Theodor Holm Nelson
Division of Environmental Information
Dept of Sociology and Anthropology
George Mason University
Fairfax VA 22030
This paper explores the pedagogical advantages of a certain sort of graduate course, which will be called an "Electronic Readings Group." It draws from experience at George Mason University in teaching 10 different graduate courses (some offered several times) with a particular software tool, Folio Views. The presentation will offer a demo of the kinds of learning experiences supported by this teaching environment and outline some of the main difficulties and advantages of this mode of teaching.
In the GMU courses that have been run in this way, the readings are made available (on diskette or CD ROM) and installed in the student's home computer, together with a run-time license version of Folio Views. Students use the hypertext markup features of the software to work "off-line" on their own personal copy of the readings. They annotate, categorize, and make various kinds of links in the reading material, then periodically swap files so they can do the next chunk of reading through the markups of fellow students. In this way a kind of layering occurs where the files accrue a rich set of comments and links so that the participant is no longer only reacting to the original text but now are as much involved in "reacting to the reactions" of other readers.
The experience of hypertext-based learning can be usefully compared with the classic readings group. The readings group is one of the most successful traditions of humanistic education. A (small) group of serious scholars get together with their own copies of a book and engage in a detailed discussion of its meaning and significance. What makes this classic readings group a richer experience than the typical modern classroom is the intimate relationship between the verbal discussion among the students and the texts being studied. One reason this old-fashioned model has been losing ground to other models is that it is not very scaleable. The hypertext-based course model we have been using at George Mason University can be seen as more similar to the classic readings group than the modern classroom. The electronic readings group may be able to achieve even more intimacy between the participants and the texts being read than can occur in the classic readings group, yet without the scaling limitations. All human dialogue necessarily takes place within specific technological and social contexts. The "richness" that we seek in some kinds of dialogues, especially in the humanities, often requires a context that supports the ability to connect quickly and conveniently to specific formulations in words of the complex ideas under discussion. What makes the classic readings group effective is in part the proximity of the participants to the text under discussion.
The problem so far has been that those software environments (such as the web) that support wide-area access to a single copy of a shared text, do not yet provide easy-to-use markup tools for the reader. On the other hand those CD ROM based environments (such as Folio Views) that provide the reader with a rich assortment of markup tools do not seem to support the convenient sharing of the markups across a wide area. Our solution at GMU to this dilemma has been to use a feature of Folio Views that is called the "shadowfile" to permit a process for the sharing of text markups. Shadowfiles are the electronic equivalent of a transparency overlay to a paper document. They were developed in Folio with the intention of permitting readers of a networked hypertext to make private, personalized markups which need not be incorporated into the shared network copy. At GMU we have conceived of a completely different way of using shadowfiles, where they are used to create "dialogue streams." The reading materials for the course are distributed at the outset of the semester on CD ROM, typically in one large (say, 15 megabytes) Folio Views file. All course work is done in the much smaller (by the end of the semester about 1 or 2 megabytes) shadowfiles, which can be transported around via modem. Working with shadowfiles "on" the master file (of which everyone has an identical, locked copy) allows the underlying texts to remain inviolate, while all sorts of markups are added to what appears to the next downstream reader of the shadowfiles. Each shadowfile snakes its way through the class, accumulating layers of markups along the way. The collection of current shadowfiles is always available at the course web site, so that through the semester an increasingly rich set of alternative "readings" of the original texts are available for consideration.
In the typical modern classroom the reading and writing assignments are done in a monological way, the student is on his own as he tries to grapple with the readings and tries to compose a piece of writing. The social interactivity that takes place happens separately from both the writing and reading, since it occurs in the physical classroom. But in the classroom those readings are no longer ready-to-hand, so that the texts may be vaguely alluded to, but cannot be specifically linked to. It is difficult to directly tie the class discussion to the readings or to the ideas the student is trying to formulate in the writing assignments. Intimacy with other persons can take place, but not at the same time as, and in a way that is interwoven with, intimacy with the texts. What makes the classic readings group a richer experience than the ordinary classroom is the fact that the texts under discussion are ready-to-hand, are at ones' fingertips. It makes the interpersonal process also an intertextual one. A hypertext-based course can capture and even enhance this textual intimacy. The readings and writings are tightly connected to the interpersonal social interaction process. The class discussion is, so to speak, taking place inside of the books.