Overcoming structural barriers in digital learning
By Nahrein Network, on 28 July 2020
The Nahrein Network’s collaboration with Oracc and UCL’s Research Software Development Group aims to improve inclusivity in the study of cuneiform. Cuneiform texts preserve the earliest languages known to humanity. Yet today, for those living in the Middle Eastern lands where these texts were first produced, there are disproportionately high barriers to studying cuneiform in the Arabic language. Overcoming the loss of such rich literary heritage is part of the Nahrein Network’s sustainable development aims, and the adaption of open-access resources provides real prospects to re-centre the production of cuneiform research.
Oracc.org hosts a growing cuneiform corpus: an open platform for researchers to collaborate and publish projects on the traces of life left from Ancient Mesopotamia. Digitisation has come a long way in improving access to these tablets, which have become dispersed across the world through a haphazard history of excavation and plunder. As with much of the digital world however, the centre of gravity is shifted towards the European and American sphere, pulling Middle Eastern heritage along with it. In the last few weeks, I have undertaken research to assess the needs of Arabic-speaking audiences in the Middle East to access online resources, and specifically, Oracc.
Through a combination of Oracc’s Google Analytics data and a survey circulated across the Nahrein Network, I built up a detailed picture of the target demographic. Questions addressed included: how Middle Eastern users currently use the site, what technology do they access it through, what channels are used to reach the site, and what content and features are they interested in. The notification of a new survey response was always a welcome sound, promising insights into the real experiences of researchers behind the numbers on the screen.
Findings revealed similar research interests between Middle Eastern users and their counterparts around the world, although the former are slightly more interested in archaeology. The biggest divergences between the two groups came from the devices and software being used to access Oracc. A higher proportion of Middle Eastern users reached the site through social referral. Non-expert users found it difficult to engage with the site interface across all demographics, preventing the growth of widespread interest.
The future of scholarship relies on widespread access, and so I have put forward recommendations to develop the site for new, as well as existing, audiences. Solutions addressing immediate usability and marketing, such as mobile-friendly interfaces and a more diverse social media presence, are all under consideration. Most importantly, a longer-term, sustainable outlook is developing around content creation from the Middle East, which will spur engagement to organically grow from the region. All suggestions are driven by a shared, clear vision: improving the offerings for Middle Eastern audiences to explore their heritage.
Having newly joined the teams behind Oracc to complete this research, my personal takeaway has been the core values held by the people behind the site. Working during the pandemic has had its solitary moments, but meetings with UCL’s RSDG, Oracc Steering Committee, and of course, my supervisor, were infectious with the drive to be doing more. Decisions are research-heavy, solutions are ambitious, and integrity runs throughout project aims. Perhaps my most important finding, therefore, is that the future of cuneiform resources are in safe hands. The inheritors of the world’s first written culture can expect big things from this space.