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Author: Onno Boonstra
Title: Teaching History & Computing - a Modular Approach
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 1999

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Source: Teaching History & Computing - a Modular Approach
Onno Boonstra

vol. 2, no. 1, April 1999
Article Type: Article
PDF: Download full PDF [20kb ]

Teaching History & Computing - a Modular Approach

Onno Boonstra [1]

Department of History
University of Nijmegen
Paper prepared for the XIII International Conference of the AHC, Toledo, Spain, 20-23 July 1998.

At the University of Nijmegen, a new 'History & Computing' course has been set up. The old course has been split into a large number of modules, each related to a specific kind of research technique. For each module, a small book has been made which covers the essentials of the technique. On the basis of every book, a Computer Assisted Instruction-course was developed, in which (1) the book is summarized; (2) additional examples are given; and (3) exercises are put down. With this modular approach, it is possible to opt for particular modules, not only for the Department of History, but also for every other department within the Faculty of Arts. Every department is also able to amend the CAI-course by choosing examples and exercises that are within the realm of their discipline.

.01. Teaching history & computing at the University of Nijmegen

Until three years ago, the Department of History of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nijmegen had a History & Computing educational program of its own, consisting of one basic course and four advanced courses. The basic course was meant to be a general introduction to history and computing within the framework of scientific historical research. It consisted of a number of lectures and hands-on training sessions. The lectures and sessions went from items such as 'heuristics', looking for information, via 'managing data' to 'analyzing data' and 'reporting results'. This 'history-oriented' approach meant that computational tools were taught not as tools as such, but as tools for doing historical research. The handbook which was used during the course underlined this approach. The advanced courses were set up in a similar fashion. There was no course in SPSS, SAS or Excel, but there was one in quantitative methods for historical research; there was no course in TACT, but there was one in computer based analysis of historical texts, and so on.

.02. Teaching arts & computing

The Department of History is part of the Faculty of Arts. Three years ago, the faculty ascertained that students in quite a few of the other departments did not get sufficient computational training. The faculty needed a course in computing that was somewhat similar to the one that was devised by the Department of History. Therefore, it was decided to change "History & Computing" into an educational program called "Arts & Computing", which was compulsory for all arts students.

This turned out to be a very foolish thing to do. To begin with, it caused quite a few logistical problems. There are 23 departments within the Faculty of Arts, with a total of over 400 freshmen. It was difficult to find one particular time slot to give lectures which would suit all departments. Next to that, the number of workstations within the faculty was not sufficient to give that many students good hands-on training, causing terrible traffic jams during the practice hours. And thirdly, it is a bit silly to give lectures on computers to 400 students in a lecture hall, which has hardly any possibilities to demonstrate computational tools in action.

Unfortunately, this was not all. There was one major other problem, which had nothing to do with logistics at all, but with the content of the course. In the program, the focus was again on the use of computational tools in scientific research, be it speech analysis or Spanish or medieval history. To the teachers, it proved very interesting to see that there were so many similarities in the basic computational algorithms for the various kinds of research which these disciplines use. For instance, quite a few of the sound filtering methods in speech analysis reflect some of the manipulation algorithms that are used in image analysis to a large extent. The course showed researchers in various disciplines that their disciplines were not as far apart from each other as they had imagined them to be. This was a very important positive aspect of the course, at least to the teachers. Most students, however, did not like the course at all. They had the opinion that the course taught them things that were way beyond their sphere of interest. All in all, to the students, and they were the ones the course was made for, the Arts & Computing course was a complete failure.

.03. Restructuring the program

In order to accommodate for this criticism, The faculty decided to do something about the criticisms and to restructure the Arts & Computing course.

  1. The existing courses were split into a large number of modules, each related to a specific aspect of research. Thus, separate modules were devised for heuristics, database management, statistical analysis, image analysis, text analysis, and so on.
    Introduction Introduction
    Getting information Heuristics
    Storing data Databases I - Tables
      Databases II - Relational Database Management Systems
    Manipulating data Image Handling and Analysis
      Corpus Linguistics
    Analyzing data Statistics I - Descriptive Statistics
      Statistics II - Inductive Statistics
      Text Analysis
      Speech Analysis
    Reporting results Scientific Writing
  2. For every module, a small book (approximately 30 pages) was made in which the essentials of the research technique are covered.
  3. Every department received the opportunity to choose only those modules that they thought were relevant to their students. As a consequence, the French Department discarded Statistics in favor of Text Analysis, and the Arts History Department choose Image Handling and Analysis instead of Speech Analysis.
  4. For each module, a Computer Assisted Instruction course (CAI) was developed, in which: (1) the book was summarized; (2) additional examples and explanations were given; (3) quizzes were added, with which students could test whether they had understood a particular chapter of the book; and (4) a number of assignments was included, with which students could show the knowledge and skills that they had acquired. This CAI course was made within the framework of WebCT, a package of course tools to be used via the World Wide Web. [2] WebCT is a tool that facilitates the creation of sophisticated World Wide Web-based educational environments by non-technical users. It can be used to create entire on-line courses, or to simply publish materials that supplement existing courses.
  5. Each CAI course was adapted to the needs and interests of the departments. This is to say that for students of the Departments of History, Archeology and History of Arts different examples, tests and exercises were included in the course than there were for students of the various Departments of Language and Culture or for the students of the Departments of Speech, Linguistics and Communication.
  6. In each CAI course, a bulletin board was set up, enabling students to discuss matters with their peers or with the teacher, comment on the course, ask for more information, or share their experience.
  7. When students have done all the necessary assignments, they can go for the exam, which is held three times a year. In the exam, an assignment must be made which is similar to the one they have made in the CAI course. Because the exam is taken at one time, within one room, there is absolutely no possibility for fraud.

.04. Conclusions

It is clear that this modular approach enables each and every department to make a choice of their own for a particular set of modules. Every department is also able to amend the CAI course, which is part of each module, by choosing examples and exercises that are within the realm of their discipline.

In this way, a new "Arts & Computing" educational program was created which makes it possible to turn it into a "History & Computing" program for historians or a "Phonetics & Computing" program for speech & linguistics students without too much effort.

All in all, the following modules are ready, or planned to become available within the next few years:

Course Departments of History, Archeology, Art History Departments of Languages, Literature & Culture Departments of Linguistics, Communication and Information
Introduction 1998 1998 1998
Heuristics 1999 1999 1999
Databases I 1998 1998 1998
Databases II 2001    
Image Analysis 1999    
Corpus Linguistics   2000 2000
Statistics I 1998 1998 1998
Statistics II 2001   2001
Text Analysis 2000 1999  
Speech Analysis     2000
Scientific Writing 2002 2002 2002


1. Direct all communications to: Onno Boonstra, Department of History, University of Nijmegen, Postbus 9103, 6500 HD Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Email:

2. See their home page: