Dangers in room 2

Some of the thoughts expressed in Hypertext, and particularly illustrated by ‘This is a test’ are of grave concern when considering cognitive organisation and its implications on navigation. In a traditional learning environment there are three stages where information is gathered: direct presentation (lectures/handouts); required reading; and secondary reading / student’s own independent research.

For a student lacking in confidence, or with learning difficulties, even stage 1 can be difficult to attain. In a science based course, for example, if the course documentation doesn’t sufficiently illustrate the semester plan, or provide a synopsis in advance of the lecture plan, then when the student attends the lecture, and misses one key point in the introduction, the entire hour can be wasted, never to be repeated. Attempting to then revisit the lecture, even by recording it or with notes, can be time consuming and often fruitless. It’s in the student’s interest to prepare for the lecture, but the tutors must also work to provide a clear and solid framework, including as much detail as possible.

(NB: this works well with this course, particularly in that the course content section contains several layers of complexity that the student can ‘drill down’ through depending on need, and so isn’t swamped with information).

Stage 2 is particularly difficult for students with dyslexia or a visual impairment, since it typically covers vast swathes of reading which even the most competent student can find ‘enough’ to manage for a week. Given that the reading is required and will be reflected on, there is little lee-way in class for skipping readings. Notably online this isn’t so much of a problem, with this blog being a case in point (it certainly isn’t week 4). However, I’ve felt confident enough in re-organising the course to suit my own needs, partly because it doesn’t have a vast impact on my life; a ‘proper’ UG or PG degree does have significant impact and one wonders to what extent students will be comfortable attacking materials in their own way; for many, the rigid structure is a help rather than a hindrance in that it prevents them going off track.

Stage 3 never existed for me as an undergraduate, for various social reasons (!) and also because I never knew where to start. There was no information immediately available to hint at what would be more useful to a particular line of questionning – granted this could be obtained by consultation with the tutor, but tutor time is at a premium and this was before the widespread adoption of email. So it just never happened. This was fine, but imagine having ‘This is a test’ as a suggested reading, only amplified and complexified. In essence, you have the internet, with the aid of Google et al. A student who was already a little flumoxed by stages 1 and 2 will either shun the internet entirely and go into denial about the whole week, or will embrace the internet and go off on completely the wrong track. Neither is good. The lack of a hierarchical and consistent navigation in ‘This is a test’, and subsequently in the internet, is confusing and daunting when you are mining for information. As a game and a bit of fun, it’s all fine, but good websites are familiar websites, and that means you know your way around instinctively. With more and more of the web evolving into user interfaces, and WebCT etc. already existing often as a double layer interface (the surround of WebCT itself, plus the structure the tutor has decided to implement, good or bad) mean that throwing things up on the web without due consideration of all the consequences, and particularly hyperlinking to as many relevant items as possible, will only confuse and add concern to students already feeling out of their depth. Observe the Wikipedia entry for ‘internet’ as an indicator of how overlinking can destroy meaning and value. A student reading course material, religiously opening links provided in the background, who then finds they’ve opened 15 more browser windows, will give up and go to the pub. Can’t blame them!

One particular pet-hate is recursive linking in an infinite loop – in ‘This is a test’, hyper-text links to reading which links to hyper-text which links to reading, seemingly for no other purpose but for the hell of it. That’s an unhelpful guiding hand and eternally frustrating when the student thinks they’re just beginning to get somewhere.

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