The Absalon project: Electronic learning tools in history

  1. 1. Jan Oldervoll

    Department of History - University of Bergen

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The Absalon project was started in 1992 at the
Department of History, University of Bergen. The
aim of the project was to see if the teaching of
undergraduate history students could be improved
by using computers. We could draw upon the
experience of a number of projects internationally.
Very few projects had been a definite success. The
main reason for this is, in our opinion, the definition of the aims. Few projects state their aims
explicitly, but implicitly one can discover several:
A teacher has seen the light. The teacher sees that
the computer may be an efficient tool for teaching
and wants to try it on the students. Very often this
happens to teachers in an early stage of their own
computer literacy, with obvious consequences for
the project.
The software developer is very convincing. He
convinces you that his program will solve most of
your teaching problems.
Somebody wants to keep the government happy.
Governments tend to say that the future of a nation
is closely connected to computer literacy. The
teaching of all subjects should be used to reach this
goal. Some historians find this a very good reason
for using computers in their teaching.
The problem with these aims is that they only
partly coincide with the objective of teaching history, which is simply to teach history. This is very
important when introducing new technology.
Only technology that furthers the main objective
should be introduced. This makes the introduction
of computers in teaching of history both difficult
and very different from one institution to another.
One can find differences in objectives (what
should students study), and in the way teaching is
done. Very often both objectives and pedagogical
solutions are so deeply rooted in an institution that
it can be called a teaching culture. This must be
kept in mind when introducing changes to teaching, including introduction of computers. The
teaching culture may set very narrow limits to the
solutions one can successfully introduce.
Consequently, the first step of a computer project
must be to analyse the way history is taught, or
even more specific: The problems in history teaching at the institution in question. In our case we
must look at the problems in teaching the freshmen history at the Department of History in Bergen. The next task is to find solutions to the
problems and find or develop the tools to implement the solutions. These tools may or may not
involve computers. The last task will be to evaluate our work.
The Problems
The Department of History has approximately 650
students. Of these, 250 are graduate/post-graduate
students, and 300 are freshmen. At the time we
started Absalon, the freshmen had to study one
large course full time for one year with assessment
at the end, covering both European and Norwegian
history from Antiquity until today. We have a
teaching staff of approximately 20.
In 1992 our department faced three main problems
concerning the teaching of freshmen:
– Even if many students knew a lot of the
“what’s” and “why’s” in the past, they were
not fully able to express their knowledge and
understanding in written form.
– Approximately 30–35% of the students starting did not pass their examination after one
year, either because they did not present
themselves for assessment or because they
failed. This is partly due to the previous
– Those who did pass their first examination,
did not necessarily have the knowledge and
understanding we wanted them to have. Most
students knew much of what happened in the
past, but did not have any clear understanding of the relationship between history
and theory, or of the methods used in historical research. They did not achieve any clear
understanding of why historians think they
know something about the past, and how this
knowledge is produced.
Simultaneously, it seemed ever more pressing to
involve students in these basic problems of history, considering the debate among historians on the
relativity of historical knowledge and the post
modernist view that historical evidence is a wall
against the past. Because of the tendency, at least
at our university, towards increased specialization
among graduate and post-graduate students, not
leaving such questions to a later stage in history
education seemed important. If the students do not
learn the basics at an early stage, they probably
never will. One could specialize in, say, anthropo-
logical history, without having actually studied
other roads to knowledge about the past. The risk,
besides poorly educated historians, is that graduate students will not see themselves as part of a
common tradition, which will in turn expand the
gap between historians of different schools. This
gap is already wide enough.
These problems had to be seen in connection both
with the curriculum and teaching practice not only
at our department, but at most history departments
in Norway. Here it is sufficient to mention that
lectures constitute the backbone of teaching, and
that first year’s students are supposed to know
“what happened” and “why” from the Antiquity
until present, and also acquiring some knowledge
in historiography, theory and methods. The pedagogical solution chosen is daily lectures covering
both the “what’s” and “why’s” and the theoretical
and methodological questions. The students are
also supposed to attend one weekly seminar,
which cover the objective already mentioned and
also is a forum for discussion of student papers.
Each student only writes approximately one paper
each term, which is obviously insufficient to improve both style and understanding. This means
that the students actually have to go through their
examinations without the necessary training in the
specific art of writing historical papers.
This way of teaching has a long tradition, and it
certainly has its advantages, something that makes
it difficult, if not impossible, to change. What
really makes radical change almost impossible, is
limited economic and human resources. In Norway we have experienced an explosion in the
number of students taking university degrees, and
sometimes it seems like history has received more
than her share. So, when we finally have realized
that the students have to work in a more active way
to grasp the essentials of history, the resources are
scarce. Any changes would therefor have to be
made mainly within the existing structure.
The solutions
After having looked at the problems, it is time to
turn to the solutions. First, it is important to keep
in mind that studying history is more about adapting to a way of thinking, a way of analysing
historical problems, than acquiring historical facts
and explanations. Knowledge is acquired by reading and attending lectures, but how does one train
historical thinking? Only one way exists, more
historical thinking! The easy solution, have the
students read less and think more, will not work.
To develop good thinking one needs to have a
foundation, which in this case is historical
knowledge – achieved by reading and attending
lectures. To cover both the need for knowledge
and proper academic reasoning, the students
should add exercises of reasoning to their reading.
They should keep up the reading and add a whole
lot of thinking – to put it bluntly. Another important point to be made here is that there is good
historical thinking, and not so good historical thinking. We obviously cannot just tell the students to
think more. We have to build what in manufacturing would be called “quality control” into the
How does one further high quality historical thinking among students? One way would be to add
more seminars. This was impossible, due to lack
of resources. We were in a situation where the
number of contact-hours could not be increased.
Since a large part of the staff is involved in the
teaching, it is also difficult to change the overall
structure of the teaching. This meant we had to
look at the students’ activities out of class. The
solution seemed obvious, making the students write more essays. A good essay is an expression of
thought, and thus good training in historical thinking. However, by writing alone there is no quality
control, and we could not expect the teachers to
read more essays. The alternative was to organize
the students in such a way that they could read and
discuss each others essays. This is extremely important. Discussion is a way to control the quality
of the thinking expressed in an essay. Besides,
discussing historical problems is a necessary element in the training of history students. Sometimes having a teacher present is a good thing, but
it is also important to have discussion groups with
only students present. This is a way of making
them responsible for their own learning process.
In other words, organizing is another important
Our students have lectures for two hours every
day. This constitutes a major part of their workload. How can this work be better used to achieve
our goal? Since the lectures are given by a large
group of people, they are difficult to influence
substantially. For this reason, but not for this reason only, we turned our attention to the receivers,
the students. We wanted to influence their activity
while listening to the lectures, and to make sure
the lectures were made into material for the students’ own thinking. This is done by ’forcing’ one
or two students in a group to write up resumés of
each lecture and discuss it in the group in a short
seminar later in the day. Said otherwise, we try to
change the way students are using the lectures,
away from a situation where they are given some
of the facts they feel they need, to make the lectures raw material for their own thinking, writing
and discussions. Working with the lectures is important.
The historian’s way of thinking, or historical understanding, is based on two legs. One is the
historical literature, or our common knowledge
both of facts, interconnections and methodology.
The other is what the past has left us, the historical
sources. Without some knowledge of historiography, of historical sources and the way they can be
used one cannot develop any historical understanding. Working with historical sources is extremely important.
The Tools
To realize our solutions, one does not really need
any tools at all, except pencil and paper, and
maybe a copier. If we could persuade the students
to study ’our’ way, that would be it. We even gave
them a simple tool to help them adopt our strategy.
It is a booklet of approximately 100 pages called
“..Flyndren at rykke” (To Catch the Halibut). We
decided, however, to develop some computer
tools as well. The reason we wanted to do this was
not a belief in the revolutionary power of the
computer. We do not believe the computer in itself
helps very much, and we doubt that programs
useful to others automatically will be useful to us.
Only programs helping us reach the goals set
forward on the previous pages are worth using, for
us. Because of this we did not find anything we
could use on the software marketplace. More or
less all programs we use have been developed
within the project.
Two kinds of tools have been developed. Absalon
and Kark are general tools that can be used for
teaching in any field. Absalon and Kark could be
seen as notebooks and pencil, while the history
part must be added by teachers and students. Our
courseware is not only a tool for teaching. It even
contains the teaching. As such, it covers a broader
field of the teaching process. This is the reason it
will be covered more thoroughly in the following,
even if Absalon and Kark by far play the most
important role in the daily work of the students.
We needed a tool for writing. There are lots of such
tools. Most of them are called word processors.
Still, we did not want to use any of them since we
wanted a tool that was very strong on outlining,
but also simple to use. It should essentially be
impossible to write without outlining first. And it
should also be simple to restructure the text. We
decided to develop our own tool, in Asymetrix
ToolBook. Our application is called Absalon, after
a 16th century Norwegian historian, Absalon Pedersøn Beyer. Absalon is not very much of a word
processor, and we do not want it to be. Yet it forces
the student to start with an outline. Writing is
filling in the outline. Restructuring the text is also
very easy. One could say that Absalon is a text
We find Absalon very good for making the students write the way we want them to write, and it
is used for different kinds of writing. All essays
are written is Absalon, as well as the lecturing
Absalon is a hypertext system and is using the
book as a metaphor. During the first years we had
both individual books and common books. In the
common books everybody put their documents for
everybody to read. This turned out to be somewhat
difficult, because the books should be used both
for reading and updating by a group of people
simultaneously, and ToolBook did not really offer
sufficient security for this. We searched for a
better solution, and found it in the World Wide
Kark on the Web
The World Wide Web is Internet based. It is an
information system connecting millions of computers globally. It uses Internet for transport. There are two kinds of programs involved. There is a
server, which is delivering information (text, pictures or whatever) when asked for. Every user has
a browser (Mosaic and Netscape are the most
popular). The browser communicates with the servers and presents the information.
Our system for handling the web is called Kark.
Kark used to be a Norse trell (slave). We are of
course using the general web servers and the web
browsers. Besides this we have a set of Perl programs running on the server, doing part of the job.
We find it appropriate to use the name of a slave
for these programs.
The web can of course be used only with the server
and the browser. This rather simple solution would
not work very well. The reason for that is that the
students would have to html-format their text and
put it on the server. (HTML is the format of the
web-text.) If all students had to do it, there would
have been trouble. Some just would not manage,
and we would have to put quite a lot of effort into
teaching the students how to do it. So this solution
was discarded. We made the Kark, a set of programs used for communication between the disk
and server. They can be used for putting data onto
the disk. A typical example of this is that a student
wants to put an essay on the web. This is done by
the web browser. The text is moved to the server
by the browser, given to the Kark program, which
puts it into a database. When the browser asks for
an essay, the server asks another Kark program to
find it in the database, html-formats it and sends it
to the browser, which presents it to the reader.
The essays are written in Absalon. We have made
a module in Absalon for presenting the text to the
web-browser in such a way that the text can be
html-tagged by Kark in an easy way. We like to
stress that only 3–4 mouse clicks are necessary to
get the text into the web.
The essays are then available for everybody to
read and to print, but also to comment upon. The
comments are included in the text. The next user
of the text will see your comments as well as the
original text. The text may be the basis for both a
regular seminar and an electronic seminar.
Kark can do more. The students can introduce
questions or problems they want to discuss. Anyone wanting to give an answer or participate in the
discussion may do so. Both students and teachers
participate. During this term some 30–40 thems
have been introduced. When new thems are introduced, E-mail is automatically sent to a teaching
assistant, who can answer it or ask a specialist to
comment upon it.
We also have tried to build an encyclopaedia, the
Encyclopaedia Anarcisticus. However, here we
have had some problems creating the students’
enthusiasm, and there have not been enough words
introduced to make it worthwhile for the students
to use.
Absalon and Kark on the Web are more or less
fulfilling our needs for writing tools and help in
furthering discussion among the students. If you
want to look at these tools they are found at

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Conference Info

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Hosted at University of Bergen

Bergen, Norway

June 25, 1996 - June 29, 1996

147 works by 190 authors indexed

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Series: ACH/ICCH (16), ALLC/EADH (23), ACH/ALLC (8)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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  • Language: English
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