Teaching and Learning in the School of Humanities. 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).

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!

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