Digital and practical epigraphy – but hybrid

This past week, I ran another digital and practical epigraphy workshop with Dr Gabriel Bodard and Dr Irene Vagionakis. There was one big difference between this workshop and the one we ran back in 2019: this time, we decided to run the workshop in hybrid format, to allow for both in-person and remote participation.

To avoid the remote participants being glued to a livestream of an in-person event all day (potentially a bit boring), the plan was to construct a flipped classroom. Pre-recorded videos would be made available in the mornings, and we would have live events (Q&As, practice sessions, guest lectures and field trips) in the afternoon. Gabby and Irene had a lot of ideas on how to do this, as they had already prepared lots of videos for another similar workshop.

There were plenty of advantages to this. Some we anticipated, and were part of our planning. Remote and in-person participants got a more equal experience than if we just livestreamed an in-person event. It allowed for different time zones (and indeed, we had participants from Brazil, China and everywhere in between). It also lets the videos become freely available resources (all the videos from our workshop and other similar workshops can be viewed here), providing free training worldwide but also making future workshops less labour-intensive to run.

There were also some positives that I, at least, did not foresee. Even the in-person participants found the video resources much more helpful than being taught in person – this surprised me, but it was obvious once they described their experience. They could speed up, or pause, or repeat videos. They could practice exercises as the video played, and revisit different sections in turn. They could watch things out of order, or skip things that didn’t interest them. And, perhaps most importantly, the format gave them flexibility too. Because they only needed to be in London in the afternoons, they could organise their time differently – either commuting in later in the day (including quite long distances) to avoid peak-time charges, or coming in earlier to visit museums relevant to their work. I remember in 2019, we received the feedback that the 10am-4pm days were too long, and didn’t allow for sightseeing and museum visits – well, hybrid has fixed that.

Of course, hybrid has its limitations. Remote participants were never going to get quite as much input from the afternoon live sessions, particularly when they included practical skills like squeeze-making. Some managed to experiment with some of their new skills locally, in museums or local sites. Others had to take a more theoretical approach for now, because they were attending around other commitments (reasonably enough).

I was very glad that we made the decision that Irene would be completely remote herself, and would be the organiser in charge of the remote participants’ experience. She was able to offer small Zoom trouble-shooting sessions for EpiDoc practice that really helped the remote participants get the most out of the experience.

It’s been a really interesting experience to reflect on this kind of teaching. On the one hand, two years into a pandemic, it feels like hybrid teaching should be second nature. But, of course, it’s not. Hybrid teaching is really, really difficult and I, at least, constantly feel like I’m not doing it nearly as well as it could be done. For this workshop, we had several advantages that are nearly impossible to replicate in everyday university teaching:

  • Manpower. Two in-person organiser and one remote organiser was a fantastic balance. But, of course, it’s a rare luxury to have three teachers for a room of students!
  • Relatively low in-person numbers. We were expecting around 12-15 in person participants. In the end, only eight could make it for various reasons, an 15 or so attended remotely. We had a lot of time to get to everyone individual attention and talk about their work.
  • Time. A whole week was brilliant, and meant that we could be relatively relaxed about the pace of the workshop.
  • Existing resources. I’m so grateful that Gabby, Irene and others had pre-recorded so much existing material that could be reused, so we could add to the bank of resources rather than creating it from scratch. Perhaps we could do more of this in university teaching, but it’s certainly not straightforward.

My biggest thanks, of course, go out to the students, who were so keen to participate in this new format. All of us felt excited, I think, to attend (for most of us) our first in-person event in several years. Some graduate students have had very few opportunities to make links beyond their institution during their PhD, and seeing the discussions that emerged within the group was very exciting.

Many thanks to the ICS for hosting us, and to Durham University and the AHRC for funding the workshop; also to all our guest lecturers, and especially to the co-organisers, Gabby and Irene.

Our syllabus and all our materials can be found here.

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