Past lives on floppy disk

January 13, 1995

Mike Cosgrave celebrates new ways of accessing primary material for history's private eyes

This year up to half the final-year history students at University College, Cork will take courses that require them to use the computer as a research tool.

While Cork is not the only university where history, and other humanities subjects, have harnessed computer technology to improve the quality of teaching, worthwhile use of computers in teaching outside of business or science is still all too rare.

My first involvement with computer use in history teaching was serendipitious. Lecturing on economic history to a class of commerce students I realised that as part of a faculty which believed that the sun rose on one side of a spreadsheet and set on other, these students had ready access to computers. I offered to provide a copy of my notes to anyone who gave me a disk, an offer which almost the entire class took up. Handing out more than 100 pages of notes to 120 students by photocopying would have used 24 reams of paper and cost hundreds of pounds. Distributing the same material on floppy disks cost nothing and took less time.

Distributing lecture notes on floppy disk opens a range of issues. Many lecturers cannot do it because they do not write lecture notes (and, however much they might like to believe otherwise, most are not good enough to get away with this), and many would not because they fear making themselves redundant. Using electronic handouts is an opportunity, not a threat. It enables me to make sure that the material I consider essential is available, accurately, to the students and frees up the lecture hour for analysis instead of transcription.

This has led me to look at other uses for paperless handouts. Everyone who has been to university is familiar with cases where the library only has one copy of a text part of which is absolutely essential reading. Many universities photocopy the entire section as a handout, costing money and breaching copyright law. Some universities now compound this crime by charging for these illegal copies.

I am now convinced that "paperless handouts" can go a long way to solving this perennial problem. Typing extracts on disk, an activity which takes time, encourages the selection of material more carefully, and therefore is more likely to be within the bounds of the copyright laws, than blindly xeroxing large wedges of material. (One can only hope that, as more texts become available in electronic editions, publishers will adapt the concept of a "site licence" from the computer industry.) While history departments have for years aimed to teach students the analytical skills necessary to read books and write essays, it has not been possible to provide undergraduates with the analytic skills which can only come from working with primary material. Bridging this gap is a prime use of computers in teaching. Last year we used two very different types of primary material -- a medieval Latin text, De Locis Sanctis, and data from the 1901 census. Starting from De Locis, the students were able to follow key passages through the corpus of medieval Latin available on compact disk in order to study issues like how quickly copies of that text circulated and where they went from Iona where it was written. With the 1901 census, by giving each student a parish, we were able to quickly create a large original dataset which the students could analyse on a spreadsheet.

It is important to understand what history as an intellectual discipline is about -- it is about training people how to determine the truth, insofar as possible, from real world data which is often incomplete, misleading or false. The best way to train "the historian as private eye" is to use primary source material. Ten years ago the type of teaching we are now doing would have required students to spend an impossible amount of time reading through volumes of text or working out statistics manually.

Now that a growing amount of primary material is available in electronic form, we can overcome several problems. We can allow large numbers of students access to multiple electronic copies of scarce or fragile material. Long hours spent manually collating data can no longer be passed off as "work". Finally we can bring undergraduates straight to the coalface of research and show them at first hand the skills of critical analysis, skills which they can then apply in the real world.

Evaluation and assessment go hand in hand with teaching. While the substantive product of our computer-intensive options is still a traditional long essay, we consider it important to assess the students' ability actually to use computers early in each course in order to allocate some marks for learning skills and to ensure that the students have actually learned the skills which they will need to use in order to fulfil the real teaching aims of the courses.

When we began conducting these little tests, it seemed only natural that the entire operation should be done by computer. Since we need to hand out datasets on floppy disk for the tests, it seems only natural that we include the exam paper as a text file and require that the answers be submitted as a file on the same disk at the end of the test. In opting to do this we created entirely paperless exams.

In this type of paperless exam, the ability actually to open, edit and save text files, while not an explicit task in the test, is implicitly required in order to do the exam. Therefore there is a minimal skill threshold built into the exam mechanism.

The actual questions set are a bit prosaic, requiring the students to search over multiple text files for a given phrase, extract instances of a given phrase, extract instances of given words where they occur in close proximity, and present all the extracts as quotes with proper footnotes and layout.

A byproduct of the use of computers in humanities teaching is that we produce computer literate graduates who are therefore, we are told, more employable. This is to miss the point -- these students are not more useful in the workplace because they can use computers, but rather because of the analytic skills they have learned to apply while using computers. It is ironic that whereas many "professional" academic departments of computer or information science see, and teach, computer use as an end in itself, it is the humanities departments who see it, quite properly, as a means to an end.

Mike Cosgrave is a lecturer in history at University College, Cork.

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