Tag Archives: Internet use

Teaching scholarship, MOOCs and the digital pivot

This is a post whose original core idea has aged badly since its stubbing nearly four years ago, but looking at it, I thought the total rewrite it now needed was actually indicative of something worth saying. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I lead you through some old thinking before I take stock of where we now seem to be. The subject is the digital transformation of university teaching, and specifically that demon of internet commentary circa 2015, the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC.

'MOOC: every letter is negotiable', by Mathieu Plourde

‘MOOC: every letter is negotiable’, by Mathieu Plourde (Mathplourde on Flickr) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342/sizes/o/in/photostream/ File:MOOC-Poster.png, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

It is one of my contracted professional obligations in my current job to keep abreast of trends in the scholarship of education itself, as well as my mainline academic field or fields. This makes sense in as much as teaching is most of what, professionally, I do, but it is not without its frustrations, as that scholarship is prolific and I don’t think it’s controversial to say that it has yet really to establish clear standards of quality control. There certainly are serious, large-cohort or long-running studies of techniques or teaching environments and so on that make full use of the potential of the classroom (or rather, lots of classrooms in collaboration) as a laboratory for educational strategy and technique.1 The trouble for the people who put that kind of experimental planning and effort into their pedagogical scholarship is that they seem to stand as much chance of getting published as, and to share more or less equal standing in publication and citation when they do with, studies whose experimental basis is more like ‘I’ve been teaching small groups in the same small instititution to the same general demographic for thirty years now and though I don’t have records or anything, here’s what seems to work.’2 And I have to say, I have probably learnt at least as much about teaching from some of the latter as I have from the former, which might unkindly be seen mainly to provide data that shows what we mostly already suspected.3

But there is another trend in this scholarship, anyway, which is prognostication. I could list you scads of articles that exist only to say, “we predict that everything is going to change in the next few years in such-and-such a direction”, and they would probably almost all fall into three groups, being about either the ‘flipped classroom‘, ‘blended learning‘ or MOOCs. Of these, the most accurate looks like the ‘flipped classroom’ group, arguing with often-sound data for the improvement in learning and retention that happens if you use your classroom time for interaction and discussion rather than for lecturing, and instead have the information acquisition set as preparation and use the classroom time to work with that information and make sure it’s understood at the level where the students can do stuff with it.4 The only thing that annoys me about that scholarship is how they manage to keep selling as new methods that represent how the humanities, at least, has largely been taught for decades. Asking students to read in advance and come to class prepared to discuss, or even already having written something about, it is how I was taught and, I think I could safely say, how my father was taught either side of the Second World War, so how this keeps being published as a new idea beats me.5 Of course, it blurs into the second category, blended learning, when the prep work is digital content rather than just reading or a physical-space lecture, but the actual structure of the learning is not different. Anyway, this is not actually my subject for the day, just a frustration.

Diagram of flipped vs. traditional classroom learning

You see, in what discipline or subject area has the right-hand method been ‘traditional’ inside this century? And could whoever they are please catch up with the humanities so that we don’t keep getting buffeted in the bow wave of your reform efforts? Image from the UK’s Learning Foundation, linked through; I claim fair use because commentary…

So instead my target is the scholarship or commentary which, in 2017, was saying that the future was either partly-online or partly-digital education, i. e. blended learning, which has been going on for a while, or else fully-online and centralised in the form of the MOOC. I was actually signed up to a MOOC for 2015-16—is it ironic that it was about blended learning? I’ll let you decide—as training for an administrative role I then held and so I got some idea not just of how they were supposed to work but how they actually do, or don’t. (Of course, this is the same sample-of-one no-control anecdotal standard of scholarship I was just separating from stuff with any wider basis, but this is why it’s a blog post not a journal article, isn’t it?) But even as I was doing this, the generally hyperbolic level of excitement about them had struck me as weird. I think it was a recurrent thread on a blog I wish I still had time to read, Not of General Interest, that alerted me to this, but then I started collecting references, and some example titles would be, ‘MOOCs: another weapon in the outreach armoury’, ‘MOOCs are Coming’, and my two favourites, ‘This Could Be Huge’ and ‘An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’.6 It’s probably worth noting that none of these were peer-reviewed work, although the third is good journalism and I cite it often below; but it’s almost as if genuine educators didn’t find all this plausible… And indeed, as Undine’s posts already linked show, it wasn’t hard at the time to find push-back and criticism as well, but we seemed to be pushing against a technology-evangelical wall.

I say ‘we’ because I had definitely settled against the whole MOOC idea by the time I originally stubbed this post. This was not because I thought they were dreadful ways to learn, as such, but I did think that they were somewhat missold, and most of all that there was a bait-and-switch going on from their evangelists about the economics involved. The rhetoric that all the literature I could find, and the teaching I received, was to the effect that you, the educator, can now access this mass of pre-prepared digital content and incorporate it into your own courses/modules/whatever, thus saving you valuable time and enlivening your material for your students!7 And call me a cynic, but my reaction was, “that sounds a lot like, ‘your content is boring because it’s not modern and digital; someone else is already doing what we want from you better than you are; if we can just replace all your stuff with content we bodge in from elsewhere, or even just record your content, we can get rid of you, save your wage and just pay teaching assistants to do seminars on the recorded content, because hey man, it’s history, it’s literally all in the past, not like it’s gonna change amirite?'” Using MOOCs was pretty clearly out-sourcing, and one only ever does that to save labour costs. In other words, I saw MOOCs pretty squarely as a resource to which cash-poor universities could resort to cut teachers, and which cash-rich universities who didn’t need to cut teachers could create to sell to the cash-poor ones. That was more or less explicitly Harvard’s rationale for starting to generate them, and I’m sure there were other universities whose digital learning teams had similar glinty-eyed aspirations.8 But to me it seemed obvious that we should neither use nor make these things because by doing do we would, somewhere or other, be making a colleague and maybe eventually ourselves redundant.

Graphic of the digital pivot

I include this just because it is so impressively meaningless; it is supposedly a representation of the ‘digital pivot’ from a story in the MIT Technology Review from last year (linked through), which was sponsored by Hitachi but seems mainly to be about Walmart.

Now, that was the point of the original post, but the thing is, from four years on, it’s obvious that the promised revolution hasn’t happened, isn’t it? This was already becoming evident even as I stubbed the post; only a few days before major MOOC provider Udacity had decided to stop generating new courses and declared MOOCs ‘dead’, and by 2019 the subsidence of the phenomenon had been noted even in Science.9 But then came the Great Digital Pivot of 2020, which you might have thought was the tidal wave that should reverse the fortune of this dying tool, the point where everyone had to go not even blended but full-online. But it seems to have made no difference. Coursera, FutureLearn, EdX and a few other firms continue to offer such courses, but we have seen neither of the outcomes once predicted, where cheap online learning replaces universities or where universities start using extensive external content instead of their own staff (though if some of the staff cuts currently being fought in the UK go ahead, I guess that could still change).

So why not? Why didn’t the pandemic save the MOOC and why was it so ill in the first place? I think there are two big reasons. Firstly, as was being observed even in 2012, no-one was quite sure how to make them pay. The point of them was to be open access, after all, so you couldn’t charge up-front. The way Coursera used to work, and may still, is that you could do the whole course for free but had to pay a small amount to get certification that you had done so; I guess that the logic was that those who had actually completed the course would want to be able to prove it, and with literally millions of learners, even if conversion rates were terrible, you should still see enough of those payments to cover creation or licensing of content and running costs of the IT infrastructure, and even minimal ongoing staff time; a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:21,000 (as instanced below) should make that possible… But it seems that drop-out rates were even more terrible than that, and that actually you can just about keep going on that model but not make the forecasted mint. So only the biggest offerers have survived and very few universities have built MOOCs to try and make money; a few embraced them for a while as advertising for full degree courses, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest that that seems to work either.10 So reason one: a massive misjudgement of the world population’s willingess to pay for this kind of product.

I would like to think that reason two was that the turkeys who would have had to generate this content saw the wisdom in not voting for Christmas, but I’m pretty sure that in this employment climate you can pay would-be academics to teach pretty much anything, however much it may be against their long-term interests. So reason two might instead be a thing which the pandemic has very clearly exposed, which is that whether it’s because they think it results in better learning or because it forms part of the much-championed but little-specified ‘university experience’, people doing degree-level education actually want to receive it direct from people they think are experts, and have the chance to interact with those strange beasts in real time. In theory, that was possible in MOOCs, if you signed up to them when they were new and kept up with their schedules; the designers and instructors would be around and responding to comments as far as they could. But with 38,000 people signed up to a course, many contributing several times weekly, and probably two staff members running it in only some of their time, you can see how much chance there is of reaction from the instructor really happening for most students.11 If you were well behind on the content, then you probably didn’t even have the benefit of peer discussion and learning; there just wouldn’t be enough people on the same unit as you at the same time to sustain a conversation. This was certainly my experience, and I suppose illustratively, I never actually finished the course myself. An Edinburgh study in 2013 made the problems even more clear, however: they found that a MOOC took eight hours a week to set up and sixteen hours a week to run, for only one of the two staff involved; only 2,000 of 42,000 students enrolled actually completed it; the students expected instructors to be more present than was actually possible; those who fell behind didn’t find it desirable to catch back up (as I also found); and, as one of their students (identified as “Bertin”) put it on their blog, “the overall effect for me was knowing that I don’t want to do an e-learning course they run that I had previously been interested in taking”.12 Oops!

What this means is that making these things work is actually very hard, but even when they do there’s really very little difference, other then the endurance required to finish a MOOC, between it and any other online training course like the ones they give university staff on heavy lifting or fire safety or gender and race equality, all useful within limits, but basically canned content with zero interaction with the supposed teacher. And it seems clear that, even though often enough when you have students in a classroom with you it seems like interacting with you is absolutely the last thing they want to do, when the alternative is no interaction at all, it’s worse, and they’ll pay to avoid it, or at least accumulate fairly abstract debt (in England and Wales, anyway; I realise that student debt has more serious implications where the Student Loans Company doesn’t periodically go bankrupt from shortage of repayments). And MOOCs, it seems, were and are that alternative. Perhaps they could be made to run better, with more student-teacher interaction and more live content; but it would send their costs up, reduce their universal accessibility (because live means in a fixed time and place) and probably therefore make their margins worse not better. So I cautiously think that university teachers might now be safe from this revolution, at least. The blended learning evangelists look like being a lot closer to the future, and indeed the present really, but that would be another post. Let me mature that one a few years too before trying it, eh?


1. I hope I can be forgiven no more than one example per generalisation, even though by so doing I am myself normalising bad scientific practice; sorry. But: the biggest large-cohort highly-designed meta-study I know is Elif Kara, Mirco Tonin and Michael Vlassopoulos, ‘Class size effects in higher education: Differences across STEM and non-STEM fields’ in Economics of Education Review Vol. 82 (Amsterdam 2021), 102104, DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2021.102104.

2. For example, the perfectly worthy but not really scientific Anne Firor Scott, “Why I Teach By Discussion” in A. Leigh Deneef and Craufurd D. Goodwin (edd.), The Academic’s Handbook, 3rd ed. (Durham NC 2007), pp. 212–216, on JSTOR here. A charming example I also have to cite is Harry Brighouse, “Becoming a Better College Teacher (If You’re Lucky)” in Daedalus Vol. 148 (2019), pp. 14–28, DOI: 10.1162/daed_a_01758.

3. A really good anecdotal practice paper is Brett Lunceford, “There Are No Girls in My Classroom: A Pedagogical Note” in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Vol. 68 (New York City NY 2001), pp. 63–67, which I don’t know how you’d find without being told. A somewhat unsurprising large-scale study is Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan and Greg Kestin, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 116 (Washington DC 2019), 19251, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116, which laboriously shows that on the whole students prefer it when they don’t have to work as hard to grasp what’s being taught even if it teaches them better to do so.

4. There is an incredible amount of work trialling flipped-classroom approaches or resisting them. A very recent and huge meta-study, which ought to lay the matter to rest but probably won’t, is Khe Foon Hew, Shurui Bai, Weijao Huang, Phillip Dawson, Jiahui Du, Guoyuhui Huang, Chengyuan Jia & Khongjan Thankrit, “On the use of flipped classroom across various disciplines: Insights from a second-order meta-analysis” in Australasian Journal of Educational Technology Vol. 37 (Tugun 2021), pp. 132–151, DOI: 10.14742/ajet.6475. Some suggestions that the effects might be socially variable in Elizabeth Setren, Kyle Greenberg, Oliver Moore & Michael Yankovich, Effects of the Flipped Classroom: Evidence from a Randomized Trial, discussion paper #2019.07 (Cambridge MA 2019), online here.

5. Evangelism: Dan Berrett, ‘How “Flipping” the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture’ in Chronicle of Higher Education, 19th February 2012, online here; Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, Flip your classroom: reach every student in every class every day (Eugene OR 2012); Jennifer Gavriel, “The flipped classroom” in Education for Primary Care Vol. 26 (Abingdon 2015), pp. 424–425, DOI: 10.1080/14739879.2015.1109809; or Betty Love, Angie Hodge, Cynthia Corritore and Dana C. Ernst, “Inquiry-Based Learning and the Flipped Classroom Model” in Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies Vol. 25 (Abingdon 2015), pp. 745–762, DOI: 10.1080/10511970.2015.1046005.

6. Respectively Chris Parr, “MOOCs: another weapon in the outreach armoury” in Times Higher Education, 11th July 2013, p. 11; David Williams, “MOOCs are coming”, AdvanceHE, n.d., online here; Zoë Corbyn, “This could be huge…” in Times Higher Education, 6th December 2012, pp. 34–39; and Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly & Saad Rizvi, An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead (London 2013), online here. Corbyn says some academics were then forecasting a ‘Napster moment’ (p. 36), which seems unintentionally accurate given that in the end Napster perished and traditional recording labels somehow survive…

7. See even now Peter G. M. de Jong, James D. Pickering, Renée A. Hendriks, Bronwen J. Swinnerton, Fereshte Goshtasbpour and Marlies E. J. Reinders, “Twelve tips for integrating massive open online course content into classroom teaching” in Medical Teacher Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2020), pp. 393–397, DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2019.1571569.

8. Harvard’s offering discussed in Corbyn, “This could be huge”, pp. 36 & 38.

9. Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente, “The MOOC pivot” in Science Vol. 363 (Washington DC 2019), pp. 130–131.

10. Corbyn, “This could be huge”, p. 38, where the example is the University of London, in one of its very rare corporate actions.

11. Numbers from the Stanford course around which Corbyn, “This could be huge”, is centred; see esp. pp. 36 & 38.

12. Reportage from Chris Parr, “Wisdom and Crowds” in Times Higher Education, 18th April 2013, pp. 24–25.

Metablog XI: link clear-out

As is now normal, alas, I have to apologise for the gap in posting; there have been exam marks to finalise and then, heavens help me, I actually took some time off to do non-medieval things. But now I am back and I’m trying to work towards the point where I’m not just up to date with my own stuff but also with at least some other people’s. That’s still a long way off but as a first effort I have taken a long haul through the links in my sidebar, taking out those that no longer existed or are inactive, updating those that had moved and fixing some typos in what survived. Now, everything I’m linking to should be some kind of relevant and active.

There’s room in such an exercise for reflection, of course. It’s noticeable, for example, that most of what I had to prune was in the Resources section; I had to take out far fewer blogs even though my criteria for them are more stringent (viz., they have to have medieval content less than a quarter old on the front page). It seems that a one-person operation with commercial hosting is more practical to maintain than a static institutional website, who knew? Well, we all knew it probably, but it shouldn’t really be that way should it? Digital continuity is for some reason something the Academy can’t manage as well as WordPress. Then again, it may be the one-person thing. When it can be someone else’s fault if something isn’t done, it’s easier for everyone to ignore it maybe? Certainly, group blogs seemed to have survived less well than single-author ones, though obviously this is not real statistics given it’s a selective sample of a tiny size.

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth's atmosphere

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth’s atmosphere, located and explained at Perishable Press (linked through)

Then there’s nostalgia (which is, as we know, not what it used to be). It’s not just me that’s had trouble keeping up with updating; some of the most venerable medievalist blogs, the ones who were an encouragement to me that other people did this thing when I was starting and who have been written about as bloggers, are now silent or dormant. In some cases there were real, sometimes fairly awful reasons; in some cases like mine it’s just acute time shortage; but I guess that it’s also that for a lot of now-silent bloggers online interaction has moved, to Facebook or Twitter. I don’t use those (because as Stuart Airlie once insightfully told me, it’s all about control) but no less a figure than Geoffrey Chaucer shows how this can happen. It’s not that blogs are dead, despite worries to that effect for many years now. There are also several fairly new blogs on the roll, but they are more noticeably academic publicity operations and less anonymised relations of the life academic than was once the case. The medium continues, but it’s now being used for different things, indeed roughly the things I set out to use it for when I started, although I slipped towards the middle of that continuum fairly rapidly. I doubt I started the trend, I think it was the pressure for impact and relevance that did that, but it is still noticeable. There’s still masses to keep up with, of course, and as yet I can’t, but I do hope to again some day. Now, at least the list of what I can’t keep up with is up to date again…

Uniting the uniters: electronic resource corpora and competition

I am now back from Kalamazoo in safety, but very very short of sleep, so if this makes no sense I apologise and may redact later. I will write about Kalamazoo eventually, but the short version would be that it was great. I wanted to clear some more backlog, though, and I had to do something fairly simple because on the morning of the day I flew back overnight, I had to stay awake until David Ganz had finished delivering his second Lowe Lecture in Palæography, which I went to. So, here’s a thing. A little while ago News for Medievalists did their characteristic content-scrape of an article from a site called Science News Western Australia, which reports on a new initiative being run by the Australian Research Council Network for Early European Research.

Basically, they wanted to build a ‘medieval manuscript commons’ on the web. (I use the past tense because, what you would not realise from News for Medievalists’ 2011 version, this was being reported on in 2009, and the aforenamed Network ceased to be funded in late 2010. So this initiative actually never came to pass and never will, but that actually doesn’t hurt either my point or, it would seem, News for Medievalists’s ethic of business.) The responsible party, one Dr Toby Burrows, had just completed a project to digitise and webify information about medieval manuscripts in Australian collections, a thing called Europa Inventa that does exist and which you can look at, and was reported as explaining:

“What we’re proposing will use semantic web technologies to link up all the information about medieval manuscripts on the many databases and web sites around the world.

“It will be a meta-framework which sits over the top of all the existing data, but is not intended to replace that data,” he says of the service which is likely to be hosted in Europe and be free.

UWA is funding Dr Burrows’ research with a UWA Collaborative Research Award of $8000.

So, I imagine that he was fairly happy even if the project never actually completed. Now, this project might sound a bit vampiric, basically being paid to siphon traffic to your site on the basis of others’ content (much like Medievalists.net, in fact) but I think we can agree it would be useful to have a global repository of this kind of information. It’s almost surprising no-one’s thought of it before, isn’t it? And yes, you’ve guessed no doubt, of course they have and we’ve reported on it here before, Columbia University’s Digital Scriptorium. It seems clear that the Commons one would have rendered the Scriptorium redundant, or vice versa; the aim is the same and they would have competed, however useful either might have been.

Columbia, University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Special Collections, Fragmenta Manuscripta 003, recto

Columbia, University of Missouri, Ellis Library, Special Collections, Fragmenta Manuscripta 003, recto, highlight of the collection when I visited the website for this post

My point is that we really only need one global service of this kind, and in fact that if there are two then both of them directly attack each other’s raison d’être. And yet we see this repeatedly not just here but in other fields too, and usually funded as here on the alleged basis that no such service exists. For example, you may remember that a long time ago I worked on such a project at the Fitzwilliam Museum about just how we would go about uniting disparate databases of coin information for sharing across the web.1 This was the first wave of semantic web stuff and looked quite powerful, though money to take it further than proof-of-concept has not, I believe, been forthcoming. But very shortly afterwards I was contacted by someone else who’d had the same idea and wanted to do it slightly differently but also, naturally enough, wanted to make use of data that others had already catalogued. That gap is still there, so presumably there’s room for a third of these databases but as we’ve just seen, the fact that something already exists to do one of these jobs doesn’t necessarily preclude others arising, all trying to be the one ring to bind them all. It feels as if the web, with its amazing searchability, on which these endeavours are all intended to sail, ought to prevent this happening; if not earlier, the funding bodies all ought to be capable of operating a FWSE and finding the older projects themselves and then at least asking, “Is this really new?” But since we’ve reported here before on people getting vast awards to allow them basically to reinvent hyperlinking, I suppose I’m not surprised this doesn’t work.

Screenshot of the COINS-MT software created by the COINS Project

Screenshot of the COINS-MT software created by the COINS Project

Less cynically, though, these endeavours can’t be as useful as their founders and funders presumably did all recognise they could be as long as they have competition. I realise that’s not very free-market but these are supposed to be public services, not profit-makers, and so they won’t follow capitalist rules. We really wanted, on the COINS Project, to set it up so that anyone who’d digitised a numismatic collection could dump that data into the central repository we didn’t get to set up and someone, with a bare minimum of crunching code, could suck it in in fields people could find things with consistently. This, like Monasterium.net or other such repositories, required people to be willing to do that. A small digitisation project probably will, but these big umbrella projects presumably can’t or they lose their `market space’. And I’m just not sure this actually helps us, in the long run. Perhaps the answer is just to wait for semantic web stuff to advance far enough that our home computers will be able to identify correct mapping of such data automatically. And meanwhile, as Magistra pointed out a while back in a different context, someone who has such information that they really want to be out there has got to pass it to everyone who’s subsequently going to work on it. But until funding is all international (and until funding committees can do a websearch, perhaps) this separation of endeavours is going to continue to be a problem I fear.


1. Any minute now the paper talking about this project as a whole will be out as Jonathan Jarrett, Achille Felicetti, Reinhold Hüber-Mork and Sebastian Zambanini, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Tempe forthcoming), pp. 000-00. Any minute.

Someone is wrong on the Internet

XKCD strip 386

XKCD strip 386

That really should have been a subject header of mine a long time ago (not least given its pedigree). I suspect it will recur now. This is another post where I try and clear backlog by combining things that I’d decided to blog about separately, and in this instance the linking theme is things I read on the Internet that made me angry. (This happens a lot, as you’ve probably spotted).

DIgital Archaeology my Archive

The first one was this, which is a particularly annoying piece of wheel reinvention and may not be something you want on a work monitor, not least because it’s on Fox News but also because they have for reasons of pure prurience decided to illustrate the piece with a lingerie website. The schtick is simple enough, an advertising executive who’s done a certain amount of digging around to rebuild some old websites and had, when this was reported, now organised an event in London where he showed off the results. He is calling this digital archaeology (and the latter word presumably brought it to the notice of David Beard at Archaeology in Europe, where I first saw the link; hat duly tipped), and it’s not uninteresting, especially the note that mostly, websites can’t be entirely recovered no matter how good the cache is, the supporting images and so on are just gone. The bit where my temperature started to rise, though, was this:

Boulton isn’t the first to preserve the world of computers for future generations. The Software Preservation Group has been working since 2003 to catalog and archive software the world’s software resources. It’s an offshoot of California’s Computer History Museum, which archives the output of Silicon Valley. But these groups don’t preserve the Internet’s content itself, and certainly don’t consider themselves archaeology projects.

The name is not the problem. The problem is that people have been doing this for years, and I don’t mean Google. I am perpetually shocked when people don’t know about the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine. More and more people are becoming aware of the former as they try and manœuvre themselves into a position of being a publically-funded runner-up to Google Books, which as has been mentioned here before is something some wise people think we need, but the foundation behind this all is much more than PDF repository (or even a storage site for gigabytes and gigabytes of Grateful Dead spin-offs’ live recordings). They have been trying to archive a copy of the whole damn Internet since 1996, and the job has, you know, got harder since then. Can you remember the URL of your old personal webpages at university, your first faculty Internet resource, that silly joke site where you’d already seen the stuff that someone e-mailed round your list of friends? It’s probably still there, have a look. It won’t be all there, and you do have to have the URL—no free text search—but nonetheless, a shocking amount has been preserved there, they’re working with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and they deserve not just our support, but also for enough people to know about them that this jumped-up executive can’t convince even a service as dull as Fox that he’s doing something new.

And, breathe. Next patient, the Daily Telegraph.

I know it’s the Telegraph but this is still rather stupid

On 25th November, apparently, the UK Education Secretary, got a petition from an outfit of school history teachers called The Better History Group demanding a reform of the way the subject is taught in UK schools. Now, I am no fan of bad history as you know, so I am not against this. Sadly my and the Telegraph‘s definitions of quality differ rather. Take this:

It was suggested that at the age of 11, pupils should learn about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, early medieval England and the Crusades.

At 12, pupils should be taught about medieval life, the English conquest of Scotland and Wales, the 100 Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Elizabeth I and overseas exploration.

Because of course the Middle Ages is entry-level stuff and not at all challenging or difficult, and chronology rules us all anyway, right? Why not the other way round, from the stuff they can do with help from family to the stuff they really really can’t? Also, hullo, anything from east of the German border at all apart from colonialism? I assume that the end result is in any case the same and that by the time they’re eighteen they’re studying the Third Reich same as most history students now. Pah. And this:

“The current nature of source-based assessment in examinations, both at GCSE and at A-level, bears little relation to actual historical practice or even to actual historical sources.

“Consequently, not only are students drilled in formulaic exercises of little practical application, but an enormous amount of time is wasted preparing them for these exercises, time which could have been better spent in extending their historical knowledge.

“Since analysis of source material is, in any case, meaningless without extensive knowledge, the lack of this renders current practice in source analysis a largely pointless exercise.”

You, the reader, will be familiar with the fact that one of the few things we can all agree on, from Guy Halsall to Stanley Fish, is that history teaches critical thinking,1 and the core of that, surely, is analysis of source material. What is suggested here is, more or less, to junk that in favour of a good patriotic singalong. I think, alas, that will play well with this government, given their flirtation with Niall Ferguson’s ‘bring back the empire in our school’ rhetoric of earlier this year. But if it actually said this, I would tear up this text—’a report’, says the Telegraph, abdicating any source analysis in the proper spirit of its informants and putting the whole thing under the headline “Children ‘ignorant of British history’ because of trendy teaching”, just to get the bigots’ heart-rate up—and jump on it, lots, because it would not only make inbred colonialism the stuff of modern education but it would also make the upcoming school population and next generation of voters even more stultifyingly unable to tell when someone is bullshitting them. And that, I begin to fear, seems to be what the powers-that-be actually want, because I’ve no idea what else they can be trying to achieve like this.

Private Eye cover 1074

And this would probably be the point at which the British political class realised they could ignore popular protests now

That said, the actual report is much less bad than what the Telegraph—and this is of course not the first time thinking people have had to have this conversation—have made out that it says. I can’t find any of the quotes here in its text, and they do emphasise critical thinking taught by exposure to source material, a single joined-up history course but without the ‘little Empire’ focus (or indeed any recommended content) the Telegraph have added. So I don’t mean to condemn the Better History Group at all, their approach and thinking seems more or less admirable to me from their actual report. But that actual report is most definitely not what the Telegraph are quoting, and they don’t tell us what it is that they are. Of course, to spot that they’re making stuff up to cause their readers to froth, rather than doing actual journalism, you’d have to have some kind of critical awareness and a readiness to check sources. So perhaps it’s not just the government who could use a more credulous and unthinking population, hey? Man, I hate it all.


1. Oh, no, hang on, Stanley Fish doesn’t think that, sorry. He thinks he ought to be paid by the public for doing something he is willing to say is useless and doesn’t help them at all. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how the public purse is funding the guy.

Links of coolness (mainly featuring death or actual cold, but some brighter)

Well, I’ve been busy for so long that quite a lot of exciting stuff has come out of the ground or otherwise appeared on the web. First and foremost, it would seem that some of the stuff presented at that Bristol conference that I said I wasn’t allowed to talk about has now been released.

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

The grave of Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, newly opened

At the conference they had video from a microcamera intruded into the coffin of this man, who was once Barbarossa’s Chancellor, but hadn’t yet opened it. Now they have, which I learn from this article on The Times‘s website, in case your German’s not up to that first one, and I found the Times one because of this post by Michelle Moran at her History Buff blog. In case you can’t see, he is holding a chalice and a book. Go and look at the pictures! Rarely is a dead body so amazing.

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

Skulls in the burial pit on the Ridgeway, Dorset

So, I said I’d tell you and so I have. But of course just lately most of the focus has been on another set of dead bodies, the fifty-one apparently-Vikings at Weybridge, Dorset. A quick sken at the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog reveals ten separate articles just on the front page and I seem to remember that there were more. Here I think I should give the palm of coverage to my colleague Rory Naismith who has covered it for the Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic’s blog here. If you want an expert’s take, there is one, albeit suitably cautious.

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

The ruins of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

One more set of dead bodies with no images as yet, but in some ways more interesting, is a group of female burials that have been found at Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh, in Devon. The archæologist in charge, Sam Turner, is saying that this suggests there was a nunnery on the site. I see the reasoning, but I wonder, because of the dating, which from the article in the South Devon Herald Express to which David Beard linked at Archaeology in Europe, which continues invaluable, they say only that the site is at least 1000 years old. I think, reading between the lines, that this is because they have found a church underlying the current ruins, which are Norman (and only this ruined because of a fire in 1992, worse luck), and since those are Norman these must be Saxon. What the relation of the burials to either church is not clear from the short notes in the papers, or whether the bodies themselves have yet been dated, and I’d very much appreciate any further information anyone might have. The reason I’m cautious is that in 1018 there was a monastery, Buckfast Abbey, founded just down the hill from this sight, and so the dating is kind of crucial to work out whether the abbey was replacing a nunnery, moving in alongside, or merely a resumption of monastic life in male reform style on a site where female religious observance had ceased long before. Or, whether they’ve just struck a bit of the graveyard where women were, as these are not the first burials recovered from the churchyard (as you’d expect). So, cart before the archæological horse? Or genuinely archæological evidence of a very late Saxon double monastery? Apart from anything else, I note that in 2005 Andrew Reynolds and Dr Turner published this site as a monastery, so I’d very much like to know what the earlier evidence was, and will keep my eyes and ears open.1 Hey Andrew, you’re not reading are you? (Worth a try…)

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Away from bodies, but back to Vikings, and also relating to arguments that have been had here about our favourite bone of contention, it should be noted if you didn’t—I got it from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe again—that a new temperature index for medieval Greenland has been compiled from sea-shells pulled out of sediment cores, and shows a fairly severe collapse in the temperature in that area in the decades after the settlement of Iceland in c. 890. Of course, I’m more interested in the bit where they say, “winter temperature variability increased between 990 and 1120, a time when written records suggest that crops occasionally failed. By 1250, things heated up again and summer temperatures reached 10 degrees Celsius, possibly the highest in three centuries. Within decades, though, temperatures began to plunge again”, but the reminder that all our temperature data (and this is still true now) is local data first and foremost is salutary, because this is not really what we see in mainland Europe.

Mosaic floor from the Umayyad palace at al-Sinnabra

Likewise about things coming out of the ground, although in a very different area and of very different size (though possibly less significance: think on that, ye mighty…) is this summer palace of the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya that Israeli archæologists have located at al-Sinnabra on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. I learn this from News for Medievalists, and I haven’t missed the recent controversy over their content, but this one links to the press release I’ve just linked, so I see no problem with tipping the hat here.2

Then, I’d also like to notice two things that are about texts rather than objects, firstly this excellent article by Patricia Cohen for the New York Times about how to archive Salman Rushdie’s computer files, which taps into so much stuff I’ve written here before about digital decay and the need for truly long-term digital preservation strategies, which I was pointed at from Cliopatria, and which contemplates, among other things, preserving the hardware on which the files were used so as to replicate the author’s mise-en-page, which is a wonderful idea. They make mention of a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device at Stanford University, basically a really advanced data recovery machine, and I’m quite glad there is one of those but I think we’ll need more…

And of course, as has correctly been observed by Goblinpaladin at Opinions of a Reformed Dropout, this is approximately the most brilliant thing in the world, a chap called Jackson Crawford who has taken it upon himself to rewrite the story of Star Wars as Old Norse saga, Tattúínárdœla saga. My Old Norse is basically non-existent, and he has provided English translations only reluctantly, but the actual effort of reimagining the characters and storyline into a Viking Age setting is a considerable part of his achievement. I’d say go read it but since he speaks of having 8,000 visitors per day I’d guess you probably already are. Nevertheless, just in case… Ah me how I love the Internet.


1. Andrew Reynolds & Sam Turner, “Discovery of a late Anglo-Saxon monastic site in Devon: Holy Trinity church, Buckfastleigh” in Archaeology International Vol. 5 no. 8 (London 2005), pp. 22-25.

2. I confess to some slight bemusement at the extent of this. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met its operators, but I never thought Medievalists.net was anything other than self-promoting journalism. The selection of articles and the coverage given to fiction has always left that impression on me, and the choice of digitised scholarly work they choose to host also seems to embrace availability rather than discrimination. At least they are now consistently giving links. The whole thing has made me think a lot more carefully about how I use hot-linking, though. It’s always seemed to me a way to pass traffic to a deserving site and notify them that I’d borrowed their image, and the bandwidth implications had never struck me. They probably don’t arise with the number of visitors I get here, but all the same, and because often hot-linked images disappear, I should rethink that. Any thoughts from people I’ve linked to?

Medieval Latin and the Internet, twelve years on

There’s a peculiar kind of bitter-sweet comedy in reading old print articles about the Internet, isn’t there? A volume I was looking at for other purposes has a state-of-the-situation piece in it from a conference in 1997. This sits well with me as I was just about getting the hang of the Internet by then, having graduated from Mosaic on a Mac SE30 to Netscape on a Quadra (Netscape Navigator 3 Gold, no less, whose Word-a-like HTML editor is still one of the most straightforward ever created) and having first encountered mentions of The ORB and so on. But of course, and the article itself anticipates this, the web changes a lot very fast, and those were the slow days compared to now when really, it was still quite strange to have an Internet connection unless you were a big business or, paradoxically, a student. Some things don’t change: it’s amusing, for example, to see soc.history.medieval being cited even then as an example of how much low-quality information there is on the ‘net to sift through (and I see from a quick look at the Google Groups page that D. Spencer Hines is still, a decade on, doing his level best to make it so). However, pretty much every other resource it mentions is gone, or at the very least, not where they left it. In some cases this is because it’s actually been worked on, updated and moved, like Carrie, the full-text library of the University of Kansas. The whole University has changed its domain since the article was written, which twits both the print link here and even that given from the ORB (or at least from the cached version of the ORB since poor old ORB, already becoming outdated and underloved when I first met it, is down at the time of writing). But it is still out there, though the name changes have made it difficult to happen on it without cunning websearchery. Another case is Virginia Tech’s Bibliography on evaluating web information, which is actually really useful and deserves wider publicity, but still isn’t at the URL or under the name this article gives any more and has to be Googled. Labyrinth, at least, is still where it was and serving more or less the same content. I mean, it’s not where it was, actually, but Georgetown University’s IT department have at least been kind enough to ensure that the old URL redirects to the new one, which as you can see from the above very rarely happens. (Honourable mention here to the University of Leeds’s International Medieval Institute, now the Institute for Medieval Studies.) Even when it does, as with the Online Medieval And Classical Library at Berkeley, it can still be screwed up.

The article also covers search engines, from a period when I’d just about woken up to the fact that really, anything was better than Yahoo but that this still basically left one with Lycos or Altavista. Thank goodness Google haven’t yet proved to be evil. I didn’t even know about MetaCrawler, despite it being old enough to get mentioned here, but since it returns me as second result for « tenth AND medieval » whereas Google returns me now (I’m childishly glad to see) as top result for « tenth medieval », which was long ago the challenge for this whole exercise, I think I know who wins…

It’s also salutary to see a short and simple explanation of why, in 1997, the WWW was already going to drive out Telnet (inaccessible both because of its authentication and its slightly arcane command set) and Gopher (like the WWW only less capable), because although I still maintain an online diary on what began as a Telnet server (now SSH, for which reason no, you can’t find it) I don’t know of any library catalogue that still uses a Telnet interface even though they were often quicker and more transparent than the OPAC front-ends that now proliferate—hey, hey, no, the School of Advanced Studies in London is still running its one. Once you’re in it warns you “this service is no longer in use”, but since it turns up two pamphlets I gave to the IHR last year I’m not sure what ‘not in use’ means in this context. (The cite the article gives for a list of Telnet catalogues is still linked from the University of Madrid site that they give but itself returns a 404.) And, anyway, Gopher is all gone isn’t it. The WWW doesn’t necessarily do things as well but it does it without the learning curve. You can tell it was 1997 however because the authors don’t appear to realise that there is more than one programme available for browsing the web, in fact they don’t mention programmes at all.

But you know what’s missing? This here bit of the medium. I remember that in 1998 or so, 1997 was still a bit early but by 1998 it was beginning in my part of the world, people were starting to use this thing called Livejournal. And I suppose Blogger was also up and running by then? But I didn’t meet it until later when a casual web-search for I-now-forget-what took me to the Blogenspiel of Another Damned Medievalist and that alerted me to the fact that there were in fact people blogging in my field. No hint here of this informal educational medium that’s so challenged, well, newspapers and so on, for informed commentary and, well, education. I mean, even a couple of years ago `blogger’ was still a term of ridicule, Cafepress are still selling “I’m blogging this” t-shirts from when that was an empty threat because reading blogs was something only misfits did. And now, well, for heavens’ sake, the popularity of this here site has been going down for some months—it’s hard to tell because of the substantial but varying input of the Český Krumlov queries, which persist, and rather drown an apparently declining traffic from other sources—but I still draw ten thousand hits a month, and I am not exactly mainstream media, you know? In 1997, anyway, this appears to have been off the radar, which given that it may be happening right now is perhaps forgiveable. But even this is recognised in a small way by the fact that it is because of this change that one of their links, once located via Google, the old journal Le Médiéviste et l’Ordinateur, ceased publication in 2007, seeing a sea change in Internet use that made it effectively redundant. Their page now directs readers to Digital Medievalist and Ménestrel, among others. I wonder if I’ll be able to do a post like this from a print article in 2019?

Will I in fact be able to do a post like this in 2019 at all? I’ve mentioned all this mainly out of nostalgia but also by way of giving weight and perspective to a rather apocalyptic-sounding comment I recently made at Modern Medieval and an older one I made at In the Medieval Middle that didn’t make it through moderation, to the effect that anyone who thinks putting something online makes it permanent is fooling themselves. Where’s Simon Keynes’s Anglo-Saxon Studies Bibliography? Even when, as with Carrie, it is still there, you can’t necessarily find it because the domain has changed and so has its name so all your search terms are uselessly broad. So keep offline copies and contribute to the Internet Archive, I guess, and remember that we work on sources that survived a thousand years or more because someone wrote them down in ink on skin and someone else, most likely, packed them between wooden boards and then generations of someones else kept them somewhere dry. Your CD-Rs will not last that long, or probably even as long as you do. Also, manuscripts (or books or print journals) don’t need mains power to be read. The low-tech will still be worth thinking about for a while.


Celia Fernández Corral & Enrique González Alonso, “Latin Medieval e Internet”, in Maurilio Pérez González (ed.), Actas, II Congreso Hispánico de latín medieval (León, 11-14 de noviembre de 1997) vol. I (León 1998), pp. 449-462.

What are all you Český Krumlov people finding here?

The readership figures, such as WordPress stats can give me, have been very healthy lately. This ought to be encouraging but actually it isn’t, because a strange thing is happening that I do not understand. A while ago I wrote a post about state-developed ethnicities that you may remember, and loaded it with a picture of Český Krumlov, a city in Bohemia that Phil Paine remembered with joy and I was quite pleased with it, I think it’s one of my better posts. Well, it got the response and then went quiet as these things do and I moved on.

Then, right at the end of January, a series of what seem to be variously-phrased image searches for Český Krumlov, and after a short while, text searches too. January 29th, 24 hits; next day, 34; 41, 26, 41, 53, 37, 34 and it has just gone on, about 40 hits a day coming from what seems to be the same searches over and over again. It’s a noticeable portion of my total page views, and it’s still going. And it turns out that the image I borrowed from somewhere (linked through as is my practice) is making that post first hit for the place on Google Image search. That, while wrong, is explicable. But it keeps on!

Other things that I have written that have taken off go off bang! and then tail off over a few days, as the meme gets circulated, everybody that it finds and their friends, click, go `huh’ and fewer and fewer pass it on. Some things you can tell have answered some particular class’s reading and ten or twenty people will hit it over a few days and then that goes away. Links from the Unlocked Wordhoard and Muhlberger’s Early History, though they are much appreciated because they represent a kind of peer review, net me single figures for a day or two, usually. Not much gets a prolonged period of attention except for the few things that respond to search queries that never get old. But this one appears to be steady income. Why are people still searching for this? I’ve mentioned a lot of towns on here, and many of them have fewer images online than Krumlov which seems quite well-photographed. But these other towns don’t have forty-plus people per day looking for images of them. Is there some kind of civic loyalty test there that involves being able to identify it from the air? What? None of the circa 280 people a month who are seeing this post have commented, even in Czech. Are any of you reading this? I must know! Speak up, won’t you?

Internet 1, Print Media 2, the winner in the Tenth Medieval Incredulity Contest

I love the Internet, obviously. Quite apart from its social function and its various commercial and academic possibilities (I think learning is a social function, actually), it provides daily doses of how odd human society can get direct to your desktop (or laptop as it may be). But one day recently, the housemates’ daily Guardian not only took the biscuit but went and hid with it behind the sofa leaving only a trail of unlikely crumbs and an over-stretched metaphor.

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

First blow to the Internet, as David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe pointed me to this article on Science Daily, which nearly made me write a page-long rant by itself. Then I thought that I wasn’t being constructive enough; instead, I invite someone to set it to their students for extra credit by the hundred words they can produce on how badly the article is done. Someone somewhere involved remembers a bit of history from school, I guess: that we aren’t fully decided on why the Roman Empire fell, that the Byzantines considered themselves the Roman Empire still, and that climate change has been blamed for societies collapsing… and then it all gets mixed up into this. A pity, and a greater pity that that school doesn’t appear to have instructed them in the history of early Islam (unlike some). But pity most of all that it got any kind of publication without anyone stopping to ask a historian… Somewhere in this, however, is the important observation that mostly climate evidence is taken from the poles and that a bit of balance might change the results rather. Let’s not lose that in the utter mess of the history.

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

But then I got home and the Guardian attacked. This story has actually gone up since then on Archaeology in Europe too but I didn’t find it there so the printed paper wins this one. How often have you wanted, when reading a site report or even doing a dig if you are such a person, to be able to ask an inhabitant how their site got this way? Some archaeologists that the Guardian is telling you about can do just that as they are excavating the site of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, base for twenty years’ bitter hippy protests against a cruise missile installation that of course the US eventually learnt how to replace with submarines, which are harder to picket. Apparently the diggers are confused by how many milk-bottles a largely Vegan group went through; the article doesn’t actually report what any of the surviving protestors could add by way of explanation, though apparently getting their testimonies will be part of the project. All the same it’s a nice indication that social memory can often be contradicted or gainsaid by other forms of evidence, or that interpretation of archaeological finds is a tricky business, or, well, it clearly means something because it is weird verging on the allegorical.

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

But then I found this story and nearly shouted out loud. And what I would have shouted is something like:

Feudalism In Action (this is what I’m talking about, seriously, OK?)

Church of England enforces archaic rights to fix church roofs

(Yes, I can shout in different heading strengths. Trust me, I can.) I’m having a bit of trouble working out what the actual story is that puts this on The Guardian‘s page 3, because the actual case they’re talking about happened a full year and more ago, and that was after a ‘final verdict’ in the other direction, also reported in The Guardian seven years before. The substance, however, is that since the dissolution of the monasteries that used to own them, the upkeep of some English churches has been partly assigned to certain properties in the church glebe. Such tenures are still legally binding, if they can be proven. You can sometimes find that you’ve bought a house subject to this that no-one had ever thought to charge before, and you can even buy insurance when buying a house against this happening to you, but the costs rarely come to the £200,000 that was involved in the case the Guardian was reporting in 2001. They claim, now, that other churches are looking in to enforcing this, but they have no actual names or evidence, and the only reason this story’s so far up the paper, I think, is because it’s ‘hard times’-flavour.

All the same! What is happening here, allegedly, is a tax that no-one has thought to attempt to exact for years being stumbled over by lords who urgently need to extract more cash from their domains and then being enforced by law that they partly control. (The main case was appealed to the British House of Lords, the upper chamber of our Parliament, for judgement in 2007, but of course the Lords Spiritual, that is, bishops of the Church of England, are part of the House, and I’ll bet they didn’t refrain from voicing their thoughts.) The motives aren’t the same: the Church are hard up just because of owning too much property that no-one uses but which they’re obliged to maintain. The guys I’m thinking of were faced with a fierce competition for status as the area they were in experienced an economic boom at the same time as a political collapse—rather the reverse of our situation!—and lots of new people starting having enough resources to be big fish in a newly-shrunken pond. The strategy adopted by the eleventh-century nobility, for it is of course the “blessed” feudal transformation to which I refer, is however exactly the same: find an old right, grab it and squeeze, even if people complain, until this exaction becomes a ‘bad custom’. I imagine I would be quite annoyed by such a bill if I ever owned a house, and I don’t really approve of our union of Church and State so wouldn’t normally take the side of the Church of England even when it’s a question of preserving historic buildings, but the fact that they’re basically using feudalism to do it has me quite enchanted by the idea, I have to admit… Match that, Internet!

Also, a later reflection that this causes in me is that, if you were an eleventh-century noble whose area was in the grip of so-called feudalization, would you know these were the good times? Would you be aware that general prosperity was growing? Or would you merely be worried that it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the de Montforts, that any kind of riff-raff seemed to have a castle nowadays whereas yours went back to your grandfather, already, and your family had always been beloved by Saint Gilles and so on? Concerned that prices were rising, and that there were more and more traders now, whom you couldn’t turn away in case you looked poor? And the money you had to pay these people with was getting poorer and poorer anyway? That there were bands of heretics up at le Mans causing havoc? That the papacy was making these impossible demands about chapel clerks when you’d always had the advowson of your own grandfather’s chapel for Saint Gilles’s sake! and so on. And would you be looking for rights to exact, not because times were good, but because as far as you were concerned they were tougher than ever? In times of boom I guess people know they have it good but the eleventh century can’t really have been a boom, just steady growth. And I wonder if steady growth and disintegrating political power actually look a lot more like ‘anarchy’ than collapse and retrenchment would, when you’re actually living it.

Hyperlinks are not rocket science: a thing about publishing online

The Archaeology in Europe blog has a notice about a recent award to the Department of Archaeology in York that’s got me thinking, and not thinking much of what I think. The Mellon Foundation have given the department quite a lot of money to develop ways to link their journal Internet Archaeology to other electronic resources, thus allowing articles to “make use of the huge potential of internet publication to present archaeological research in unique and exciting ways“. And indeed, few would contest that online publication can “allow researchers to link their work to related databases, video, audio and other information in a way that traditional paper-based formats do not allow“! So go York, huh?

<a href='http... >

I mean, is this money for old rope, or what? There are certainly potentials here which money could bring out, but they could start by actually using the web for what it’s for and linking to stuff. If you have a look at an article in Internet Archaeology they do do various cunning things with links between a table of contents per article and links to bibliographical references and so on. One of the nice things about the web is you can make footnotes clickable, after all. But honestly. Linking to related information? How about to academics’ departmental home pages? How about to universities’ home sites? How about linking to other publications that are online rather than just cite them by URL? How about any hyperlinks at all that lead outside the article? I’m not sure I have seen an online journal that does all or any of this, but to me it seems so obvious a potential. I write my posts here shot through with hyperlinks. One or two of them are ironic or humorous, because there are obviously affected possibilities when you have such a visual way of expressing subtext, but most of them are intended to ensure that no-one needs to read my posts and not know what I’m talking about. Heavy hyperlinking is exactly what allows me to throw what I hope is sometimes academic-quality writing up here and hope that a general audience will be able to follow. I applaud Professor Richards for having got so much money to explore this possibility in his more sophisticated turn, but if I’d realised the Mellon would fund it I’d have applied…

The so-called Google Generation debunked: libraries better worry

The British Library buildings at St Pancras

After signing up to a petition to protect the funding of the British Library a while ago, I get mail-outs from them every now and then. As spam goes it could be a lot worse, I read my mail plain-text anyway and the articles they link to are often at least passing diverting. Rarely however are they as well-loaded as this one, which I got the PDF of and read avidly. They’ve been looking at browsing habits on a truly broad scale, and though they admit left right and centre that there are all kinds of problems with the sample, which I find sort of encouraging, the tentative findings are quite interesting. What it is is a study by a group at University College London called The Centre for Information Behaviour and Evaluation of Research who have basically been profiling virtual research behaviour by age, so as to see if there really is a “Google generation” of web-users or not and what that means for future researchers. Their conclusions, broadly, are that (i) there isn’t, because after a certain stage of growth everyone uses the web in broadly the same way if they use it at all, no matter whether they’re 20 or 70; (ii) this does seem to mean that real research skills are dropping off, because if people can’t find an answer in a few minutes’ web-searching they stop, and (iii) this means that almost all libraries, academic or public, are being desperately outdated in the way they present their contents and make their resources available and that those who wish to retain much of a user base need to start doing really special things to remedy this lack of appeal pretty much now. And they have some suggestions, but it’s all fairly fascinating for anyone who’s been on both sides of the process of digitising knowledge and putting it online, and I do urge you to have a look at the full report.