Advanced Computing in the Humanities:
a network approach

(paper presented at BITE, March 26, 1998)

Koenraad de Smedt, University of Bergen



Advanced computing is dramatically changing humanities scholarship. Humanities faculties are therefore faced with a challenge to innovate both the learning content and the delivery of courses.

 The thematic network project on Advanced Computing in the Humanities (ACO*HUM) was launched on under the SOCRATES/ERASMUS programme on September 1, 1996. The network investigates the impact of new information and communication technologies on humanities education. ACO*HUM brings together one hundred institutions for higher education to develop a common strategy. Attention is paid to curriculum innovation and to new methods for teaching and learning. The current pilot areas are computational linguistics, historical informatics, computing in history of art, and computing for non-European languages.

 In our experience, the willingness to change humanities education is real but must be supported by substantial international infrastructural measures to secure cooperation and efficiency. Among the necessary measures we name the establishment of an international repository of computational resources, a brokerage for competence in teaching expertise, and technical and organizational support for transnational distributed ODL.

Humanities computing is up and going

Future scholars of language and literature, history, art, philosophy and culture will not just be using books. They will require real competencies in advanced information technology, in addition to traditional academic knowledge in their various disciplines. Computer literacy will be a necessity in order to be prepared for humanities research jobs as well as for jobs addressing multimedia applications.

 Already today, the bulk of multimedia applications are dependent on the complex integration of spoken and written language, music, and artwork, which traditionally are the objects of humanities scholarship. With "Sophie's world" on CD-rom, philosophy is no longer a book subject. Similarly, art historians are creating virtual museums and art collections. The very concept of literature is changing with the advent of nonlinear hypertext on the web. Our spoken and written language is being processed by dictation, translation and summarization programs. All this is only the beginning of the digital age of the humanities.

 Consequently, new professional profiles are emerging wherever the traditional humanities scholar meets information technology. We distinguish at least those related to three types of jobs:

 1. jobs in traditional humanities-related professions which are faced with large scale telematics innovation (e.g. libraries, museums, archives, publishers);

 2. jobs requiring the crucial integration of advanced computing methods into humanities-related professions (e.g. multimedia publishing, edutainment, translation technologies);

 3. jobs where the knowledge and skills of humanities professionals is valued as an important new addition to traditional technology (e.g. human-computer interfaces, software localization, car industry).

 The immense need for new humanities-related skills is addressed by a growing body of fundamental and applied research in computational linguistics and language technology, historical informatics, visual processing in history of art, computational logic, etc. The recently started `cognitive revolution' has transformed the way we look at the human mind and its products, and has stimulated the use of computers as sophisticated modelling tools in humanities research. Examples are models for logical reasoning and systems for language understanding and generation. New techniques and standards for the encoding of textual and pictorial information (such as the standards emerging from the Text Encoding Initiative) are playing an enabling role in the storage and communication of our cultural resources.

Facing the challenge of humanities education

The potential of these technological advances has not yet been fully exploited in higher education. Consequently, there is an acute shortage of competent researchers with humanities skills while at the same time there is a surplus of jobless traditional graduates. In discussions with leading European departments in the humanities field, it has been recognized that a link between the rapidly changing use of information technology scholarship and its incorporation in humanities teaching curricula is almost non-existent. Where computing is offered to humanities students, it is generally limited to basic word processing. Of approximately 6000 faculties teaching humanities in Europe, probably less than 5% currently offer courses that incorporate advanced computing in their curriculum.

 There is a general consensus that university-based studies in typical humanities disciplines, such as linguistics, literature, history, history of art, and philosophy, experience serious difficulties in transferring job-oriented skills to students. A disturbingly low percentage of graduated humanities students is able to find jobs which are explicitly related to their academic knowledge. It is suspected that the source of this problem is not so much to be found in the content of these studies as in deficiencies in the organization and presentation of the subjects and their relation to advanced computing. Many teaching staff in the humanities do not take into account real learner needs and are reluctant to adopt collaborative schemes, communication-centred approaches and the integrated use of the computer in teaching.

 Universities, being at the forefront of scientific developments, are at the same time often conservative with respect to educational innovation. Paradoxically, some primary and secondary schools in Norway currently offer more computer access to their pupils than Norwegian universities offer to their students. Moreover, many of the universities' teaching staff have lower practical computer skills than the average undergraduate student. Regrettably, many academic staff in traditionally book-oriented disciplines bar any technological innovation, but worse still are those who favour innovation, but lack the understanding of technology which allows them to deploy resources effectively. Taking these two aspects of the same problem in tandem, we can see academics who refuse all change, and those who encourage them by introducing half baked schemes which soon flounder.

 Also at a postgraduate level, there is a scarcity of teaching staff ready to provide doctoral students with expert guidance and tutoring. It is not surprising that solutions at a transnational level are being sought for stimulating mobility of students, including virtual mobility and international expertise brokerage between teaching staff and the student population. European projects like Humanities I-III, Transcult, Virtue and Euroliterature have been instrumental in clarifying these needs and researching possible solutions.

A network approach is needed

From an organizational viewpoint, the educational, linguistic and cultural differences in Europe require networking solutions which are different from existing American networks. European humanities faculties share common cultural roots but differ in how they have been accepted and integrated with local academic, professional, cultural and socio-economic environments. The diversity in cultural settings, affecting not only administative systems but also terminology and conceptualizations, constitute a formidable barrier against a generalized mobility and accessibility of information across national boundaries. This very diversity can be exploited as a strategic cultural and market asset only if collaborative international structures are built to facilitate the integration, transfer and assimilation of best practice in future higher education curricula.

 The SOCRATES thematic network project on Advanced Computing in the Humanities, ACO*HUM ( is addressing educational innovation in humanities higher education. The project, which started on September 1, 1996 and is projected to continue for three years, takes a true network approach to the issues. The network approach presented by ACO*HUM is not in charge of implementation, but is an attempt to get academics around the (virtual) table in order to analyze the situation, find strengths and weaknesses in current policy, and devise innovative strategies for the long range.

 By exchanging ideas and experiences in a group of motivated international experts, the network is investigating the ways in which humanities scholars can exploit advanced computing methods in working with language, literature, history, philosophy, logic, art, music, etc. The network partners are also researching how humanities students can be better prepared for the professional world where our languages and cultures will increasingly be manipulated by information technology.

 The network operates through symposia, surveys, ODL experiments, and international sharing of computer resources on the web. Among the prospective outcomes is a definition of what constitutes best practice in the field, and recommendations for the future. At the same time, the network is aimed at facilitating mobility for humanities students whose studies depend on advanced computing and increasing the availability of humanities teaching resources competent in advanced computing. Finally, it is shaping a strategy for new international curricula and course modules which will bring humanities higher education into the next century.

Pilot areas and horizontal themes

The methodology adopted by ACO*HUM is based on the establishment of working groups focussing on pilot areas linked to traditional humanities disciplines, as well as broad humanities-wide themes. The interplay of the pilot areas with the horizontal themes is illustrated in Figure 1.

 Figure 1. Working groups in ACO*HUM: pilot areas and horizontal themes.

The pilot areas have been chosen on the basis of the fact that they represent important current trends in specific disciplines. The working groups are addressing a range of discipline-specific issues in detail but will also function as pilots for later extension to a wider group of humanities disciplines.

 1. Computational linguistics and language technology. Preliminary work in this area has been carried out by participants in the ERASMUS network on Natural Language Processing, which are also included among the partners in the current network. Other earlier initiatives have concentrated on the formation of international professional associations (e.g. EACL, ALLC, FoLLI) which organize international events, such as conferences and summer schools. Valuable as these events are, the short time span of these events do not establish a sufficiently durable momentum and are insufficiently oriented towards undergraduate students. Supporting initiatives which were more durable, such as the building of computational resources, the compilation of bibliographies, and the establishment of communication channels, e.g. through newsletters, did not have a sufficient impact on education either. The currently planned actions of the network project are aimed at long term curriculum development within computational linguistics and language engineering. This goal is being approached by capitalizing on the above-mentioned earlier work and transferring its results to teaching and learning processes. This is being achieved a.o. through co-operation with existing associations, and by reuse of the communication structures and scholarship resources which resulted from previous initiatives.

 2. History and historical informatics. Historians are more and more dependent on historical sources in electronic form. This is both because existing archives are being converted into electronic form, and because material being produced by modern administrative procedures are now being stored electronically from the beginning. The analysis of source material by computer requires a specific methodology generally subsumed under the name historical informatics. Most European universities have already recognized the need to incorporate historical informatics in the general curriculum. However, the main obstacle to develop systematic Europe-wide collaboration has resided more in the lack of human resources than economical ones. Through the sharing of teaching experiences and know-how, the ACO*HUM network is making it easier for the participating universities to establish and develop historical informatics as a teaching subject.

 3. Computing in history of art, architecture and design. Digital images of paintings are increasingly replacing conventional film archives and printed catalogues as the standard records of art in galleries and museums across Europe. Works of art are transmitted efficiently through progressively better network systems, to provide a basis for different sorts of analyses, publishing, and public access. Especially high-resolution images is providing students in the history of art with an opportunity of detailed examination which would otherwise be costly and time-consuming. At the same time, the shift toward large scale dissemination of art in virtual museums depends on expert skills combining advanced computing with the traditional estethic disciplines. The demand for such hybrid expertise is sky-rocketing. The ACO*HUM network is promoting the innovation of curricula by the integration of new advanced computer skills (e.g. visual analysis, massive pictorial database management, 3-D modelling of sculptures) in traditional undergraduate and graduate curricula. Also, the integration of distance education (especially aimed at distance consultation of digitized art collections) into traditional undergraduate and graduate curricula will be promoted.

 4. Computing for non-European languages (linked to African, Arabic and Oriental studies). Increasing cultural and economic contacts between EU and non-EU countries require efficient and fast language communication competences. Modern methods for language acquisition, text editing and information retrieval, which already exist for EU languages, cannot be easily converted and or created for non-EU languages. Therefore, the need for a new professional competence manifests itself. There is an urgent need for language engineers with expertise in advanced computing adapted to non-European linguistic structures, from character sets to grammars. In the existing MA programs in the fields of African, Arabic and Oriental languages, the need is felt for the possibility of more specific training in computer applications to these languages. The ACO*HUM network is stimulating international cooperation in this area by capitalizing on earlier initiatives in the CAMEEL network and broadening its European basis.

 In addition, there are two `horizontal' working groups focussing on activities linked to the following broad themes throughout the whole humanities:

 1. Textual scholarship and humanities computing investigates a.o. core curriculum components common to humanities disciplines and addressing broad issues in teaching text-based and multimedia-based computing. Early users of Computing in the Humanities included classical and biblical philology; however, the tools developed inside this area have not always become known in the wider field of Humanities. The same can be said of the innovative scientific and technological approaches used in compiling text-critical editions of large collections of literary, religious and philosophical works that constitute fundamental items of Europe's cultural heritage. Still, the various active players in this field have gravitated towards local standards and toolsets thanks to international efforts in this area, notably including the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) which has received joint European and US funding. Efforts in this field were also partly responsible for paving the way for the WWW. Today the field of textual scholarchip and repositories has important commercial outlets within the field of document processing and archive management. The ACO*HUM network aims to further this collaborative effort in close contact with projects such as the TEI and international bodies such as the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) through the transfer of the scholarship results in this field to undergraduate curricula.

 2. Formal methods in the humanities investigates general methological issues bearing on how advanced computing can be integrated in the humanities, and how the sciences and their boundaries change due to this integration. The adoption of formal methods, computer simulation, statistics and other forms of advanced computer processing is changing our scientific activity so much that humanities scholarship is not the same as it was in the past. A continuous reflection on our scientific activity is therefore desirable. Moreover, the shift in professional focus is not only absorbing new methods in humanities subjects, but is also blurring the boundaries between traditional humanities disciplines. New interdisciplinary fields are emerging, such as documentation science, intelligent multimedia, knowledge media, humanistic informatics, and text encoding. It is recognized as desirable to foster such new fields in an international scheme for cooperation and recognition before they are anchored in a national structure.

Open and distance learning

Common to all pilot areas in ACO*HUM is the focus on two interrelated themes: which new knowledge and skills will students have to acquire, and how will they be able to acquire them? We found that those two themes appear to be related, especially in the case of web-based learning. Already today, a wealth of computational resources are available on the web, even though they are not adequately inventorized. Humanities resources include electronic texts and text corpora, lexicographic databases, historical databases, digitized archives, digital art collections, etc. Many of these resources which came about as research results can profitably be `recycled' or adapted for educational purposes. We recommend an action in the form of an international inventory and repository of computational resources for the humanities. This should be carried out by an international humanities data service to be modeled after national bodies such as the Arts and Humanities Data Service in the UK.

 We also recommend that actions be launched to test the feasibility of integrated web-based learning in various humanities fields and identify best practice. Individual initiatives are already under way. As just one example, I mention the web course on Dynamic Semantics (a branch of linguistics) given in 1996 by Paul Dekker and David Beaver, both employed at the University of Amsterdam. They carefully evaluated their virtual classroom, which was agreed to be a success, although some lessons can be learned for the future (see ACO*HUM is actively stimulating the development and testing of more such courses (a.o. in cooperation with ELSNET) and we intend to use the network as a forum for exchanging experiences on a transnational basis.

 We want to use the network to address the problem of scarcity of expertise, both with respect to learning content and learning methods. Many are considering the use of more technology in teaching, but the ideas remain at an embryonic stage due to isolation. The flexible linking of distributed materials on the web make this medium eminently suitable not only for use in a world without boundaries, but also for development and maintenance by contributors in various places, however remote they may be. Our network recommends the establishment of a brokerage forum for bringing together the various kinds of expertise to meet the demands.

 Many current experiments with academic web-based courses, however, are carried out by motivated but amateurish academics who do not fully exploit the possibilities of web presentation. Especially multimedia processing on the client side is underexploited. This is partly due to the discipline-specific nature of certain notations, graphs, formulas, and other visual or acoustic material for which efficient presentation is not available. ACO*HUM recommends that actions are taken to develop Java modules for these discipline-specific multimedia presentations and make them available through the network.

Preliminary results and conclusion

The ACO*HUM network has been active since September 1, 1997, and had run only for a little over one year at the time this paper was written. Through meetings and a survey, some preliminary results have been gathered. Our partners indicate that within several humanities disciplines, clear trends are noticable based on student needs:

 1. There is increasing demand for collaborative practice. This is perceived to be a radical shift away from the cult of the individual towards the development of a new perception of the individual practitioner as a member of a team, or part of a network of relationships, both within and across disciplines. Information and communication technology is perceived as instrumental for new collaborative models.

 2. Advanced skills in computing are badly needed to enable graduates to survive in a job in the information society. Students are expecting to be supplied with more than word processing skills. Courses in formal methods and advanced computational processing might become core modules of humanities subjects. Currently these are offered as specializations in traditional subjects, but in the future they should be offered to all students.

 3. The use of information and communication technology should be applied to teaching and learning situations in order to improve the efficiency and quality of academic education. Bringing the computer into teaching in a reasoned way should liberate students from time and space limitations on learning, enable life-long and distance learning as well as augmenting traditional degree schemes. Concerted actions are needed to create technical and organizational conditions for such developments on an international basis.

 As a final remark, the availability of advanced information and communication technology for learning through various media could very well lead to a competition between universities and commercial content suppliers, as well as to competition among the various universities. In our experience, universities tend to take a cooperative attitude if a suitable forum for discussion and cooperation is created. ACO*HUM attempts to be such a forum. In order to be fully effective, however, the forum's recommendations should be taken seriously, which means that a substantial international infrastructural effort should be undertaken to support the implementation of the intended cooperative strategies.


The author thanks all partners in the network for contributions to many ideas presented in this paper, but assumes responsibility for any shortcomings in the text.