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Thursday, August 6, 1998 Published at 20:50 GMT 21:50 UK


Education

Virtually first hand

The trench warfare in Europe gave rise to a new poetry

Part of a series on how the Internet is being used in education. By BBC News Online's Gary Eason.

People studying World War I literature can follow 'virtual seminars' on the subject with manuscripts, photos and other archive material - freely available on the Web.

Within the next month or so this will be supplemented with audio and video clips and many more photographs.

The seminars are there for anyone who is interested as it was a condition of the funding that the material be made public.

However, the main intention is to allow students 'one stop' access to original material scattered around the world which it would be very expensive and difficult if not impossible for them to get in any other way.


[ image: Dr Lee: trying to demonstrate effective use of technology in teaching]
Dr Lee: trying to demonstrate effective use of technology in teaching
It is all the result of a project devised by the head of Oxford University's Centre for Humanities Computing, Dr Stuart Lee.

His first effort involved some close reading of a poem by Isaac Rosenberg. The site went live in January 1995, which he says makes it one of the oldest Web tutorials.

It invites visitors to read the poem Break of Day in the Trenches and record initial reactions through an online form.

They can then browse 'hypermedia' pages of analysis and contextual information about Rosenberg, trench warfare, casualties and other contemporary writers. Finally they are invited to comment again, noting whether the added information has influenced their views. Other users' thoughts, before and after, are archived on the site.

Dr Lee describes this as a fairly crude first attempt at an online tutorial. The newer Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature site at http://info.ox.ac.uk/jtap/ is more ambitious.

It takes in the Rosenberg tutorial and adds others covering an introduction to WWI poetry and the life and works of a number of poets as well as an introduction to manuscript study and text analysis.

The focus is on the work of Wilfred Owen, taking people through the various stages of development of his poem Dulce et Decorum est and allowing them to create their own edition by comparing images of his various original manuscripts, using HTML frames. The project's Research Officer, Paul Groves, did all the coding for the site.

Digital archive

A major expansion is underway. People will soon be able to access a digital archive - a sample version is up already - comprising all of the manuscripts of Owen's war poetry, a selection of his letters and photographs, a complete run of The Hydra - the journal produced at the Craiglockhart Military Hospital where he was treated.

About 100 audio clips, some 50 video clips from films shot in 1916 and from a documentary made for the project, and about 500 photographs will also be available.

There is already an audio clip of the poet Siegfried Sassoon reading one of his poems - so rare that even some Sassoon scholars were unaware of its existence.


[ image: Sassoon: Met Owen at  Craiglockhart hospital]
Sassoon: Met Owen at Craiglockhart hospital
"The idea is that people will be able to cut a path through which others can then follow," Dr Lee said.

Owen was chosen partly because he is a popular subject for school and undergraduate study but also because much of the archive of his work is held in Oxford's English faculty.

One of the most remarkable things about the project is the way that it makes freely available copies of copyrighted works.

This is the result of lengthy negotiations, persuasion and pleading. Most institutions were happy to help once they understood the non-profit making and academic nature of what was being done, according to Dr Lee.

Excluding salaries, it cost only about £6,000 ($9,800). Total funding, of £50,000, came as a grant from the Joint Information Systems Committee of the UK's higher education funding councils.

Positive feedback

The British Library, the Owen estate and the University of Texas all charged only a flat fee for the use of the works they own.

Others were more awkward, but the Imperial War Museum in London had been "just brilliant" in the amount of help they had given, he said.

"Our tip is to get whoever owns the copyright on your side. The worst problem is really finding out who owns it."

There is already a discussion board with feedback from users. This was the starting point for an analysis by a colleague of Dr Lee's, Sarah Porter, into how people were using the site.

She says that, to their knowledge, at least 484 students have used the tutorials as part of their literature and history studies during the year 1997/98: 285 in UK universities and 199 in US colleges and high schools.

"It brings together a lot of material that people would have difficulty accessing otherwise," Sarah Porter said. "It allows them to do work that high school students and even undergraduates would normally never be able to do.

"They were reading Owen's own handwriting and making all sorts of deductions, which is fascinating.

"What's interesting is that in the study of modern literature in particular people very rarely go back to the original manuscripts. It made them feel close to the poet."





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Internet Links

The Great War Society

Trenches on the Web

Public Record Office WWI info

Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature

World War I document archive


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