Computers & Texts No. 12
Table of Contents
July 1996

French Thought

A Hypermedia Resource Base Using Microcosm

Rosemary Bock
School of Modern Languages
University of Southampton

Terry King
Depertment of Information Science
University of Portsmouth

A prototype resource base has been offered each year at Southampton University's School of Modern Languages to accompany a course of lectures and tutorials entitled 'French Thought in the Twentieth Century'. The project is part of the University's Scholar Programme, funded by TLTP.

The aim of the course is to explore the work of four important French thinkers: Henri Bergson, Henri Lefebvre, Simone de Beauvoir and Roland Barthes, giving students a working introduction to the main schools of thought which have dominated French culture and social thought this century.

The prototype is a partial implementation of the full resource base, covering two modules of the course, namely those relating to Lefebvre and Beauvoir. The material included in the prototype is almost entirely textual, though it would be possible to add further graphical and video material at a later stage. It consists of extracts from the prescribed texts and from selected secondary readings, together with course materials such as bibliographies and essay topics.

Audience and Intended Use

The resource is intended for use by the undergraduate students following 'French Thought in the Twentieth Century', a second-year option offered by the French Section of the School of Modern Languages.

The resource base is being offered to the students with the aim of encouraging them to investigate for themselves concepts expressed in the texts in greater depth by examining the occurrences of key words. The package is to serve as an additional resource for private study, to be used in conjunction with other, hard-copy materials. Coursework has been incorporated online and contains links to relevant passages and keywords in the primary and secondary texts.


Microcosm, the software platform for the package, is a Windows-based, open hypermedia system which has been developed at Southampton University. Microcosm can be used to cross reference a wide variety of multimedia documents from simple text files to CBT programs. It is used as the main linking engine for this application. One particular feature of Microcosm exploited in this package is 'compute links'. This facility allows users to select any keyword, whether pre-defined in course materials or identified by the students themselves, and to examine its occurrences, and hence its usage, throughout the primary and secondary texts provided. This would otherwise be a painstaking task. It is anticipated that the availability of this feature will be of particular use to the students in familiarising themselves with the texts and in their essay writing. The package incorporates a direct link to the Write word processing package and a further link to a bilingual dictionary is planned.


The range of materials which could be included in the resource was greatly restricted by copyright. It had been hoped, perhaps naively, that photographs, audio extracts and video clips of the authors could be included. A sum of £500 was allowed for copyright fees, but this was barely sufficient to cover the extracts from primary texts. Fortunately authors of some secondary texts were generous enough to waive their fees, but with agency charges for individual photographs starting at some £50, the audio-visual aspect of the resource base had to be severely curtailed. Sufficient resources would have to be allowed for this in future projects.

[Screen Shot]

From this window the user can access all the tools and materials simply by clicking on the appropriate button.


The texts were prepared in Rich Text Format (RTF) and are displayed by the Microcosm text viewer in the Windows Bookman Old Style font with large (20 point), clear headings and a point size of 12 for the body of the texts. The texts range in length from very short, menu-type documents of just a few words to many-paged extracts from primary texts. It is not intended that the longer texts should be read from beginning to end, but rather that they should be accessed selectively, via keywords.

Introducing the Package

Because it was anticipated that the students would only have limited experience of using computers, two induction sessions were organised to introduce the package to them. It was observed that the students who attended both sessions benefited in terms of increased confidence and skill in using the package. Student responses to the courseware were gathered by questionnaire at the end of the second induction session. The responses were most encouraging. The majority of the students found the resource both informative and well structured. Almost all agreed that they would like to use more packages like this in future.

Future Developments

It is hoped that the prototype can be expanded to include materials relating to the other two authors covered in the lecture course. It is felt that the addition of a glossary would increase the value of the resource, but this would also require a substantial amount of lecturer time. The interface might easily be adapted for use with other literature- based courses.

At present, work is being carried out to build a World Wide Web version of the resource base for campus-wide access. This will be a simplified version since it is not yet possible to mimic the 'compute links' feature of Microcosm. WWW links to specific occurrences of keywords have to be created individually, whereas Microcosm automatically indexes every word in every document registered with an application. The web version can be accessed through the Southampton School of Modern Languages ( under 'Learner Support Pages'. However the site is still under construction and only a limited number of pages are accessible off-campus.

Further developments are, of course, subject to copyright clearance and to the availability of funding and further support.


The package offers improved, more flexible, access to a wider range of source materials. During the induction sessions, the facility for carrying out keyword searches was particularly praised by the students as being a very useful feature, which they felt would certainly help them in their essay writing.

In principle, students have free access to the resource. However, because it has only been installed on a single workstation cluster, access is restricted at present by the availability of the workstations. The World Wide Web version would be one means of improving access.

Although the majority of students had only limited experience of using Windows, their confidence increased through the induction sessions. However, new students will require training in the use of the package at the beginning of the course each year. Students' computer literacy should not be overestimated. Because only about half of the students on the course actually attended induction sessions, it will be necessary to make more effort to win the students over to computer-based resources. Having said that, however, it is possible that this somewhat low level of attendance might merely be a reflection of the fact that the resource was still in development.


This project was carried out as part of an MSc in Information Systems Degree of the University of Portsmouth. Many thanks to the course lecturers at Southampton, Michael Kelly and Loraine Day, as well as to all the staff of the Interactive Learning Centre at Southampton University, especially to Pat Maier and Adam Warren. Particular thanks to Kate Dickens for her hard work in implementing the resource. Thanks to the Microcosm team, who also provided technical support.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 12 (1996), 14. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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