Pedagogy goes to the movies: hypermedia in the cinema class room.

Adrian Miles
Department of Communication Studies
RMIT University
124 Latrobe Street
Melbourne, Victoria 3000

Bonza is a colloquial Australian term that means, more or less, "great" or "excellent," and is the name of an undergraduate cinema studies project at RMIT University ( This project is an applied research subject where students develop and exercise significant research skills in a discipline area, and then apply this research in the writing (or production) of complex, interlinked, hypermedia essays. In all aspects of the project great care has been taken to ensure that the technologies used are affordable, available, and scalable.

Cinema studies as a field of teaching has always availed itself of new technologies. It was among the first humanities disciplines to actively use the VCR, and regularly employs what are now known as 'multimedia' technologies to assist in teaching. The use of new digital technologies by cinema studies, in particular online learning resources and hypermedia, has followed what is now the established paradigm for such work with content being distributed in various electronic formats (CDROM and WWW for instance) but with the result that students' experience of writing on the cinema remains firmly entrenched in a conservative paradigm of textual description and theoretical application. Through a peer owned online relational database, combined with hypermedia writing, students in the bonza project are able to significantly alter their perception and practice of cinema studies, but more generally a teaching methodology is being explored that encourages students to develop link 'competency' producing 'knowledge objects,' which in rare instances demonstrate 'deep' linking and cognitive understanding.

Bonza consists of two related practices, the first involves students undertaking primary research in a self nominated field relating to Australian cinema studies where they are encouraged to use as many resources and media types as available. This material is digitised, and all bibliographic, biographical, and production information entered into the appropriate database. As these databases are relational, direct connections between their own, and each others, research becomes apparent. This allows students to not only pursue particular research themes with ease, but it encourages collaboration as they find related material contributed by their peers. In addition the connections that the database establishes automatically amongst material encourages students to recognise the manner in which their object of study is strongly interrelated (thematically, institutionally, theoretically) and not actually a discrete or individual entity.

This can be described as 'shallow' link building, as the connections being found are generally literal and the result of simple string matches based on names, and while much of the primary research students undertake has already made significant contributions to Australian cinema historiography, it is the possibility of writing 'deep' link structures in hypermedia that best expresses a student's understanding of their research material.

This is a key feature of the pedagogy employed in this project, as it is the ability to write with, and amongst, media types, and to link them freely, that distinguishes hypermedia writing from other digital pedagogic practices. This is the method developed by the RMIT HyperText Project where digital literacy is defined as a writing practice rather than a reading or delivery methodology.

As the subject seeks to encourage the development of research skills and the production of link rich 'knowledge objects' students can write up their research adopting whatever authorial voice or style they wish. This is a pragmatic response to the manner in which the 'traditional' academic essay tends to stymie students in their novel use of hypermedia as a writing tool, particularly their desire (and anxiety) to demonstrate, argue for, and legitimate a specific theoretical thesis. The linearity that usually results, and their anxiety about the 'outside' of their writing -- that is all that is marginal, contrary, or simply unable to be incorporated due to media type or size -- is an aspect of formal and traditional writing practices, that a free authorial voice partially bypasses.

However, it is in the performance of what could be described as 'link competency,' that is the recognition that links are not merely navigational aids within a work but represent rhetorical or cognitive associations that are able to generate and express logical metastructures, that students develop 'deep' linking and write what Entwistle and Marton have described, in another context, as "knowledge objects" (Entwistle and Marton, 1993). Research, in this model, becomes contextually rich and writing becomes a game or strategy of bricolage -- more or less successful, which at its best is exemplary (Gee, 1998), and its worse produces radial texts that tend towards reportage (Lim, 1998).

While most student work tends towards the two extremes of the radial and the saturated (Lim, 1998 and 36, 1998) what remains to be developed, and it isn't yet clear how this will be achieved in the short term, is an adequate pedagogy of 'deep linking' where students are able to build these knowledge objects through not only combining media types or maximising link use but through the development of coherent thematic and contextual associations across writing and media types. What is apparent to date is that students require considerable time writing their material for this to happen, where rewriting needs to become a continual rebuilding of the relations between already established parts.

This difficulty is hardly surprising given students unfamiliarity with the medium, and the paucity of academic examples available. That this is the case in cinema studies only exacerbates what could be characterised as the tyranny of the word (and node) in academic hypertext practice, and while bonza is a beginning along this path, it is hoped that new pedagogies may develop that are able to facilitate the students' construction and identification of relations between parts. It is clear that if we regard the digital as only a mechanism for the delivery of pedagogy then we are not only constraining the learning that our students might achieve, but we remain fixed within conservative genres of what constitutes a possible academic writing practice.


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