Title: ‘Digital Detectives – Bridging the Gap Between the Archive and the Classroom’
Event: Digital Literacies – Building Learning Communities in the Humanities, HEA Arts & Humanities Workshop, Liverpool John Moores University, 2 April 2014.
Hashtag: #DigitalLiteracies // Storify
Notes: Last week I attended a brilliant HEA workshop organised by @DrHorrocks. In my presentation I spoke about my recent attempts to integrate digital research into my undergraduate teaching. I outlined how we can use digital archives to transform undergraduate history students into empowered producers, rather than just passive consumers, of research.  If you’re interested in learning more about the ‘Digital Detectives’ model of undergraduate history teaching then please get in touch – I offer talks and practical workshops for history departments that would like to make better use of their digital resources.

I didn’t write out a script for this presentation – the text below is a rough approximation of what I said on the day, accompanied by some of my powerpoint slides. I have also added some student feedback data, which was not available at the time of the presentation.

Slide2About 5 years ago, when I first started teaching, I led a small seminar group of 1st year history students. In the final class of the year we had a chat about how things had been going – whether they’d enjoyed their first year at university; if there was anything that they’d been struggling with; how their experiences compared to what they’d expected a history degree would be like. They were mostly fairly positive, in a shrugging, non-committal kind of way. However, after a bit of prodding one of the students said something interesting – something that has stuck with me ever since. “No offence”, he said –never a particularly promising start to a sentence – “but I’ve been a bit disappointed. I thought I was coming to university to learn about history, but all we do is talk about historians.”

This complaint – “I want to learn about history, not historians” – has stuck with me for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t do a particularly good job of responding to him at the time. It was one of those questions that just caught me a bit off guard, like the time a student put his hand up in the middle of my first ever lecture and asked “what does modernity mean?” In this case, I clumsily tried to explain to the student that historiography was important – that studying the past was about joining in a long-running conversation and that you need to understand what’s already been said; that there is no such thing as an objective historical truth, just a series of subjective and often competing interpretations. “That’s all fine”, he said eventually – “I get it. But I still want to do some proper history next year.”

And to be honest, the other reason that this conversation has stuck with me is that a big part of me actually agrees with him. My instinctive response to his complaint was to defend the status quo; to stick up for our focus on historiography because, well, that’s how we do things. But in truth, I know that I felt a similar sense of frustration when I was an undergraduate student.

Slide3I arrived at university with some hope that history was about to get interesting. I didn’t really enjoy it at school – too many Nazis, too much rote learning of dates and ‘correct’ arguments. But now that I was at university, I thought the time had come for me to venture out and start doing my own research. When I was growing up, I idolised characters like Indiana Jones– people who tracked down clues, unearthed new discoveries, and unravelled mysteries. That’s the kind of history that I wanted to do. I wanted to be what Richard Altick memorably described as a ‘scholar adventurer’. I pictured myself sitting in dusty archives, pouring through piles of forgotten manuscripts, waiting for that eureka moment when I would discover something totally new and extraordinary.

Of course, when I finally got to university, things didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped. My weekly routine consisted of attending lectures, reading a couple of book chapters or journal articles, and then discussing the authors’ arguments in seminars. When I did come into contact with primary sources, they were the kind of texts and objects that had already been poured over thousands of times by lecturers and their students. When I wrote essays, there was little expectation that I’d do any original research – I simply had to demonstrate a sound knowledge of existing debates and position myself logically in relation to them.  I now recognise that these are vitally important skills for historians – and that there’s plenty of room for creativity and originality here too – but at the time the process of mastering them left me cold. Where was the adventure? Where was the creativity? When would I actually get to do some proper historical research?

For most history students, the answer to this question is “when you do a dissertation”. At this point, in the final year of their degree, we finally decide that they’re ‘ready’. We encourage them to pick a topic that interests them and give them license to visit archives and pursue their own avenues of enquiry. Some struggle with this independence, but a lot of students find the process really rewarding. I’ve lost count of the amount who later tell me that the dissertation was the most enjoyable part of their degree. But, just as they’re starting to do ‘proper’, original historical research – just as they’re starting to feel empowered and enthusiastic – the degree ends, and the game is up.

I don’t think that these experiences were unique to me or unique to history – in fact, across the humanities we often struggle to successfully integrate the research process into our teaching. Here’s a chart produced by Prof Mick Healy – one of the most prolific researchers and writers in the field of learning and teaching.

healychartHe argues that undergraduate students engage with research in four different ways.

  1. Research-led teaching – this involves students learning about the content of past and current research in their discipline. This is often delivered in the form of lectures.
  2. Research-tutored teaching – this involves students engaging with past and current debates in their discipline. This generally takes place in seminar discussions.
  3. Research-oriented teaching – this involves teaching students research skills and techniques. These skills might be developed in workshops and seminars. Undergraduate history programmes sometimes offer dedicated skills modules, often in preparation for the dissertation.
  4. Research-based teaching – this involves students conducting their own research, either independently or as part of a group. “Here”, Healy argues, “the curriculum focus is on ensuring that as much as possible the student learns in research and or inquiry mode (i.e. the students become producers of knowledge not just consumers).”

The positioning of these four approaches on Healy’s diagram is important. The lower sections of the diagram describe forms of teaching in which students are frequently treated as an audience. Meanwhile, the top half contains forms of teaching that encourage students to act as more active participants. While all of these approaches have their strengths, Healy argues that “in much of higher education relatively too much teaching and learning is in the bottom half of the model.” There’s certainly some truth in this, though I’m not sure that it necessarily applies to history teaching. We devote plenty of time to what Healy describes as research-tutored teaching; after all, inviting students to critically engage with historiographical debates is our default seminar activity.


Instead, I would argue that undergraduate history teaching is often skewed too far to the left of Healy’s diagram. We focus our students’ attention on engaging with existing knowledge and research (the ‘research-led’ and ‘research-tutored’ approaches outlined by Healy) and give them little opportunity to pursue their own original projects (‘research-based’ teaching). In other words, until they begin to plan their dissertations, our students spend relatively little time in the top-right quadrant of Healy’s chart. We treat them as consumers, rather than producers, of knowledge.

The existing system developed for good, practical reasons. In order to do proper, original research you need access to archives (quite a lot of them, usually) or, at the very least, some substantial collections of primary materials. Most universities don’t have this luxury. If we happened to be teaching our classes next door to the British library then we’d probably design modules that make substantial use of its collections – but we don’t. It’s sometimes possible to arrange one-off visits to archives, but it’s always been impractical to build these experiences into the heart of our teaching.

Slide7Or at least it used to be. Digitisation has changed everything, and done it fast. Whenever I used to give talks about digital archives I always had a section outlining the resources that are now available to us. This isn’t possible any more. There’s too much stuff. Millions upon millions of pages of books, newspapers, manuscripts, maps, photographs, art works, government records, and so forth, are now available online. Of course, not everything has been digitised – not by a long shot – but there is now an overwhelming amount of digital material at our finger tips. This all has exciting implications for our research, as the Digital Humanities movement is busy proving. But it also promises to transform the possibilities of our teaching. It has annihilated the age-old problems of time and space. The digital archive goes wherever we go; it is always with us, always open. It is now possible for thousands of students to access millions of primary sources without leaving their bedroom. Digitisation allows us, for the first time, to transform classrooms into archives. In a matter of minutes, anybody can start to play the part of a digital detective

I am a testament to the power of these new possibilities. I discovered digital newspaper archives at the end of my first year at university. It was what I’d been waiting for. Suddenly, a whole new world of original research was at my fingertips. Within a couple of hours of logging into the Times Digital Archive I was hopelessly hooked. This is when I truly fell in love with the idea of being a historian, and that sense of excitement hasn’t left me. I even started to enjoy engaging with historiography, because I was using it to explain and analyse my own discoveries. I had gained a new sense of agency. I was, to use Healy’s terms, a participant in the research process; a producer, not just a consumer, of knowledge.

When I started designing my own modules I was determined to give my students a similar experience – to try and spark the same sense of excitement in them that I felt when I discovered digital archives. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this for the last two and half years; to come up with a successful approach to what I’m calling the ‘Digital Detectives’ model of history teaching. I certainly haven’t come up with a definitive solution, but I have learned a fair bit about what works and what doesn’t.


1. The One-Off IT Session

Firstly, I’ve discovered that not every teenager becomes obsessed by Victorian newspapers at first sight – I might have been (probably still am) a bit unusual in this regard. So, it’s not enough to point students at an archive and wait for the magic happen. This was the problem with my first attempt. I booked a one-off, 2 hour seminar session in an IT room, about three weeks into the module, and introduced students to a few tools and archives that I thought would be useful for their essays. This was easy to organise and fit into an existing module programme. The session went well enough – the students seemed to enjoy themselves – but when I marked the essays there wasn’t a piece of primary research to be found. When I asked them about this, they offered a few explanations: some had forgotten about the digital archives, others didn’t know how to use them, and others weren’t sure how to apply them to an essay question. It was clear to me that I needed to spend more time on this – a one-off session just doesn’t cut it.

2. Multiple IT Sessions

Next time, I booked three sessions in the IT rooms – spread evenly across the module. This was a bit more successful. I was able to introduce students to more tools and archives, engage in some methodological discussions, and support students who found them difficult to use. I also devoted one of these sessions to conducting research for one of their essays, which seemed to have the desired effect – though they still weren’t making as much use of the archives as I had hoped they would.

3. 100% Digital

This year I decided to go the whole hog and book all of my sessions into computer rooms. For my second year Crime and Society modules I booked all of the seminars into an IT room with about 20 computers in it – I still did the one-hour lecture in a standard lecture theatre, but then we spent two hours in the IT rooms doing digital research tasks, analysing evidence (either found by students or provided by me), and discussing our findings as a group. I designed a wide range of tasks – I’ll show you some shortly – that required students to work as individuals, in pairs, and sometimes in groups.  So, it was much like a normal seminar – just with a research component added to the mix. Plus, just because we were in IT rooms didn’t mean that all of the activities made use the computers. I worked in some discussions of historiography – students were still expected to do the usual background reading – but I encouraged them to do this by applying their understanding of these secondary texts to their research. Sometimes we spent the first half hour discussing a prominent historiographical debate before breaking away to investigate it using the archives. I often split the class in half, forcing students to find evidence to support one particular side of the argument, before culminating in a whole-class debate.

It all worked pretty well. Students enjoyed the practical, hands-on approach (according to their module feedback forms anyway), and I could see a clear improvement in the quality and originality of their essays. In the second semester, students had to devise their own research topic (with plenty of support from me) and plan how to approach it using the digital tools at their disposal – these will be submitted in a couple of weeks, so it’s too early to declare the experiment a success. They gave some encouraging presentations about the projects yesterday, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

This year, I’ve also followed a similar scheme for my 3rd year module on the History of Journalism. This is a ‘special subject’ – a year-long, 40 credit module that has normal teaching sessions in the first semester before students spend the second semester conducting a mini-dissertation of 6,000 words on a research topic of their choice. This time, I decided to scrap the idea of dedicated lecture slot and move over to a weekly, 3 hour workshop taught entirely in computer rooms. The sessions alternate back and forth between lecture content, practical activities using the computers, and plenary discussions.

In order to give you a feel for how this works in practice, I’ve uploaded the slides from one of my workshops. Slideshare doesn’t support complex powerpoint animations, so I’ve had to make some minor alterations in order to make it readable. I’ve also cut out the second main batch of lecture content in order to make it easier to browse. If you want to skip straight to the important stuff, the digital research activities appear on slides 16, 19, 21, and 23.

Each workshop involved a range of different digital research activities. The next Slideshare presentation features examples of activities taken from across the module:


My 3rd year students are about to submit the long project essays, so it’s still a bit too early to pass judgement on the success of the module. However, half of the students have submitted their thoughts via an anonymous, electronic module feedback survey. Here are some of their responses.

Q: Workshops for this module involved a lot of hands-on, digital research. Did you like this approach to teaching? Why?

A: Yes, I really liked this approach as it enabled me to learn how to use the databases effectively with assistance and clear instructions. This approach also help me understand and remember the topics easier. As we also did a lot of research as we went it enabled me to chose a topic I was interested in and had already done some research on.

A: Yes, it was good preparation for the assignments and allowed me to feel comfortable when having to research my own topic.

A: Yes, it was far more engaging than merely listening to the tutor for a few hours.

A: Yes i really enjoyed this part of the module as for me it is so interesting to search and find articles in newspapers from 100 years + ago , possibly being the first person to see this. Also i enjoy the digital side of the module as i felt i needed alot more training in this about using databases ect. Lastly i feel this will be very useful in my job search when finishing university as many jobs now want you to be very good in computers.

A: I liked this approach to teaching as the digital research was often split up throughout the 3 hour period so it kept me engaged in the lesson and stopped me from losing interest. The hands on digital research is also a lot different from every other module so its nice to have something different.

A: Yes, because it was different and because you can really connect with what you are researching.

A: Yes because it’s helped with my other modules as well.

A: Yes, it allowed me to look at a subject that otherwise i could not and found very interesting which meant i spent more time on research and enjoyed it.

A: Not at the beginning, but as the course developed it has been invaluable, I can’t imagine researching any other way now.  Have even had the confidence to show friends from other courses how the on-line databases work!

A: Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bob guided and taught us about the subject, and then I had real freedom to do some research. We all found different things, which meant we could discuss them – The discussions had in Bob’s module have far surpassed those in any other module I have taken at university. The style of learning allowed and encouraged real engagement from most students and I looked forward every week to the class.

Q: This module was taught entirely in a computer lab. How effective was this as a teaching space? Why?

A: It was an effective teaching space as we could learn to use the databases in class with assistance from lecturer and classmates which made it easier to do independent research later

A: Effective. Computers were mostly required each lesson so they were easily accessible and the room was large enough for class discussions/ presentations etc.

A: Very, due to the digital based research nature of this module.

A: Fine… needing quick access to databases ect is very useful.

A: It was a bit awkward at times as i think its harder for the tutor to monitor what the students are doing when they have got the distraction of the computer in front of them. But having a computer was needed for this module so the computer lab is probably the best place for this module.

A: Fine because the majority of the research was computer based.

A: I did not really like the teaching environment because I found myself getting distracted sometimes.

A: Good space, room layout was not fantastic for discussions and presentations

A: It was useful for us all to be able to access the databases at the same time.

Q: Do you think workshops would have been more effective if they were taught in a normal classroom using laptops rather than desktop computers? Why?

A: I think either would be effective however in a classroom students would not be distracted by computers during the lecture part of the session, however in a computer room a computer each can be easily accessed.

A: Maybe would have enforced all students to contribute and remain attentive if the classroom was smaller.

A: no i do not. laptops by their nature give off a less professional and serious impression, something a dedicated computer space does not lack.

A: No. Laptops for me are slower and i belive a computer lab teaching room is more like a job room – as in an office ect

A: Yes! It would stop students being distracted.

A: Not really,  I don’t really see how it would make a difference.

A: No because the tutor can’t see what people are doing on the laptops, so that would have been even more distracting.

A: no, laptop screens possibly too small to concentrate when reading newspapers online

A: No. Find desktop computers easier to use, and less prone to crashing than laptops.  The only plus point to a normal classroom is that it would probably be less stuffy

A: No, I don’t see why this would make any difference. It was great having our tutor in and amongst us, it was interactive which was fun.

Q: Do you feel comfortable using the digital tools and archives? Is there anything that could have been done differently to help you develop these skills?

A: No I now feel comfortable with these archives.

A: Yes, and nope, not really.

A: I am very comfortable using these archives.

A: I felt very comfortable and i felt all was done to help me progress in gaining the skills i needed.

A: I am comfortable. The Tutor did well in teaching us how to use the archives.

A: Yes i feel comfortable and no not really Bob was very thorough.

A: Yes I feel comfortable. Every now and again I still get the odd ‘proxy error.’

A: Very much so, will be sorry to lose access to the digital archives at the end of the course.  Well done Bob, you’ve converted a Luddite!

A: Yes, I was given help whenever I asked so I could not want more than that.


Whilst my students’ response to the module has been overwhelmingly positive, their comments do reveal some of the challenges faced by anybody who wants to follow a Digital Detectives approach.

1. Teaching Spaces

Firstly, a 100% digital approach to history teaching requires regular access to computer equipment. I was lucky to secure an appropriately sized computer lab for all of my sessions – I know that timetabling pressures at other universities sometimes make this impossible. This will become increasingly problematic as more us begin to integrate digital resources into our teaching. If computer labs are available, they aren’t always well-suited to teaching. In particular, some students are very easily distracted by the internet. I spotted plenty of them using facebook, playing Candy Crush, or checking the BBC sport website. I tolerated a certain amount of this (a few mental breaks are necessary during a 3 hour session) but sometimes had to work hard to keep students focused. This was particularly problematic during plenary discussions, when some students continued to use the computers rather than listen to their peers and engage in class debates. Next time I’ll instruct them to turn off their monitors during these parts of the lesson.

One solution to this problem would be to use portable devices such as laptops and ipads. This would allow us to transform any classroom into a digital archive, and back again, in a few seconds. I’m keen to try this out but, as my students point out, it may not solve the problems. In fact, the smaller screen and lower power of portable devices might make digital research more cumbersome. By the time students become involved in long projects they also need access to their personal files, which may not be possible using portable devices. In the end, the most effective solution would be for lecturers to have more input into the design and layout of computer labs in order to ensure that they facilitate discussions as well as practical work.

2. Digital Subscriptions

The possibilities of a Digital Detectives approach to history teaching depend on the availability of digital resources, many of which are only available via expensive institutional subscriptions. I cut most of the American content from my module because my university does not subscribe to all of the necessary databases, whilst the lack of 20th century digitised newspapers meant that most of my teaching focused on the late-Victorian period. This patchy coverage can pose a problem for any module that aims to go 100% digital. However, integrating digital resources more fully into our teaching also allows us to put forward a stronger case for purchasing additional digital subscriptions. This kind of investment is important. Students are justifiably beginning to wonder what they get for their escalating tuition fees. In the absence of the fancy new laboratories and TV studios bestowed on other subjects, access to an extensive digital archive is the least our students deserve.

3. Digital Skills

We often assume that students these days are ‘digital natives’; that they are comfortable with computers and capable of whatever tasks we throw at them. This isn’t the case. Students still need help learning how to navigate new interfaces and, in particular, need guidance on how to effectively use a digital archive. I spend a lot of time discussing how to identify appropriate keywords, select samples, and construct methodologically sound searches. One of the great benefits of teaching in a computer room is that tutors can provide this support first-hand, rather than expecting students to figure out how to do things independently at home. However, the need to structure lessons around a strict timetable sometimes makes it difficult to support students who work faster, or slower, than their peers. I soon realised that I needed to design activities that stretched the most digitally literate students, but also allowed those who were less confident to master the basics.

4. Balancing Research and Historiography

Finally, a 100% digital approach can make it difficult to maintain a balance between historiographical debate and practical research. In the end, my own modules probably devoted too much time to practical activities and not enough to discussing students’ background reading. I instructed all students to independently locate and read a piece of secondary literature for each session, though we didn’t always have time to discuss this in enough depth. Next year I plan to prioritise these discussions a bit more. However, there’s a limit to how many things we can fit into our sessions – practical activities take time, and something’s gotta give.


It is far too early to declare my current experiment a success, but the initial signs are promising. Students seem genuinely enthusiastic about the chance to pursue their own primary research. Some are voluntarily spending far more time exploring the databases than I require of them.  In each session, they have gleefully shared their latest discoveries with me and the rest of the class. It is not hard to identify the roots of their enthusiasm. After all, we all want to be detectives. For historians, few things beat that eureka moment when we solve a puzzle and unearth a new piece of evidence.  Students come to university in search of that feeling. They want to unravel the mysteries of the past. They expect to explore new frontiers. Instead, we lead them over well-trodden ground. We ask them to read historiography, digest long-running debates, and analyse primary sources which have long-since been mined of all new information. This approach was understandable at a time when the regular use of archives was difficult to organise; it would be unrealistic for students outside of London to make weekly visits to the British library. However, digitisation has annihilated these problems of time and space. It is now possible for thousands of students to access millions of pages of nineteenth-century print culture without leaving their bedroom. Digitisation allows us to transform classrooms into archives; hands-on primary research can be interspersed with lectures and group discussions. In a matter of minutes, anybody can start to play detective. This is not to suggest the abandonment of secondary literature and historiographical debate, but rather a fundamental reorganization of how we teach undergraduate history. Rather than approach primary research as an afterthought or a high-level skill only entrusted to experienced students, I want to put it at the centre of our teaching; to allow students the chance to ask their own questions, choose their own paths, and develop their own interpretations. Digitisation has given us the tools. A new generation of scholar adventurers is waiting for us to unleash them.

This conclusion is taken from: Bob Nicholson, ‘Digital Detectives: Rediscovering the Scholar Adventurer’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 45:2, (2012), pp. 215-223. This article discusses the role that digital archives played in sparking my own love of historical research.