Hypertext 101

Professors need to figure out how new technologies can change their instruction, write Will Hochman and Chris Dean.

April 4, 2005

It’s not always easy for professors to embrace technology. We find ourselves questioning everything from whether the transition to cyber-learning is really worth it to wondering how and when we will "master" working with computers. In a tenured profession, some think it’s better to stay in our safe, traditional worlds of literacy. Nevertheless, most of us realize that we cannot avoid our new century and the new pedagogical challenges created by its technological advances.

Having made that decision, more questions arise. If we change our courses, do we risk lowering the quality of our teaching because we are simultaneously learning how to teach with computers while also learning how to evaluate their effects? And even as we multi-task, writing e-mails to students while we surf the Web for the perfect text to teach tomorrow, can we ever keep up?

As we begin to realize the benefits and drawbacks of computerized writing, it may seem like there is an endless road of new learning challenges. As academics, we don’t often move as quickly as technology, and yet we also know that analyzing and reflecting on innovation is our ethical responsibility. Are professors today doing enough to use, improve, reflect and criticize our use of computers as tools to teach writing and support learning across the curriculum?

Despite the fears and uncertainties conveyed by these questions, it is beyond doubt that our students’ learning and literacies have changed because of the use of computers.  We must understand and adapt to computers, hypertext, and ultimately learn as much as possible about our disciplines’ experiences in cyberspace because our students demand it of us, and because language is always changing. Essentially, we must move to the point where we focus on ways to fuse academic discourse with our students’“netspeak.”

Since the 1980s, writing teachers have increasingly focused on the need for their teaching to reflect the ways technology and traditional literacies are converging. In her 1998 keynote address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Cynthia Selfe, an early adapter and leading authority on teaching writing with computers, remarked that we "have, as a culture, watched the twin strands of technology and literacy become woven into the fabric of our lives."

All college teachers, and particularly writing teachers, must now learn to avoid overly narrow, official, 20th century versions of literacy practices or skills if we are going to effectively reach our students as readers, writers, and thinkers. Whether we teach mathematics, biology, or literature, we all know that literacy skills are really the responsibility of all educators. It is no longer acceptable for professors to claim ignorance of using computers and the Internet while claiming to be literacy teachers in the 21st century.

Innovative thinkers like Selfe not only get at why we need to teach with technology, they make it clear that we need to offer concrete ways to use hypertext. Even "Web in a can" programs like Blackboard, Blogger and WebCT can be used effectively to get students and teachers reading, writing and thinking critically about all the literacies that are used in any college classroom. Through a blend of theory and practice, we want to encourage readers of Inside Higher Education to realize that just as our profession’s news has begun to move from paper to screen, we professors must make the same move too.

Computer technology has swiftly become our key writing tool but it’s too easy to imagine everyone "gets it." Just as we take writing samples to learn about the literacy levels of our students when we teach composition, we need to determine what computing skills our students bring to our classes because we need to teach students how to fuse traditional and online writing skill. For example, instructors of first-year college writing typically work with students to teach them how to do academic research and it has become increasingly clear that it no longer makes sense to shun the Internet for the "safe" confines of the library. However, research on the net means much more than typing a few words in to Google.  

A more sophisticated approach to teaching students how to do Internet research involves showing students some of the ways online searches use Boolean logic, and this is simply accomplished by visiting the Google Guide.

This self-teaching Google tutorial will sharpen awareness of how the search engine works, and it will also help students in their library research as well. Also, by using checklists and guides, we can help students to critically evaluate sources on the Internet -- not just accepting what is written as an alternate form of "the gospel." A good example of this can be seen in some checklists, created by Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, that can easily be used with any research-based college assignment.  These checklists ask that students classify and validate Web sites, as well as help students think more carefully about the qualities of information that the Web sites present.

Of course it isn’t only students who have to think carefully and critically about computers, the way they convey information, and the way that they are perceived as learning tools.  Teachers have to do the same thing because computers have changed our writing and learning worlds, and as educators we can never take these changes for granted. Andrea Beaudin, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University who teaches in a wireless, laptop equipped classroom is constantly amused at the ways her students perceive the technology in the classroom. Recently, she recalled “being surprised during a writing lab when I asked students to take out paper to start jotting down ideas, and a student said, “now it’s a real English class.”

Andrea’s story reminds us that there will be times and places for other types of literate activities in a computerized classroom. Just as Andrea asked her students to use the “old” technology of paper and pen to do the work of learning because she practices hybrid notions of literacy, we will continue to work at what Cindy Selfe calls “multilayered literacy” -- a literate practice where people “function literately within computer-supported communication environments” by layering “conventions of the page and conventions of the screen.”

However, conventions of page and screen certainly converge more smoothly in theory than they ever do in practice. Something as simple as deciding to create a Web page, choosing Web weaving software, and learning it, can be a huge step for most teachers. Both of us have experienced working through steep learning curves while learning to use new Web technologies. Four years ago, Chris moved from using raw HTML code to working with Adobe GoLive and Photoshop. At times, he wanted to shot-put his monitor through any open window. However, the end result was a personal Web page that looks better, contains more useful information for students, and is much easier to update. Right now Will is working through learning DreamWeaver, and he has already started to see new possibilities for his page.

Our point here is that even techie teachers get technological blues. However, once we begin to figure a few things out, then interesting and good things begin to happen. We learn a new skill, our students get better Web resources, and both teacher and students have yet another new technology to think through practically and critically.

Professors and students both need to think critically about technology. As a key part of the critical thinking, teachers need to focus on pedagogy and how it is affected and changed by computers. Maybe some things haven’t changed -- traditional, academic literacy has always converged with new ways to use language -- though it’s fair to say that computers certainly seem to speed up an exciting convergence of language uses. We educators are working in an exciting point in literacy development and we can be more mindful of why and how to use our computers. As the traditional classroom adds cyberspace, we must work closely with students and teachers to ensure that we enter new learning spaces with critical awareness and pedagogical wisdom.


Will Hochman is an associate professor of English and Christopher Dean is an assistant professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.

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