An interview with Katherine Fennelly – Digital Mapping of the 18th and 19th-century British Landscape

Unfortunately, it’s taken me a while to get the second interview in this series written up. In any case, I’m very please to be able to share my discussions with Dr Katherine Fennelly, an historical archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, about her use of digital mapping technologies when teaching in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. The activity had a notable impact on students’ visual literacy and their ability to engage with a wider range of sources in written work.


JW: Could you provide a bit of background about the module on which you were getting students to make things digitally and to share the results of what they’d done?

KF: The module was about 18th and 19th century improvement. So it was about urban landscape improvement in the British Isles from about 1750 until 1850. And it was supposed to cover the agricultural revolution, to include things like enclosure in the landscape and also rapid urbanisation. The idea was to get students to use historic maps as much as they would use written sources in order to talk about how the landscape changed rapidly over time. So really, it was about kind of introducing students to historic map progressions, which in archaeology is very much a professional skill. So, I was getting history students to think about using professional skills that are used in the heritage industry and to think about sources beyond the written word. It was about applying some of the things that they’d do when analysing writing to examining figures. One of the main motivations was to develop students’ skills and awareness of these different types of sources and how to use them. There was an employability aspect to it, too: teaching history students professional skill of historic map progression, which they might use if they ever go and work in, for instance, an historic environment record office or an archaeological consultancy. So, it was about developing professional skills that they could use beyond university in an assessment that utilised their existing skills in text-based source analysis to maps and images.

JW: What year group were the students?

KF: They were second-year, second semester. Most of them would have looked at material culture in at least one first year module, but most of what they’ve done in the past is text-based. At the time they would have been formulating their dissertation plans and I was interested in getting them to think about using resources for the dissertation projects that they might not have thought of before.

JW: Thinking more about the specifics of what you ask them to do, what did they make and how did they make? 

KF: They made maps and figures to illustrate a short essay. They used resources like Digimap,  the National Library of Scotland’s mapping database, and a few other things, like the Ordnance Survey and Street Map to create two comparative maps that could be either overlaid on each other or on modern Ordnance Survey maps. So, it is about them making them up and annotating the maps, using a variety of online resources. The main thing they used was Digimap to create one base map, and then they had to make a different map of the same area using a different resource. It was about getting them to think about how to source historic maps from somewhere other than the Ordnance Survey,

First, they had to pick their own area. Then they had to use the maps to answer questions such as how processes of enclosure or urbanisation or transport infrastructure changed a particular village or town. They had to go and find it and then create a map or two maps that could be compared to show how there was change over time. So one of the maps could have been from an earlier period and the other from a later period. There had to be at least one change in the maps that they can annotate in order to signpost the change. Alongside the maps, they had to submit a 500-word map progression description explaining the differences between them, the processes of change that accounted for the difference between them (so, the assignment included two maps as figures to illustrate their 500 word analysis). They had to engage in historical analysis, by using the maps to identify changes and then to pick them to pieces, as they would with a standard (text-based) source analysis, explaining and describing the differences between the maps through reference to scholarship, as they would do in class. Reading about things like enclosure and urbanisation were supposed to support their reading of the map source.

Map progression sample

Image: Example of a map progression

JW: Did they work together or individually? How did they share the results of their work and who did they share them with?

KF: In class, they worked together. We did workshops where they were learning how to use the resources and especially Digimap. I encouraged them to work together to try to find places that interested them, but they submitted their own individual source analysis. So, when it came to actually doing the assessment, which is really the only way that they shared the results, they did so individually. I asked them to discuss it in class to check that they were confident with and interested in the material. So, it was mostly class-based.

JW: Did you have to use computer labs or was it done in a kind of standard seminar room or other kind of space?

KF: We used a standard seminar room. If I was doing it again, I would do it in a computer lab because I did encourage the students to bring their own machines if they wanted to. But the workshop where I told them how to use Digimap was mostly paper based. I gave them a handout to show them all of the steps and then I walked them through the different steps on the screen. And the idea with using something like Digimap is that you can use a tablet or a mobile phone to do it if you want. So I encouraged the students to use a variety of mobile devices. But if I was doing it again or if anyone else was doing this, I would encourage them to do it in a computer lab because it’s definitely the most straightforward way of explaining to the students how the technology works. After that, they could play with it on their mobile devices. 

JW: How did you assess their work?

KF: As I said, there was the 500-word source analysis that I marked that like any other essay, judging whether or not they had referenced scholarship, had picked out relevant elements on the maps that they’d selected, and whether or not they had engaged with the maps. 

JW: Did you find them using the skills of map analysis in other assessments? 

KF: I encouraged them to make use of as many of the resources that we’d used in class as possible when they were doing their final essay. I think that maybe half the class did so to some degree, even if it was to use a figure to illustrate their essay even if they didn’t use a map. So, they were thinking beyond just written sources by that stage, which was one of my aims in devising the assessment.

JW: What were the key challenges for engaging the students with this kind of activity?

KF: The assessment. I asked them to use two different mapping sources. It was getting them to think beyond Digimap to identify other sources that would enable them to engage with historic maps. Digimap is a very intuitive and easy platform for annotating historic maps but it’s not the only one. I wasn’t expecting students to learn GIS, but I was expecting them to use things like the annotation features in Microsoft Word, even if just to illustrate the changes on the maps themselves. So, the biggest challenge I found was getting the students to use a wider range of resources because Digimap is so easy to use. It was kind of a curse and a blessing that all of them seemed to ‘get’ Digimap. They all technically answered the question, but getting them to use different resources would have developed their skills in historic map progression and their analytical work.

JW: So, how would you get them to do that in future?

KF: In terms of assessment, I guess I would be a lot stricter. Doing more work on different tools for accessing and analysing historic maps would be useful. One of the things that I would develop in relation to this approach to assessment would be a dedicated class or a lab in which students would follow step-by-step the exercises on the screen for a range of tools beyond Digimap, such as QGIS. So, introducing them to the tools that would be necessary to build their own historic maps, including Geographical Information System databases if they wanted to. That would be the next step: getting them to use their own skills in order to develop maps of their own rather than just using what’s available in Digimap.

I only did that particular module one, but I used what I learnt from it on another module, Digital Heritage, which was also a second-year second-semester module. I had to think about using online mapping resources like Digimap. So setting up a lab was something that I did for the next two years. It gives students a chance to mess up in class so they can help each other and they can ask questions. And they’re a lot more relaxed about asking questions when you’re doing it on the screen with them. So, giving them a kind of space to play in an experiment.

JW: What do you think that the students got out of doing this exercise and the subsequent kind of iterations of the exercise on a different module?

KF: I think the students, the History students in particular, gained a sense of how to use different sources: different archival sources and different data sets in particular. They were exposed to a different way of looking at sources that they wouldn’t have necessarily approached before. I know that some students went on to apply mapping or Geographical Information Systems in their dissertation projects. So, it helped them to think spatially about the past and a few of them applied that to their dissertation projects as they progressed in their studies, which I think was a really positive take away. 

JW: And what did you get out of doing it?

KF: I gained some quite valuable skills in lab instruction because what I do is mostly kind of, I guess, Arts and Humanities based. This is a good pedagogical skill to develop. It was also really interesting and I learnt a lot about the different places that the students were working on in their own case studies and that made for much more interesting reading than a standard assignment. If I’d just given them a list of case studies or places to look at, it probably would have been more focussed from the start, but also much less interesting for the students and for me. A lot of the students, for instance, picked the places that they were from or the places they were familiar with. And that meant that I got a sense of who they were and what they were interested in. This may have been motivating for them because they chose the topic rather than being given a list of resources or questions by me. It showed them that they can use their own skills in a practical way rather than me just telling them this is an interesting landscape, go and look at it. They were really tasked with going and finding what was interesting in their landscape.

As I said, a few of them used areas they were from; so the villages or places that they knew about. And they talked about hey weren’t aware that, for instance, that the road that they lived on was as new as it was. I think that the English landscape tends to look quite old to younger eyes and applying some of the skills that they were learning about how the landscape has changed rapidly in the last 300 years and seeing how that’s worked on the page gave them a sense of how industrialised the rural landscape really is.

JW: Would you do it again? And, if so, what advice would you give to someone else who is going to do it?

KF: I would encourage anyone who is going to use a resource like Digimap for assessment or for teaching to make sure that you walk the students through the process in class. Digimap is relatively intuitive, but if a student is not familiar with using things like illustration software or graphics software, there are things like kind of what an icon looks like that does a certain thing that students might not grasp readily without help. I think it’s essential to walk the students through the process to take the time and do a workshop with them rather than just telling them to use certain resources. I would also encourage anyone doing this to encourage students to share their findings: so, setting up a class blog or maybe tweeting about it and sharing some of the maps that they’re making. These are really underused resources and I think it would be really good for students to see how much interest their findings can inspire. Platforms like Twitter or blogs can generate a broad readership and I think that students would be surprised at how interesting their work might be to local historians or local communities.

JW: My final question is about how you think this approach might be applicable in the current, pandemic context? Would it be possible to do this as an online activity that the students do remotely? And how might that work? 

KF: I might even just do it on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (rather than doing it in a classroom), because I think that sharing a screen while the students are already on a computer might even be easier than trying to do it in a computer lab. They can see exactly what it is that you’re looking at. And I think it’s kind of important to make use of some of these resources now because physical archives are closed. An undergraduate history student, for instance, can’t go into an archive. They can’t go into an historic environment record office. So, being made aware of the different resources that are available to them online and getting walked through workshops and labs on how to use those resources would be really valuable for them at the moment. And I think that from a disciplinary perspective it’s going to be really interesting in the future as more and more people use these kinds of online resources. Developing that kind of digital literacy early in their academic career might actually be quite valuable, I think. It would also develop useful for employment or for further study.

Links and further resources:

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