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LATH links computers with the humanities

What can computers do for education in the humanities? Helping to answer that question is MIT's Laboratory for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (LATH), directed by Dr. Janet Murray, senior research scientist in the Department of Humanities. Established in 1992 as the successor to the Athena Language Learning Project, LATH is a cross-disciplinary group drawn from humanities and computer specialists. Its focus is on creating applications that expand the computer as a medium for exploring language, texts, and culture. In Dr. Murray's words, "our aim is to domesticate advanced technologies and put them on computing platforms that are accessible to schools for education, and to humanists for study and research."

Dr. Murray's field is literature-specifically, Victorian literature and feminist studies-and she has been teaching related courses at MIT for 20 years. A focus on computers may seem far removed from these specialties, but Murray explains that before starting her PhD studies at Harvard, she learned systems programming and computer operations at IBM.

When microcomputers came along, Dr. Murray saw their educational potential, especially with the development of interactive narrative, hypertext, and multimedia applications. To become more familiar with the latest in computer technology, she sat in on software engineering courses at MIT, including 6.001, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.

In the earlier Language Learning Project, founded by Dr. Murray and foreign-language faculty members Claire Kramsch and Douglas Morgenstern, the motive was to explore how multimedia technology could be used to make learning a foreign language more true to life.

By creating documentaries or narrative stories that are filmed on location, using native speakers, the language student is given a context that is closer to what would be experienced in the country itself. On a computer, these narratives can be linked to a variety of supporting resources and each student can exert a great deal of control over the learning process. Structuring the story so that the student can influence the outcome or follow divergent paths adds even more motivation to become involved.

Out of the Language Learning Project came interactive videos for French and Spanish. A la rencontre de Philippe is the story of a young journalist desperately seeking an apartment in Paris, while Dans le quartier St. Gervais explores the history and culture of one of the oldest Parisian neighborhoods; Gilberte Furstenberg, senior lecturer in French, was project director for both. A mystery story propels No recuerdo, an interactive narrative and documentary for learning Spanish. Created by Douglas Morgenstern, senior lecturer in Spanish, it is set in Bogota, Columbia.

The two French videos are published by Yale University Press, and No recuerdo is to be published by Heinle & Heinle. All three are being released for Apple Macintosh systems.

LATH has three more interactive language videos under way, all filmed on location. They are for students of Japanese (Tanabata: the Star Festival; Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics and Japanese, is project director), German (Berliner sehen; project directors are Ellen Crocker, lecturer in German, and Kurt Fendt, Max Kade Scholar and research associate; see accompanying story), and English as a second language (Fourth of July, filmed in Boston-project directors are Suzanne Flynn, professor of linguistics and second language acquisition; Jane Dunphy, lecturer in ESL, and Gita Martohardjono, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of New York/Queens College and an MIT visiting assistant professor of ESL in 1992-93).

Developing hypermedia applications for the humanities calls for subject and technical specialists who understand each other's domains and who can work together as co-designers. Most LATH project directors are affiliated faculty from the Departments of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Linguistics, and Literature. Software design is in the hands of LATH programmers Stuart Malone, Sue Felshin and Olga Brown. Mr. Malone and Ms. Felshin joined the original Language Learning Project as undergraduates, and Ms. Brown is returning after a few years absence. LATH's interactive video producers include Michael Roper and Ayshe Farman-Farmaian, both graduates of MIT's Media Lab.

Not all of LATH's projects are directed at language learning. EMOTE, the Electronic Multimedia Online Textbook in Engineering, is a set of hyperlinked text, video, still image, and audio databases to help students develop their skills in creating technical documents and oral presentations. Developed by Edward Barrett, a senior lecturer in the program for Writing and Humanistic Studies, and Professor Ian Waitz of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the project is part of MIT's initiative to offer writing courses connected with specific engineering and science classes. An EMOTE prototype will be tested in March 1995, in the communications practicum for course 16.620 (Experimental Projects).

Henry Jenkins, associate professor of literature, and Ben Singer, a PhD candidate in cinema studies at New York University, are collaborating on an interactive textbook for film analysis. Students will be able to examine annotated sequences from an array of films, and through special exercises, re-edit the films to get a better sense of how they are put together.

Another project that has expanded the lab's work is the Shakespeare Interactive Archive. Directing that project are Peter Donaldson, section head and Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Literature; Larry Friedlander, professor of English at Stanford University and an MIT visiting professor of literature last year, and Dr. Murray. (The Shakespeare Archive was the subject of a feature article in the April 1994 issue of i/s).

Dr. Murray is particularly interested in the development of tools for writing interactive fiction. This is an outgrowth of her work in defining the potential of computer-based interactive narrative as a new artistic medium. In her course, 21.765: Structure and Interpretation of Non-linear and Interactive Narrative, students create multimedia narrative with complex structures, interactive characters and generative plot environments. Dr. Murray believes this new electronic literature, coming from truly creative thinkers, can help reshape our understanding of human experience, as art and literature have always done.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of i/s.

A version of this article appeared in the December 7, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 14).

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