Computers in Teaching English and Scottish Literature and Language: the STELLA Project


In the mid nineteen-eighties, the UK government funded the Computers in Teaching Initiatives (CTI). This funding enabled the setting up of subject specific projects in individual institutions, and of national centres such as the CTI Centre for Textual Studies, which ran from 1989 to 2000. The CTI centres were superseded by the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) in 2000 and, most recently, by the LTSN Subject Centres. STELLA began as a CTI project for English and Scottish Language and Literature in September 1987. Members of the three departments of English Language, English Literature and Scottish Literature came together to identify possible uses of computers in their teaching, install a computer classroom with twenty PCs and hire a programmer.

The aim of the STELLA project is to develop teaching software which can be incorporated into courses and enhance learning in tutorial and self-access modes. The teaching packages we have produced include materials for Modern English Grammar and lexis, the history of English and Scots, metrics, and stylistics, and annotated texts. Where possible, the material is introduced to students at timetabled sessions, but they are also encouraged to use the materials during free access sessions either as part of their course or later as revision.

Large research databases such as the Historical Thesaurus of English are made available to students and staff and we run courses and workshops in literary and linguistic computing for undergraduates and postgraduates.

Students in the STELLA lab at the University of Glasgow


The 20 classroom PCs have all the usual functions for word processing, electronic mail, Web access and database work, plus specialized programs for text analysis, and access to electronic dictionaries and large corpora of English. The STELLA 'Literature and Linguistics Links' Web pages act as a gateway to approved Web sites which have been chosen by lecturers and tutors. The pages have a comprehensive list of hundreds of links organized by subject.

A screenshot of a STELLA package

With members of the academic staff, STELLA plans and implements the introduction of computing into courses. From the beginning, principles important to us have been to use the technology to complement and enhance teaching, not to replace it, and to ensure that computers are used in ways relevant to our teaching methods and course content, as opposed to introducing computer techniques just because they are possible. We believe that well-designed computer programs can deal with the more repetitive tasks in, for instance, language learning, thereby freeing the teacher to concentrate on more complex ideas in seminars and tutorials. Another very useful role for computers is that of giving access to digitized copies of materials which are otherwise difficult for students to obtain.

STELLA Teaching Packages

The main purpose of STELLA has been to create tailored, computer-based learning packages for parts of specific courses. A typical first year student will use The Essentials of Old English and English Grammar: an Introduction. Both of these programs contain graded exercises designed to support a structured learning programme, and hypertext versions of the course handbooks. The Essentials of Old English: Level 1 contains short exercises designed as a revision-package for beginners in the subject. English Grammar: an Introduction is based on a Hallidayan grammatical model. It contains ten sets of exercises to take the student from the relatively simple task of identifying parts of speech in context through the more complex processes involved in parsing phrases and clauses.

OLD English = a popular STELLA title

In both of these programs, techniques commonly used in modern language learning exercises are employed and the shared interface design gives a common 'look and feel' to practice in the different topics. To create them required many months of both academic and programming work. They have been in use, with several revisions, for many years, thoroughly tested in the classroom, and subjected to comment and detailed criticism by more than a thousand students and their teachers.


In earlier years, when class sizes were smaller, such programs were a compulsory, timetabled part of course work. A typical week for a class would consist of a lecture, a small group tutorial and a computer workshop. Student numbers have risen so steeply that the 20 PC STELLA classroom cannot accommodate them in timetabled hours. The School has over 1500 students; English Language level one now has 460 students. Students are told to use the programs in STELLA, other Arts Faculty labs and the University Library, when they can. The pressure for access to computers is increasing and will continue to be a problem for a long time.

The first year student will also find helpful resources such as The Basics of English Metre, a Guide to Scottish Literature, ARIES: Punctuation and Spelling (all STELLA produced), as well as electronic dictionaries (Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Concise Dictionary and Thesaurus) and the many resources on the SESLL Web.

All course handbooks and timetables are updated on the Web at the beginning of the session. Course content materials such as reading lists, seminar topic handouts and lecture outlines are also to be found there. Advice on essay writing and examination techniques, quizzes and mock tests have recently been added. The feedback from students has been very positive. Indeed, we now find that students expect to find such materials available on the Web and accessible from within the campus and at home. This expectation cannot always be met. Copyright prevents some of the course handouts being made available on the Web worldwide. Texts which can be legally photocopied and given to a specific class under the Fair Use for education rules cannot be broadcast. We have had to make sure that such texts are available only to our students; at present the texts are stored on the SESLL part of a local area network which is not accessible outside the Faculty. We hope that the adoption by Glasgow University of a virtual learning environment next session will make this easier. Knowledge of copyright issues will, of course, continue to be necessary.

More senior students will use packages such as The Essentials of Old English: Level Two (containing five sets of exercises offering a thorough grounding in the principles of Old English grammar), digital resources on CD such as Romanticism, The Wife of Bath's Tale, Dr Johnson's Dictionary, Ladefoged's Languages of the World and many more. STELLA also provides training in the use of specialized programs for text analysis (TACT, Wordsmith, Longman's Concordancer) and large corpora of English (British National Corpus, BNC Sampler; ICAME Australian Corpus of English, Corpus of London Teenage English, Brown Corpus of American English; Kohlkapur Corpus of Indian English; International Corpus of English-GB; Helsinki Corpus and Corpus of Older Scots; Toronto Corpus of Old English). These resources are used in classes for undergraduates and in postgraduate workshops.

There is an increasing number of postgraduate students using computer applications as a major part of their research. Large databases, digital copies of manuscripts, hypertext presentations of findings, and concordances have been created by recent students. STELLA supports these students by both general introductory workshops at Faculty level and individual consultations to decide on the most appropriate applications and the design of the data structures.

STELLA is also involved in a level three honours option in Literary and Linguistic Computing for English. The course introduces students to a range of computing skills and packages and aims to provide an understanding of the tools, techniques and methodologies of literary and linguistic computing. We encourage students to consider some of the theoretical issues involved and to develop their capacity for independent and creative work. A range of areas is covered - lexicography, stylistics, phonetics, natural language processing, literary theory - many reflecting staff research interests.

The work of several research projects in SESLL is supported by STELLA, especially:
STARN: Scots Teaching and Research Network. STARN collects Scottish literary and non-literary materials which are usually difficult to access by other means. They are primarily intended for use by educationalists and researchers into aspects of Scottish culture, particularly Scottish literature and varieties of Scots language. ('Starn' is a Scots word meaning 'star'.)

SCOTS: The Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech. The SCOTS project began in October 2001 and is carrying out a survey of the languages of Scotland. It will create an electronic corpus containing written and spoken materials with data from, initially, Scottish English and Scots speakers; later we hope to add Gaelic non-indigenous languages. Pilot studies will investigate the digitisation, analysis and presentation of the materials in a mixed-media corpus.

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Newsletter Issue 3 - January 2002

© English Subject Centre

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