Thursday, 13 June 2013

Early experiences from running an online course

The greatest surprise this far when running my Googling the Earth online course is the amount of 'proofreading' it requires. In the end it is not enough that you come up with an idea, sell it, prepare the material and hand it over. One also has to make sure that it is correct, since the lovely people in the e-learning department do not know the subject matter. In the end, the person who has created the material knows the order it has to be presented for a maximum learning effect and how different parts (podcast, audio PowerPoint, web pages, exercises and links) link and build up into a learning experience.

I have realised that I have probably included too much content into the course. This is quite normal for an academic archaeologist; you just think the amount of basics people have to grasp in order to be able to process certain new topics. However, the learners probably do not have too many hours per week for studying, so I hope I have not prepared too much to be ploughed through. On the other hand, one had to prepare for a situation where you have a novice in landscape archaeology who wants to use different online resources and give them enough of the context in order to be able to carry out and understand the exercises.

Designing the exercises was also a little daunting, since some of the course participants are really active in their part-time study or have membership of different fieldworker or archaeology groups. If they are really computersavvy, they can do exercises really quickly. There may also be some topics they consider knowing enough and they skim the content and choose the exercises they have been looking for. This makes it a difficult balancing act.

The most unpleasant thing is checking the sound tracks. I am not used to listen to my own voice and I am sure one picks oneself all those awkward pauses, hesitations and scrambled words to the maximum effect. Luckily, there are the bullet points to read for the students and in places it sounds OK. It is a pity I did not have the instruction book for the audio recorder, so I did not try forwarding or rewinding the tape. Next time I will do more retakes!

Even if we do have a discussion forum, I do not have direct contact with the students when they are doing the exercises. Thus, any sticky points will come out only later – and only if they comment on them. In this type of course they do most of the work themselves. Luckily, they will send me a very short mini project of their work at the end, so I will know if they found it useful and learnt new skills. If so, I will be content.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Secrets of the Stonehenge skeletons

I finally had an opportunity to see the Stonehenge documentary, repeated on More4 in a comfortable 9 o’clock slot recently. Even if at the core of the programme there were some interesting hypotheses, some better established than the others, some of the attention ended up directed to a series of design choices that clearly were made by the production company and outside the powers of the archaeologists.

We all have probably recently been complaining about the irritating re-enactments in archaeological documentaries. There are the pretend ancient Egyptians in their thick black wigs carrying bowls in dark corners or sitting on replica chairs when intriguing modern classical music is playing. There are the screaming attacking armies of the barbarians, Persians and/or Celts. There are the Iron Age People cooking in their woollen clothes in a dark round house, when the smoke is quietly floating around, while a voiceover keeps repeating the same mysterious lines over and over again. However, this time the budget may have been smaller than normally, since any alive re-enactors were replaced – by shadow puppets. The kind of puppets you see in the south-eastern Asian displays. This was a true novelty.

The documentary also kept repeating the same shot of Mike Parker Pearson walking among the stones of Stonehenge and observantly look up to their top parts. This section reminded me in an unintended manner of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space. In that movie, voted to have been one of the worst ever made, a section with Bela Lugosi, then already deceased, and some other shots were reused continuously. However, this documentary I was watching naturally was light years better than the movie, but the continuous repetition of the same scenes hints that the programme uses the building up of intrigue techniques that repeat same questions, such as ‘why did the use of Stonehenge stop so abruptly’, before the ad breaks. The continuous repetition also suggest that there was really material for a 45-minute documentary, but the programme had to cover a certain slot. Although there is always more than 45 minutes worth of stories from Stonehenge!

On the positive side, it was crucial to get a neat summary of the findings of the excavations of the Aubrey Holes in this programme. However, some of the arguments were surprising - although the script must have been edited by the production company. The programme makers suggested that before the Riverside project people did not know that the first Stonehenge did not have the stone circle with headstones in the middle. However, Atkinson had already written in his book in the 1950s that the first Stonehenge was a simple henge with a ditch. The important Riverside novelty was the observation that there were probably bluestones instead of wooden poles in the Aubrey Holes. This is a true novelty, but not the same thing as them finding out about the simple first henge for the very first time.

I really appreciated the study of the reburied cremated bones from the Aubrey Holes. That must have felt like a very daunting task at first, but the cleaver use of ear bones as the marker of the number of individuals was impressive. Nevertheless, I am not sure how the presence of burials of both men and women together with children was evidence for the existence of a special religious order at Stonehenge and the members of which were buried there under the first simple stone henge.

Another thing that made the re-excavation of the Aubrey Holes bones remarkable was that every single director of the sub-projects of the Riverside project took turns in carrying out the humble duties of excavating with trowel.