Home Onderwerpen Zoek Over ons Doneer Contact

Structuring the
Learning Experience

Hypertextual Skywriting

Connie Menting

Linear text


History of Hypertext

New Possibilities


Hypertext & Learning Processes

Linear Text

Linear text has a very long history. Until recently all paper texts (books, articles) we read were written in a linear way. Linear texts consist of units, such as a paragraph, a page, or sometimes even only one word. The units in linear texts are only connected to the preceding or the following unit of text (paragraph, page, word). The text is written in a straight line from beginning to end. This is what we call linear texts.

The reader follows the author of the text on his or her path. There is no such question posed by the author as "What would you like to read next?" Linear texts look very much like a prearranged trip in which the whole trip and excursions are planned beforehand in a certain order by the travel agency. The only freedom of choice and diversion the reader has is in deciding whether and when to read the footnotes: not at all, in combination with the relevant part of the text or after finishing the text.

The reader can also decide while reading the text whether to consult the index or table of contents. For the rest reading becomes following the writer's path.

Reading linear text can thus be very boring, because it doesn't allow for side-steps, apart from closing the book for a while. Who doesn't remember the image of someone reading a thick novel and ever so often counting the number of pages till the end?



Hypertext also consists of textual units. However, in hypertext the textual unit is defined as the contents of the computerscreen, including what one gets to see when 'scrolling'. In hypertext every unity can be connected with many other texts, in such a way that the reader can see all of the possible successors. The reader sees one of these successors by making a choice of his own (e.g. by clicking on a word or icon on the screen) or by following the paths created by the author which depend on the previous choice the reader has made.

Physically a hypertext exists in the form of codes in a storage medium such as a hard disk and in the RAM (Random Access Memory) of the computer. Each hypertext can have several preceding and following texts. Rearranging the text doesn't imply the physical destruction of the existence of the work. One cannot 'tear apart' hypertexts like one can do with books.

There is no such thing as a linear path through hypertextual work. Reading a hypertext resembles more consulting a map or watching a picture or photo than reading a book. Readers can take many directions when following the paths the author has prepared. Just like when watching a painting we follow the paths that the artist has composed before our eyes. We can choose where to start when we watch: with a part of the image, a special colour used, a teeny weeny detail like Potter's bull's eye or with the technique used, etc. (In the spirit of John Berger's Ways of Seeing, 1972). From a hypertextual point of view this is not the only way to study a painting. Hypertextually the painter can also be compared to his contemporaries, to his predecessors. His work can be compared as regards the use of colour to the work of contemporaries, and to the use of colour in our time. The structuring of a hypertext determines the boundaries in which the reading behaviour can vary and within these boundaries the chance that specific reading trajectories are actually followed. Within the network of interconnected textual units the reader chooses a path that matches his own interests and preferences.

Hypertexts are decentered texts. The hierarchies and privileges of linear paper texts are broken down. Footnotes and other secondary comments are read as elements that are visually equal to the basic texts. The references and quoted texts are implemented by a connection with the original, where they can be read as part of that other context. Hypertexts can thus be much more interesting and complex than linear texts.

Index History of Hypertext

Hypertext has a long history as well. Already in 1945 Vannevar Bush (in his article 'As we may think') worried about the inadequate tools that were at our disposal to access the growing store of knowledge inherited by us. Bush investigated our way of thinking and came to the conclusion that the human mind operates in an associative way. "With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain" [Bush, 1945].

Bush understood that this mental process could not be completely duplicated artificially, but proposed the possibility of mechanising the selection of information by association. It is incredible but true: already in 1945 he 'invented' a system for associatively connecting information: the 'memex' (memory extension), which can be considered as the forerunner of the modern PC with hypertext.

Bush elaborated on the idea of building a 'trail' of associative knowledge items (associative indexing) in which the user could easily tie two or many more items together on the 'memex' and build a 'trail' of interest in the maze of materials available, allowing the user to go on side excursions whenever wished for.

Ted Nelson and other scientists adopted Bush's fantasies; the term 'hypertext' was born (not until 1960!) and described by Nelson as follows:
"By 'hypertext,' I mean non-sequential writing -- text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways". [Nelson, 19..].

When not only text is included in the branching structure, but also different media, such as video segments, sound and animations we speak of hypermedia. Hypertext and hypermedia enable people to read documents in a non-linear way, guided by our preferences and choices. Some deconstructivistic authors had already done this in literature [e.g. Barthes, Foucault, Cortazar]. By making use of hypertext and hypermedia people are allowed to tread their own paths through texts, to make their own choices, to 'create' their own knowledge, to come to different solutions of problems.

New Possibilities

In hypertext we move around by clicking on a word or icon ('electronic signpost'). This changes the relationship between reader and writer fundamentally: together they create their own universes, i.e. possible trajectories within the global parameters of the symbolic hyperconstruction. Readers make their own books from the material that has been prepared by the authors and thus become 'co-authors' in the literal sense of the word. The readers read the text, choose their own paths and interpretation. In this way they help establish the character of the documents.

Hypertext is non-linear text. Yet, the individual path a reader chooses is a linear path: the reader establishes which order to follow, one subject after another. Thus, the crucial characteristic of hypertext is not non-linearity but choice. Hypertext enables the reader to choose their route through the information made available to them. The reader will choose these routes according to his own interests and preferences. 'What do you want to read next' is the question they have to answer all the time. This requires an active attitude and participation in the process. They constantly have to make their own decisions: 'Where do I go next'. So, their own interests and preferences become the organising principle for their research. In this way readers coin their own versions of a symbolic world, in the same way as they collect unique and personal versions of their local world, based on the fragments of their personal experiences.

The computerbased hypertexts create a new world of cooperative connections (links). There is a rise of writing instruments, new textual forms and arrangements, and new readers.

Hypertext is a text that is more than text. It is more than one word after the other, from the beginning to end, without any variation permitted. The hypertexts of the future will sooner look like a symbolic web than like a book or a text file. Hypertext offers authors numerous new possibilities. Hypertext facilitates telling a complex story. We are able to construct overlapping and intertwining narrative structures in complex patterns. These patterns are dynamic at the same time because they result from the intersection of the choices of the readers with the restrictions created by the author.

Hypertext enables us to present complexly structured theories in a better way. Complex theories operate on more abstraction levels at the same time, that are often structured as 'nested' hierarchies. With the hypertextual instruments we are much more capable to present our intellectual constructions in a transparent way to our readers. Stratified theoretical models can be represented in their full scope (spectrum of analytical units) and depth (interrelated levels of abstraction).

Hypertext is a network of possibilities, a network of reading experiences. In this way hypertext looks like life itself which is full of choices, full of crossroads where one always has to decide which turning to take.

Hypertext is the language of exploration and discovery. Therefore it is the perfect language to serve as 'mother-tongue' for the information era. Who, in the future, doesn't understand hypertext should not be surprised to be called 'illiterate' sooner or later.


Trained readers of linear texts know how to read a book or an article: they start at the very beginning with the first word and read on in a straight line till the last word on the last page. As a matter of course they know how to make use of indices, such as pages, paragraphs, table of contents, footnotes, etc. But all these instruments were not available in the papyrus that preceded the printed books. These instruments still had to be invented and their use had to be learned. When the telephone was invented analogous problems occurred. When the technical problems had been overcome, the coordination of social actions had to be dealt with. For example, when somebody called and the phone was answered who had to speak first and say what? ("Hello Darling, it's me and I'm lonely").

Hypertexts do not only offer a huge amount of new possibilities but also present us with new problems. Because these interactive texts are so new they have to be written and read in a completely new way. Readers have to learn how to move around in complexly structured webstructures.

The main problem seems to be the navigation problem. When reading a paper text one knows exactly where one is, for example through page numbering. It is also easy to see how many pages one still has to go during reading. When reading a hypertext from the computerscreen it is much more difficult to orientate oneself. Disorientation and cognitive overload form a potential threat. There are no clear indications about where one is: HTML pages have no physically separate pages, the pages are usually not numbered. Therefore one often doesn't know precisely how much one has read already and how much still has to be read. Only the scroll bar at the right hand side of the screen globally indicates where the actual screen is localised between the beginning and the end of the document.

Writers of hypertext should take into account that untrained readers often do not know what is expected of them and 'lose the scent'. Readers may complain that they do not know where they are in relation to the beginning and end of a text. They do now know how to find their way back to a point from where they can orientate themselves on the texts.

Another complex and troublesome problem is that the reader doesn't know where the end of a text is. Because the text is decentered, it is difficult to decide where the boundaries of a hyperbook or -article are. It is not satisfactory to retort that strictly speaking hypertexts do not know an end. It is better to say: "you are finished when you are not interested anymore or when you don't see any more new texts".

Hypertext and Learning Processes

I'm trying to think, but nothing happens....
Reading linear texts has - for a long time now - been the most important 'driving force' in learning processes, next to verbal ways of instruction. In the pre-Gutenberg ages learning was solely based on verbal instruction, but for us learning has always been identical to studying paper material. Although we've also been told to pay attention to our teachers' voice, the real nucleus of that complicated process of learning has been predominantly identified with the process of reading - linearly constructed - books and articles. It isn't even too much exaggerated to say that the acquisition and cumulation of knowledge has been equated with the consumption of linearly constructed paper documents.

Hypertext allows for new ways of writing that facilitate new ways of interactive and associative reading. Moreover, the hypertextual revolution goes hand in hand with a hypermedial revolution in which texts, moving images and sound are hyperlinked. This implies a complete transformation of the media in which and through which learning processes can take place. Educational material will be more and more embedded in hypermedial constructions, and students interact with these material via the Internet. The 'real work of learning' of sitting behind a desk turning the pages of linear text, will in the long run be replaced by the 'virtual work' of browsing the Internet pages of a hyperlinked matrix of hypermedial documents. In the future learning processes will become internet related .

Home Onderwerpen Zoek Over ons Doneer Contact

Connie Menting
Amsterdam, November, 2000
Last updated: 13th September, 2013