The Five-Paragraph Essay

In the process of writing that last entry, I found a site that exemplifies several principles of good hypertext. Marla's site on the Structure of the Five Paragraph Essay takes a fairly simple topic and shows it from a variety of angles. With the same text as examples, you can see an outline of the essay, the marked up full text of the essay, or detailed explanations of each element of the essay. This multifaceted, prismatic view of a text, where the reader can switch between the raw text or a structural view, with multiple depths of engagement in the form of linked definitions and contextual expansions, is exactly what hypertext can and should do.


DeSoto, Marla. "Structure of the Five-Paragraph Essay." 2001. Glendale Community College. 31 Jan. 2002 <http://www.gc.maricopa.edu/English/essay/>

(Several) Exercises for the Classroom

I've been reading through the "Reconfiguring Literary Education" chapter in Hypertext 2.0 and the wonderfully expansive margins of my copy are accumulating ideas for teaching with hypertext today.

Landow presents experiences from actual classrooms, but even this revised edition came out in 1997. The web was only beginning to explode. IM was unheard-of. Wikis didn't exist. Blackboard was founded as the book went to press. Some of what he suggests is eminently possible now. Some of it is as remote as Intermedia.

I've come up with some excercises inspired by Landow's writing which might teach students the skills that Landow discusses, critical thinking and rhetorical skills which hypertext work particularly develops. By and large these are skill-building exercises which could be used in any discipline at the high school or collegiate level.

Make Links

An early and easy excercise would be to go through two texts (at least one of them thoroughly marked up with clear anchors) and have students forge at least 15 links from one text to the other. They cannot rewrite the origin text, merely select text for linking. Optionally, students should also make 5 links out to other texts or to the web. Beforehand, students receive notes about what makes 'good links'.

This could be done in a wiki with some ease. It could be done in Tinderbox even more easily. I haven't thought about other tools.

Goals - Students will:

  • understand what makes a good link
  • be able to create links in the class software
  • compare the structure of multiple texts
  • find correspondence in the content of multiple texts
  • make correspondence between texts explicit in a hypertext

Evaluation is based on:

- whether the links are there

- the grammar of the text chosen for the origins

- the aptness of the destination

- whether link names (or 'titles' in html) describe the connection or destination

Annotate Links

After learning to make links, it's worth teaching students to annotate their links. The simplest form of this is choosing or phrasing the link text carefully. Richer hypertext systems let you annotate links with labels or even lengthy text of their own.

One way to do this would be to lay two texts side by side, and to present an existing link (this could be done on paper). Ask students to give that link a label, either of the 'tooltip' (3-5 words) sort or of a longer sort. Another excercise would be to give an origin text, a description of a destination, and to ask students to choose good link words from the origin text. A third excercise would be to present a small 'concept map' and ask students to label the connections (probably in tooltip format). It would be a good idea to have at least one excercise involve multiple links from the same origin text to highlight the importance of signalling (contextualizing) the destination.

Learning to do that can teach students to:

  • write smooth and informative transitions between topics
  • practice idea-mapping
  • critically examine existing links and transitions in texts

Evaluation is based on:

  • displayed comprehension of the significance of given links
  • clearly contextualizing or signalling the destination of a link

Questions for further discussion:

  • What do labeled links help with?
  • How do we label "links" outside of (the web, hypertext, the software)?
  • When might we not want to label links? What would that do to our reading process?

Elision and Depths of Engagement

One value of hypertext for students is, ironically, the ability to hide information. When we talk or write to a student, we usually present our information with our audience in mind-- leaving out information that isn't of interest, or which might confuse, or which they already know. Being able to frame your thoughts in the context of your audience is a powerful skill.

One way to practice that skill is to take a relatively small topic, and preferably one which the students know a bit about already. Have them create a simple set of texts on the topic ...perhaps in the form of a five-paragraph essay. Then have them write three alternate 'middle' paragraphs: one set, and then another, for different audiences. They might write variants for someone who knows almost nothing about the topic (defining all their terms); for someone who knows more (requiring research and skipping the basics); or for someone who is interested in a different but related field.

Goals - Students will:

  • present information for different audiences
  • elide to make a text more accessible and useful
  • examine their own knowledge at different depths of engagement

Evaluation will be based on:

  • coherence of the writing despite (paragraph) substitution or elision
  • appropriate contextualization of the writing for the (assigned, chosen) audiences

Engage the Discipline's Discourse

Students are always part of a much larger discourse, that of the discipline they are studying. Impressing that fact upon them is a key part of empowering them as learners, of helping them take an active role in their own learning.

- The simplest way to do this is to have students create a list of current materials about their discipline - a 'works cited' focused on recent publications. This is still one-sided, though.

- The next level is to annotate that list with their own responses. As they agree and disagree, they are establishing their own voice regarding the material.

- Linking among their own discussions and responding to each others' work is one more step, and sets up a community of discussion in much the same way that classroom discussion can.

- 'Publishing' that discussion (to the web, or as a 'zine, etc.) gives students more agency yet: now they are authors.

- Finally, try to get an 'expert' or two in the field to respond (via email, letter, forum posting, wiki edits)

I think that a wiki can be an excellent tool for this excercise. It easily accomodates each level, and very clearly presents the growing site as:

  • a true publication at almost all times
  • an organic work in progress
  • part of a larger whole (the internet)

Goals- Students will:

  • engage the public discourse in their discipline
  • present their own voice in the public discourse

Evaluation is based on:

  • aptness of their chosen sources
  • quality of links to and from other texts
  • proper engagement with the questions of the field

This is pretty certainly the most complex of these excercises, and assumes the "make links" and "annotate links" skills. To get high marks for the aptness of their sources and of their writing to the discipline students would benefit from the "depths of engagement" lesson as well.

Technology and the Harkness Table

I spent today in a conference at the lovely Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI which was quite interesting in ways which, sadly, have very little to do with my job.

The conference was aptly named "Technology and the Harkness Table" because it was exactly that. We got to see a building that was literally designed around technology and the Harkness Table mode of teaching and saw how wonderful it is when engaged teachers, supportive administration, sensible architecture, and funding all come together. In most schools you might get two of those in any one place at any one time, especially if you're in the public schools. An independent school might get you three. In either setting it's rare to have all of those, and Rocky Hill was doing some impressive things with that setup.


Belinda Snyman presented on a "WebQuest" that she ran with her English class. It was adapted from "BardQuest" by Derek Furr, and involved breaking the class into groups with roles for each student in the group; each group researched an assigned topic related to Shakespeare and his cultural context. The groups presented their work as a web page or PowerPoint presentation.

The technology certainly helped the project-- students assigned the role of "skeptic" questioned each group's sources, pushing the groups to examine websites, (and articles and books) for validity. The ease of digital collaboration lowered the bar for students working at different speeds. The ease with which students could record and share each others' presentations meant that the whole class had a better chance of benefitting from each group's different work.

Forum Discussions

Alda Farlow and Dathalinn O'Dea led a session springing from Blackboard-based forum discussion and into a Harkness Table discussion. The subtleties of Harness Table teaching were the focus, but you and I are both here for hypertext and maybe educational technology, so on with that.

The use of the forum was a bit more than an augmentation of the "read and come to class with questions about what you read." The online forum is asynchronous and public, which means that the discussion could get going well before the class met, which made for a richer discussion. Also, everyone's posts are timestamped, which is a handy nuance. If they want, teachers can spot students who aren't participating, or always doing last-minute work, or even get a hint that they're working together (not a bad thing).

A sidenote of this presentation was the set of student-generated notes about the Harkness model. The reflections say a lot about the students' sense of agency in their own education, and I wonder whether their cool technology helped empower them, or whether it's the Harkness model, or whether it's just their really good teachers and school.

Two Functions for Technology in the Classroom

One thing that struck me today was that there seem to be two very distinct ways that you can use technology in the classroom. Put simply: you can improve your teaching of the skills you currently teach (without the tech), or you can teach new things, skills that can only practically be taught by using the technology. But that's oversimplification. That statement is worth unpacking.

You can improve your teaching of the skills you currently teach...

One of the really cool things I saw today was a tablet PC used with a projector to allow the teacher to stay at the table while still 'writing on the board'. The unobtrusive tablet PC, no bigger than a textbook, sat on the table with 'journal' software pulled up, and as the class talked the teacher was jotting notes, or highlighting things in the text the class was discussing, or pulling up posts on a class forum. The whole time the teacher remained at the table-- no turned back, no throne at the head of the room, no darkened room and noisy overhead. Students with laptops, too, could be given control of the projector to share their work. At the end of the class, a student saves their notes and posts them to a server. Weeks can pass without paper being passed if the teacher planned for it.

That's pretty cool. Students' different modes of learning are more easily accommodated. Students too shy to speak up in class find their voice once it's easy to share online. More real work happens more quickly when the drudgery of xeroxing and sorting and carrying folders and handing things out and transcribing is taken away.

But that's still just an improvement of what teachers and students are already doing. The tablet-and-projector is a glorified overhead projector. The forum is an email list, or a set of summarized and handed-in responses. The posted notes. It's so much more efficient that it lets new and wonderful things happen, but fundamentally the technology is just facilitating what we already do.

...or you can teach new things, skills that can only practically be taught by using the technology.

If you have students building a hypertext together, be it through wiki or Tinderbox or Blackboard or FrontPage, you are likely developing skills which cannot practically be taught without the technology. Students will practice line-by-line comparisons of texts, they'll examine and manipulate the structure of texts, they'll cite their work and link it directly back to source material in its original context in ways that can't be done without so much work as to make them all but impossible without the technology. They might as well be new skills.

As awesome as it was, and it was, everything that I saw today was 'just' an improvement on what's already being done. I think that good teaching with hypertext and digital text can do things that we really can't do otherwise.

In Conclusion, No Conclusion

In the end, very little of the day was applicable to my current professional work. As a summer program that moves into host campuses for seven weeks, we don't get to set up a building, or train the teachers to use tablets or Blackboard. Nor, for that matter, can we train the students in the short time we have with them. Many of our classes teach with something like the Harkness Table model, but resources and the nature of the program keep technology largely out of that side of it. Like many schools, we can't swing the pervasive computing environment that Rocky Hill has managed.

I think that technology in our classroom will remain on a class-by-class basis for now. I do wonder whether we couldn't use wikis to help in curriculum development, but that's another topic entirely.


A website that allows users to add content and allows anyone to edit the content. "Wiki" also refers to the collaborative software used to create such a website. [Wikipedia]

Aha! Hypertext Systems

Finally, I found a good quick reference page for a bunch of the early hypertext systems. Eventually I hope that my own "Tools" index will cover those systems and more.

Hypertext '87 Keynote Address

When I left The Math Forum, among the parting gifts Gene Klotz gave me was a copy of the special "hypertext issue" of Communications of the ACM. I've held onto it and occasionally browsed it; last week it came of the shelf for idle reading. But of course I could not stay idle about it. The last few pages of the Hypertext '87 Keynote Address by Andries van Dam spurred me to take some notes.

The knee of the curve

When van Dam gets to talking about hypertext in teaching, I really perked up. He thought then that "we are about to go over the knee of the exponential curve," citing HyperCard's popularity and emerging systems like Xerox's NoteCards and Owl's Guide. Of course none of these remain in wide use, especially in teaching, and hypertext remains of primary use in the classroom as a reference rather than as an authoring, working, or collaborative tool. I feel like we're still just short of the knee of the curve.

Individuals are pioneering use in the classroom. Others are disseminating potentially rich tools which achieve "user friendliness" by emulating non-digital systems... and which then don't push the envelope much. Others are using hypertext extensively, but in courses that are at least partly about the medium.

I'm waxing morose, here: educators may have gone over the knee of the exponential curve in our reading and research, but not in our writing or working.

Size Doesn't Matter

He describes running the "Hypertext Editing System" with some impressive statistics: 2250 graphics display application in a 128K partition of a multiprogrammed operating syste on an IBM/360 Model 50 with 512K of memory. (p.889)

progressive disclosure

Van Dam uses the term "progressive disclosure" to describe how he learned to present complex systems to a novice audience very gradually. I think it has another meaning for aware hypertext readers and writers: use links, pages, multiple screens, outlines... use all these tools to hide information that may be too much. Establish levels of consciousness, plateaus of presentation depth.

Teachers know to do this to keep students just at the edge of their 'comfort zone'... deep enough in the unfamiliar to keep them observing and learning, but not so deep that they get lost and tune out, unable to connect what they see to their own experience.

I need to read this more

There's so much in this article. Parts of it are a history of hypertext which I just don't have time to fully link and read into now:

  • Doug Englebart's NLS
  • van Dam's English poetry course with "a very large hypertext with well over a thousand links"
  • progressive disclosure in that course
  • discussion of the Document Presentation System
  • IRIS, the Institute for Research on Information and Scholarship (and Intermedia)

Sigh. Another reading which places thrice as many notes in my "to read" list as it puts into the archive.

We Need Hypermedia Designers

The sixth point is that we need hypermedia designers. ... Now we've got 'linkitis', and people with no graphic design experience or talent are going to throw stuff together and it will look terrible."

This sounds like a call for "information architects". Not just graphic or web designers, but people who know how to structure linked text. ... Can I have the job?

Don't Metaphor Me In

"Don't metaphor me in." Don't give me a little card image and say, "That's all you've got, because that's what I thought you should want for your virtual shoebox."

That seems like the glory and the problem with Tinderbox. Eastgate refuses to metaphor people in. As Doug Miller discussed on his blog, that makes for a steep learning curve, but (hopefully) leads to epiphanies that kick you 'out of the box'. HyperCard used the card metaphor. Blog tools use the journal metaphor. Inspiration uses the concept map or picture metaphor. But if you want to do something in between... say, a blog whose entries are nouns entries in a directory, or a movie with images that act like links on the web, then you don't want to "be metaphored in."

Wallscreen-size displays

Hoker performs the following experiment. Take The Wall Street Journal and move around a little cutout the size of a Mac screen and see how happy you are with The Wall Street Journal...

Yes. At work (a school-like academic summer program) we're very fond of whiteboards. We lay out the courses for a summer on a board, and match instructors to them, and everything is color-coded and numbered in a very rich way. Any current way of presenting that on a computer screen is like Hoker's experiment. Even with a database, a 'sort by discipline' of the unassigned courses doesn't show us that we've overcommitted our staff members to the math (or first period, or afternoon) courses, but a quick glance at the board shows a lopsided amount of writing over there. Some tasks don't fit on a screen, or even a table-top. As IT Coordinator, I'm constantly asking whether something is best done in the computer, or whether it in fact needs more room.


van Dam, Andries. "Hypertext '87: Keynote Address." Communications of the ACM Vol. 31 No. 7 (July 1988): 887-895.

reference, text

A 'pointer' for text. A reference is dynamic-- if the target of a reference is changed, all instances of the reference change.

Hypertext Editing System

Created by Andries van Dam and Ted Nelson and undergraduate programmers at Brown University in ... 1967?

Apparently, though the authors didn't know it, IBM sold it to the Apollo mission team to produce documentation that went up with the Apollo flights.


  • arbitrary-length strings (rather than fixed-length lines)
  • edits with arbitrary-length scope
  • unidirectional branches automatically arranged in menus
  • splices that were branches inviible to online users but traversible by the printer
  • text instances (references rather than inclusion)
  • edits performed through pointer rather than character manipulation

According to van Dam, it quickly presented the "lost in hyperspace" problem.

Tinderbox is taking me over

I haven't been posting much here on t.org because my "hypertext time" has been spent on tasks other than readings... and t.org is supposed to be a log of my readings. However, Tinderbox has been making those distinctions --between reading and working, between working and hypertext study-- a bit fuzzier. This has happened in several ways.

Montage is a part of my work now

Montage is a part of my work, now. While I've been using palettes for some time in sophisticated applications like Photoshop, palettes serve a central window. It's a montage of a central text with auxiliary, modifier windows. Since Tinderbox Weekend, I don't tend to have a central window.

I've been using simultaneously open windows much more consistently. I keep an outline of my categories for this site open so that I can cross-reference new writing easily with links; definitions are open in another window all the time so that I can write a new one quickly when I realize I'm not being clear; since the references to further readings have been growing nearly geometrically, I've generally got a window open to my "pending readings" where I'm dropping URLs from the web.

None of these windows is particularly central. There used to be one privileged window in the center with an explorer view on the whole document, but since I've wanted to have more than one text window open at a time, that has fallen out of my routine. Now there are windows all over the place, and the connections between them are central.

This behavior has bounced back into the other applications I use now. I frequently have my mailboxes window open in Eudora now, and several different OmniOutliner documents visible at once for different areas of my work. This would have seemed crazy to me not long ago.

More like an organ than a piano

I've been using Tinderbox more like an organ than a piano. I've usually got several windows open, sometimes several documents, and I'm working in all of them. These URLs go over here, until I decide what to do with them, I've got a thought about that, which really deserves to be in map view over there, and so on. Sitting back and looking at it, I feel like I did watching my great-grandmother play an organ-- there are keys everywhere, buttons here, stops there, rows of keys where the hand most needs them, and then the pedals!

A major benefit for students working with hypertext (more on this in another post) is that it often forces you to self-consciousness about the structure of your thinking. It's been interesting to watch the structures that emerge as I work in Tinderbox. Which windows stay open? Where do I tend to put windows on the screen so that I can use them (or what's under them)? I've had several map views coalesce when I realized that I was starting to group some text windows near each other so that I could show them all at once and in a montage.

I've been using pianos, and now I'm making my own organ.

A rich if boxy sketchpad

Everything is going into Tinderbox, especially if I don't know what I'm going to do with it. Since I can write content and meta-content, put them side-by-side, and then have the meta-content never get exported, everything can go into Tinderbox. And it has.

In the last few weeks, I've started or used Tinderbox files for:

  • a revision of my old gaming site
  • this site
  • the beginnings of a job search
  • notes on an RPG that I'm in
  • random thoughts on fairy tale retellings, which have been on my mind
  • tutorials and templates I'm making for Tinderbox

Some of these will never leave Tinderbox, and others are for the sole purpose of making another (web-based) hypertext. The line between work and hypertext work is not so clear as it was.