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Developing Multimedia Courseware for
Teaching History: A UK Perspective

Ian G. Anderson 


The use of computers in historical research has followed divergent paths in the UK and US.[1]  The development of Web-based materials for teaching, however, may provide a common ground for historians on both sides of the Atlantic.[2] This paper outlines one experience of developing multimedia materials for undergraduate history teaching in the UK by the History Courseware Consortium at the University of Glasgow. Established in 1993, the Consortium was funded through the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), an initiative of the UK Higher Education Funding Councils.[3]  In developing the courseware the Consortium had the following goals: to create a pedagogical foundation based on high academic standards, to make the material accessible and flexible, and to provide the necessary support for staff and students using the courseware.


Building on the experience of another program at the University of Glasgow—the Computers in Teaching Initiative Centre for History (CTICH), which gathered data about the use of computers in history teaching—we determined that many educators did not have a conceptual framework in which to incorporate computer-based materials into their teaching.[4] Similarly, students required a pedagogical context to guide them through the courseware. Thus the Consortium developed the idea of the "enriched lecture," which uses innovative materials within a familiar pedagogical framework. [5]

Since there are no core courses in undergraduate history programs in the UK, but rather ones ranging from the pre-modern to the modern period and from political and military to economic and social history, the Consortium aimed to produce a flexible set of "core resources" that could be incorporated into existing teaching programs. In the enriched lecture, "core essays" designed for first- and second-year students provide an overview of the topic and outline historiographical debates and thematic lines of enquiry. Students gain access to the core essays from a table of contents, which provides links to each section of the core essay, information on the author and additional sources, and access to the index, bibliographies, and glossaries. In the tutorial on the Protestant Reformation, for example, Mark Greengrass and C. Scott Dixon wrote a core essay; linked to it are a detailed case study and exercises. Some authors chose a more linear approach in their core essays; others addressed multiple themes. Although the number and style of core essays varies between tutorials, their function, appearance, structure, and level remain consistent.

In order to address the difficulty of reading the large amounts of text on screen, we asked authors to outline their essays clearly with headings, to address a limited number of themes with clear points, and to use short sentences, colloquialisms, and contractions, as in speech. The breaking down of each core essay into sections makes the material more digestible and allows students to dip in and out with greater ease.

From the core essay students gain access to structured and contextualized source material: they can follow detailed examinations of particular examples, case studies, debates, concepts or sources. The schematic diagram below of the Protestant Reformation tutorial illustrates how the enriched lecture was translated into a structure for the courseware

Figure 1. Schematic Diagram of Tutorial

The ability of hypertext and multimedia to integrate disparate publications and source genres is not possible in a traditional lecture or seminar format. The combination of academic commentary and context, as well as the range of primary and secondary sources and open-ended exercises, increases students' depth and breadth of knowledge. The integration of academic commentary and historiographic debates with source material enhances the teaching of traditional historical skills and underscores the awareness that history is an interpretative subject, driven by historiographical debate, and based on research with primary sources.


The Consortium sought to develop courseware of the highest standards that would have the broadest application. Existing courseware that we analyzed, while often technically adept, lacked quality, or attempted to adapt content from a level of study not appropriate for students in higher education. As we created the pedagogical model, we divided the teaching of British history into four broad themes: women's history, the industrial revolution and post-industrialization, mass politics, and the pre-modern period. Separating authorship of the tutorials from the production process so as not to limit the range of potential authors to those with the necessary technical skills, we then invited specialists to write tutorials on these themes. Rather than being restricted to sources available in digital format, authors were able to select material they thought was most appropriate; the Consortium then undertook the necessary copyright clearance, rights payments, and digitization. In this way we have included many unique resources in the tutorials that are not available elsewhere. In the twelve tutorials that we completed there are over two thousand primary and secondary text sources, over 1000 images, maps, plans, film clips, tables and graphs and forty manipulatble data sets.


One reason we identified for instructors' reluctance to use computer-based material in teaching is the time it takes to grasp the technical aspects of the software. Thus we sought to create software that was intuitive and to minimize the amount of time students would have to spend learning to use it. We developed our prototype tutorials in the hypertext program Microcosm. The advent of the Web and the burgeoning HyperText Mark-up Language (HTML) clearly indicated to us, however, that HTML has a number of functional and pedagogical advantages. Although Microcosm was straightforward to use, in trials it proved difficult to install and prone to crashing; students found that Microcosm's multiple windows made navigation confusing.

Producing the courseware in HTML has permitted the materials to be viewed through a variety of familiar Web browsers, such as Netscape and Internet Explorer, which are among the most intuitive and least technically demanding software available. HTML's hypertext links provide a more transparent structure and still allow students to follow particular threads. The ability to configure helper applications in Web browsers allowed the Consortium to use its Data Handler tool for the automatic loading of manipulatble data sets and the Bitmap Viewer for encoded images.[6]  Thus, a minimum of technical training is required to use the tutorials, which gives both instructors and students more time to devote to the study of history.


The enriched-lecture format, using HTML and Web browsers, makes the tutorials flexible learning tools. Ultimately, any hypermedia system represents a finite body of knowledge and a limited range of viewpoints but the authors have selected and organized their material in such a way as not to lead students towards predetermined conclusions. Students and instructors are able to explore the material outside the set pathways; a sufficient range and type of resources appear in the tutorials to allow for a variety of questions and interpretations to arise.

Another key feature is that instructors can customize tutorials by, for example, adding their own materials, sources, and evidence, including new links, paths, biographies, bibliographies, and instructions. They can even add new "core essays." In this way tutorials can grow and develop according to the instructor's requirements. Each tutorial comes with a Local Information File that provides a template for lecturers to add their own instructions, links or questions. In addition to the simple instructions in the local information file, the Consortium produced a Customisation Guide illustrating how to modify courseware in more extensive ways. When the courseware was released, we supported the guide with a program of demonstrations, workshops, and online training material to provide staff with the necessary HTML skills and concrete examples of how to customize their tutorials.

A final objective of the Consortium was to support users of the courseware with information, training, and technical advice. We produced both printed and electronic manuals, as well as separate guides for students and instructors, including those on installation, the Data Handler, and customization. We also established a subscription-based "User Club" to provide introductory and advanced training, produce case studies on teaching and customization, as well as support and advice through a help desk and Web site. The training focused on equipping staff with knowledge of the tutorials' pedagogical design, teaching uses, range of material, as well as the necessary HTML skills. We also produced two newsletters that we distributed to all the history instructors in British colleges and universities, to promote the activities of the Consortium and raise awareness of the tutorials.


It was not our intention that the tutorials should replace lectures; early evaluations and focus-group studies indicated that instructors and students did not perceive or use them in this way, but rather to support or replace individual seminars. The enriched-lecture format proved to be a suitable model for authors, providing a flexible framework to develop existing lectures and to take advantage of the opportunities HTML offers. We were excited by the amount of information, documentation, and sources becoming available, by the cross-referencing between themes and genres, and by the interaction between theory and evidence.

While authors found it relatively easy to produce core documents in the appropriate format and style, the "enriching" material took far longer to produce than we anticipated. In particular the identification, collection, cross-referencing and copyright clearance of sources was expensive and time-consuming. On average, it took two years to complete a single core document with its associated sources and study materials. As most of the tutorials have more than one core document and often multiple authors, the completion of the courseware took a year longer than we expected.

The quality and range of materials has proved to be the strongest feature of the courseware. Authors successfully avoided writing deterministic core essays; the quantity and range of sources, some of which are not available elsewhere, have made the tutorials broadly applicable to history teaching in the UK. In fact, 75 percent of British higher education colleges and universities that teach history ordered the courseware within two years of its release. The involvement of so many educational institutions, particularly in the evaluation stages, fostered a sense of shared ownership of the material.

Instructors most often use the courseware to support seminars, while students may use it in a computer lab sessions or independently to prepare for classroom discussion or to find reading lists for essays they must write. The preliminary evaluations we have undertaken indicate that instructors use the courseware in trial runs of two or three class sessions before incorporating it into the course as a whole. Some departments use the tutorials as a networked resource, without incorporating them formally into a particular course. Others are basing entire curricula on the tutorials. In particular where there are inadequate library resources, where a new course is being developed, or where an instructor is interested in using computer-assisted learning techniques, the courseware is delivered on-line. In this context, the courseware's basis for on-line electronic seminar discussion has been a noteworthy feature. We have also found that the courseware encourages students' learning of history as well as their IT skills. It has been an effective instrument for group learning by allowing students to share different resources. In light of higher student-to-teacher ratios, increased teaching workloads and diminishing resources per student, this may work to the courseware's advantage.

The main criticism from instructors and students is the amount of time it takes to locate a specific resource, for example documents containing a certain word or phrase: the find function of current Web browsers is limited to the page being viewed. The one feature we lost by transferring from Microcosm to HTML was an excellent indexing and search facility. In order to overcome this problem, the Consortium licensed an alternative browser called LIKSE, with comprehensive off-line search facilities. The browser was made available through the Consortium's User Club.

A number of challenges remain in the development of computer-assisted teaching in the UK. Although the tutorials have proven to be broadly applicable and flexible tools, they have not been flexible enough. Instructors have not been able to tailor courseware to fit their individual needs. Although a number of institutions have received training on HTML and how to customize the material for particular courses, even when instructors have the required technical skills, with increased teaching, research, and administrative duties, they do not always have the time or resources to adapt courseware to their requirements. The problem is exacerbated by frequently inadequate IT support for the use of computer-assisted learning in history. In many institutions history departments have not taken sufficient advantage of existing IT services. Without instructors who have the necessary time and skills to implement courseware, arts and humanities resource officers become even more important. These people can customize courseware for instructors and act as intermediaries with IT services. Institutions with dedicated arts resource officers are rare, however, and those with people dedicated to history even more so.


The problems of customizing courseware raises the question of whether our enriched-lecture model best promotes the use of computer-assisted learning resources in the UK. With the amount of material currently being digitized, instructors my be able to choose and develop existing resources more effectively, and in a way that reflects their specific needs. It is easier now for people to locate appropriate existing digitized resources than to create them from scratch, as the Consortium did. There are also a number of technical developments that would make customization of our resources easier—for example, the use of Java script, CGI or ASP to provide a user-friendly customization interface. A number of systems have recently been developed that allow instructors without knowledge of HTML to add content to their courses: Liverpool Hope University College's 'Hope Live' system is an excellent example.

Copyright clearance remains an impediment to a more widespread application of the Consortium's courseware, incurring the largest expense (apart from salaries) in the project. It has also prevented our material being distributed via the Web. Instead the courseware is distributed on CD-ROM and then installed on the institution's intranet. A large expenditure for a specific piece of courseware is not economically viable for either institutions or commercial publishers: the Consortium could only afford to develop the courseware through significant public funding. Arranging clearance for a digital collection to be used more generally for teaching (even if some restrictions remain) would be a more productive approach.

In the
final stages of our project, we explored possibilities for distributing the courseware outside the market of UK colleges and universities, in particular UK high schools and US universities.[7]  In the British high-schools market we found that many of the tutorials cut across the chronology or geography covered in the A-Level history curriculum (16-18 year olds) rather than complemented it. This reduced the usefulness of the courseware and made it less likely that departments could justify a purchase. We also determined that while the courseware in some ways was not flexible enough for college and university levels, it was not sufficiently structured for high-school levels. In some cases too much material was presented in language too complex for high-school students to follow. In the US although the level and structure of the tutorials is appropriate, the decline of Euro- and Anglo-centric history courses in favor of those in world history has limited the courseware's potential usefulness.

Despite the progress made by our courseware and others' in advancing the use of computer-assisted learning in history instruction, much remains to be done. The 1998 Atkins Report on the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) and the Teaching and Learning with Technology Support Network (TLTSN)—both national initiatives aimed at enhancing the use of information and communication technology (ICT) and improving teaching practice at the subject level—identified barriers to the greater use of computer-assisted learning and ICT. These included: the lack of relevant, adaptable courseware of high quality; the need for instructors to be trained in ICT, in order fully to employ new media; a lack of research into the effectiveness of different uses of ICT and of incentives for collaboration; the rarity of ICT enthusiasts among senior and middle management; the absence of rewards and incentives for innovative teaching; and the lack of funds for research and development. The History Courseware Consortium has addressed the first and second of these points with our courseware and our attempts to provide support and instruction for those who use it. In association with the Courseware for History Implementation Consortium (CHIC) project we are currently researching the effectiveness of different ways of implementing computer-assisted learning technologies, including our courseware, which will respond to the third point. By stimulating discussion and sharing experiences at both the national and international level, we hope to address the challenges that remain.

End Notes

  1. Daniel Greenstein, 'Bringing Bacon Home: The Divergent Progress of Computer-Aided Historical Research in Europe and the United States', Computers and the Humanities, Vol. 30 No. 5 1996/1997, pp 351-364. [Return]
  2. Donald Spaeth, Peter Denley, Virginia Davis and Richard Trainor (Ed.), Towards an international Curriculum for History and Computing: A workshop of the International Association for History and Computing, University of Glasgow, 15-17 May 1992, Max-Planck-Institut für Geschichte In Kommission bei Scripta Mercaturae Verlag, St. Katherinen, 1992. [Return]
  3. England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. TLTP was established to fund the development of subject specific courseware for the whole of UK higher education. The University of Glasgow bid successfully to become the lead site for history, one of 44 such projects, and one of the few funded in an arts subject. The Consortium's aim is 'to produce and distribute widely computer-based hypermedia tutorials to help teach the large number of history students in higher education effectively while enhancing the quality of student learning'. In seeking to fulfill this aim over the last seven years the Consortium has comprised up to 80 HE institutions (of approximately 130 that teach history), included 25 authors from 17 different institutions, produced 12 multimedia Web-based tutorials from a budget of $1,000,000 (£750,000) out of total TLTP funding of $117,000,000 (£75 million). [Return]
  4. The CTICH has now been replaced by the new Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology. [Return]
  5. For more detail on the development of the Enriched Lecture Model see Wissenburg, Astrid M and Spaeth D 'In Search of a metaphor for hypermedia: The Enriched Lecture' in Boonstra, O. Collenteur, G. & van Elderen, B. (Eds.) Structures and Contingencies in Computerized Historical Research, (Proceedings of the IX International Conference of the Association of History and Computing, Nijmegen 1994), Cahier VGI, 9, Hilversum 1995, pp. 306-310. [Return]
  6. The Data Handler tool was developed by the Consortium as a plugin for Microcosm and was transferred to the HTML platform. In certain tutorials the Data Handler allows students to sort, graph and perform simple statistical functions without the need to learn how to use separate spreadsheet, statistical or database programmes. The Encoded Bitmap Viewer was adapted from Microcosm to view encoded images. Certain images had to be encoded as a condition of use by third party copyright holders. It also allowed students to zoom in and out of larger, more detailed images. [Return]
  7. Originally twelve tutorials were produced on one CD. For non UK HE markets six of the original tutorials were updated and distributed on individual CDs. [Return]

Ian Anderson was the Academic Support Officer for the History Courseware Consortium and from September 2000 Lecturer in New Technologies for the Humanities, in HATII, University of Glasgow. Acknowledgement is gratefully provided to my predecessors at the Consortium, in particular Dr. Ralph Weedon of Strathclyde University and Drs Astrid Wissenburg of King's College London, whose previous work greatly assisted in the writing of this paper. An earlier version of this paper was presented to the American Historical Association One Hundred Fourteenth Annual Meeting, January 6-9 2000, Chicago. All opinions and errors are of course entirely those of the author. 

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The Development of Multimedia Courseware
for Teaching History: A UK Perspective

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Ian G. Anderson, the University of Glasgow,
and The Journal for MultiMedia History

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