Friday, June 12, 2015

Guest Post: Online Tutorials from the History Courseware Consortium

I am pleased to share our first guest post! Melissa Terras graciously provided this overview of TLTP History Courseware Consortium Project. Thank you Melissa, and I welcome anyone who would like to contribute a post on an early digital project.

Guest Post: Online Tutorials from the History Courseware Consortium

The first Humanities Computing project I was employed at was in the 1997/1998 academic year at the University of Glasgow in the TLTP, History Courseware Constorium, project ( This was funded by the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme ( a multimillion pound funding programme that was launched in 1993 in the UK, supported by the main research funding bodies, with the aim of improving quality in the provision of teaching and learning through using digital technologies. It was a period of rapid expansion, and TLTP History Courseware Consortium who were tasked in providing online tutorials and readings in various aspects of history, embedding digitized primary sources into the online texts.

The main players in the TLTP History Courseware Consortium were Rick Trainor (who chaired the Steering Committee), Astrid Wissenburg (the Project Manager) and Don Spaeth (as Director), all from Glasgow, and Frank Colson (from Southampton).  There were eighty institutions in the Consortium.  Southampton was initially responsible for copyright clearance and also for production, using a hypertext environment called Microcosm developed under the direction of Wendy Hall. Glasgow later took over these areas and moved the materials into HTML; Don Spaeth had seen the launch of Mosaic at the NCSA in 1993 and it proved to be a good development platform, although the tutorials' visual design was basic.  The initial idea behind the tutorials grew out of a paper Don Spaeth gave at the UK AHC conference in 1993, called "the enriched lecture". This was literally intended to be the equivalent of an online lecture, with resources for students to view.  However, the concept expanded greatly due to huge amounts of work put in by academic authors during the process of developing TLTP materials, and experimentation with the technologies available.

The History Coursework Consortium produced a range of online tutorials (which were around 10,000 words long each) on a variety of topics, and these were distributed to History departments around the country on a paid for CD-ROM: not only were many departments not online yet, but copyright issues meant that putting these online was not possible. There was a licensing structure worked out for distribution (, although the process for dealing with these licenses was manual, compared to today’s online registration systems.

One of the aims of the tutorials were to cover emergent areas where primary sources were not well covered in textbooks, and the first ones listed are “Women’s History: Major Themes in Women's History from the Enlightenment to the Second World War” and “Enfranchising Women: The Politics of women's Suffrage in Europe 1789 – 1945”. 

These were written by a range of academic experts, and each overview tutorial provided enough material for an undergraduate course, broken down into a range of subsections which were equivalent to a lecture on the topic, with hundreds of digitised primary historical sources weaved throughout, which was an exciting bringing together of many disparate sources via digital publishing, for the time. In particular, the use of digital video materials was ambitious, and ahead of its time, years before there was any online infrastructure to help host and deliver this type of content. There was also a pioneering data exploration tool (which was an early seed for Old Bailey Online): these tutorials were really pushing what could be done with the available technology. 

One of the headaches of the project was copyright clearance for the primary historical texts and images used. Permissions were pursued for each and every one, and you can see from this list of historical sources 

just how tricky a job it was: for this one section (of 5) in one tutorial, hundreds of copyright permission statements had to be obtained. One of the project members, Ralph Wheedon, rapidly became an expert in digital copyright - and went on to work in this area at the University of Strathclyde afterwards, then onto direct the JISC Legal Service. The copyright issue contributed to the short self life of the materials: issues with copyright meant they could never be placed online, and the market moved away from CD-ROM hosted materials. Six tutorials were re-cleared in 1998-2000 for sale to schools and outside the UK, but their specialised nature, and the higher level of education that they were pitched to, meant this didn't work well.

My role on the project was slim: I was a MSc student in Computer Science at the time, having completed my MA in Art History and English literature the year before, where, in my final year in 1997, I had learnt to design webpages for an experimental delivery of my MA dissertation on Greek Art ( As the TILT project was coming to a close, and given I was known to the team who had taught me web design the year before, and I was helping run tutorials for that course in 1997/98, I was asked to pitch in over the Easter holidays, helping proofreading and checking the tutorials and links once they had already been written, working full time for just three or four weeks.  The bulk of this work had already been done by the project team. It was a great temporary job – I remember thinking this academic lark pays well, compared to part time work in shops, etc – and it really helped support me over the last few months of my mostly self funded MSc.

Sadly, given that only tasters of these were put online in the first place due to copyright issues, and the main mode of delivery was via CD-ROM, means that there are no online versions of the tutorials, which is a shame as they were produced to very high editorial standards and had hundreds of images from different libraries and archives backing up the historical overviews that they provided, as well as the videos and interactive data tools. All that is left online are the tasters which remain in the web archive, which don't cover the breadth, range, and standard of the work produced.

I’m not sure that the work that went into these materials was ever appreciated, nor the bravery in pushing forward the use of digital content, including integrating digital video into the tutorials. The reports that came out of it still make for interesting reading regarding possibilities and limitations of digital pedagogy, especially since delivering online tutorials is all the rage (again!) these days.Various reports exist including:

Wissenburg, Astrid M. "TLTP History Courseware Consortium: A Project Report." History and Computing 8.1 (1996): 45-49

Haywood, J., et al. "Use of TLTP Materials in UK Higher Education-a Study Conducted on Behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council for England." Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh Teaching Learning and Assessment Centre (1998).

TLTP is also mentioned in Tim Hitchcock’s overview article about the digitisation of history since 1980 (, and the activity that went into making these tutorials contributed greatly to both raising awareness of the possibilities that computing could bring to history, and establishing humanities computing as a useful endeavour, in arts and humanities departments across the UK (remember, there were eighty institutions invovled!):

“This publishing programme ensured that a substantial minority of professional historians became familiar with either authoring hypertexts, or else using them with their students. And while the programme largely failed to fulfil the aspiration to make teaching more efficient through the application of technology in a period of rapidly increasing student numbers, it did radically alter the ways in which many historians thought about computing and teaching. … this initiative helped fundamentally to alter both the profession's thinking about teaching and the curriculum and the role of computers in the presentation of historical information.” (Hitchock, The fact that they did so by championing topics such as Women’s History and Women’s Suffrage indicates that from the earliest adoption of WWW technologies, Humanities Computing projects were increasing understanding of lesser documented areas, using the possibility of digital technologies to bring together disparate and important primary sources in the digital environment.

Thank you to Don Spaeth for providing additional information.

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