Learning Through Hypertext

In his article, As We May Think, Vannevar Bush (1945) responds to the (at that time) current state of information storage and retrieval stating, “The human mind does not work that way.  It operates by association.  With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.” (Section 6, para. 2)  In the context of hypertext, Bolter (2001) adds to Bush’s thought when he says, “…hypertext reflects the nature of the human mind itself – that because we think associatively, not linearly, hypertext allows us to write as we think.” (p. 42)  These ideas made me think that, if there is a connection between hypertext and thinking, there must also be a connection between hypertext and learning.

The learning theory that seems to align most closely with the use and usefulness of hypertext in learning is constructivism.  Burbules and Callister (1996) put it this way, “This process of actively selecting and assimilating new information in light of personally coherent cognitive frameworks meshes the potential of hypertext with constructivist learning theories, especially schema theory.” (p. 31)  Constructivism proposes that learning involve activities that are student centred.  These activities are designed to access prior knowledge, engage critical and metacognitive thinking and promote personal meaning making within the guidance of a social context (Gosse, Gunn, & Swinkels, 2002; Wilson & Lowry, 2000).  Many academics argue that this can be accomplished in a special way through web-based learning environments taking advantage of hypertext (Burbules & Callister, 1996; Graff, 2006; Shapiro & Niederhauser, 2004; Unz & Hesse, 1999).

Much of the ground work in describing the use of hypertext in learning environments was organized in Spiro and Jehng’s (1990) Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT).  They argued that the non-linear nature of web content, especially in areas of advanced knowledge, required a different approach to learning.  When students are faced with new knowledge situations, they are not simply accessing prior knowledge in one content area but are activating knowledge in a variety of content areas to be able to understand the new situation and construct meaning from it.  Since hypertext allows the student to approach knowledge from various points of view (what Spiro and Jehng (1990) call an “ill-structured domain” (p. 165)), they will come to any one piece of information with varying interpretations.  This leads to construction of new knowledge as explained by constructivism.

Shapiro and Nederhauser (2004), in a meta-analysis of learning in hypertext contexts, used CFT as a foundation of their study.  In doing so, they analyzed the link between reading hypertext and learning.  They concluded that reading in hypertext requires a significantly different approach as the reader has choice in order of reading.  The order is often affected by prior knowledge as well as current motivations.  These authors found a much higher level of metacognition was required by readers of hypertext since they had to mentally process the order they chose, assess what they were reading within the context of what they were expected to learn, and manipulate the software to get to the next item.  Burbules and Callister (1996) show how this multi-tasking approach ‘rewrites’ the various nodes of information accessed, leading to a renewed and often varied interpretation of the information.  They likened it to reading a very thorough set of commentaries on a book before reading the book itself.  The commentaries would alter the interpretation of the book.  Being able to use hypertext online provides a multitude of commentaries on every node of information; therefore each person will create different meaning upon reaching that same node.

Shapiro and Niederhauser (2004) conclude that there is no direct link between general learning with hypertext and the human brain’s way of thinking (as the opening comments by Bush and Bolter would suggest).  What they did find was the importance of structure in the hypertext.  Students with a high level of prior knowledge did well in ill-structured contexts while those with lower levels of prior knowledge required well-structured hypertext to be successful.  Students with lower levels of prior knowledge often became ‘lost’ while reading hypertext and required significant scaffolding such as guiding questions (e.g. Webquest).  This is supported by Atchison (2004) who contends that students new to the hypertext environment need significant guidance to learn how to discern and interpret information.  He says, “As does any educational tool, hypertext offers educators and students a set of affordances and not all of them fit naturally with the educational needs of all students.” (p. 7)

Graff (2006), in also analyzing the connections between hypertext reading and learning, implicates individual cognitive style on the effectiveness of learning.  He defines cognitive style as “…the way in which people process information, for example how they perceive, remember and use information from their surrounding environment.” (p. 144)  Graff concludes that it is important to account for cognitive style when designing hypertext learning environments.  Again, those having a non-self-regulating cognitive style benefitted from structured (hierarchical) hypertext.

In conclusion, although hypertext environments may mimic the associative structure of the brain, various factors must be considered before hypertext can become an effective learning tool.  Web-based information and tools can be used to create effective constructivist learning environments but guidance will continue to be needed for effective learning. Moving students away from being simply browsers to becoming users and even co-authors (Burbules & Callister, 1996) will require planning, scaffolding and active learning.  Although I disagree with Solway (2011) who says, “In the last analysis, hypertext as a function of our electronically-mediated infatuations in general tends to disorient and dilute the mind,…” (p. 350), I think we need to be aware that hypertext is simply another tool to aid in learning and not a surrogate, didactic teacher.


Atchison, B. (2004). Hypertext literacy: Are we teaching students to read and write hypertext? Journal of Educational Computing, Design & Online Learning, 5(Fall), 1–9. Retrieved from http://coe.ksu.edu/jecdol/Vol_5/pdf/hypertext_final.pdf

Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Burbules, N. C., & Callister, T. a. (1996). Knowledge At the Crossroads: Some Alternative Futures of Hypertext Learning Environments*. Educational Theory, 46(1), 23–50. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.1996.00023.x

Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly, (JULY 1945). Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/STS.035/www/PDFs/think.pdf

Gosse, H., Gunn, H., & Swinkels, L. (2002). Constructivist Learning in a Hypertext Environment. Learning in a Hypertext Environment. Retrieved November 3, 2012, from http://www.accesswave.ca/~hgunn/special/papers/hypertxt/conlearn.html

Graff, M. (2006). Constructing and maintaining an effective hypertext-based learning environment: Web-based learning and cognitive style. Education+ Training, 48(2), 143–155. doi:10.1108/00400910610651773

Shapiro, A., & Niederhauser, D. (2004). Learning from hypertext: Research issues and findings. Handbook of research on …, 605–620. Retrieved from http://www.aect.org/edtech/ed1/23.pdf

Solway, D. (2011). On Hypertext, or Back to the Landau. Academic Questions, 24(3), 341–350. doi:10.1007/s12129-011-9235-x

Spiro, R., & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the nonlinear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia: Exploring Ideas in High Technology (pp. 163–205). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Retrieved from http://postgutenberg.typepad.com/newgutenbergrevolution/files/spiro_jehng.pdf

Unz, D. C., & Hesse, F. W. (1999). The Use of Hypertext for Learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 20(3), 279–295. doi:10.2190/FB08-5H94-3R3Y-KQLY

Wilson, B., & Lowry, M. (2000). Constructivist Learning on the Web. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2000(88), 79–88. doi:10.1002/ace.8808


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