Dr Matthew Nicholls, School of Humanities
Year(s) of activity: 2012-3


Digital SilchesterFollowing on from the success of the Virtual Rome project, a Classics module was constructed to teach Part Three undergraduate students 3D digital modelling for the purposes of historical reconstruction. Student satisfaction with the module has been high, and students have benefited from developing skills other than those developed in traditional modules.  The module has received widespread public recognition, and in 2014 won a Guardian University Award for teaching excellence.


  • Provide students with digital skills.
  • Provide students with a different way of learning and representing what they have learned.
  • Extend students’ knowledge of the ancient world.
  • Create a digital model of the Roman town at Silchester for possible future use.


Dr Nicholls has been conducting the Virtual Rome project to digitally reconstruct the city of Rome as it appeared c. AD 315, which he has used in his teaching. Students had expressed interest in attempting 3D digital modelling for themselves, and as part of an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme project students had been taught digital modelling, suggesting it would be straightforward to adapt this approach to a taught module. Owing to the University of Reading’s investigation of the Roman town at Silchester since 1974, there is a wealth of information relating to this area of the ancient world, presenting an excellent opportunity for developing a module.


Students received technical instruction in the techniques of 3D digital modelling, so that students can familiarise themselves with the software and learn the necessary skills to conduct effective modelling. These sessions are conducted within computer labs, in which the module convener can demonstrate the use of 3D digital modelling software though projection while students follow on the lab’s computers. Students use the 3D digital modelling software SketchUp Make, which is able to be downloaded for free, allowing greater access to independent learning. There are numerous tutorials available to help students learn to use SketchUp Make, and Students also have access to screencast guidance videos on the Blackboard Learn virtual learning environment.

Students also learn the conduct of reconstruction. Students engage with how reconstruction is used in historical research to deepen understanding, and consider the debates which are central to the topic. Additionally, students develop the skills necessary to conduct research, so that they can access materials to justify decisions they make in reconstruction.

The module has two assessments. The first, constituting 20% of the final mark, sees students assigned a building, of which they construct a digital model, alongside a written commentary of 1500 words justifying the decisions they have made. This assignment presents students with a formal means through which to obtain feedback on their use of 3D modelling software and their report writing. In the second assessed piece of work, constituting the remaining 80% of the final mark, students freely select a building from the Roman town at Silchester, and create a large digital model and detailed written commentary, for which there is no word limit. To allow construction of an effective model students must research the available resources, such as archaeological plans, secondary texts and comparative materials.

The marking criteria for the module are adapted from the Department of Classics’ internal marking criteria, and so students are easily able understand how to fulfil the criteria.

Students receive video feedback on their assessments. Through use of video capture software, students can see the module convener manipulating their 3D model while providing verbal feedback on how well it and the commentary meet the marking criteria.


Feedback from students is overwhelmingly positive, as students enjoy the opportunity to try something different to other modules. Students who find other areas of academic study challenging may excel in the module, as they are provided with an opportunity for visual learning and use different skills to conduct 3D digital modelling. The module has received widespread public recognition, and in 2014 won a Guardian University Award for teaching excellence. The module was also a contributing factor for Dr Nicholls being an inaugural winner of the British Academy Rising Star Engagement scheme.


Seemingly one of the greatest challenges for the module was teaching the techniques of 3D digital modelling, as the module convener did not have formal experience of this, and the students did not have prior knowledge upon which to draw. The methods used in the first year of the module, which have since been refined, proved effective, and despite the steep learning curve all students were able to become suitably proficient in order to conduct the assessments. Some students do, however, require a large amount of support to reach this level of aptitude, which they may not require in a traditional module. The use of Blackboard Learn to provide access to learning resources was an important factor in helping students adapt to the module.

With regards marking of assessments, one challenge was to explain the module to external examiners, as this module is unique within Classics in Higher Education in the United Kingdom. This did not represent a major obstacle, but more coordination than normal was required with the external examiners.

Teaching 3D digital modelling is valuable, as many careers in which the University of Reading’s Classics graduates find employment make use of digital modelling. Beyond careers that actually perform digital modelling, many employers value the digital visualisation skills that students develop on this module, and students find that it provides an interesting topic of discussion in interviews.

Follow up

The module has continued with some amendments since its first year. The submission dates for assessments has been altered so that students submit following the Autumn and Spring terms. This has been done to allow them to benefit from a full term of instruction before creating their models.

In order to support the teaching of the module, the process of capturing lectures and workshops, so that students can refer to these videos for their independent learning, is underway.

In December 2015 Dr Nicholls will be holding a workshop for beginners to learn SketchUp modelling at the University of Reading. Interested academics or researchers are invited to contact Dr Nicholls for further details.