7 November 2022
Reading Classics online: Staff and student perspectives
Classical Studies student, University of Lincoln
Classical Studies student, University of Lincoln
Professor of History and Education, University of Lincoln
What does it mean to ‘read’ a subject nowadays? Or to teach a student to read in a specific discipline? This was one of the questions that underlaid Active Online Reading, a QAA Collaborative Enhancement Project led by the University of Lincoln that sought to investigate how students read online and how academics teach them to do so.
A blog post in the summer outlined the key findings of the project and its recommendations, but there wasn’t space to talk about how it plays out at a disciplinary level. In this post, we offer our thoughts on online reading in Classics and Ancient History based primarily on our reflections on the qualitative results of surveys that were completed by staff and students during the project.
Overall, we received 15 responses from staff and 26 students. Academics and students who classified themselves as belonging to the discipline of Classics and Ancient History (ClAH) represented a significant minority of our overall sample (almost 100 staff and well over 500 students completed the survey). Overall, responses from ClAH students and academics track closely onto broader themes observed in the survey, but analysis of the quotes allowed us to dig a bit deeper into what it might mean in a specific disciplinary context. Both staff and students of ClAH stressed the importance of digitised readings and online platforms to the student experience nowadays.
I get given what to read, usually something online, and I read it, taking notes as I go because if I don’t I won’t remember a thing.
Students and staff respondents in both the survey as a whole and the ClAH sub-set spoke at length about the challenges of reading online. Respondents talked about how managing distractions, efficient notetaking, maintaining internet access, and staying physically and emotionally comfortable are all crucial considerations for them when they read online. The physical effects of reading online, such as headaches and eye and back strain were mentioned repeatedly. On distraction, a particularly relatable quote from a student was:
I have measures in place to attempt to avoid distraction, but it is occasionally a losing battle.
Some academics also mentioned distraction but were more focused on the negative outcomes of the challenges that students face when reading online, such as a lack of digital literacy, struggling to follow arguments or to engage with longer texts, plagiarism, and digital overload and lack of initiative.
Students can often get overwhelmed, particularly now that so much is available digitally and is readily accessible. There is a tendency sometimes to just Google a topic rather than following the reading lists, which can be frustrating, especially when so much quality material is provided.
Obviously, many of these issues are interconnected and not necessarily rooted solely in the challenges of reading online, but this was one of our key findings - digital reading is not going away and cannot be ignored or treated in isolation from the overall student experience of studying at university.
While there are a number of challenges associated with online reading, students in particular also emphasised a range of potential benefits, which all focused in different ways on its greater accessibility and potential to support independent working and research:
I can do it comfortably and at my own pace, and that I can take it anywhere as opposed to being forced to sit in the library, even if I were to take the books from the library it is still more comfortable to simply read online. There is also the advantage that there aren’t limited copies online, which can be an issue in the library if one book in particular is wanted.
Online databases are also extremely helpful for finding translations of classical texts. It also means I don't have to carry many books with me when working on campus. The 'find' function can also help search through a long text for key words.
Can make notes and search for key terms. Cheaper and easier to locate it all and access remotely.
Staff and students agreed on the ubiquity of online reading and that it is imperative to study in the discipline nowadays (more on that below…).
Practices and experiences
During the project, we all learnt a lot about reading online (and teaching students to do so) from our peers, for example about new tools or strategies for accessing online reading or avoiding things like distraction. While staff responses emphasised that students’ abilities to read online vary considerably, their overall appraisal of students’ skills in this area was negative, emphasising the need for students to read more and that an instrumental attitude towards reading pertains, with assessment as a particular driver for engagement.
Student responses reflected a variety of practices and experiences of online reading, with a wide variety of different approaches reported. Some students ‘only read things once’, others claim they ‘skim read the vast majority of texts’, while others mentioned reading beyond the essential texts. It’s important to recognise the individuality of reading practices when we consider how to develop students skills in this area rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, or (from the staff perspective) expecting students to read like ‘us’.
The discipline: reading Classics
Students, but especially staff, stressed the importance of reading to the discipline:
Reading is central to the discipline, which is a based on a combination of ancient texts and material culture. In order to interpret these and engage with scholarly debates, students must read the relevant scholarship in the area.
Some student respondents wrote about how online reading is uniquely useful for studying ancient texts as it allows them to quickly and easily access translations and digitisations of texts. They suggested that reading it online is easier to search for key terms in these challenging texts, or to find annotations or helpful discussions around them, facilitating more efficient study of some difficult pieces. Ancient literature is becoming steadily more accessible for the general reader and the academic alike, and our research suggests that the online databases that contain these resources have the potential to ensure that everyone, especially students, can appreciate and study them.
It is important to recognise that, while ClAH staff outlined a number of strategies that they adopt to engage students in online reading and to develop their skills in this area, it is not a strong focus pedagogically within the discipline. Indeed, some respondents questioned whether reading of any sort is prioritised sufficiently:
We should give more thought to helping students read academic works - many of us forget how many years of experience we have with this skill, how much we have internalised it and don't notice that we have it. And from having our own work reviewed, we may realise how easy it can be even for other highly trained academics to misread what we have said!
In this regard, ClAH responses align well with the overall survey, in which there was widespread agreement on the potential of online reading to support learning, on the considerable challenges that it poses, and a recognition that insufficient attention is paid to developing students’ competencies as readers of digital texts on online platforms.
As we develop our analysis of the data that we have gathered over the next few months, we will be sharing further insights into what it means to actually ‘read’ Classics - and other disciplines - online, as well as to teach students how to do so.
About the authors
Samantha and Annabelle were student researchers on the project, sharing insights based on their own reading practices in reflective blogs, advising on the design of the student survey, analysing the data we collected and presenting our results at conferences.
Both learned how to use NVIVO for coding the qualitative responses gathered, and undertook sentiment analysis, too. On a more personal level, by reading the responses of other students, Samantha learned that she is not alone in sometimes struggling with online reading, while Annabelle reflected on how online reading can be physically challenging but has considerable benefits for a subject such as Classics, which is so focused on texts.
Jamie led the project and learned that when teaching reading, academics should adopt exactly the sort of the active, purposeful and reflective dispositions we expect of student readers. He also learned that online reading is not the same as analogue reading - it's challenging - and we need to devote much more attention to it.
You can find out more about the next stages of the Active Online Reading project on University of Lincoln website.
About QAA Collaborative Enhancement Projects
QAA Collaborative Enhancement Projects offer funding for small groups of QAA Member institutions to work together on projects to enhance the quality of the participating institutions’ student learning experience. More information, including the projects we are currently supporting and resources from completed projects, is available on the QAA website.