Hypertext in the Elementary School Classroom

During the course of my day as an elementary school teacher I’ve grown accustomed to many forms of “hyper”: most notably hyper-activity and hyper-sensitivity.  Hypertext, however, is not as readily apparent in my daily routine.  As Alexander (2008) professes, ”K-12 institutions are often behind, building classrooms constructed physically and socially along decades-old patterns” (p. 152).  By and large, my students seem quite technologically savvy.  They can turn on a computer and understand the visual language afforded through icons on their desktops.  Word processors have helped increase an interest in writing stories, but have neither helped nor hindered the laborious creative process.  Strangely enough, the most obvious demonstration of hypertextual knowledge is transmitted during informal conversations with classmates and friends.

Early one morning as a young boy in the second grade I excitedly woke up my parents and demanded to know “how to make it play games”.  The evening before, my family had purchased an Apple II computer and was forced to sit through an orientation session intended to familiarize the family with the computer.  My mother sat with a pad and paper, furiously taking notes, while my father sat and absorbed whatever information he could.  In 1986, computers relied much more on written commands than they did on graphical user interfaces as they do today.  What was once somewhat of an elitist activity, is now a routine, even mundane, function of daily life.  The use of elaborate visual displays has rendered the conceptual knowledge obsolete: double clicking an icon produces the same effect as typing several commands of code.  As Bolter (2011) explains, “the image therefore slips out of the control of the word and makes its own claim to presenting the authentic as real” (p.70).  Perhaps even more than the desktop computer, the tablet is the greatest proof of the concept of “text is often displaced in favor of graphic presentation” (Bolter, 2011, p. 72).  Remediating the desktop, tablets place neatly arranged columns and rows of icons as the newest method of interacting with technological devices.

In removing much of the language required to interact with computers, the fact that their most common use remains performing word processing tasks is quite ironic.  Teaching in a French Immersion school to a group of students whose predominant language is English, the word processor in the computer lab has helped increase interest in writing, but has inadvertently caused many problems for students.  As emergent authors in both English and French, their confidence is, at best, shaky.  The precise and exact size of the typeface on the screen promotes, as Dobson and Wllinsky (2009) claim, “greater length in composition” but has yet to yield any notable “gains in the quality of writing” (p.3).  In fact, the computer has led to the opposite result due to the relentless spell-check features “correcting” students’ spelling errors wreaking more havoc than the students’ lack of phonetic awareness could ever cause.  Persistent lines and paragraphs of underlined words and sentences cause more frustration to the students than simply writing alone.  Students are excited to type at the computer, and marvel at how pristine their work appears on the screen, only to realize later that it is plagued by errors the software has so helpfully “fixed” for the student.

The remediation of the written English language as brought about by “texting” has permeated not only students’ written skills, but has begun to plague their oral discourse as well.  As Dobson and Willinsky (2009) propose, “speed, convenience and asynchronicity were the most appealing features of the medium” (p.10) when it first became popular.  Characterized as English without conventional grammar rules of any sort, it is a dialect unto itself with an endless array of abbreviations and acronyms to replace often used expressions.  While it’s understandable that such shortcuts alleviate the time required to compose messages, few people, if any, are aware of the entire library of abbreviations used today.  Interestingly, many of my elementary school students seemed to have nearly mastered the dialect and use it even when conversing with one another.  Sadly however, when composing formal essays or written works, they use text-ing abbreviations in lieu of real words.  While I would not go so far as to claim, as Dobson and Willinsky (2009) do that text-ing is at the root of problems such as  “declining standards to poor academic achievement to social breakdown” (p.11), I do feel that it is at least playing a role in the erosion of academic achievement.

 As Kress (2000), and others have pointed out,  “the ‘screen’ may be becoming dominant” and that “the visual mode may be coming to have priority over the written” (p.143).  K-12 institutions, as they exist in my part of the world, are unprepared for such a reality.  With budgets stretched as far as they can be, IT support being sporadic at best, formal advanced technological learning opportunities are simply not a viable reality for my students.  Students are becoming more technologically literate outside of school while engaging in pleasurable activities on their home computers than teachers have the capacity to offer them in school.  The way and pace at which children are becoming technologically literate far surpasses the rates at which they are becoming literate in the traditional sense.  As Bolter (2011) describes, “although print remains indispensable, it no longer seems indispensible” (p.2).

References

Bolter, J. D. (2011). Writing as technology. Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Dobson, T., & Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital Literacy. In D. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.) Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kress, G. (2000).  A curriculum for the future.  Cambridge Journal of Education, 30(1), 133-145.

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