Digital teaching in Classics –a recent conference at the University by Dr Matthew Nicholls

The University of Reading recently hosted the Classical Association Conference, the UK’s largest annual meeting for Classicists. As well as research papers, the CA traditionally hosts panels exploring the teaching of the subject at both school and University levels and covering new developments. Classics, despite its ancient subject matter, has always been at the forefront of modern digital techniques of teaching and research, as recent work here at Reading shows.

This year’s CA featured a series of panels dedicated to e-learning, and as ever school and university teaching staff enjoyed the chance to learn what new developments each others’ professions had found to be useful (or not). In The first panel, teachers discussed their use of online learning environments, and pupils’ use of and response to using digital classroom tools for collaborative learning in a session which led into a general and wide-ranging audience discussion on the merits and demerits of VLEs. A second panel considered the application of IT resources to language teaching via heavily interactive digital resources of various sorts. New classroom IT offers the scope for social collaboration via wiki-like pages, and for the development of learning resources that are project- and problem-based. On the other hand, VLE’s can lag behind commercial or social software in the ‘real world’, which shapes student expectations. The incorporation of social media in teaching contexts can blur the boundaries between social and paedagogic interactions in ways that can be both productive and challenging – the appropriate etiquette around appropriate Facebook use, for example, continues to develop for both pupils and teachers. The panels considered the need to make IT resources engaging enough to capture student engagement when the online environment can create an expectation of game-like experiences, while still delivering robust content and structure.

These panels reflected a growing interest in tools and techniques for digital learning, a topic of much current interest in our own University. The overall impression from the panel I chaired was that there is much excitement about what has already been developed, and what is about to come (MOOCs were mentioned more than once). At the same time, there was a sense that the pace of change can make it hard to back the right horse – that time, effort, or money directed at a current device or platform might be worth very little in a couple of years, and that solid, ‘committee-designed’ platforms within institutions can lag behind nimbler commercial offerings. Students are now such practiced digital consumers that any frustrations or shortcomings in (for instance) a VLE are likely to disrupt their use of it quite substantially, and make it hard for us to direct them to the digital resources that we want them to use. The same seems to be true in the school classroom. When done well, however, results seem to show a promising uplift in performance and student engagement; the consensus was that digital methods of teaching definitely deserve their growing place in the teaching toolkit.

The conference panels also helped to address what seemed to be a shared sense of frustration that successful initiatives can develop in isolation, with practitioners in different sectors or institutions working on similar projects but unknown to each other. Conferences like this help to bring such people together, and as ever the chance to talk to and learn from people across one’s own field and beyond was very rewarding for all concerned.

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