Using the digital tools of the future to boost our understanding of Asia’s past
As in so many other areas, the harnessing of digital tools and methodologies has revolutionised the study of history. Today’s historians are able to use the latest technologies to identify new sources, analyse historical patterns and uncover once-marginalised voices, and do this with amazing speed and efficiency. They can also visualise, present, and disseminate historical materials and findings to wider audiences through digital media, and via Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR and AR) simulations.
“This field has been developing rapidly over the last few decades as computing power has grown at an incredible rate,” explains Professor Leung, Head of Lingnan University’s Department of History. Text mining applications and geographical information systems that have been around for some time, have also become even more powerful. However, the range of uses of some of the latest technologies, such as generative AI, are still yet to be fully explored.
“We could train an AI bot with text from the Han Dynasty, from around 2,000 years ago,” offers Prof Leung, by way of example. “Once properly trained, we could then talk to a ‘person’ from the Han Dynasty.”
He acknowledges, though, that these types of developments have provoked some concerns. “There is a fear, though, that all these new tools will diminish, or even eliminate, the role of the historian. But that is certainly not the case. If anything, it is the opposite.”
Instead, he believes unprecedented opportunities have been opened up for researchers, teachers and students, as well as the general public, to engage with, and appreciate, history. To support those aiming to seize these opportunities, Lingnan’s Department of History will launch its new MA programme in Digital History in Global Asia (DHGA) in September 2024.
Lingnan’s new MA in Digital History in Global Asia
The new programme has three overall goals, Prof Leung points out. First, to give students a foundation in Asia’s global history, from social, political, economic, military, environmental, and cultural perspectives. Second, to show how Digital Humanities has advanced the study, reach and dissemination, of Asian history. Finally, to provide students with an in-depth knowledge of, and hands-on training in, the digital approaches and methodologies that can be used to process, organise, digitise, interpret and present, historical information linked to Asia. Students will learn to use a range of digital applications for historical research, including: QGIS (Geographic information Systems mapping); Gephi, Tableau, Excel and other database software, and; SketchUp and Visual Novel, for 3D rendering and visual storytelling.
“We hope to train our students to, first, use the tools really well and then to understand the meaning of the new data that is generated,” Prof Leung says. The focus on Asia’s global past in the programme will provide students with concrete material to apply the digital tools to.
He says the programme is suitable for both recent bachelor degree graduates and for professionals looking to develop their careers. “One thing to note is they do not need any specific technical background,” he adds.
The skills and understandings gained on the DHGA programme will be in demand in a range of fields such as education, the creative media, cultural management, heritage preservation, information science, programming, and academia.
A unique programme from a unique university
The DHGA MA will be the first MA of its kind, both within Hong Kong and the wider region, and Lingnan’s liberal arts ethos combined with the Department of History’s teaching talent, make the university the ideal home for such a programme.
“We have a strong faculty in both the History of Asia and in the Digital Humanities,” Prof Leung points out.
Many of the early developments in the digital humanities, digital history and geographical information systems, were made by scholars in Asian studies, and the discipline has continued to be at the forefront of digital history. This provides the MA with deep foundations to build on.
“One of the first corpuses of text fully digitised was the Buddhist corpus,” he notes.
Students can pursue the MA in DHGA on a one-year full-time or two-year part-time basis.
The curriculum includes four courses that provide foundational knowledge on Digital Humanities and its impacts on Asian studies and research, digital data management in Asian history, and digital methods in reappraising Asian cities and their global linkages. These courses do not require a prior acquaintance with Asian history or knowledge of the Digital Humanities.
While the elective courses will explore other digital tools and their potential uses. “We want to expose students to a wide range of new digital tools in the study of history,” explains Prof Leung.
On graduation, students can then opt to pursue further study to develop their skills with specific tools, if they so wish.
The programme’s capstone project gives students the chance to use the digital approaches and research methodologies they’ve learned about, to explore, in-depth, a relevant topic of personal interest, and develop their skills of critical research, analysis, data organisation and visualisation, presentation, and academic writing.
Prof Leung says he wants students make to their own personal choice of topic. “It will really depend on the specific interests of the students, but we do want it to have a very concrete, substantive digital component.”