Changing the Paradigm:

Hypertext and Interactive, Student-Centered Learning

Ann M. Woodlief

Department of English
Virginia Commonwealth University

The computer now offers tools which can transform teaching by translating a discipline's modes of inquiry into an interactive and collaborative medium. Hypertexts of literature can be prepared, by teachers and students, which allow students to study works intensely, informatively, at different levels, and in context. On-line discussions and writing involve all students in the study of the work interactively and personally. Combining these two elements into a dynamic syllabus, where students and teachers create a "class hypertext," can empower students as readers and writers in unique ways which challenge traditional paradigms of teaching literature.

The usual classroom scenario has changed little for decades. The teacher stands in front of the room and talks, sometimes with charismatic force, informing, explaining and modeling a disciplinary mode of inquiry, perhaps engaging a few students in dialogue or provoking a general class discussion. Instructors who adopt technology in their classes use it primarily to enhance the traditional teaching paradigm, not significantly altering the way they teach. Audiovisual presentation of lecture materials can engage students more than straight lecturing, whether that presentation involves overhead projection or more stimulating color and action of graphics and videos. Some professors also offer these presentation materials on computers outside the classroom for students to review at their own pace. Lectures can be more effective and efficient with technology, including computers.

However, the computer, especially when used outside the usual classroom setting, offers powerful ways of transforming teaching into a more interactive and personalized process. For teachers who are convinced that students learn to think better by writing and responding critically to the course materials and to each other's written responses, the computer, especially when networked through a LAN, an intranet, or the Web, offers an unequaled tool for facilitating student-centered discussion. The materials themselves can be posted, even set up as interactive documents, and students can read and review them at any time. Not only can students develop the critical thinking and writing skills crucial to learning in every course; they can actually enjoy doing it.

The electronic "meeting of minds" means that every single student can become an active learner, collaborating fully in the development of ideas and learning at his or her individual pace, not passively taking notes. However, the usual power model of the classroom changes dramatically as student "voices" are heard more distinctly, and many teachers, even those most committed to a more collaborative, decentralized, and "democratic" class, find themselves challenged far more than they had expected.

Reading Texts from the "Inside" with Hypertext

The networked computer system (including the network of the Web), used synchronously in a computer classroom or asynchronously (within certain limits) has provided the environment to change the teaching paradigm radically from lecture/discussion mode to the collaborative mode. That was a change I have been trying to make for years, but with limited success without computers. However, for two years, I have taught all of my literature classes (Critical Reading and Writing, American Romanticism, and Nature Writing) in a classroom with 25 LAN-networked computers using Windows and with fast access to the Web on Netscape. My primary pedagogical goal is to help my students empower themselves as close readers and stronger interpreters of literary texts. To do this, we now spend the semester working from teacher and student-generated study and interpretive documents as well as textbooks, and gradually build a powerful "class hypertext" of our own.

To create interactive class materials, I use GUIDE from InfoAccess, a program for which the university has a site license. Probably in the near future the Web will have capabilities very similar to GUIDE (the use of frames is already a step in that direction). GUIDE is a relatively easy-to-learn program and operates in Windows. A hypertext document is a text with links which activate when the reader clicks on words, passages, graphics, or icons that are marked (I use italics and colors). The program allows the author to create definition links that pop up a box with text or pictures in it, reference links that move the reader to other materials or to other points within the text, expansions that open up new information even to several levels, and commands that launch other programs (e.g., a browser, a word processor, CONNECT or DAEDALUS). The help screens in many software programs are done in a similar fashion. Perhaps the easiest way to think of it is as unlimited annotations, marginalia, and writing spaces, all a click or two away from the text.

Other hypertext programs that could be used in teaching are Storyspace, HyperCard (for the MAC), Authorware, and Toolbook (which requires quite a bit of computer knowledge). I believe that ease of use and availability are important. GUIDE comes in three forms: the full GUIDE AUTHOR program (for creating the hypertext), the GUIDE READER, which allows the reader to annotate the hypertext document but not create one, and the GUIDE VIEWER (available for free for anyone to read HTML). Although the Web also uses hypertext, being little more than a reference linking tool, it has great limits. GUIDE files, however, can now be posted on the Web and read with the GUIDE VIEWER as the browser.

Each of my courses begins with students working on several teacher-generated study hypertext documents. Because of the ease of viewing the GUIDE program, there is little for students to learn technically aside from how to page down the text in Windows, use the on-line buttons to move backward, and click with the mouse. Before I send students out to work on an extensive hypertext document, we have already read some brief ones together in the class. This seems to be sufficient training.

Before tackling any hypertext document, my students read the text in paper format. Sometimes they have questions to write about before or after (or both) they read the text to help them formulate how they understand the text, personally and contextually. Thus they can accomplish the usual objectives of any first sequential reading: determining what happens and responding to events and characters.

This reading is generally uncritical and relatively superficial and selective, often resulting in a quick simplistic interpretation that reads-over complexities, gaps, and contradictions in the text. The study hypertext document is set up to carry the student beyond this level, to help each reader enact the questions and thought processes a skilled reader would experience, and to get the information and contexts, biographical, cultural, and inter-textual. A hypertext document reading encourages, even demands, more imaginative questioning and interactive reading, pushing them beyond those preliminary interpretations and toward critical/analytical thinking.

Embedded in (or behind) the study hypertext document are definitions, (key words, words with several definitions operating), the occasional irreverent remark, and open (usually "why") questions that highlight gaps, contradictions, and issues in the text.

Reference links to larger blocks of materials, which may go to several levels of specificity, may end with a journal entry, a letter, or some other primary text. Often these are inter-textual, presenting parts of relevant works, written either by the same or related author(s). Inner-textual links may trace the progression of key themes, images, or repeated patterns, or may be expansions that present more detail or possible interpretations.

I have set up this controlled hypertext document to evoke certain kinds of responses, even lead toward particular lines of interpretation; yet the hypertext document is more open for students than it may appear. Questions, rarely rhetorical, are thought-provoking. Students select their own paths, generally following marked passages where they already have questions. Some clues to the nature of the link are given in the cursor shapes that appear before clicking.

Hypertext documents allow the teacher to share information, insight, and questions in a much less intrusive, "authoritarian" manner, essentially "behind" the text. Students interpret what they are doing by clicking on italicized words and phrases to see what is embedded, as a means of discovery and exploration. The teacher's contribution is labeled "help." Much more is contained in the hypertext document than could possibly be mentioned in a class. It is up to the students just which hypertext notes they read and when.

Because students use the mouse to bring to the screen embedded materials, the text is read repeatedly with readers having a growing sense of discovery. The text becomes an entry point to ideas, questions, and connections--not an end point in itself. Students decide what words to open and follow, clicking the mouse over each italicized word or phrase and responding to the material or ignoring it.

Best of all, students read texts beyond the surface, in heavily embedded interpretive possibilities, raising open questions and issues, having inter-textual resonance, and requiring certain information and context for the fullest reading. Soon after learning to work with a study hypertext document (preferably early in the semester), they begin to use and to see the value of print and electronic reference sources. Next, students become eager to create their own reading hypertext documents, and many prefer doing this to the conventional paper assignment.

Re-reading a work in a study hypertext document and creating/reading interpretive hypertext documents are very time and energy intensive projects. Because the purpose is pedagogical--to teach students more sophisticated reading/thinking skills for dealing with literary works--I use study hypertext documents sparingly from the beginning of the semester, so that students are ready to read texts in greater depth. Student have the option of creating interpretive hypertext documents, in small groups or individually, instead of the more traditional critical paper. They often choose to do so later in the semester.

On-line Discussion and Writing

Electronic discussion and writing is another way of creating the hypertext of the class, as students write, read, rewrite and rethink their own interpretations on-line. For classes meeting within a computer center, I generally use W. W. Norton's CONNECT program, a powerful program that works with Word or WordPerfect. CONNECT will be available on the Internet in the near future. Students have also conducted their discussions on the Web, using a discussion forum (somewhat like HyperNews) and/or e-mail groupings. A list with subgroups would also work well too. I have also used Daedalus Interchange for synchronous discussions.

CONNECT has several advantages over the Web discussion systems. It has the power of a word processor, including the spelling and grammar checks and thesaurus. Students learn how to work the CONNECT version of the Norton Handbook rather quickly, with the aid of an excellent manual. The teacher posts a writing assignment, perhaps including special instructions or even a sample paper. Students write their papers or reading responses, using any word processor. Then the students bring them to class on their CONNECT disks where they post them on the computer, either to the class as a whole or to a critique/discussion group. Students may then read and comment, post publicly either by name or pseudonym to a class or group discussion, or may make comments in private messages. They may copy and paste from the student paper into their commentary, allowing them to be quite specific. They may also send messages to the teacher and to each other. Comments, which are a stack of "boxes", can turn into a very lively discussion, which the teacher can join.

With the newest version of CONNECT ( both students and teacher can also post URL links to the Web. This could be particularly powerful for research assignments or when the teacher wants the students to analyze materials on a website.

Many Web-based communications tools can also serve as student-centered discussion, either public or class-based (with password protection, a private list, or e-mail groups). One semester my nature writing class used a Web discussion forum developed at VCU and now available as shareware as part of VCU's Web-Course-in-the-Box. Similar to HyperNews and other newsgroups with hierarchical responses to postings, this was a public forum and students knew what they were writing would be available for anyone to read, and that the forum would stay open after they had finished the class. Outsiders did join our discussions; in fact a similar class in Colorado (whose teacher I had met on a nature writing e-mail list) joined us; and one "lurker" even sent us an article he had written on a work we were studying.

In-class synchronous discussion of the reading can be done well, if a little chaotically sometimes, with the real-time discussion tool of DAEDALUS Interchange. These discussions, like those generated on CONNECT, can be relatively easily converted to HTML to be posted on the Web, or converted to GUIDE and linked to the on-line syllabus, or made part of other hypertext materials; copying and pasting operations are invaluable to this kind of teaching. Students can browse through these discussions, even in later classes, and pick up ideas and interpretive possibilities, rough though they may be.

Discussion can also be linked to the study hypertext documents to offer writing spaces in which students respond as they read. In GUIDE, students can click on an icon that brings up a word processing file in the bottom third of the screen (but can be expanded to a full window and then toggled as they read). With Windows, they have any kind of communication program or word processing file available as they read and respond. Generally they will use a CONNECT file for toggling, if they wish to post their response immediately. Students are encouraged to use this writing space as an unlimited margin for responding to the hypertext document, thinking through questions, noting other gaps; these notes often become the basis for responses and papers on the text.

The next step involves communicating the results of reading the hypertext document electronically. Students write a critique, drawing from their notes. Sometimes they respond to prompts urging them to consider how their reading has changed and enlarged, and what passages or questions now seem most significant. Posting these responses in CONNECT or on a group e-mail list, they expect to have to defend them to their classmates. This collection of informal responses and feedback comments serves later for many students as a seedbed for a more formal analytical paper, as students choose from the multiple questions and interpretations generated in this electronic discussion.

Much of the on-line discussion, however, is not related to the study or interpretive hypertext documents; they tend to be concentrated in the beginning of the semester. For textbook readings, I generally add pre- and post-reading materials to our ever-growing, dynamic syllabus: leading questions, notes, context, sometimes even an electronic lecture.

Negotiating the Class Hypertext

A "class hypertext" is made up of all the class materials--hypertext documents, plain electronic texts, electronic transcripts of discussions, student papers, teacher notes and "lectures"-- linked in a dynamic syllabus that continues to develop as the course progresses. It can also include URL links to resources on the Web, including discussions that originate on another site. Whether on GUIDE or the Web, my class syllabus is generally made up of most of the materials which either the students or I have contributed to the course as it progresses. It can also include materials from previous classes, added after our discussion.

Such a hypertext document should reside in a readily accessible computer environment. The Web is accessible from both Windows and MAC platforms, and perhaps on most university computers; it may also be available to students at home or in their dorms. The syllabus could also reside on a campus network to which students have broad access, and/or in a program (such as GUIDE) that students can install on other computers that they have access to. Such broad access is one major advantage, because students can read them at their own pace and repeatedly. Also, since the hypertext syllabus is constantly changing and growing, students need to be able to see those changes; taking some fixed computer files home is not enough.

The hypertext syllabus can stretch a class beyond its boundaries of time and space, a great pedagogical advantage. Students can read, analyze and critique interpretations and papers about the class texts that were written by writers not in the class, perhaps by students who study in another institution or who have studied the same works in past classes. Generating and critiquing multiple interpretations of a text is the ideal way to study a complex work. Students can compare their own ideas and enhance them by encountering other interpretations, in and outside of their own class, with little fear of hurting someone's feelings.

Addressing their writing to a broad and responsive audience, not just the teacher, makes most students regard their writing much more seriously. They also learn a great deal from reading each others' writings; and soon figure out which ones are stronger and why. They generally fine-tune and support their arguments more carefully than they would otherwise--not for a grade, but for personal satisfaction. Collaboration does not necessarily cancel the values of competition.

We are also struck by the intimacy of communication which is established in this electronic medium. Though students may not know for a while what the other students look like, they do soon know a lot about how they think and feel. I am often astonished by how much students choose to reveal about themselves, and how much they may bond with each other over the semester. Although that is not my purpose for using the computer, it does motivate the students to engage more fully with the course and their writing.

Pros, Cons, and Issues

The first faculty question I get is, "How much time does using your hypertext document take?" The answer is "a lot." Much of my time and energy goes to thinking through my own pedagogical goals and how to accomplish them better in the virtual classroom.

For the student who learns primarily by listening to someone talk (and is most successful in the traditional lecture class), it may be very difficult to adjust. Students must take time to write their responses and comments, and to think through those responses and to become much more active and reflective readers. The ideal students are anxious to learn and welcome the opportunity to have their ideas taken so seriously; they appreciate and learn from that. They want to become better readers and writers, not just get a good grade.

Some students resent having to think and read so much, especially when there are more passive options available for them. However, some become quite involved and enjoy expressing their ideas for their classmates and responding in turn. They are also more likely to make friends in this environment. Many students tell me that they don't usually talk at all in a class; yet they enjoy very much "talking" in this environment, which they probably perceive as much safer. The usual class bullies who like to monopolize a class discussion are not so happy, especially if they don't type particularly fast. But in this classroom, all the voices are eventually heard. One student wrote, "In oral discussions there are a lot of interruptions and people forget what they wanted to say while waiting to be called on, but in our class, everyone has a chance to speak without interruptions and disturbances." Another student, noting that such discussion "gives the individual student a place to shine," concluded, "the more discussion, the more ideas."

A primary issue for many faculty lies in the collaborative environment the class hypertext creates. Empowering the students is seen by some instructors as a dis-empowering of the teacher's natural authority in the classroom. Indeed, my students are sometimes puzzled about my role in the class because it is relatively hidden. Often they don't perceive the hypertext material I have posted as belonging to me. They are more aware of their own interpretations and the discussion about them, as they should be. Students talk about issues that are particularly important to them but may be rather tangential to the text. I feel that they learn most when they are personally engaged, even if their agenda happens to be different from mine. My agenda in the hypertext document is large enough to accommodate their tangents.

As I review my students' writing, I find they are learning much more than I believed possible. Students are not trying to reproduce what I say or think, but they give evidence of careful reading and re-reading of texts, enabling them to defend their own thoughts and to negotiate some interesting questions that a particular text suggests. I see them going to the library and reference works for enriching information. I see much better analytical and thinking skills as students develop strong interpretations which they "own." The "meeting of minds" in classes like this takes us to some degree beyond considerations of age, gender, race, or class, and usually even my silent-students develop their voices.

However, there are also drawbacks. Computer phobia lives, and sometimes I find that even the students with the most computer experience may resist learning new programs. Training on the computer programs and troubleshooting through the semester takes valuable time away from the study of literature. Procrastination is a problem, although that was also true without electronics. There are also unexpected access problems (especially when students have an assignment and the only computer center open on weekends is too busy or the connections don't work properly). Often there is no help available when a student makes a mistake or runs into a problem. However, these problems have lessened every semester.

My present goal is to simplify as much as possible, keeping students' initial shock of having to learn unfamiliar software to a minimum, gradually introducing more difficult tasks (such as creating of hypertext documents) only to those who are ready. Timing and reassurance are crucial in a course like this. I need to set up the class for more collaborative teaching of computer skills, drawing more on student expertise help.

I need to keep the course from being too demanding and to make the rewards proportionate. But then I read stunning critical papers or imaginative hypertext documents from students, the discussions get even livelier, and students make comments like this one:

"Although the work load was a little heavy--okay, a lot heavy--it forced me to stay on top of things. I would recommend this class to anyone who wants to become a better reader/writer." Another noted that "this method of learning is not only fun, but it is a tool that forces one to learn."

Now I ask myself, "How can my teaching be even better within a computer environment?" I have some answers, but I also have more to figure out as I watch my students developing cognitively in this environment. Each day holds its pedagogical surprises, and that can be frustrating as well as invigorating. So far the risks--and the time--seem to be paying off in the students' learning, and how much pleasure and involvement they find in trying to think, read, write, and respond at roughly the same time. I too am learning: about computers, about how to translate my discipline's modes of inquiry into an interactive and collaborative medium; about students' potential for contributing significantly to the class; and even about the materials that I teach. Now I cannot imagine teaching any other way.

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