award categories on the night reflected the nature of modern universities as large, diverse businesses run largely by committees and teams: there were honours for business partnerships, communications and PR campaigns, community engagement, facilities projects, HR initiatives, and so on. These are all important, but it does seem to me that research and teaching are really our ‘core business’, and in my own humanities discipline, the individual researcher/teacher model is still at the heart of a lot of what we do – though we work well as a team, my colleagues and I all enjoy pursuing our own specialised work and conveying it to our students.  I was very pleased that this way of working was able to hold its own on the night.

Matthew Nicholls

Dr Matthew Nicholls on Radio 4

Dr Matthew Nicholls will be on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow (11 September 2013, 11am), speaking about his work on ancient libraries.

From the BBC’s blurb:

As public libraries shut down or cut their opening hours, Michael Rosen continues a two part investigation into the library story from the ancient world to the modern and beyond.

In the second episode, Michael visits the biggest public lending library in Britain, the brand new Library of Birmingham. In this cultural centre for the 21st century, the emphasis is as much on access to information technology and cultural events as on the old-fashioned book. What will it do for the city, and how might the new super library affect smaller community libraries in the area?

Matthew Nicholls from Reading University takes us on a tour of the libraries of imperial Rome, with their papyrus scrolls and busts of great men. And from Bexar County, Texas, we hear how any busts of great men will be virtual busts, pictures on the screens of visitors to what has been hailed as America’s first “bookless library.” Is this the future?

Follow this link for further information: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039q5dv.

The Department of Classics showcases the Third-Year Module ‘Digital Silchester’ (CL3SIL). Interview held by Dr Rebecca Rist (School Director of Teaching and Learning) with Dr Matthew Nicholls (Department of Classics)

Dr Matthew Nicholls reflects on the use of digital modelling in the Classics Curriculum on the University’s Teaching and Learning blog:

1.  Dr Nicholls, you are particularly interested in the digital modelling of ancient buildings and places, especially the city of Rome, and you are currently talking to Cambridge University Press about a book and related digital / app publications as well as showcasing your work at the up-coming Higher Education Academy Storyville Conference.  Why did you and the Department of Classics decide to launch the new Part Three module ‘Digital Silchester’ (CL3SIL) this academic year?

There were a number of reasons that we decided to do this.  When I first arrived at the University of Reading I began to interest students in the results of my own digital modelling work through undergraduate and postgraduate modules on the city of Rome.  It soon became apparent that students really wanted to engage with digital modelling and once they knew about my research interests I was frequently asked if I needed any help with projects.  I have found that digital modelling is something that undergraduate students can pick up quickly and I really wanted to get them to participate in seminars, not just as consumers but as producers of their own material.  I have also over the years had a number of UROP students working on digital modelling.  When I saw that these students were able to pick up the necessary software and research skills well, I decided to run ‘Digital Silchester’.  Students are increasingly comfortable with digital technology and virtual worlds, and they enjoy the idea of engaging with something visual, which means the module has attracted a large amount of interest.  ‘Digital Silchester’ has been funded by CDoTL as part of my University Teaching and Learning Fellowship, and I am very grateful to them for awarding me a University of Reading Teaching and Learning Development Fund grant.

2.  The module ‘Digital Silchester’ is taught using a mixture of fortnightly master-class sessions as well as more academic lectures/ seminars on the history of Roman Silchester and its excavations.  Tell me about the academic content of the module.  What are the aims of the module and what are students expected to do to fulfil its requirements? 

The academic content consists of lectures about Roman Britain and Roman urbanisation in order to locate the archaeological remains at Silchester within a wider historical context.  We also look at the history and the excavation of the site itself.  To help with this the University of Reading library kindly digitised the entire series of excavation reports from the Society of Antiquaries dating back to the nineteenth century.  Since digital reconstruction is such a new area of expertise there is a rapidly expanding bibliography on the subject.  Students are asked to think about the reasons for making digital models, why different approaches are possible, and what are the principles, aims and methods of archaeological re-construction.  In order to fulfil the requirements of the module students have to complete two assessments.  At the end of the Autumn Term the students are asked to make a small digital model of a building from ancient Silchester.  I choose the building for this model – this year it was a possible early church – and they produce a written commentary justifying all the choices they have made in constructing their model in terms of structure, use of materials, etc.  This task also allows them to get up to speed with using the appropriate software and is worth twenty percent of the module mark.  Then in the Spring Term the students can choose any building from Silchester to work on.  Again they make a model and write a commentary on it and this part of the course is worth eighty percent of their final mark.  When I assess their work I don’t necessarily look for photo-realism but also for understanding of how re-construction can highlight important points about a building’s history and use.  Unlike some undergraduate modules, ‘Digital Silchester’ allows students to be creative rather than just learning to synthesise information, while the written component of the module encourages students to be really reflective.  I have found that this combination works well and allows students with visual or creative flair to put that to work in an academic context.

3.  ‘Digital Silchester’ is current and up-and-running from this academic year.  Tell me about student interest in the module, what the uptake has been like and how you aim to ensure student interest in the future.  

I have had a full quota of around 25 students for ‘Digital Silchester’ this year and I am expecting a full uptake next year.  Students like the module because it is new and different and I have had very good feedback, not just from Student Evaluation Forms but just generally from talking to them about the course.  In fact they have now started chatting about it on the Department of Classics’ Facebook page!  Students have also identified to me where aspects of the module might be improved in the future.  A lot of students who are interested in Archaeology take the module – currently about half of the students are from the Classics department and half are doing a joint Ancient History and Archaeology degree.  ‘Digital Silchester’ is also starting to have the knock-on effect of encouraging students to use digital modelling in other contexts, like their third-year dissertations.  The Department of Classics is keen to promote it at Open Days, at module briefings and at the annual Module Fair, although it is a module that really sells itself!

4.  ‘Digital Silchester’ is studied over two terms (Autumn and Spring) so that students can take full advantage of the (free) technology which ITS services at the University have installed and offer.  Can any students in the Department of Classics take this module or is a level of technological know-how required?  What sorts of students do you think are best suited to taking it? 

There are no formal pre-requisites for taking the module ‘Digital Silchester’.  The course is open to all students and although I would try to steer complete Luddites away! I think that any Reading student would be capable of understanding the software.  In any case I have found that by the third-year students are self-selecting and know whether they would be suited to the module.  I have also found that the creative element of the course really appeals to students while the visual element goes down well with a lot of different types of learners – so it is accessible to other types of students besides the very academic or intellectual ones.  Also, the world of digital heritage in an increasingly important component in Museum Studies and something that any student needs to know about if he or she is intending to make a career in the world of museums.  Our own Ure Museum already runs all sorts of digital projects including animation, iPad apps, and 3D scanning, so Digital Silchester fits in well with innovations elsewhere in Classics, and I am currently discussing the possibility of further collaboration with the Museum Studies degrees now offered through MERL and in close collaboration with Classics.

5.  In this difficult economic climate it is really important that students develop skills in computing and digital technology which they can then transfer to the workplace.  What particular set of skills does the module ‘Digital Silchester’ train our students in and help them develop? 

There are three particular sets of skills which I think ‘Digital Silchester’ helps students to develop.  The first is digital visualisation – i.e. utilising specific bits of 3D modelling software that are relevant to the module.  So ‘Digital Silchester’ has application in the real-world and develops directly transferable skills – I even designed my own house extension recently using digital modelling methods!  The second is that the module increases fluency in computing more generally because it involves image manipulation and the management of large and complicated files – in other words it encourages computer literacy.  Thirdly, although Classics trains students in a whole host of skills, the fact that digital models of ancient buildings are so unusual, means that students who take this module find that their interest in innovative technology goes down very well at interviews – it sets them apart and gives them an extra string to their bow.  Employers really like the fact that the module requires students to design their own assignment and set their aims and objectives.  So the module is very good for employability.

6. Two students from the Department of Classics have recently been highly successful in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme.  How did their studies contribute to the launch of ‘Digital Silchester’? 

Yes, I had two UROP students who were employed on summer placements to aid me with my digital modelling of ancient Rome.  The idea was to employ raw recruits with aptitude but no previous knowledge of the software within a limited timeframe (six weeks) and to help them during that period to produce a meaningful piece of digital reconstruction.  One student produced a digital model of parts of northern Rome.  The other worked on Roman Scotland and in particular on a model of a Roman marching camp based around the site of St Leonard’s.  This student’s work recently featured on a BBC Scotland TV documentary in which I was also interviewed about digital modelling.  The fact that the software proved so successful for this Roman digital modelling encouraged me to transfer its use to my new undergraduate module ‘Digital Silchester’.

7.  Having Silchester so close to Reading is a wonderful bonus for our Classics and Archaeology students.  How have you been able to use easy access to this dig both to enhance your teaching and to inspire your students?  

The fact that I have been able to go to Silchester with my camera and take lots of reference photos has really enhanced my teaching.  Silchester’s closeness to the University of Reading is also invaluable to students because, thanks to money from my recent Teaching and Learning Development Fund grant, I was able to take the whole class to the site right during the course of the module.  I hired a coach and drove them in the freezing cold to the site, firstly to see the physical remains and secondly to take photographs.  I also encourage students to visit the Silchester gallery in the Reading town museum in their own time and I am considering in the future making this a compulsory component of the module.

8.  In setting up ‘Digital Silchester’ you have been in consultation with the Department of Archaeology.  It is really excellent to see these collaborations across the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.  Tell me in what ways has Archaeology been particularly helpful in providing advice and material for the module?

The Department of Archaeology has provided lots of advice and I have had a number of meetings with colleagues who are involved in the Silchester excavations.  At these meetings I worked out with them what they would find useful in terms of dates – in other words what date to set the models at – as well as discussing what should be included in student bibliographies, what were the likely paedagogic difficulties students might encounter on the module etc.  Eventually we hope to construct a model of parts of Silchester for display online, perhaps through the Department of Classics and/or Archaeology website.  In terms of material colleagues from Archaeology very helpfully provided me with a series of images from display boards from the Silchester site with reconstructive paintings made by English Heritage – with whom they also put me in touch.  They also gave me pointers on how and where to secure excavation reports from the site.  And as a number of the students on the module are theirs, I have enjoyed chatting to colleagues from Archaeology as the module has developed.

9.  In an increasingly competitive environment ‘Outreach’ has become more important than ever in academia.  How, for example, has English Heritage in particular been supportive of your launch of ‘Digital Silchester’?

English Heritage gave me the permission to use high-res reproductions of previous reconstructions.  This means that we can discuss with students the complexities of approaching re-construction and how previous professional artists have tackled Silchester in particular as a site.  As for ‘Outreach’ more widely – this has the potential to be considerable.  I have already been on television several times to discuss digital modelling and I have recently attended a national HEA Conference where I discussed the paedagogy of digital modelling further with colleagues from across the sector.  That the Silchester dig attracts huge public interest also gives us a fantastic potential opportunity to showcase ‘Digital Silchester’, while the fact that it is a unique module in UK undergraduate circles means it is also a very useful recruitment tool for encouraging admissions to both Classics and Archaeology.  There is also the potential for international collaboration, particularly in the United States.  For example, I am currently in conversation with Duke University who are working on developing a student modelling programme for Venice.  And there is the possibility of future public engagement for the University of Reading through the new technology of MOOCS.

10.  It is great to see the Department of Classics at the forefront of digital technology.  Obviously the nature of the module ‘Digital Silchester’ means that it is particularly suited to such expertise.  How would you encourage other colleagues in the School of Humanities to think about using digital technology in their seminars and lectures, particularly those who teach perhaps more ‘traditional’, less practically-based modules?      

I blog about ‘Digital Silchester’ on the University of Reading T and L blog and I have spoken at and chaired recent CSTD events at the University, including lunchtime T and L seminar colloquiums.  Colleagues from the departments of English and Archaeology have also sat in on ‘Digital Silchester’ seminars in order to learn about the software and there has also been a lot of student interest from the departments of Typography and Systems Engineering.  The software to construct a digital modelling course is free – so there is no cost barrier.  You can easily teach yourself with the aid of free tutorials on the web and I would really encourage colleagues to have a go!  I would recommend colleagues to approach digital modelling in stages.  So start with just downloading the software (http://www.sketchup.com) and playing with it, make shapes, models of houses etc.  Then you can progress to making an actual model yourself to illustrate research and/or show students before moving on to constructing a whole module based around digital modelling.  There are lots of free web tutorials and videos available. The beauty of digital modelling is that you can apply it to any module you teach –whether that is a module which requires a model of the papal court at Avignon or the palace of Versailles – the possibilities are endless!

Bringing the past to life on screen

modelDr Matthew Nicholls of the Classics Department uses digital technology to create reconstructions of the ancient past. He’s been working for some time on a huge digital model of ancient Rome, which he uses a lot for teaching and research. Students find these dramatic visualisations of the past engaging and useful, so Matthew has now developed a new module, CL3SIL Digital Silchester in which Reading undergraduates research and create their own virtual reconstructions of our local Roman town.

Matthew’s work lends itself well to television programmes on ancient Rome, and he has been in demand for programmes on Rome and its colourful history. Over the summer of 2012 the BBC contacted him to ask whether he could help with a documentary programme on Roman Scotland. The problem that programme makers faced was that while the story of the Romans in Scotland is fascinating, the archaeological remains they left behind often don’t show up well on the screen – utf-8''DSC03128the forts and towns of the area, which never developed into settlements permanently occupied over centuries, often survive as bumpy fields rather than dramatic, easily-filmed standing ruins. The BBC decided they needed to create some computer graphics to represent these Romano-Scottish sites to the viewers, and asked Matthew to help.

After an initial research trip at the start of the summer, Matthew returned to Reading and began work in the library, reading up on the history and archaeology of the sites chosen – the legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in Perth and Kinross, a fort with civilian settlement or vicus at Inveresk in East Lothian, a village of roundhouses at Birnie near Elgin, and a huge temporary marching camp at St Leonard’s.

utf-8''IMG_0287For the last of these only the outer earthwork survives, so Matthew turned to an ancient literary source, Pseudo-Hyginus, whose work on how to lay out the ideal Roman camp within those ramparts turns out to work pretty well for a camp of this size – an interesting combination of literary and archaeological evidence. For this part of the work Matthew was able to employ a second year undergraduate assistant as part of the University’s UROP scheme  offering the student a fantastic chance to earn some money and CV points and to get his name on the credits of the finished documentary.

Matthew returned to Scotland at the end of the summer to film the use of these models on site, and then continued work on them to produce and render animations of the finished versions that were used in the finished documentary, Rome’s Final Frontier, broadcast in December 2012 The BBC kindly agreed to host some of the reconstructions online, providing a permanent resource for those interested in these fascinating sites.

Department successful in UROP bid 2012

The Department of Classics is delighted to announce that it has, again, been successful in its bid for two UROP placements in 2012.

Reading’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) is a scheme that allows second-year Undergraduates to carry out a paid six-weeks research project in close collaboration with an academic over the Summer vacation. These projects are an ideal preparation for students who consider an academic career beyond their first degree, and they are an excellent preparation for the third-year dissertation project. (For further information please refer to the UROP pages .)

The two projects this year will be: