Hypertext, chaos and control: Encounters between conservatism and radical pedagogyGlenn Russell
School of Education and Professional Studies
Gold Coast Campus, Griffith University
This paper examines notions of chaos and control in the application of hypertext story-writing to school contexts. The research reports an encounter between the chaotic influences of hypertext and conservative notions of institutional control in three schools. Hypertext use encouraged the exploration of radical narrative forms, and challenged teacher and student expectations of how power might be exercised in classrooms. The paper concludes that the disturbance of traditional Newtonian education leads to the reconceptualision and reframing of issues of chaos, power and control. Teachers face a dilemma. A desire to implement new learning technologies in the classroom must be tempered by the realisation that their teaching and their institutions may be change as a result.
Such an educational system might be referred to as Newtonian, where the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton relating to the physical universe are applied to an educational context. In 1692, Isaac Newton conceived of the universe as acting in predictable ways. He wrote in a letter that gravity "must be caused by an Agent acting constantly according to certain Laws" (Cohen 1978, p.303). In schools, a Newtonian universe of apparent predicability has been inherited. Teachers tend to teach as did their predecessors before them (Norton and Sprague 1996). Hence, while the banking model of education criticised by Freire (1995) has become less popular in Westernised educational systems, there is a continuation of pedagogies of control.
Prior to Newton, Galileo (1615/1957) had seen nature as "inexorable and immutable" (p.182). Schools may be seen by some as a reflection of such laws of nature in teaching practice and student response. Doll (1989;1993) drawing in part on the ideas of Daniel Bell (1980), has argued that Newtonian thought is one of the foundations on which the present day curriculum is based. Although educational systems do not behave according to the laws of traditional physics, they perpetuate a reassuring security through a belief that schools and the society they serve will operate within known limits. An orderly curriculum is perceived as operating in a stable universe .
Yet the nature of the world has changed (Birkerts 1994). Increasingly, educational systems can be read through notions of change and chaos. Central to the idea of chaos theory is the unpredictable way in which the future can be affected by apparently unrelated events. Gunter (1995) argues that chaos theory can validly be applied to education, and that teachers need to have a long-term chaos perspective. This entails consideration of the choices from which the future will unfold and an understanding of what Gunter refers to as the "bounded instability" (p.15) within which educational patterns are likely to operate. Within the parameters of such a perspective, the old certainties disappear. Traditional libraries, with their linear printed books are no longer the sole repository of reliable information for students.
The information age prompts reconsideration of the ways in which students are taught (Kenway 1995). Computer-based environments also promote a shift from conventional teacher/student dialogue to learning environments that are complex and interactive (Norton and Sprague 1996). In particular, hypertextual environments are likely to challenge conservative notions of institutional control by introducing elements of the unpredictable, or chaos, into classrooms.
Aspects of the pedagogy of this study are reported elsewhere (Russell 1998a), as are the implications of the findings (Russell 1998b). Of particular interest is the observation of the ways in which hypertext reframes students' and teachers notions of control and predictability. Of the three schools participating in this study, two assessed student hypertext stories using normal grading processes, while one school allowed students to write stories where the grades had already been posted, and traditional teacher constraints were removed. The stories produced in what might be referred to as the graded and non-graded contexts were dramatically different in nature.
Stories produced in graded contexts were often interesting, amusing, and well-written. Because the use of hypertext for story-writing encourages the exploration of different narrative forms, including non-linearity, a number of these stories were quite different to conventional print-based stories. In contrast, many of the stories produced in the non-graded context would have been seen as violent or tasteless by adults. Young people delight in shocking their teachers, and the students' reactions in these two different contexts may be seen initially as issues of control or freedom centred in the grades which teachers award.
In addition, while many teachers would believe that they had sufficient knowledge to assess a conventional hand-written story, the question of what constitutes a "good" hypertext is much more problematic. While criteria such as the inclusion of pictures, number of nodes, links and words, and technical aspects such as spelling and grammar can be considered, it is likely that there are still insufficient school-based hypertext models available. Consequently, teachers are not able to rigorously enforce their view of what constitutes acceptable work. This observation is reinforced by observations of the non-graded hypertext classroom in this study. Here, students delighted each other with hypertextual stories of horror and violence, while simultaneously exploring the limits of what hypertext can do. Students changed the colour and size of their texts, and used a variety of fonts. They also used emphasis such as italics and bold to suggest different "voices", and linked nodes in experimental ways. In addition to the choices based on physical actions, readers could choose descriptions, dialogue, or characters as links to select new nodes to read.
While teachers in the graded classrooms found their traditional expectations of story challenged by hypertext, they were also able to check and sometimes censor student work because it could be easily read at a distance on computer screens. Thus the teacher's very presence affected the nature of student hypertexts.
A metaphor which helps to explain teacher control in the writing of students' hypertext stories is that of the all-seeing observation of Bentham's panopticon prison (Bowring 1962). Bentham's nineteenth century ideas have been discussed by a number of writers, including Foucault (1977). The experience of being in the panopticon was expected to change prisoners' behaviours. Similarly, membership of a hypertext class can be expected to change students. When teachers oversee the public production of hypertexts on illuminated computer screens, students' work is controlled in a similar way that the prisoners in Bentham's transparent panopticon were controlled by the surveillance designed into their environment. The hypertexts produced by students may be used by the school and the community to judge the teacher. Knowing this, the teacher makes it clear which forms of hypertext are acceptable and which are not.
In Across Realtime, science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (1986) describes a singularity. In this concept, which is applied to hypertext by Steigler (1989), an exponential increase in technological sophistication creates problems where the solutions are poorly understood. In school-based education, the introduction of hypertext writing may be seen as a singularity in which the introduction of a new computer-based technology causes unpredictable results and chaos in ill-prepared educational systems.
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|Author: Dr Glenn Russell is a Lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies, Faculty of Education, Griffith University, Gold Coast. |
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Email: G.Russell @eda.gu.edu.au
Please cite as: Russell, G. (1998). Hypertext, chaos and control: Encounters between conservatism and radical pedagogy. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech98/pubs/articles/russell.html