Computers and the internet in Area Studies teaching

Author: Hugo Frey


The essay explores the application of Internet technology in the teaching of Area Studies. It is a descriptive commentary on recent good practice in this area. Special attention is given to the role played by 'virtual seminars' in teaching and learning.

Table of contents


E-mail, the Internet and other new technology are a common part of higher education. Today even small universities or departments boast a wealth of technology that means that computers and the Internet have become central components in everyone's teaching and learning experience. The purpose of this short essay is to share knowledge of a sample of good practice of the application of computer technology in Area Studies (AS). Some aspects of what I will describe will be well-known 'good practice', and already second nature for most higher education teachers. Other examples of the application of Internet technology will be less familiar, for instance, 'virtual seminars' that originate in distance learning institutions but that AS practitioners are now introducing to 'face to face' courses.

Common uses of the internet

Generally speaking, the international nature of AS is especially well placed to benefit from Internet technology. Important resources that were once only accessible in the subject country or region can now be consulted very easily via the Internet. Topics that would have been impossible for undergraduates to tackle in the 6-12 months of a final year dissertation programme are increasingly feasible for research. In fact, students from all year groups are using Internet sources in their assignments. Search engines, on-line newspaper archives or specialized CD-Roms mean that keyword searches can almost instantly target relevant material. Key research libraries like the British Library offer sophisticated online catalogues that can help in getting the most out of inter-library loan services. Perhaps more importantly primary sources from political institutions, think-tanks and political parties are also readily available. Moreover, as technology develops, visual and audio materials like short films, photographs or radio broadcasts can also be sampled from desktop computers. In short, it has never been easier for an AS student to engage with the political world around them.

Beyond student-centred learning, higher education teachers have increasingly started to integrate net-based sources and activities into their programmes of study. Many scholars have created their own web-pages that focus on their teaching interests and that are more or less linked to their courses. In the most elaborate examples, extensive course materials have been presented in on-line formats. Portal pages that gather together Internet links relevant to teaching and learning are equally helpful. Thus, specifically designed Internet sites are gradually being integrated into teaching programmes that once relied exclusively on published sources. This approach has many advantages, not least the avoidance of photocopying expenses for institutions and students! Furthermore, in this context the appropriate Internet material is focussed and channelled by the teacher. The more random 'hit or miss' pitfall associated with using the Web is therefore avoided and replaced by an integrated management of Internet resources.

National and international virtual seminars

More extensive and elaborate uses of technology are also slowly influencing AS teaching. The Open University's new European Studies programme is probably the most innovative course in its field. Its core options in Governing Europe and Europe: Culture and Identities in a Contested Continent are leading the way in full on-line teaching for adult students studying from home. Besides extensive course home-pages with links to major Western and Eastern European newspapers and EU institutions, the course includes on-line tutorial advice, on-line group seminars and the option of electronic submission of course-work and tutor evaluation. In short, this is a small-scale model of a complete 'virtual university' being created with the help of computer technology. The learning environment is potentially entirely accessible via a computer.

Mixed-mode institutions that combine distance learning with mainly face to face teaching are also profiting from similar applications of technology. For instance, a virtual seminar is a tutor guided (and potentially assessed) discussion forum that is entirely computer based. It is a software generated space, rather like an elaborate shared e-mail system or bulletin board, where students and tutors can send messages that flow through a prepared set of discussion points, designed by the tutor. These seminars can easily become integrated into face to face teaching programmes. For example, this was an option developed by Graham Roberts (University of Surrey) in the teaching of Central and Eastern European Business Studies. His courses have included assessed virtual seminars in which groups of students were expected to post messages to each other. Just as in a normal seminar, he guided the debate and produced a set of themes to be explored. In turn, students debated these questions on-line, then responded to each others' analysis. Beyond the specifics of a particular course, institutions such as University College Chichester have invested in campus-wide software which makes it possible for all of the College's courses to include an on-line virtual seminar component. This type of mainstreaming of technology will present opportunities for many teachers and students of AS. It will also offer institutions the option to engage in distance learning activities.

A particularly innovative use of the virtual seminar is the international option where tutors and students from more than one nation have worked together to create a unique learning experience that links seminars across international and institutional boundaries. For example, perhaps the most extensive of these in the field of AS was the 1998-2001 CEFES (Creating a European Forum for European Studies) project. It provided a series of rolling seminars on the theme of European identity and included cooperation between students and staff from six EU member states. Projects like CEFES require enormous planning and organization, not to mention EU funding. However, smaller- scale international virtual seminars are quickly established if pre-existing professional contacts are exploited. For instance, in 2001 colleagues from the German Technical University of Reutlingen and students of contemporary history from Chichester responded together to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York via a short virtual seminar on Globalization and Culture. Students from England and Germany found themselves in the same international virtual seminar space discussing common readings and contemporary political events.


Computers and specifically Internet-based activities offer many new ways of teaching and learning AS. Even the most Luddite of university scholars now realize the potential applications of technology, a selection of which have been highlighted here.


For a detailed survey of the CEFES project in European Studies On-Line Learning see: Baumeister, H-P., J. Williams & K. Wilson (eds) Teaching Across Frontiers (Tübingen: Deutsches Institut für Fernstudienforschung an der Universität Tübingen, 2000).

For discussion of on-line learning in Europe Studies in Europe see also: Wink, M. European Studies and Distance Education in Europe (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1997).

A growing general literature on the use of computers in Higher education/Distance Learning includes the following publications and relevant web-sites:

Bates, A.W. (1995). Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education. London: Routledge.

Chambers, E. (1993). "The Role of Theories of Discourse in Course Design for Humanities Distance Education", Media and Technology for Human Resource Development, 5.3: 177-96.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching. A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology. London: Routledge.

Mason, R., and A.R.Kaye (1989). Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education. Oxford: Pergamon.

Mason, R. (1994). Using Communications Media in Open and Flexible Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Wilson, K. (2000). "Virtual Seminars in European Studies: A Model for Collaborative Learning", Computers and the Humanities, 34.3: 345-357.

Related links

Salmon, G. (2000). E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning On-Line. London: Kogan Page.

Syverson, M.A., and J.Slatin (1998). Evaluating Learning in Virtual Environments. Austin: University of Texas.

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