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Reflections on “Hypertext and the Changing Roles of Readers� (hereinafter HatCRoR)

I recall a letter to the editor, or perhaps it was an opinion piece, in the Minnesota Daily from a couple decades ago where the writer bemoaned the migration of the library card catalog to a computer data base. The issue for that writer was the loss of the “serendipity� that one can experience in searching the card catalog. The writer felt there was value in finding something unusual or unexpected as a byproduct of ones’ flipping through the card catalog, even if it was unrelated to the actual target of the search. I hope that the author of that piece has lived long enough to see the hypertext age and discover the serendipity of being about six clicks away from any piece of information in the world! It seems to me that this persons approach to using the card catalog is similar to the way the author of HatCRoR looks at reading hypertext, except that hypertext is capable of providing interactive serendipity to the Nth degree!

“The idea that hypertext is read differently should not be such a stretch…� is an overstatement of the obvious. It’s like my saying, “I play basketball differently with fourth graders than I do with college students�. There are many variables that effect the context in which one reads including the content of the text, the intent of the reader, the writing style, the size and style of the font and the medium on which the text is conveyed, to name a few. Hypertext has its’ place among these variables and it is very obviously “different� enough to effect the way one reads but it is not an appropriate tool for every context.

This article also fails to even acknowledge, much less assess, the implications of reading hypertext across the range of ages represented among school aged children. The “sense of agency—defined…as the ability to take meaningful actions and see results of those actions� is not limited to hypertext. As a child I felt a greater sense of agency by being physically comfortable (laying under an end table with my feet up on the sofa or laying on the kitchen table with my book open on the seat of a high stool, my mother has a picture to prove it!) when reading. It was much easier to lose myself in a book when I was physically comfortable than when I was sitting at a desk. The “agency� of my two year old granddaughter is enhanced by the “doors� that can be discovered and opened in her farm themed book to reveal pictures which help her develop her abilities in counting and shape and color recognition. And, if you can believe it, the past sentence was interrupted by a 20 minute SKYPE call from China which included that same granddaughter demonstrating a great sense of agency in enthusiastically singing an alphabet song which she has learned since leaving here two weeks ago! I also believe that the author’s contention that “simple recall questions are probably not going to help students develop this sense of agency� overlooks the important role that simple recall plays in the early stages of learning.

I can see that hypertext would serve well in many educational situations, increasing the possibility for discovery, enlivening the presentation and enlarging the opportunities for collaboration. But it could also prove a hindrance in many reading situations. If one is reading for pleasure or wants to focus on particular aspects of a text, hypertext could prove easily distracting rather than helpful.

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