Beyond courseware as giftpaper:
Computers as exploratory learning tools for the humanities

Koenraad de Smedt
Universitetet i Bergen
Seksjon for lingvistiske fag
Sydnesplass 7, 5007 Bergen, Norge

Educators at all levels, from elementary school to the university, are pressed to adopt new courseware technology at a fast pace. Affordable personal computers and easy connection to the Internet are two factors which are stimulating the widespread use of computers in education. However, the way courseware is heading, it may be a mixed blessing. The adoption of courseware may open two pedagogical roads, either the road to creativity by exploration, or the road to passivity by standardization and prepackaging.

Unfortunately, it is a common misconception that the mere introduction of multimedia in the classroom, or putting lecture notes on the web, will significantly change education. Most multimedia courseware does not offer more than book-style materials enriched with some multimedia and hypermedia as giftpaper wrapped on the outside. The interaction provided by most 'interactive multimedia' systems is usually very limited in nature, putting the student in a closed system with predefined pieces of information and predefined answers to questions. These systems are system driven in the same way that a traditional classroom is teacher driven and hardly allow for student initiative in constructing and trying out new things.

Standard web based courseware, e.g. WebCT (, provides many practical features like on-line chat, student progress tracking, group project organization, student self-evaluation, grade maintenance and distribution, access control, navigation tools, auto-marked quizzes, electronic mail, automatic index generation, course calendar, student homepages, and course content searches. All of these may improve course organization and shallow learning performance but they neither contribute to course content nor to new paradigms of learning. Advanced MOOs (e.g. do allow student initiative, but support it only at the environment and interaction level, not generally at the level of the subject to be learned, so that student exploration is not situated in a knowledge model. Consequently, MOOs are hardly anything more than a virtual extension of a classroom.

In summary, most standard courseware may provide an attractive environment for shallow and rote learning, but lacks the intelligence to support deep and advanced learning. Especially in higher education, but also at other levels of the educational system, this is insufficient. Therefore, the uncareful introduction of computers, at the expense of teacher guidance, may actually reduce the quality of learning.

In contrast, as is pointed out by Gerhard Fisher (, ideal learning is not a process of information absorption and reproduction, but a process of knowledge construction which is exploratory in nature. Real pedagogical benefits are to be expected from environments which let the humanities student creatively explore and construct. Good environments for creative learning let the student explore a subject by creating and testing, while providing the student with immediate feedback based on an intelligent model of the subject knowledge to be learned. Underlying such environments is always the use of intelligent simulation systems. A well-known example is the flight simulator for pilot training. It reacts intelligently to student initiative, is task-driven rather than system-driven, and lets the student construct knowledge from internalized experience in endless exploration. What would the equivalent be for humanities disciplines? How can computers help humanities students to learn by doing rather than by reading?

Good environments for simulation are necessarily subject-specific because they are knowledge-intensive. They contain a model of declarative or procedural knowledge which represents the subject matter to be learned. A few actual examples from such tools in some humanities disciplines are the following:

  1. Logic: For their educational simulation program Tarski's world (, Barwise & Etchemendy won the 1997 Educom medal. The program allows the student to construct and test her own logical expressions in a simulated 3D world.
  2. Linguistics: Exploratory tools like the Xerox LFG workbench ( and the Grammar Laboratories for the Mac by Linguistic Instruments ( are used in linguistics curricula to learn grammar writing. This kind of programs allows students to construct infinitely many grammars which can be immediately tested on real sentences.
  3. Philosophy and ethics: Axelrods famous simulation of the prisoners' dilemma (e.g. has often been recreated by students. Playing the game allows students to experience the situation, discover and compare strategies by doing.
  4. Music: the LOCO composition microworld ( at NICI is a workbench for musical experimentation which can let music students learn ways of structured composition.
  5. Phonetics: KTH has developed a set of speech analysis exercises using interactive audio via the Web (
  6. Learning: Connectionist and other models of learning are in use in several humanities disciplines. Packages such as tlearn ( allows students to design and run their own simulations of learning.

In addition to using simulation, humanities students can creatively explore large data, e.g. text corpora such as the publicly available Brown corpus, on-literature such as the Ibsen corpus, archives such as censuses, and art collections. However, these resources, discussed elsewhere at the present conference, do by themselves not support

Creative, intelligent, exploratory learning tools have not yet reached widespread use in humanities education. In particular, the incorporation of such tools in humanities curricula has received insufficient support at all but department level. It seems that many current institutional, national and international strategies seem to prioritize ease of use over learning relevance and are hung up on keywords such as 'multimedia' and 'web'. Clearly, the development and initial deployment of good exploratory learning tools needs scientific investments as well as rethinking basic educational strategy. Specifically, the development of such tools relies heavily on advanced research in the humanities, cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Therefore, the following issues need to be addressed in institutional, national and international strategies:

  1. Advanced learning tools usually cannot be obtained from general courseware developers. They need to originate in advanced research within the humanities. A transfer from research results to educational innovation needs to be actively stimulated, since such transfer is often low on the agenda of research projects.
  2. Exploratory learning tools usually need to be used under expert guidance, in contrast to passive courseware which to some extent can relieve the teacher. Advanced training of humanities teaching staff is therefore needed.
  3. Humanities simulation tools should be regarded as specialized programming environments. In some cases, students are even able to learn advanced computer science concepts effectively through humanities content. A tighter interaction between the teaching of humanities content and the teaching of computer science should therefore be pursued.

In conclusion, I contend that courseware development has too long been dominated by a giftpaper approach which is offers only shallow benefits and fails to support pedagogical innovation. The use of exploratory learning tools needs to be preferred over the use of passive courseware if we want to preserve creative thinking in higher education (and other levels of education). This cannot be done without massive efforts (preferably at an international scale) targeted at transfer of humanities research results, advanced humanities teacher training, and the integration of exploratory learning in humanities curriculum reforms.

Preliminary analyses and recommendations towards such efforts are conducted by the SOCRATES ERASMUS thematic network project on Advanced Computing in the Humanities ( Through conferences (such as the current one), workshops, surveys, meetings, curricula research, ODL tests, and information infrastructure, the network of a hundred European institutions attempts to pave the way towards educational innovations where the intelligent processing of humanities content occupies an important place.

Acknowledgement: the work described in this paper is supported by the EC through the SOCRATES programme.