The Maerlant-project on computer-assisted learning of historical skills:
Can hypertext supersede programmed instruction?

R. De Keyser, K. Rogiers & Frederik Truyen
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Faculteit Letteren, Dienst Informatieverwerking
Blijde Inkomststraat 21, B - 3000 Leuven, België

When formulating aims for history education, one has to avoid what Knoers calls 'the aim-means thinking' . Market forces increasingly influence the organization of secondary and higher education. Study subjects that seem to lack immediate utility are threatened. It goes without saying that this trend has an important impact on young people's choices and opinions. History as a discipline apparently loses its relevance, and not only social factors are responsible for that, but also obstinate prejudices and factors related to the instruction of history. Quite some Flemish pupils agree with the typification of history as "a discipline at school and nothing more", as "something dead and past that has nothing to do with my present life". After questioning German pupils, Bodo von Borries comes to comparable alarming results: despite numerous history lessons, the pupils display a limited historical knowledge, a lack of historical insight, acceptance of conventional interpretations and the incompetence to reach a personal and balanced value judgement.

The ideas pointed out correspond with what Nadine Engels calls the "business-like view of education". Characteristic of educational practice is the stress put on individual performances and competition, an unlimited trust in a completely objective and impartial science as a source for all knowledge and a strong hierarchical structure and control apparatus. Nevertheless new needs seem to undermine this model. A one-dimensioned, cognitive approach of knowledge doesn't fit in with a society where a flexible and self-dependent knowledge acquisition is needed and the demand of a critical attitude and value development becomes more clear. According to De Corte, the following four components are essential for skillful learning, reasoning and problem-solving: (1) a well organized and flexible domain-specific knowledge base, (2) heuristic methods, (3) metacognitive skills, and (4) affective aspects.

The unavoidable transformation of our industrial society into an information society creates new possibilities for history in the classroom. "Today's education system faces the challenge to prepare individuals for the information society in which one of the most important aims is to handle information." In this challenge, history education can play a crucial role. "Our society, controlled by newsmedia and overwhelmed by an avalanche of information, more than ever creates the need for critical citizens who can handle information material, no matter how it is presented. The transferability of the aims related to the historical use of source material is important and can hardly be overestimated."

Nevertheless, classroom practice seems to be different. In a report on the state of history education in Europe, S. Barschdorff concludes: "Teaching methods, the use of media and the goals of teaching history, as observed by the students, are rather traditional. Dominating this are the storage of facts, textbook use and the narrations of teachers. Empathy, the reconstruction of past situations, project work and modern media are really seldom encountered. This is not in harmony with students' wishes. They prefer by far audio-visual media, sources and documents, and museums to their textbooks."

One of the key elements of historical thinking is the critical examination of historical sources, which forms a formidable challenge to younger pupils. To avoid that pupils consider the history course as a series of established facts, a confrontation with the historian's methods is essential. It can make pupils aware of the controversies (the historian's story reflects only part of reality) and uncertainties (there may exist different versions of one and the same historical story) that are characteristic of the historical discipline.

Yet, research in the United States has shown that these features of history are largely neglected in history coursebooks. The confrontation with historical sources gives pupils the chance to gain insight into the way in which historians give shape to past events that are only partly comprehensible. Too often, history in the classroom becomes, as Dalhuisen and Fontaine put it, 'infantilized'. Sources are abbreviated and adapted until they suit the facts that can be dealt with in one class. They form selected, prefabricated and cracked nuts and the stereotypical rather than critical questioning of the sources hardly represents a challenge for the pupils. In order to come to a more accurate examination of sources, the pupils have to gradually refine their domain-specific conceptual apparatus.

Even the best history textbooks are facing the inherent limitation of a paper publication. Example material has to be selective, and it proves difficult to superimpose visually different perspectives on the same matter. The latter can already be achieved, although in an very limited way, by the use of transparants. Hypermedia documents offer three main advantages that could be exploited:

The Maerlant-project tries to work out an integrated environment to learn how to read historical and iconographical source-documents. Developed both as a web-site and a fully autonomous CD-ROM product, it offers a layered, crosslinked compound document that facilitates an analytic reading of the source material, and tries to build a synthetic understanding of critical reading techniques. For this, lecture-tracing mechanisms are built-in as well as strong navigational tools. It tries to combine the freedom of browsing a document on proper incentives with the advantages of traditional steered and constrained computer-assisted learning environments to achieve preset educational goals.

We claim that the proposed environment is better suited for learning how to read historical sources than traditional textbooks or classic computer-assisted instruction are. Comprehension involves the construction of meaning based upon the prior knowledge of the learner. Reality is more in the mind of the knower, the knower constructs a reality, or at least interprets it, based upon his or her apperceptions. Revisiting the same material at different times in different contexts for different purposes and from different conceptual perspectives is essential for advanced knowledge acquisition. It is clear from this that we have a strong perception-rooted conception of historical method. The student acquires a perceptual attitude towards source documents, enforcing his capabilities to detect historically relevant issues to be exploited further in a methodological way. The combination of crosslinked hypertext and lecture tracing mechanisms significantly facilitates this envisaged learning process.