Sarah Porter
Coordinator of the Humanities Computing Development Team

Sarah Porter. Coordinator of HCDT Q- What is the Humanities Computing Development Team (HCDT) and what do you do?

A- We work mostly for Oxford University, so we're not a national service; we're a local service that develops IT-based teaching and research projects together with humanities academics within the University. We've been going since October 1998, and were set up with some funding that was available within the Computing Services, following a survey to the Humanities staff of Oxford University. It was a paper survey, a questionnaire that went out to over three thousand people, to find out whether they thought that an IT development service would be useful to them. A lot of people thought it would be, so following the results of that survey, the Team was set up, and it has three staff now: myself and two project officers. My role is to coordinate projects, to make contacts with people and manage the projects, and also to publicise what we're doing and keep in touch with other institutions. Humanities academics (and also library and museums staff) can submit a proposal for a project of duration either of less than six months or from six months up to a year, for which IT would be appropiate, and we work together on the project.

Q- Where does the funding for these projects come from? The University?

A- Well, when we were first set up, the first year's funding paid for the staff's time and nothing else, and was paid by the Computing Services to get things going. But after a few months I wrote to the University's General Board to ask them for money to continue what we were doing, and Alex Reid, the director of the Computing Services backed us and took it further. So this went through the IT Committee, who thought it was very good and recommended it for funding. Then we learned that we would get two years more funding, so we're funded until September 2001.

Q- Sorry, I interrupted you before, you were explaining how the projects come to being…

A- Yes. The projects can be submitted by humanities academics or library and museums staff, as long as they are for teaching or research purposes, and not for information sharing. We try to do three teaching projects for every one research project, because the ideal is to try and help as many people within Oxford as possible, and teaching projects generally have more impact. There are two yearly deadlines for submitting proposals, and we have a standard form for them to fill in, so that they have to think about copyright, materials, formats and more importantly what their plan is for the project and how much work they're willing to put into it. It's not someone saying: "build me this and that", they are going to have to provide the content. Then the project review group (made up from academic staff and some people from the HCU) meets to discuss the projects and we rate them according to their quality, viability, usefulness, etc.

Q- What happened in your first call for projects? Did many people apply?

A- Yes, quite a few, more than forty. Since then there have been less proposals but more that have been practically well thought out. That first time some people just wrote a few lines about things that hadn't been properly thought out. Now we get ten or twelve as an average every six months. If people submit a good proposal where they haven't thought about something properly, we encourage them to rewrite it and come back. We give feedback to every person who submits, and I offer to meet with them and talk what other options they have, because sometimes they will want to do the project anyway and get other funding. Other times we don't think we should develop their whole project, but that we can spend a couple of days with them and help them design it.

Q- Do they come from all the Humanities faculties?

A- Yes. So far the people we've actually worked with include Oriental Studies, Theology, strangely enough with two different projects…

Q- Why "strangely"?

A- Well, it's not a very big faculty, and you'd expect the bigger faculties like English to have more projects, but Theology just has staff who are very keen. We've also worked with Archaeology, and more recently with the Modern History Faculty and Library, which also brought in some of the museums, and that was quite good. And we also did a research project with English. In our next phase we're going to be doing a project with Modern Languages, one with the Literae Humaniores Faculty, and the English Faculty again.

The HCDT: Sarah Porter, Paul Groves and Sophie Clarke

Q- Could you describe one of the projects with more detail so that our readers gain a clearer idea of what you do?

A- The projects are very different. When people ask what IT projects there could be there is not one answer, they can be extremely varied. It's good that we now have done a few, so people can look at them and see. For example, lots of people are very interested in language learning using IT; not surprisingly we've already had two projects in this area, and we're coming into a third. Interestingly, these projects came from Oriental Studies and Theology, so language skills are useful for different faculties and not only the language faculties. Our language projects are not a collection of resources for people to find their way through, they've got more to do with teaching and learning directly, acquiring skills and drilling. This is more complicated, and we have to work very closely with the academics in the development process. Because when you have to take people through a particular task, and they have to get a particular result and understand what they're doing, you have to be very careful with how you design things. If we take the Greek project for example, it is based around vocabulary which first year students of Theology have to learn (with no previous knowledge of ancient Greek) in order to read texts. That's a lot for them to do in their first term. So, the tutor of that particular course, Jeremy Duff, had been thinking about using IT to help them drill, because you know learning vocabulary is boring, you can do it on paper and you don't get feedback… So he had been trying to develop an application in Visual Basic himself to test on vocabulary. But he wanted to expand on that, for example get on to a web version to avoid people from worrying about installation and that kind of thing. He also wanted it to include more vocabulary, to be able to give the students feedback on their own performance, and also to include some grammar exercises to complement the vocabulary learning. It's all on the web, so we are restricted to some extent to what we can do, but it uses a database that holds at least a thousand words of vocabulary and their translation (sometimes more than one possible translation). The student is asked a word and given space to type the meaning in, and then the system tells her if it's right or wrong. That's very simple.

Q- What are your new projects?

A- We've taken one project with the Modern Languages Faculty, which is very exciting because it's not just a question of an individual, but it has at least five academics involved. It has to do with the exams in oral and listening comprehension that all language students have to take. The idea is to set up a probably web-based system (this is not yet decided), so that the students can practise for their exams, hearing clips recorded by native speakers, and answering the same kind of questions they will have in the exam. It's trying to duplicate what they do in the exam situation, so that they can test themselves and practise where and when they want to. The problem with this project is that we can't do the taping, and it will be hard to get the academics to tape everything. We need native speakers of many languages: French, Italian, Portuguese… and there are obviously none at the HCDT. This kind of organization is often the most time consuming task for me in this job.

We are starting another project with the Archaeology and History faculties together, related to a Greek excavation site. They have a lot of information on the site, not only about the findings but also about the archaeological and historical methods and how the whole thing comes together. They want to collect all this material together on one site, and they already have a database.