the liberating computer? (169)

Wed, 25 Jan 89 17:34:34 EST

[The following has been taken from the History discussion group
because it seems of general interest. My apologies to those of you
who are both Humanists and Historians.]

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 531. Wednesday, 25 Jan 1989.

Date: Wed, 25 Jan 89 13:20:42 GMT
Subject: Re: How to study history?

I enclose an abstract of a papper recently delivered at the CATH88
conference in Southampton, England, that might be of interest in
the context of the discussion on teaching history.

Nicholas Morgan
Department of Scottish History
University of Glasgow

Liberator or libertine - the computer in the history
classroom ?

What are we trying to acheive when we teach history ?

`... the purpose of teaching history to undergraduates is to
equip them with the special intellectual training embodied
in the study of history at any level. This intellectual
training consists of two elements: a sharpening of the
critical analytical faculty, and a deepening of the
imaginative and constructive faculty.'

G R Elton The practice of history (pbk, 1969, p.186)

This paper, based on the experiences of the DISH project at
Glasgow, will argue that this objective has become clouded
by a desire to impart facts rather than intellectual
`training' or the development of critical and analytical
skills. Facts are perhaps more easily examined and are
certainly more easily taught in conventional lectures.
Within the Scottish educational system they are (or at least
traditionally have been) the stuff of both secondary and
higher education. Facts about the past have become more
important than sources of information from the past: and yet
it is in an understanding of the nature of these sources
that the key for independent judgement resides. In the
absence of this independence it is the authority of the
lecturer, or the course textbook, which counts.

This primacy of content over method can be explained by a
variety of institutional factors. Not least, it stems from
the spread of history teaching among various departments in
many universities, each seeking to create and maintain power
bases constructed partly on the
sanctity of specialised content.

Computers in the classroom offer a means of returning to a
form of teaching that places intellectual training at the
forefront by relegating `facts' to context for detailed
source based assignments modeled on a workshop format. New
technology enables students to approach and interrogate
types and amounts of information about the past that would,
without new technolgy, be unavailable to them. In the
process their work becomes less passive and more
participatory, their questions more logical and imaginative,
and their evaluation of answers more structured.

Computers both liberate and discipline the user. They
liberate in as much as their potential is only limited by
the user's imagination (and more practically by the
resources available to him or her). They discipline in the
way they force a user to think logically about the structure
of the information about the past that they are using. It
may seem obvious that historians do this already, but on
further investigation it is self-evident that they
frequently don't. And yet understanding information is the
key to asking questions of it.

At Glasgow the DISH project is involved in a collaborative
project with the Learning Technology Unit of the Training
Agency, and the Clydesdale Bank, to produce a computer-based
teaching package aimed at developing such an understanding
of information. The package is being designed for use both
by undergraduates, but also by businessmen who need to
either to handle large amounts of information themselves or
to understand how others are handling it for them. It is
based around business archives and public records,
specifically the Scottish Calendar of Confirmations, and
records of the Glasgow firm of undertakers Wylie & Lochhead.
Much of the material being used is similar to many other
past and present types of business record - it appears to
have an obvious structure and content. Yet the Wylie &
Lochhead order books, for example, contain at least 72 data
items, the identification of each of which enhances the use
to which the source can be put. The CBIS package will take
users through the process of identifying relevant data-
items, asking them to structure their database in a form
that allows the linking of items from one of the three
sources to another. Such an exercise has the attractiveness
of a crossword or puzzle; it forces clear and logical
thinking about sources, but this in itself is not enough
unless students are to go beyond analysing the structure of
a source to analysing the information contained in it.

But how do these apparently liberated teachers and students
avoid enslavement to the computer as libertine, a
promiscuous mistress of information. In particular, can the
creative processes of the computerised classroom avoid being
overshadowed by the complexities of computerised datasets
and accompanying software. This tension, presented
flippantly here, is real. The temptation exists to overload
the learners with a plethora of complex information and
related issues. In order to avoid this congestion the
teacher must deliver a structured exercise which isolates
the most important questions and the minimum of data
necessary to explore them properly. But the key word is
exploration: the exercise must be structured so as to permit
learners to pursue a variety of routes to an outcome which
(like an adventurous essay) is a plausible resolution to a
complex problem rather than a single answer to a simple
question. The learner choses his own route and makes his
own way there.

This change in emphasis fundamentally challenges current
assumptions about the role of the teacher of history in
Universities. Computer based teaching must and will
challenge such assumptions in all humanities disciplines.
Indeed, at an extreme it could be argued that for historians
this approach liberates academics from having to teach
history at all. Instead they can become guides accompanying
their students in an exploration of the past. Their role
becomes more participatory, more challenging. The lecturer
is liberated from the tyranny of content, although at the
clear expense of the time and effort that is implicit in the
preparation and presentation of computer workshops. As a
consequence traditional relationships between teacher and
taught are modulated (as indeed are relationships between
students); institutional claims to departmental autonomy
based on content are challenged. The teacher's relationship
with his subject is revolutionised.

Nicholas Morgan
Department of Scottish History
University of Glasgow

R H Trainor
Department of Economic History
University of Glasgow

All correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed
N.J.Morgan at Glasgow.VME