Old classics find new life in webworld

May 2, 2003

Stuart Lee reports on Oxford's e-Lit option, which takes English students on a nine-week trip into cyberspace.

When a student tartly said she knew how to write essays but "just tell us how the website will be marked", I knew we'd hit a key moment in the life cycle of a course.

All the months of planning could come to ruin. I was running a "taster" session for Oxford University's "E-Lit: IT and English literature" option for a room of second-year English students. I had impressed on them the link between information technology and literature and how their skills of critical appraisal made them ideal for the cyberworld, but that these skills needed fine tuning if the students wished to succeed in publishing, journalism, academia and the like. Yet, at the end, it came down to how they would be assessed.

I had just told them that the final assignment would be a 3,000-word essay and an equivalent website when the student put up her hand. Silence descended. Thankfully, I was prepared. "Your site," I replied, "will be assessed in a similar way to any essay - scholarly content, accuracy, structure and so on. But what makes this different is that you will be creating something - something new, something different - that you could mount on the web after the course and have published. Something" - and I paused for effect - "you will be able to show future employers." It worked.

The "e-Lit" option at Oxford is offered to all third-year undergraduates studying English. It has been running for two years and sets out to look at the way new technologies are shaping the study, teaching and publishing of English literature and language. The course is taught over six weeks by me, Suzanne Romaine and Ylva Berglund. Classes focus on such topics as English literary websites, hypertext and hypertext fiction, text analysis and corpus linguistics.

Students have to hand in two 2,500-word essays and then, in week six, they are presented with a list of "themes" around which to create a website of about 3,000 words (or 15 pages) with an accompanying essay of 3,000 words.

They have just under three weeks to finish the assignment and are unsupervised. Students who take the course can claim to have covered English literature and language in its earliest form right up to its most recent manifestation.

I can summarise the e-Lit course in one word - different. Different from any course I have taught and different from anything the students otherwise experience. To start with, there's the room. It's a computer room with rows of machines and benches. These are essential but a barrier. To overcome this, we pack our classes with group work, whiteboarding, student-led discussions and hands-on exercises. Often, the computers are ignored while students focus on debates.

Second, the subject matter seems different, unrelated to literary or linguistic studies. "What has this got to do with our degree?" is always the unasked question. Scepticism soon evaporates as students begin surfing and see the wealth of material out there. When it comes to hypertext theory, they can see how they can apply their own work on literary criticism and all doubts are laid aside.

The third difference is that the class never ends. Rather than disappearing back to their colleges only to re-emerge in seven days, they are "encouraged" to use the online bulletin board. And use it they do. They post mini-assignments, ask questions and generally chat.

It is easy to underestimate the effect, but feedback from the most recent cohort made great play of the support they received and the sense of community. Moreover, during weeks six to nine, when they were working on their final assignments, the bulletin board disappeared for a few days and there were several notes asking for its immediate return as it was a revision aid.

In a few weeks, I'll be running the taster to attract next year's crop.

Interest is growing fast. Any fear of computers or of their relevance is diminishing and the importance of the subject to English literature and language is becoming all too apparent. In fact, one of the common questions from participants is: "Why couldn't we have known about all this stuff in our first year?"

Stuart Lee is a member of the English faculty and head of the Learning Technologies Group, Oxford University. Details: www.english.ox.ac.uk/webcourses.html

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