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Danger, Hypermedia at Work?

Danger, Hypermedia at Work?
John Pickering
Psychology Department
Warwick University
Coventry CV4 7AL


The term 'hypermedia' will be used here to cover localised and distributed broad band systems for handling written or spoken text, graphics, audio-visual images, virtual environments as well as switched and broadcast communication. The language used about hypermedia, including what effects it will have on education, tends to be the language of crisis and radical change. This is apt to sound rather dangerous to those of us, those of a certain age at least, who work is in higher education, being as we are the products of the more familiar and homely culture of the book. However, the conclusion that will be reached here is that, just as the Chinese character for 'crisis' is said to blend two characters, one meaning 'danger' and the other meaning 'opportunity', hypermedia are not a danger but a way to radically change and enhance what we do.

Indeed, they may be part what Ivan Illich was looking for when he wrote in Deschooling Society that: " ... that the inverse of school is possible: that we can depend on self motivated learning instead of employing teachers to bribe or compel the student to find the time or the will to learn ..." (Illich, 1970, chapter 7). He felt the need to replace schools with libraries as the natural arena for learning to expose and destroy the authoriarian hidden curriculum of compulsory education. Liberating learning from teaching would help new members of increasingly regulated and oppressive societies with the means to defend themselves against manipulation and uniformity.

As part of his tool kit to deschool education, Illich sought ways to " ... provide the learner with new links to the world instead of funneling all educational programs through the teacher." ( ibid., chapter 7). He envisaged all sorts of means, primarily technological ones, to access information autonomously, to communicate with other learners and to make the learners own ideas available to others who might then help, criticise, make use of them and so on. He mentioned the postal service and telephone as examples of what he meant and coined the term 'educational web', the title of the chapter from which these quotes come, as his collective term for the liberation technology he forsaw.

Even as he was writing his book in New York, around him the world's first packet switched network was into its third or fourth year of running. Then, the speed of ARPANET barely exceeded 56 kilobytes per second and access to it was highly restricted, not only because it was the creature of the US military, but also because the computers that ran it were typically large machines on which relatively few users could work at the same time. Personal computers were hardly a twinkle in the eye of the then-intact IBM corporation.

Presently the Internet, runnning at speeds around a thousand times as fast, is rapidly becoming the commonplace of tertiary educational infrastructure. Personal computers flood the window displays of highstreet retailers, no longer specialist electronic devices but volume selling domestic appliances that are are piled high and sold cheap. Their power easily exceeds that of the machines that, unbeknownst to Illich, were creating, behind the scenes, something very like the educational web with which he sought to liberate education.

The exponential growth in the power of information technology is a cliche of contemporary media journalism but, refreshingly, it has a tendency to be wrong by under- rather than over-estimating what will come about. Away from popular speculation, we find even more spectacular predictions. For example, a recent edition of the journal of the British Telecom research establishment confidently predicted that in 2020, which is as far into the future as Illich is now in the past, desktop machines will have well over a million times the power than they have today and that global networks with transmission rates of between one and ten tetrabytes per second (Pearson & Cochrane, 1995). This is a billion fold increase over the networks that Illich didn't even know about.

But, as the next section will emphasise, technology is now shaping culture more strongly than ever it did and the BT article also deals with the social and cultural impact of media technology. These include: computer literacy as essential for any employment, artificial intelligences using natural language, substantial electronic technology in the political infrastructure, life long learning predominantly at a distance, broadband networked electronic libraries and virtual universities. Visionary stuff indeed, but while most cybernetic futurology may be mere gush, note that one author of the article is BT's head of research. Someone in this position is more likely to be realistically informed in speculating about on the future of cybernetic technocracy, if for no other reason than he and the six hundred or so people who work under him are creating it.

We may be skeptical about some of the wilder cybernetic futurology, usually coming from America. Too often hypermedia are over hyped and over priced and over here. But as the more informed pronouncements show, real change is coming up over the horizon fast. It is against this background that this article will look at the impact of hypermedia on higher education as something that is bound to happen, soon, and with consequences that indeed provide both opportunities and dangers.

This article begins with some very broad brush remarks about the evolution of culture and tools. Next, there will be a brief appraisal of postmodernism as it might apply to current changes in educational practice. Lastly, some of these issues will be drawn together in some remarks about the practicalities and the visions of how hypermedia might affect higher education.


Evolution in the biological sense of the origins of species, is quite irrelevant to human development over the next few thousand years. Although human biological evolution probably has not stopped, it has been overtaken by cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is the progressive change in the social and technological practices that human beings use to survive and to carry out there lives together. Most of these practices are collective and depend on members of a society or culture sharing beliefs and goals. For the last few thousand years, a very short period even in human evolutionary history, these practices have become increasingly dependent on tools and on systems of education about these tools.

Darwinian evolution works through selection of the reproductively most fit among random variation. Lamarckian evolution by contrast works through the preservation of variation introduced by the actions of organisms themselves. In the latter form, the direction of evolution reflects the goals of the organisms that are evolving, in the former it is merely the necessary consequences of chance events. Clearly, evolutionary change will be that much quicker if we do not have to wait for random variation to come up with something that proves useful.

Now cultural evolution is predominantly Lamarkian. All human societies tinker with their tools and practices with the aim of improving them, at least from the point of view of the tinkerers. Some cultural theorists take a more Darwinian view and suggest that the motor of cultural change may be random variation such as accidental discoveries or mistakes in cultural transmission that nonetheless have useful results. But whether random or not, variations that work are purposfully preserved and those that don't are discarded. The result is a cultural bricollage, where changes to cultural practices are balanced against traditional ways and beliefs of proven reliability. The overall change that results is thus a matter of conscious choice than the interplay of chance and necessity. Thus it is that cultural evolution is fundamentally Lamarkian rather than Darwinian.

This being so, the cultural environment of the human species is it's own production. If in turn, the human species is shaped by that environment, then we are to a far greater extent than any other species, self-made. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that the cultural practices of the past half a million years or so, predominantly technological ones, may have literally rather than metaphorically shaped the human condition to a greater degree than previously thought (Kingdon, 1993). Of course, it is difficult to know accurately for how long this self-directed cultural evolution may have been going on. The shape of early human ancestors can be reconstructed from fossilised bones, but cultural practices do not fossilise so well. Some reconstruction is possible from examining the traces of activity like the selection of dwelling places, the use of fire and other tools. It is this last category that provides the point of this section of the paper.

Hypermedia are tools, and tool use, technology, in the very broad sense of the aretfacts and practices of human culture, is an indicator that tracks cultural evolution, that is, what human culture produces and what it values. It is well to remember that hypermedia are the latest stage in a long history of cultural change which has seen the focus of technology move from hunter-gathering, then to agriculture, to energy and most recently to information. Once some idea of the scale of this history is grasped, the present rate of change becomes that much more remarkable.

While the following figures are approximate, an acceleration can be traced. Tools have been made for over two million years, but until about 50000 years ago the technology of their production was relatively stable. Around that time, however, there was a sudden increase in the diversity and sophistication of the tools made, which may have been due to a shift away from hunter gatherer life styles. Writing dates from about 5000 years ago and with it begins what might be called the culture of textuality. For a great length of time this culture remained the possesion of that very small proportion of humans who were literate. With the Gutenberg revolution of about 500 years ago, popular textual culture arrived although it took until the late ninteenth century for literacy to reach it's present level in the developed countries. With the structuralist theories of around 50 years ago, the textual basis of human culture became clearer. While Chomsky and Sassure analysed language to reveal fundamental structures, Levy-Strauss and Bourdieu showed that human practices in general, including technology, could be analysed in a similar way. The explosive growth in media technology has been spread over some decades now, but within the last five years or so there has been a clear jump in the level of popular awareness and response.

Thus, there is acceleration, as each of these epochs in technological culture takes, very roughly, a tenth of the time of the previous one. This acceleration is not just a matter of physical and social change, it is also a psychological change. As McLuhan pointed out, technology effects how people construe themselves and the way they perceive the world: "When technology extends our senses, a transformation of culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorised." (McLuhan, 1962). This process by which technology becomes interiorised has led to a unique condition, because the technology that is now being interiorised is the technology for the production of consciousness itself. The acceleration depicted above is not a modernist narrative of linear progress, but a tightening postmodern spiral.


There is a growing reflexivity about human cultural awareness. As the process of cultural production become better understood, more and more things are recognised as cultural productions. This applies even to human experience, including our sense of identity and the process of understanding culture itself. This is a central part of the postmodern condition.

Lyotard, in charting the condition of science in contemporary culture, notes a mis-trust of modernist meta-narratives, for example, the Enlightenment project to found progressive human society on the rational basis of scientific discovery (Lyotard, 1985). Baudrillard points out that media technology makes it possible for meaning, whether it be of words, images, products or historical events, to become detached and to be combined in powerful and flexible ways (Baudrillard, 1975). One result of cultural analyses like these is a wariness about supposedly priviledged discourses like history science and other authoritative practices. As Vaclav Havel has remarked, the postmodern condition is one where there is: " .... a tendency to quote, to imitate and to amplify, rather than to state with authority or integrate. New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements." (Havel, 1995). The new meaning that is born from the encounter between individuals and an unfamiliar body of discourse is learning. Education will inevitably be influenced by the postmodern condition, and hypermedia are part of the means through which thuis influence will be felt.

Postmodernism, notoriously, resists definition. It is the collective lable for trends and situations in the cultural history of the developed nations over the last half of the twentieth century. What this collection shares is a direction. In the arts and in civil practices like architecture, stylistic consistency is tending towards ironic quotation and juxtaposition (Jencks, 1986). In advertising we find a movement towards ironic imitation and the conscious appropriation of cultural symbols, a movement, as Baudrillard points out, from exchange towards symbolic value (Baudrillard, 1975). In industry and commerce, there is a shift from centralised productive capacity to distributed service capacity based on information. The engineers and technocrats of modernism are now the programmers and cognitariat of postmodernism. Production is increasingly determined by consumer choice. Services are offered through multilayered systems that allow the user of those services to search, compare, evaluate and select.

Such movements are not confined to the media or the arts. In the academic world, of course, 'postmodern' is almost an outmoded notion in the arts and humanities. There is also a vigorous movement towards postmodern science, that is, from mechanism towards organicism and from reduction towards emergence (Griffin, 1988). This is tending to produce an interdisciplinary trend in which the scientific approach, especially to complex historical phenomena, is seen as part of a more pluralist stance in which other traditions of knowlege have a more significant role than before. Postmodern education will be less about specialisation than it will be about blending the views and theories of traditionally separate disciplines.

The postmodern condition has a uniform presence in all layers of culture, including education. Hypermedia, thus, may be seen as part of a postmodern transformation of how information is stored, made available and valued. This has relevance to both the practice and the content of education, at all levels. Educators have come to realise in the last few years that there is a great deal of change taking place. Sometimes the rhetoric of this change is often the language of danger, chaos, of turbulent waters ahead, of apocalyptic and instantaneous transformation. Moreover, there is the prospect that hypermedia systems will destroy the tradtional structure of higher education. Students will surf the net rather than passively sit in lectures. Virtual universities will have most of the academic legwork done by software agents who seek out, present and help students with the information they freely chose.

However, when most of us involved in education look around, we find little to make us believe that such dramatic events are going to come about, at least as rapidly as much of the frothier futurology suggests. What we do see though, is significant and accelerating progress towards making information technology the substrate of higher educational practice. This acceleration mirrors the postmodern pattern of change and even if the creation of hypermedia resources for education is still in it's early stages, some patterns are already clear.

Instead of words and pictures on paper, we find paper-free multimedia that combine words, images, sounds and video. Hypertextual resources need not be located in one place, but will be distributed and available to many users in parallel. Unlike books, the texts themselves will not be linear, stand-alone but non linear and interconnected. They will not only be structured by authors, but by how they are used and by how they are explored and changed by learners (Pickering, 1994). Virtual environments in which learners and teachers may come together now seem far more practical a proposition than they did even five years ago.

At a more mundane level, word processing skills are now commonplace while tools for the location of resources on global networks are becoming more familiar. Such tools are not neutral with respect to educational practices. That is, they are not merely ways of using new technology to do old things. For example, being able to use word processors has changed the way essays are written. Indeed, combined with skills in using network resource location tools, it changes what the essay actually is and does. The essay form which has provided the backbone of assessment and communication between learner and teacher for so long, is increasingly the vehicle for cut and paste exercises where students do not so much as offer an extended critical argument, but assemble and link various annotated resources.

This change can stand for a host of others which, together, show that the impact of hypermedia on educational practice, particularly at the tertiary level, is likely to follow a postmodern trend away from the linear critical narrative towards ironic juxtaposition and the language of context. Also, in the tendency towards distribution and intercommunication, perhaps we see something of what Illich wanted, a shift from instruction to discovery and from centralised teaching to decentralised learning.

The postmodern condition is indeed one of decentralisation. It is also one of choice, assembly and of pluralist views and multiple codes. The significance of hypermedia lies in the fact that they are tailor made for importing this condition into education. But for that to occur, hypermedia will need to become far more the commonplace tools of higher education than they are now. The last section of this paper briefly presents some remarks about how this might happen and about the changes that might follow.

Practicalities and Visions.

Hypermedia have only appeared in the arena of tertiary education in a sporadic and uneven way up to the present. However, the rhetoric futurology is rich with visions of radical transformation to higher education. Sadie Plant talks of hypemedia 'bringing down the walls of the ivory tower' (Plant, 1995). She quotes Peter Cochrane, head of research at BT, to the effect that the technology already well developed and available will make teaching in the conventional sense redundant. All that's required, it seems, is for the practicalities of implementation to be worked through. We may then ask: what changes are required that will lead to hypermedia becoming a commonplace resource in higher education?

A basic change is not in technology but in attitudes. It will need to be far more clear than it is now, both those who teach and to those who learn, that the time trouble and expense of learning to use hypermedia systems will be worth it. It is clear that different hypemedia skills are developing at different rates. Thus, while word processing is the now the norm and electronic mail is widely used both for communication and for the transmission of documents, data and images, information retreval from databases of publications and research data is not that common while the use of network tools for resource location is relatively limited. Thus the use of hypermedia resources for learning is gathering momentum, but is still a very small proportion of normal practice.

Most hypermedia teaching resources at the moment have been put together by people who are already in the subject with which the resource deals. Typically they will have had to devote a great deal of time to learning to use authoring tools, and they will have had a particular project in mind when deciding to do this. Compared to the usual practices of preparing reading lists, course notes, audio-visual support for lectures and so on, a move into hypermedia is presently an expensive one in terms of the increasingly stretched resources of most teachers in higher education. Presently, if someone wishes to try out hypermedia materials in their area, by far the best policy is to try to locate some that have already be written rather than try to create them anew. Portability remains a problem, especially across the between the Macintosh and the PC. However, the ubiquity of the problem means that solutions to it are becoming more readily available. It is, for example, now a realistic proposition to retrieve hypemedia teaching packages from the Internet.

However, trends that will make the creation rather than the aquisition of hypermedia less expensive, literally and figuratively, are fairly clearly underway. Some of these, again, do not have so much to do with the technology as the sociology and politics of education. For example, the staff student ratios that now prevail in higher education have slid so far to the bad compared to quite recent times, that some look to hypermedia as a way in which to repair serious damage to educational standards. Here, there is the classic question of whether hypermedia are simply new ways to get old jobs done. They are not a time machine which brings backs the golden days when there were small classes, long tutorials, when students could be known as individuals and, above all, when there was time to learn and teach. If however, they could be a means to recreate some of this lost quality, they would be a blessing, not a danger.

More practically, the issues now facing educators are mostly to do with quantity, not quality. Is there enough time and money to get hypermedia into our educational practice? Who is going to do it? Is it ever going to be worth the effort to try, especially for individuals whose computer literacy may not extend much beyond word processing and tentative forays out on the Internet? Presently the answers sem to be mostly negative, but positive going changes are to be seen. For example, the authoring tools now available are a great improvement on those of even a few years ago. The improvement is primarily in user-friendliness rather than in power. The power/price ratio of platforms seems set to go on improving for a long time, much as Pearson and Cochrane predict. Accordingly, most university level institutions are planning to create or extend shared access network, with software resources purchased under multiple user licenses. In the long term this is bound to change education in ways that go beyond the mere electronic amplification of present practice.

Integrating hypermedia into educational institutions is raising some interesting issues. Who has responsibility for them and in what way? On the operational side, maintenance and repair is likely to become increasingly sophisticated. Computer services will consequently become more important than they already are. But such services interleave intimately with the what the librarians might see as their role. That is, what resources are to be on the system? How are they to be indexed and how are users to be helped and guioded towards what they need to use? Is there to be control of what users them selves may import into the system? How are access and use to be monitored? These questions, in turn, shade, with no clear boundary, into questions to do with the roles of both the individual teachers and learners. How do resources get made availble to their intended target groups of users? Should hypermedia systems developed by staff, possibly with the help of computer service specialists, be made freely retrievable, both within an institution and from without? Is the system to be made available as an institutional resource much as telephone, facsimile, reprographic and audio visual services generally are? These questions about intellectual rights are some of the many that electronic technology raise within culture generally (Lury, 1993).

Questions of obsolescence are also of interest here. What is going to happen to platforms that are overtaken in power terms well before they become too old to be maintained? Presently the market in secondhand hardware is relatively lively. Even equipment that is now a decade old can be of considerable practical use. Given the rate of increase in platform power, in a few decades from now the equipment that is pushed out of the arena of hypermedia education will be extremely powerful indeed, and possibly not so old either. There is a realistic prospect of home systems based on this trickle down movement. Much as the nineteen fifties saw the emergence of the cheaply run second hand car, so the turn of the century may see the cheaply run second hand computer systems, possibly maintained by some sort of semi-formalised arrangement with the computer services unit of educational establishments. The copyright protection on the software that is geared to these platforms may be problematic - will it fade with time?

The cultural naturalisation of hypermedia, that is, how they feel to those who use them, is rapid. It is a commonplace discovery to find children helping parents with setting up the video, getting the new computer system installed and so on. It is not that the children know something specific that the parents do not or that they know better how to read the manuals. It is rather that they have a feel for how they work. They know the systems in a direct, hands-on way that their parents have not and probably never will aquire.

This points to an interesting issue to do with demand for and resistance to hypermedia. Teachers might find them dangerous and threatening, but students do not. Such user resistance and computer phobia that there there is becoming more and more a problem of staff than students. Students' experience of computers in schools and of educational educational programs on TV is changing their ways of learning. For example, the attention style required for a steady, systematic fifty minute lecture is perhaps more difficult to muster by a generation who have got used to getting information, often very good and well informed, from the pacy, richly intercut and powerfully illustrated popular TV programs on science, history and the like. Moreover, time spent watching such programs is small when set against that spent watching, say, MTV, where the average time between a changes of camera is twelve seconds. While this sort of issue has been discussed in primary and secondary education since the dawn of the TV age, it may be underestimated in higher education. Teaching styles change more slowly than learning styles. Involving students in course design would be one way to speed things up, and hypermedia could help to do this.

Of course, if it turns out that all that hypermedia do is to change the medium in which old educational practices are carried on, then there is not much of an issue here at all. If however, as seems more likely, they are not neutral, then things are far more interesting. Indeed, hypermedia are already bringing into existence entirely new modes of teaching and learning (Lemke, 1993; Riel, 1993). With the emergence of these new modes, old values in education become increasing open to question and change.

For example, will they change what counts as educational achievement and competence? What, for instance, of performance and assessment? If hypermedia become the commonplace medium of educational practice, then students will use them to prepare work for assessment. The essay will turn into the hypertext assignment and will require assessors of educational achievement to think in a new way about what constitutes, for example, originality and plagiarism. Is the individuality of the learner going to be as important as it is currently taken to be? As hypermedia amplify the possiblities for collective work so the difficulty of establishing who did what will increase. Who gets the credit for work that is a collage of many people's efforts, some of whom are not within the teaching group that produced the work? Perhaps as well as originality and critical insight, credit will also have to be given for mastery of the tools for resource location and of the techniques for using these resources to create narratives that demonstrate understanding through the language of composition.

Such questions are part of the postmodern condition of educational culture. It is no accident that its textual base is being radically reformed at the same time as the very notion of a text is itself under sharp deconstructive scrutiny (Landow, 1992). Baudrillard reminds us that the media technology has created an endless and groundless free play of signification, what he calls an ecstasy of communication (Baudrillard, 1988). This ecstasy is in the form of cultural discourse. Educational tools, how people are trained to use and to produce them, how they are improved and modified, all these practices and objects taken together, participate in this discourse. Baudrillard points out that this discourse is about values: use value, exchange value and, most recently, symbolic value. The grand meta narrative of education, especially higher education, as a route into an arena of informed values, critical skills and stable meanings can not be sustained.

Now, of course, education is nevertheless about values, at various levels. Some of these have to do with the content of education. We think it is a good thing for people to know this or to be able to do that. Other values have to do with the process of education itself, we admire those able to learn, to discover things and to teach others about them. One reason why postmodernism is such a suitable framework for asking about hypermedia and their effect on the textual basis of education is because it is critical inquiry into the authority of texts and how the values inherent in them pass into the process of cultural production, of which education is a major part.

So, for example, Foucault, draws attention to the power relations inherent in any organised body of knowlege and practice. He also questions the authority and unity of the text: " A text is an object-event that copies itself, fragments itself, repeats itself, simulates itself, doubles itself and finally disappears." (Foucault, 1965). What happens now on the reprographic machines of libraries is a literal demonstration of the broader cultural practice Foucault describes. The impact of hypermedia will amplify and diversify this practice. Derrida draws our attention to the multiplicity of voices that are present in any text (Derrida, 1978). Hypermedia literally engage with and reproduce a multiplicity of voices, images, texts and virtual objects. Barthes extends the notion of the voice itself: "Speech ... can consist of modes of writing or of representations; not only written discourse, but also photography, cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity, all these .... " (Barthes, 1973). Hypermedia are a natural and powerful addition to this list of vehicles for the voice.

The primacy of the written text is fading under the postmodern critique. The practices and tools which can carry educational practice are now rapidly broadening beyond the textuality of the past few centuries of human culture. McLuhan's insight into the the internalisation of technology leads us to recognise that hypermedia will not be merely the means to take conventional educational practice into the next century. Rather, as part of everyday life as well as part of the enhancement of the infrastructure of education, they will participate in an accelerating change in human consciousness.

The different attitudes to hypermedia between teachers and learners track this acceleration. Hypermedia are appearing earlier and earlier in the experience of learners. They are appearing at a far slower rate and, of course at a much later stage, in the experience of teachers. Hypermedia are in universities and secondary schools now. Very soon they will be in the primary school and the home. Before the centry turns, they will be in the cradle.

For Teilhard de Chardin, this envelope of communication technology was benign, something that " ... both facilitates and indefinitely multiplies our activities. It fulfils the dream of all living creatures by satisfying our instinctive craving for the maximum of consciousness." (Teilhard de Chardin, 1973). Whether we take such a visionary stance, it is clear that in the longer term, the impact of hypermedia on higher education will not merely be the way to carry out current practices more efficiently. The next few years will see a major effort to address the practicalities of creating radically new forms of educational practice. If these efforts are sucessful, our work as educators will be amplified and enhanced. Rather than a danger, hypermedia at work provide a rich opportunity.


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