Sunday, 5 November 2006

Hypertext Thinking - The Power of Interconnectivity

Being users of the internet for some years now, many of us must take for granted the benefits of hypertext or interlinking. Any subject can be easily researched, with a multitude of links to follow, leading to ever more avenues of data, comments and multimedia content. Now that so much of our research information is drawn from the web, it is some wonder that web essays, or hypertext-ed essays are not par for the course in all subjects now, even in their most simplest format of a word file with the odd hyperlink thrown in. This will likely change, as library documents gradually shift from shelves to cyberspace. Drawing mainly from Landow, there seems to be good reason to encourage this shift, as bar comfort of readability, an online document is in many ways superior to a paper version. 

One of the main benefits of an online document is that the student can create links, which the reader can follow immediately. As well as being a definite benefit to the reader (who would otherwise have to go to a library to follow up references, instead of merely clicking on to a following page), the student is encouraged to demonstrate how a particular point or piece of work sits in context with other ideas. This encourages critical thinking, not just the accumulation of knowledge, as it requires the student to critically assess the relationship between one phenomenom and another. As Landow puts it, 'perceiving possible connections and then aruing for their validity is a high-level intellectual skill'. In an online setting, learners are arguably more able to access a wide variety of related sources and demonstrate their relevance to the reader, enriching the experience for student and reader alike. This increased accessibility to sources can also be said to encourage indepence and control over learning. As Marchionini writes (quoted by Landow), 'control requires responsibility and decision-making', both features of study that lead to deep learning.

Another feature that a web-based essay offers is increased possibilities for collaboration among students. If a piece of work is accessible to other students online, there will be increased opportunities for others to offer proofreading corrections, suggestions for links, and constructive comments on content and style. While this open access may not appeal to all, it can certainly help to increase quality of work, and bring like-minded thinkers together. There is however a necessary element of trust needed in such open collaboration (it seems also a necessary element of many Web 2.0 features - see previous postings), and there may need to be a review of plagiarism policy, but on the whole it is likely that students will respect the integrity of others' work. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit that Landow raises, in my view, is the observation that 'once a document is placed within a hypertext environment, (it) no longer exists alone. It always exists in relation to other documents'. While he rightly points out that the same can be said for printed documents, that there are countless citations and references that link them together, the difference lies in that 'such (printed) interrelations could exist only within the individual minds that perceived these relations or within other texts that asserted the existence of such relations. The texts themselves... existed in physical separation from one another'. With the availability of hypermedia networked systems allow the 'novice to experience the reading and thinking patterns of the expert,' without needing access to this expert. The experts linking thinking is traceable and recorded.

When you combine this greater scope connectivity and collaboration, with the greater *quality* of linking that Web 2.0 features, such as review systems offer, we are able as consumers of information to draw a far richer experience from online information formats, than we can from a simple printed page. This is not to say that every word should link to another subject, quite the opposite. Links should be carefully considered to add to and not distract from the point at hand. But so long as instruction on how to effectively use the oppurtunities that hypermedia offers is provided (a subject for another day) and evaluation methods are up-to-date (see next posting), I fear the days of the paper document are numbered.

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