Does hypertext actually help me learn?



I ‘borrowed’ this graphic from a Norm Friesen session I attended. It isn’t really the point he was making, but it seems to illustrate mine as well. In short, I wonder if the natural structure a hypertext tends to form actually goes against the way we need to consume information for learning.

The looping nature of read/reflect is what I think we are aiming at when we are learning, but to risk generalising I think that hypertext navigation tends to take us away from this style. Wiki structure is often a good example of what I mean. We start at an initial article and links branch from there. Once I have picked a link part way into an article I am reading and navigated away from that first page what is to say I will go back and continue with the original? More likely I will continue off on another link from there, and so on. There is no reason why I couldn’t go back to continue the original, but the structure doesn’t encourage this.

There are exceptions of course. The hypertext fiction I have looked at makes far more use of looping around content, taking you back to places in the text that are relevant. But, the downside of this is we are in some ways imposing a structure on to the reader. It may be optional, there may be different routes to choose from, but it is a structure nonetheless.

This presents clear design issues for the content creator. How do we ensure the correct material is covered by the student? Do we actually care?

To me, there are a couple of things we could do to try and sit somewhere between the over-controlling linking that forces users down a designed path and the completely open hypertext.

Considerations for the hyperauthor

In terms of structure of hypertext we can think about two pretty simple things. A designer could make more use of a ‘back’ link to encourage the user to return to an original article. Adding a prominent back/return option would help the reader take in a bit more information but then easily return to the main focus of their study. No idea if this would actually be successful, but a bit of UI testing should tell us if it would be used in courses we design.

The second consideration is about how we reference/link in academic hypertext. Links in the main body of the text to other pages tend to distract users from the main article. I click one, move on. However, links to references in footnotes at the bottom of the article seem to encourage users to continue with the main text and then explore extension material afterwards.

How we structure these links/footnotes impacts on the learning process itself though. In some cases I want to be able to quickly read an extension article (definition of a word maybe?), in others I don’t want to be distracted until I have finished the main content (link to another journal article, longer piece of text, vaguely related area, etc). It seems that there are cases where both would be appropriate. So, this is a design consideration when constructing links, but also about the abilities of the learner to make decisions about navigation through the text in the best way for them.

This leads me to things we can do as learners ourselves to help avoid the right-hand side of the image at the top. Again, two ideas for consideration.

Considerations for the hyperreader

Tabbed browsing is a massive step forward for hypertext navigation. By default when clicking a link my browser doesn’t navigate away from where I am but opens up a new tab in the background with that content in. This function gives the user more choice about when and how they are consuming the information which is great, but it is not a default behaviour, and a feature that is often hidden away in the options of your browser that many don’t know it exists.

Allowing a reader to create their own nodes is the second possibility. Obviously we know that with collaborative editing of a document this is possible, but these links are then in place for everybody that reads the text. What I am suggesting is a way for each individual user to make their own connections as and when they see fit, create their own path through the web beyond the constraints of what the author(s) have added. Obviously there is nothing to stop you searching around a topic, but it isn’t as fast as following the links put in place by others.



This kind of technology does exist, in a limited form at the moment. The image above is a screenshot from Chrome, running the FastestChrome plugin. I highlight an area of text I am interested in and it provides a quick definition and shortcuts to common sites I might navigate to based on this text. In my particular example it links me to a Google search of that term, the Wikipedia article, and a couple of others. Still early days for this sort of thing, but a bit more sophistication and a traceable history of linking and it could be the start of a pretty clever personalised method of hypertext linking.

This last point suggests to me we should be placing more trust in the student to cover the correct material. Easy at M-level because the required motivation is already in place (I assume, but I don’t know this to be the case with all students actually…), but harder to guarantee in compulsory education. Maybe this isn’t so much about the technical design of the course itself, but how we design assessment to guide the students to the correct content and make sure that this has happened.

Hypertext, Hyperreaders and Hyperlearners

From greek origin, hypertext is referring to “beyond”, or “over” text. It is often thought to be a reference to electronic texts, but is far more about the style of that text rather than the medium. Landow refers to it as “reader centered encounters with text” which I think is the nicest definition I have come across. Hypermedia is another term that tends to get tucked in here, suggesting that hypertext can include images, videos and the like as well as simple textual content. Continue…

Why do students remember what they saw on TV but not what I say?

Another collection of thoughts from the book I’ve been reading recently. A series of points to remember when designing lessons/training sessions regarding memory. I feel a fair amount of this might be a short exercise in egg-sucking instruction, but this is also about collecting my own thoughts.

  • Your memory bets on what you want it to remember- things that you think about carefully are more likely to remain. Pay careful attention to what your students will actually think about in a lesson.
  • Attention to a topic gets it into your working memory, how you think about it determines what gets into long term memory.
  • Apart from attention, emotional reaction and repetition (only some kinds) help you remember. Actually wanting to remember has little of no effect.
  • The idea of making content relevant has been overplayed. Being relevant doesn’t necessarily help with a students interest in the topic.
  • Remember the power of stories. This is always referred to when teaching people to be better presenters. This is about keeping an audiences attention, attention is the first step to getting content remembered.
  • The 4C’s of storytelling
  • Causality
  • Conflict
  • Complication
  • Character
  • Stories allow thought, they are easy to remember and make you think about meaning. This is a good book on the topic and a nice quick easy read for more detail (again, I have it so let me know if you want to borrow…).
  • Be careful with discovery learning, remember the point about what you think about being what you remember. Studies have shown it to be less effective with students who are novices in a particular topic than direct instruction. A situation that gives rapid feedback when a student is focusing on the wrong thing would be ideal for this sort of environment. Think about computer games for a good example- this is a huge strength of game based learning and similar.

Some specific tips for lesson structure:

  • Set up the question at the start, make sure people care about the answer.
  • Mnemonics are good for helping to remember meaningless material when trying to achieve a base-level knowledge in a new topic.
  • Learning similar material to rhythm or music has been demonstrated to work well.
  • Think carefully about your attention grabbers in a lesson. These are the bits that will stick, make sure they are the right things. (high impact science demonstrations are a good example here, make sure the result is the right one).
  • Try to design assignments where students think about meaning.
  • Use the 4C’s. Lessons can be organised around the conflict, but we want students to remember the answer to that initial question.

Related articles:

How can I teach skills when tests require facts?

My notes from chapter 2 of Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel T Willingham.

Factual knowledge must precede skill

This chapter goes back to the description in the first describing how thinking works. What goes into working memory is a combination of environmental factors and things we bring out of long term storage. So, having the prior knowledge is critical. How we teach that prior knowledge is the question here- we already know that you learn best when you engage in thought about the topic, so avoiding filling students with facts is the way forward.

The concept of ‘chunking’ is introduced, the idea is you can store small sets of thoughts together as one. The other point that seemed important to me is the idea that ‘the rich get richer’- having factual knowledge makes it easier to acquire more.

The recommendations for the classroom:

  • Think carefully about what knowledge you need to instill
  • You need a certain amount of background knowledge before you can start worrying about critical thinking skills
  • Knowledge must be meaningful

I think these ideas can be neatly applied to some of our CPD work early on in the new term. One of the core IT training areas for us this year deals with staff use of graphical media. This seems like an obvious test as it’s an area where a certain amount of theory is required to really understand the processes involved. All of these sessions will end up documented on the school site, will hopefully be able to do some good analysis on how we’re structuring them in light of these ideas, and get some comparisons to the impact of the same course last year.