The explosion in popularity of the World Wide Web has plunged us into almost daily contact with hypertext. Interestingly, however, though it can be a fascinating medium for fiction, the attempts at using hypertext in this way are still very far from mainstream. On the other hand, hypertextual learning materials have achieved great popularity in educational circles. Does the use of hypertext in educational settings suggest that educators want their pupils to have a sense of getting lost? Does it suggest that associative thinking is gaining a foothold in the educational system? I have my doubts. But if not that, what?
For most of us, raised and educated in traditional school systems, and perhaps also trained as teachers in those systems, learning is a highly linear process. You start out as an empty vessel and as you continue along a predetermined path you get more and more information pumped into you. Obligatory lip service to popular cognitive methods not withstanding, most of the time "teaching" is associated with leading pupils down a straight and narrow path, even putting blinders on them in order to keep their eyes from wandering. "Straight and narrow" and "learning" seem to be highly identified with each other. It's as though pupils are being processed on an assembly line and at each station on the line they get fed more facts. A bit less offensive might be the "building" model: learning is identified as a building that gets built from the bottom up, brick after brick. Getting lost doesn't seem to have much of a role in this scheme of things. Clarity, in this sort of model, is a virtue, so why would teachers want to confuse their pupils by giving them too many choices. Aye, there's the rub.
Part of the answer seems to be that quite simply, they don't. It seems that the technology of hypertext, rather than its essence, is often what gets used in situations of this sort. Give pupils (readers, surfers, anyone) a navigation bar which gives them an impression of having some sort of control over where they're going to choose to click next and they think they're running the show. And navigation bars have definitely become the rage. At best these give users a tree-link hierarchy that they can navigate rather than a totally linear one, but each branch within the tree is still basically linear. You can choose your branch, but don't go building the tree yourself. Is there something bad in that? Not at all. Just limiting.
Are our educational institutions better off as a result of adopting hypertextual technology but not its spirit? The question is a valid one, and your answer depends on just how linear you think learning actually is. Even for someone with a predetermined tendency toward freewheeling hypertext, building a web course is a lesson in just how extensively the step-by-step model of learning is embedded in us. On the one hand we're under the spell of the urge to open things up - to let pupils decide for themselves where they should go next. Yet on the other the weight of generations of teacherly responsibility answers back "you're not going to let them go on to step B until they've proven that they fully understand how to do step A, are you?". It's sort of what might be called the Monopoly learning method.
And all this sort of brings us back to the possibility of getting lost. Is it responsible to throw non-swimmers into the deep end in order to make them start to swim? Is it educational? What's more, finding information and getting lost may well go hand in hand. If we know precisely where we're headed, we're not going to find what's even one step away from our target. Current popular educational theory holds that pupils learn through tackling problems, through constructing their own methods of dealing with those problems or their own routes toward solving them. The hypertextual landscape is ideal for constructing one's own route. But this promise of hypertext has been in constant conflict with other metaphors of the web - metaphors that demand and/or permit much less self-directed learning. Our opening metaphors determine a great deal of how we relate to the medium. They directly influence the amount of linearity we let creep into our hypertextual learning.
So is the essence of hypertext a purposeful attempt to be confusing? A question such as that seems to inevitably bring us to more open models of learning - models in which pupils are expected (or at least permitted) to assume more responsibility for their own learning.
Way back, over thirty years ago, in preparation for the First International Paper Airplane Competition, then Professor David C. Hazen of Princeton University noted:
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