I just read an article for class that opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about online text. The article, “Educational Hypertext,” was written by Dale Niederhauser of Iowa State University. It looked at how the use of hypertext influences learning. What really struck me in this article is how important the structure of hypertext is to the task you have at hand.
As teachers we generally have an objective or a goal when we ask students to find information. I’d say we are pretty good at relaying that objective to students as we send them off to work. They know if they are required to read for fact accumulation, or for a deeper understanding of relationships between pieces of content. What I never realized is how much the objective matters when we come to choose the source and structure of what we ask them to read.
According to the article, research shows that the navigational structure of a site matters when it comes to best understanding content. Sites generally follow one of two basic patterns. They offer information in a linear fashion, requiring students to read through the information in a predetermined order. This is similar to how they would read printed text. These sites offer links that go directly from one page to the next with no other options.
Other sites are more informal and allow the reader to move freely through the text by determining their own path. These are sites that may also have links within the text that the reader can use to get more information as needed.
So which works best? The studies in the article indicated that when recall of basic factual information is needed, the linear structure works best. By using a highly organized series of linked pages, students are drawn into the material with a structure that makes sequential sense and helps provide an overview of the relationships of one piece of the material to another by virtue of their place in the navigation. The navigation may even work as an outline. Teachers can either choose websites for use that provide this structure, or they can provide their own by using services like Diigo or GoogleSites to provide structure for students.
When we are trying to teach students about relationships between pieces of information, a less structured system appears to work better. This allows for a more constructivist model of learning where students can choose the path that gives them the greatest understanding. This method requires students to set some goals as well so that they don’t end up miles from what they are supposed to learn! The advantage to this system is that it allows students to access information from a variety of viewpoints and engage in higher order thinking skills to meld the new information in with prior knowledge.
I’m thinking there might be some good middle ground here. It may not always be possible to provide students with a structure that fits the model in the research. I’m thinking there are some tools we can give students to help get to the goal of their reading.
If a student is reading for basic facts, they may still run in words they don’t know. In many browsers, students can highlight an unknown word and right click (or control-click on a Mac) and choose the “Look Up in Dictionary” option.
For those that are on a deeper reading mission and want more than a definition, students can follow the same initial instructions but then choose “Search with Google.” Be sure you have taught them about tabbed browsing to make this task easier.
If you are feeling ambitious, have your students get the Research Wordadd-on from Firefox. This will allow your students to highlight and control/click (or right click) on a word and choose from a wider series of options- AND, you can customize the list for better understanding.