Digital tools Workshop – overview of the breakout sessions

Our recent workshop on digital tools for historians has given us plenty of food for thought.  Do historians want training in digital tools?  The answer seemed to be yes (although admittedly we might have been talking with the already converted). 

Do historians have time or incentive to undertake training in digital tools?  Ah!  Now we have a problem.  The overwhelming response during our breakout sessions was that there was little incentive or guidance within the profession in regard to digital tools.  Indeed, newly off the press a British Library study funded by JISC has confirmed that Generation Y at least (that is, those born between 1982 and 1994) are not as ready to use complex digital tools as is often assumed.  The report Researchers of Tomorrow: The research behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students (2012) suggests more tailor made training is required, although it also agrees that there remains a reluctance to undertake such training unless it is already recognised as essential to students current researches. 

A further problem presents itself on this subject that was touched upon in our breakout sessions; there is a lack of basic knowledge about what tools there are to achieve research tasks.  There is no advice as to how easy or difficult those tools are to use (including how much time and cost it will take to learn).  Neither is there much advice on how tools can be adapted and used in historical research in general. 

These are all serious impediments that historian will need to address, as digital tools can offer exciting new opportunities to learn things from our textual heritage.   Group 2 from our breakout sessions, for example, argued for digital tools training to be included within undergraduate tuition.  This, they argued, should be viewed as fundamental research skills and be given as much weight as non-digital skills tuition.  Group 3 suggested adding digital tools training to skills workshops as a means of adding to the PhD ‘package’.    

What was interesting, that came out of all three groups, however, was a feeling that such dedicated training is not generally where they, themselves go to learn these skills, nor something that they want to necessarily go through to achieve their initial aims.  They liked to dip into a subject to learn what they need, and then if it is useful enough consider a full face-to-face or online course.  Group 1 emphasised that if they need to learn something about a digital tool they will generally Google it and find the information on forums, blogs, and wikis.  Indeed, many participants had used free training materials found through these methods. 

Nevertheless, such searching relies upon the fundamental need to know what tools exist in the first place and which are useful to research.  Group 1 discussed the need for a central location where such information could be found by historians.  It was pointed out that the provides such a service.  It was interesting that few in the group were aware of this.   

In all, it would appear from the discussion in our breakout groups, that historians want more easily available information on what tools there are and how these might be applicable to their own research.  They want to be able to find out a little bit about these tools quickly, and, where possible, gain a basic knowledge of how they work and what can be done with them, before considering spending their time on a training course.  What type of training course was, however, not quite made clear.  Do historians want face to face training on specific tools or techniques?   Or would they prefer online courses?  Perhaps a mixture of both? 

From these discussions it would appear that our approach with the two HISTORE modules (one on semantic data and another on text mining) was the right one.  We are creating two relatively short freely available modules that introduce each subject and which suggest what historians can potentially gain from using such tools.  The modules are broken down into sections which work through the process from the basic to the more complex (although they are not intended to give everything you would want to know about the tools).  These then, are introductions.  The first section of each course will introduce you to the tool and can be read within 30 minutes (probably more like 10 if you don’t do the exercises).  From there you can go further if you would like to gain a basic grasp of the tool.  In some cases that might well be enough for what you need.  At the very least the modules should enable you to judge for yourself whether more training and time should be spent learning about the tool. 

Over the course of the next week we shall post brief bullet point notes from each of the breakout sessions, so you can see a little more of what was said.  Soon after this, we will also post the audio and hopefully video from the presentations given at the workshop.  By the end of August we hope to have the modules ready for release and so we will be talking a little more about these very soon!