A number of researchers (Landow 1997) (Bolter 1991) (Tuman 1992) have indicated that epoch-making changes have for some years been occurring in the writing practices enabled by digital technologies. Francisco Ricardo (Ricardo 1998, pp.142-144) identifies the 'hypertext link' as the defining feature of a 'new grammatology', which has signalled the arrival of what he terms a 'third epoch of writing' in western civilisation, following epochs one and two of, respectively, 'token and archaic writing' and 'sequence and modern writing'.
Factual evidence of a widespread growth in the use of email and HTML documents on the internet (NUA 1999, p.1) gives some credence to such apparently extravagant speculations that a major global change in writing practices is currently occurring. In view of this proliferation of e-communication, it is possible that we are currently on the wave of a radical realignment of writing processes, in the adjustment from print-based to on-line virtual environments. These speculated changes include, but are not limited to, concepts of the visualisation of literacy (Kress, 1996, pp.15-16) (Kress 1997, p.6) (Tuman 1992, pp.109-138). They also include the idea that an awareness and understanding of the 'multimodality' of communicative competence, and the 'ability to cross modalities' (Street 1998, p.15) are now of key importance in education (Kress 1997, pp.10,99,154). In a newly wired world, multimedia incorporates sound and motion, as well as the visual, into the 'many modes' of 'synaesthetic' writing (Kress 1997, 38-43) (Bolter 1991). How far, and where, these changes will take us is not yet clear.
At this time, therefore, it seems particularly important that educational institutions take up the challenge of enabling students to acquire skills in communicative competence in learning about hypertextual multimedia. And also in learning 'how to not take things at face value', by analysing what Brian Street refers to as the 'often hidden processes' of the 'new communicative order' (Street 1998, pp.9, 22). Enabling students to develop their own, local, self-generated meanings using new technologies, as well as critically evaluating the works of others, is crucial, since power resides in the fluent use of these 'new literacies' (Street 1998, pp.1, 22-23). Paramount amongst the skills for using digital media effectively is the ability to author hypermedia.
Whalley cites the 'oft repeated truism that the best way to learn something is to learn how to teach it', or, 'to turn the computer over to the learner as a device for expressing and exploring their own ideas' (Whalley 1995, pp.201-202). Student authoring in hypermedia can be a uniquely productive process, as Lehrer (Lehrer 1993) and others (Hay 1994) (Turner 1992) (Wray 1994) (Jonassen 1996) have observed. Just as written composition can enable students to develop 'knowledge transforming' (Bereiter 1987, pp.10-12) skills, so can the environment of hypermedia be used to facilitate self-empowerment through an increase in students' expressive and problem-solving capabilities.
Placing learners in the role of 'designers' of hypermedia (Lehrer 1993, pp.197-201) (Sharples 1996, pp.135-137) can engage them in developing a range of skills, including skills in project management, research, organisation and representation, presentation and reflection (Jonassen 1996) (Carver 1992). Jonassen and Reeves advocate 'the use of hypermedia as a cognitive tool' (Jonassen 1996, pp.693-715) in realistic contexts that enable students to learn with technology in a constructivist sense. Their findings that '(1) learners develop critical-thinking skills as authors, designers and constructors of knowledge and (2) learn more in the process than they do as the recipients of knowledge prepackaged in educational communications' (p.713) provide a challenge to researchers to engage students more systematically in authoring their own works.
Wray, Chong, Phillips, Rogers, Walsh and Laird (1994) note that there has been a general disinclination to carry out research on student hypermedia authoring, partly because of the difficulty of learning hypermedia programming languages (Wray 1994). However, these researchers comment that more user-friendly HTML software development now enables complex hypermedia documents to be authored with little or no knowledge of programming languages. Therefore, student document creation in hypermedia has become a real possibility across the curriculum for non-computing students. Since this field is so relatively new, there is a need for a development in understanding by teachers of the level of difficulty faced by novice students attempting to author their own compositions, and the factors necessary to create productive learning situations.
One of the debates encompassed by the recent IFETS discussion on programming is: to what extent is there a value in enabling students to use 'point and click' authoring programs (Belzano 1999)? Do applications like HyperStudio have too low a ceiling of learning for students to benefit from their use (Belzano 1999)? Or - is the main issue the idea that icon-driven 'point and click' authoring environments 'put the control of the student's learning environment into the student's hands', by enabling 'ownership of the learning'? Is this 'what makes these technologies powerful' (Nanlohy 1999)'? Can user-friendly hypermedia applications be applied, thoughtfully, to encourage students to develop skills of authoring and critical analysis in digital media, equipping them for the major changes in on-line virtual learning currently occurring, or do they encourage a bland superficiality?
These questions relating to student composition in hypermedia are put to the forum for what I hope will be an engaging debate.
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