From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 22, 1998*The Unbearable Linearity of Learning

Some people get their kicks from roaming around in the great outdoors. They love the open space, the feeling of having the entire picture spread out before them. Me, I love to walk through the streets of a city, taking a turn here, a side street there, guessing at where I'm going to end up. Please, don't give me a map, it ruins the feel of being inside, of being a part of the labyrinth. I enjoy the feeling of there being no "straight ahead", but instead of having to choose what to do at every intersection, every turn. Though getting lost can be an exciting adventure, what attracts me even more is that there's always something interesting no matter where I end up. When I read, it's much the same. Thus the following admission shouldn't come as much of a surprise: I'm a hypertext junkie.
Hypertext allows me to get lost in my reading in much the same way as wandering around a city does. For me, at least, immersing myself in a (traditional type) book, the sort of book that gets read from cover to cover, is more like being in the proverbial (and previously alluded to) great outdoors - you have a clear feeling of where you've come from and where you're headed. Hypertext has a different sort of flow - broken and disjointed, jumpy. There seems to be something distinctly urban about hypertext. I'm far from being a Walter Benjamin expert, but it seems to me that this is the idea that Benjamin writes of when he writes of getting lost in a city: On a very basic level, hypertextual thinking is associative thinking. It's footnotes given (or taking) free reign. No longer relegated to a minor space at the bottom of the page or the end of a chapter, in hypertext the footnotes creep into the body of the text itself and threaten to take it over, or at least to confuse us enough until we can't distinguish between the central, main stream of thought, and its associated spin-offs. Many of us (in the shower at least) actually think in this manner. But through years of schooling we've learning not to write this way. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: there are a lot of positive things to be said for clarity, brevity and sticking to the point.

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:

That was a popular educational attitude to take for a while (or at least it was in certain circles). It also seems to be in synch with hypertext - a sort of freewheeling associative thinking that admits from the outset that we're not really sure where it is we're headed. The same sort of attitude might be expressed regarding hypertext: if we knew what it was we were looking for, we wouldn't have to search for it. Our searches certainly bring us closer to finding what it is we're looking for, but they also run the risk of bringing us face to face with things we hardly knew existed; tangents to our main topic; whistle stops to our central home town. And that's the beauty of it all.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh