Paper presented at ED-MEDIA AND ED-TELECOM 98: World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia & World Conference on Educational Telecommunications, Freiburg, Germany, June 20-25, 1998

An Expanding View of Literacy: Hypermedia in the Middle School

Pat Clifford, PhD.
Galileo Educational Network, Alberta, Canada
Sharon Friesen, PdD.
Galileo Educational Network, Alberta, Canada
D. Michele Jacobsen, PhD.
Educational Technology, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

"So, what have you guys got your kids on anyway?"

It was an early morning meeting in the provincial capital. Teachers from across Alberta, brought together to work on technology integration, were talking about the software packages they used in their schools.

"Well, Office 97 as the basic suite."

"No, you donít understand my question. I donít mean what do you guys use. I mean, what software do you give the kids?"

"Like I said, Office 97. Thatís what we use for ourselves most of the time. Thatís what the kids use, too."

The group was incredulous. "I thought you said you were in elementary. What grades do you teach, then?"

"Well, we used it with Grade Two last year. This year we teach Grade Six. Same deal. Itís what weíve got on our network."

"But you havenít got all kids on it, have you? Like, I can see how it might really stretch some of them for enrichment. But what about the rest? You must have something more suitable for them."

"Nope. Everybody uses the same."

"But itís far too difficult for children. For heavenís sake, teachers go nuts trying to figure out how to use all the applications. How could you ever get kids doing it? Youíd have to spend too much time even getting them to understand how to use Word let alone the rest of the stuff. And what about the learning disabled guys? You canít mean you just throw them to the wolves. I have to say I really disagree with you on this one."

It was one of those conversations that has stayed with us for a long timeónot because it was so unusual, and not because itís about the particular merits or flaws in one commercial software package, but because it holds, in microcosm, so many of the issues of technology integration that we wrestle with daily. Kids, it is thought, cannot bear the full weight of adult technology tools. Students require, such teachers tell us, developmentally appropriate versions of software applications because the real thing is too difficult for them to master. Children, the story goes, require direct instruction in the simulated use of applications before they take on real tasks. Teachers, most are certain, must control and direct the scope and sequence of skill mastery if anything useful is to happen. Learning with computers, say the cautious, requires labs with locked doors, strictly rationed access, and a designated technology teacher. Otherwise all hell can break loose.

These are the kinds of assumptions many educators accept without question as right and necessary for all students, let alone for children with identified learning problems, for whom such orthodoxy becomes true in spades. In school, these childrenís encounter with computer technology most often involves carefully sequenced courseware, remedial applications and computer assisted instruction. Applications guide such students through carefully monitored, controlled and measured steps. Learning tasks proceed in small, incremental stages. Walk before you try to run, the thinking seems to go.

Sometimes these applications are sold to the educational community on the promise of on-going reinforcement and immediate feedback. Mirroring teacher-directed lessons, they frequently provide as low a level of interactivity and as high a degree of control as traditional worksheets. Clever marketers now package them as edutainment: supposedly more palatable to children, books become "living" software packages; skill drills are tarted up with co-opted cartoon characters, and math facts get blasted with hyperactive graphics and manic sound bytes.

"We may not like who is is following us down the slopes, but theyíre gaining on us" (Rushkoff p.38).

Douglas Rushkoff calls them Screenagers. They are children "born into a culture mediated by the televison and the computer" (p 3). They are deeply at home in exactly the environment that schools try to tame and control: the rapid-fire, non-linear, chaotic, multisensory world of the computer. It is a commonplace that children know more about computers than adults, that they are better and faster than their parents and teachers. It is commonplace because it is true. But that is not the main point of interest. What is even more interesting, harder to grasp, and ultimately more compelling is that Screenagers use computers in ways that adults do not anticipate and frequently misunderstand. What we assume they require of us--careful instruction, step-by-step activities, computer curricula developed with a close eye to scope-and-sequence--is often exactly what gets in their way.

It is helpful to think of the difference between teachersí images of computing and childrenís experiences by comparing skiers and snowboarders. Rushkoff describes what happens when Screenagers hit the slopes. Scorning carefully groomed runs, snowboarders seek out precisely the gaps and obstacles that frustrate skiiers. "Unlike parallel skiing, snowboarding is a sport designed to give its participants the opportunity to test their reactions to gaps of many kinds" (p.38). The action in snowboarding happens in the spaces-in-between. "Getting air" means confronting discontinuity. It is improvisational and instinctual, an "intentional exercise of relaxing into chaos" (p.38) in which gaps, openings and obstacles define the sport. The precision and control required of skiiers gets in the way. For snowboarders, more is better. It is "usually always better" (p.38) to overshoot a jump than fall short; better to push your limits than pull back; better to overestimate than chicken out. Usually always: an ambiguous phrase that frustrates the precise and exactly portrays the improvisational skill of the breed. When they grab a mouse, they already know that itís usually always better to jump right in, to explore, to test the waters, to see what happens when you paste this graphic, import that sound or create a link right there.

Whether students confront the conceptual gaps and opportunities that computers offer, or jump "the physical gaps between mounds of snow, the coping strategy is the same: usually always overshoot and definitely always relax and have a good time" (p.38).

It is hard for schools and teachers to accept that the culture of screenagers and the attitudes of snowboarders embody skills and strategies that almost always work better with technology than our own carefully groomed, carefully planned, carefully schooled approaches. Unable to see any recognizable, underlying order in their apparently chaotic behavior, we tend to see only random energy and danger. Well intentioned on behalf of what we understand learning to be, we want, somehow, to prepare them, to direct them, to shape and control their encounters with computers. Nervous in the face of their obvious comfort and skill in an area that unsettles many of us, our deepest instinct as unseated experts is often to rein them in.

The Question

Shortly after hypermedia tools became readily available to educators, Marchionini (1988) predicted that hypermedia authoring tools had the potential to alter teacher and student roles and the transactions between them by allowing students to construct their own interpretations of information as well as share their interpretations with their teachers and other learners in unique ways. Marchionni points our attention in an important direction: hypermedia authoring tools have the power to change, forever, the power structures of the classroom. Exploring snowboarding as a fundamental metaphor for childrenís use of emerging technologies, we have already suggested something of the nature of that change. What follows puts meat on those theoretical bones. It is an account of what happened in a Grade Six classroom when one student, academically marginalized by his unsuccessful struggles to read and write in conventional ways, grabbed some air when he and his teacher stumbled upon Power Point.

Act One

Michael* was mad. He had to write a report on bears as part of his science unit on Forest Ecosystems, and he had had it. Years of failure with pencil and paper welled up inside him, and he crawled under his desk, arms shielding his head and knees drawn up to protect his heart. Entries to come out and just try failed. Suggestions about where he could find help failed, too. Demands that he at least sit up and think about what to do next actually broke the log jam. He crawled out, shook himself and walked out of the room. At his locker, hands shaking, he pulled out his jacket and boots.

"Iím out of here," he said. "Iím going home. You canít make me. You canít stop me."

And he was right. We couldnít make him and we couldnít stop him. But we could listen, and we could help. Half an hour later, he had calmed down enough to accept an offer to sit with him and open up a word processing document so that he could get something started. We promised to go down to the library and search for books with him. We said we would read them with him and type out anything he wanted to say.

"Okay, I guess you can do that," he agreed, tears still close to the surface.

Michael had never opened a Word document before, so one of us sat with him and talked him through the initial steps: click on Start, go to New Document, choose Blank Document. One, two, three easy steps. Hands still unsteady on the mouse, Michael accidentally opened Power Point instead of Word.

"Oops," he said. "How do I get out?"

His teacher sat for a second. "Do you really want to get out, or can I show you something?"


She pulled up a template. "Look at this. If you want to make a bunch of slides about bears, you could do something like this." Working as quickly as she could to keep his attention, she made four quick slides, importing graphics, playing with layouts, showing him how to use bullets for point form.

"Nothing says you canít do your report like this. What do you say?"

Michael said nothing. He just grabbed the mouse and started to play.

Act Two

Two days later, Michael (now working with his friend Ross, an equally reluctant writer) had finished six slides.

"Hey, guys, can we show the rest of the class what youíve been up to?"


"Well, itís really neat. And besides, they might get some ideas for their own stuff. What do you say?"

Unused to being cast as role models, Ross and Michael shifted from foot to foot, looked at one another and agreed. "Well, okay, if you really want."

We grabbed the projector, hooked it up to the computer and called the class together for a quick meeting. Michael and Ross stood beside the screen and walked us through their slide show. In the space of two days, all by themselves, they had figured out how to import graphics, create transitions with dissolves and sound effects, and design builds with bulleted text that flew in from left to right, right to left, top to bottom. A buzz ran through the class

"Hey, cool you guys. Howíd you do it? Whereíd you get those pictures from? I want to do that. How do I do that?"

The teacher gave a quick demo so that everyone who was interested could open up the program. Singly and in pairs, students returned to their terminals. Some continued with their Word documents, but many went straight to Power Point. Clustered in pods of three and four Rosshines, they compared notes, made suggestions, experimented. Michael and Ross hung around for a bit making suggestions, then returned to their own work.

Act Three

A month later, the bear reports were all done. Some were handwritten, with cut-out pictures from National Geographic and pressed leaves and specimens from the forest floor. Others were word processed, pages neatly stapled and bound. But many of the reports were saved to disk as Power Point presentations, and we were ready to watch.

Students gathered together around the projector. They were all curious to see what others had accomplished, and they were in a celebratory mood. They were hot, and they knew it.

As one presentation followed another, they critiqued each othersí designs rigorously. Initially impressed by splashy effects, they criticized annoying and inappropriate sound effects, silly color choices, distorted graphics, smorgasbords of font sizes and styles. They fought about spelling and hooted at how dorky it was to have a hugely projected slide with stupid spelling mistakes. "Hey, man, itís red lining you. How come you didnít just fix it, huh? You didnít even have to go and look it up. Like, all you got to do is right click and itíll show you. See?"

Students who seldom spoke up in lessons demonstrated a remarkable ability to talk to the points that they had captured on their slide. Moving frame by frame, they confidently explained the concepts that lay behind the particular ideas they had chosen to present in bulleted form. It was clear that they knew an incredible amount about bears, and that they had chosen the text and pictures with particular care to represent a wealth of knowledge that they carried in their heads. Catching a lot of air with the new technology, they had clearly mastered the terrain both of the new medium and of the content that they had been exploring. The gaps, the spaces between words and graphics, sound and image, slide and slide had become places of power. They knew how to use the elliptical, fluid capacity of Power Point to create a presentation that actually represented more of the complexity text of their own research experience.

Discussing one presentation after another, they came to recognize that traditional ways of writing a report didnít work with this new medium. Slide after slide of dense text just didnít cut itóeven though that was precisely the kind of presentation that the "better" students in the class had put together. Sticking with what they had always been rewarded for in school, these highly capable students had set about research and writing in familiar ways. In fact, complying with the original parameters of the assignment we had actually set upówrite a report about bears in the Kananaskisóthey had actually been quite brave in venturing into this new space. Given the opportunity to try out something new, they were keen to try Power Point. They liked it a lot. Enjoying new freedoms, they wrote paragraph after paragraph, bringing in fancy backgrounds and elegant fonts for effect. They liked the look of their reportsóuntil they saw what Michael and Ross had done.

Deeply impressed by the boysí presentation, Shannon, one of the strongest students in the

class, found herself in a puzzling position. She was used to being the model for othersí work, the one whose writing was held up as an example for weaker students to emulate. And yet, here in front of her, was a presentation that was clearly more engaging, more interesting, more effective than the densely structured written essay that she had simply broken up into slides. She could see, in front of her eyes, the appeal of a very new way of authoring. Without hesitation, she turned to them for advice. "I want to know how you did that. Can you help me make my slides better?"

For a moment, the world of our classroom turned upside down. Shannon ask for help from Ross and Michael? Shannon need help from anybody, let alone them? A space opened up for all of us to begin looking at work, at ability, at our relationships with each other very differently. In ways that we have only begun to examine, the rest of the entire year was shaped by the possibilities that we recognized in her invitation.

We thought that Shannon and the others would now return to their bear presentations to Ďfixí them, to try their hand at the new techniques, but they didnít. Excited by the possibilities that this new medium opened, all the students were very eager to try other things, to experiment. Intrigued by the possibilities that emerged through their work with Power Point, these students wanted to catch more air.

"Do we have to just go from slide to slide? Is there any way we can make things jump around more?"

"Ya," we replied.

"Well, can you show us?"

Without knowing what they were asking, students were telling us that they wanted to learn about hypermedia. The real work that had started with the bear project wasnít over at all. In fact, it had just started, and all of us were keen to continue. As the year unfolded, they scripted web pages, created Hyperstudio stacks, and explored interactive, on-line projects.

There was a whole new world of technologies that allowed them to "jump around more", and that made us ask a fundamental question about curriculum, literacy and the role of technology in vibrant classrooms: How do hypermedia authoring environments challenge conventional conceptions of literacy development? We had begun modestly, and serendipitously, with multimedia slide shows that opened up possibilities that our students had never even suspected were available to them. Catching their first air with adult presentation software, they knew there had to be more.

And they were right.

Challenging Assumptions

Turner and Dipinto (1992) have demonstrated that the capability for students to create their own interpretations includes the ability to author individual HyperCard documents that are shared with other students. They suggest that in order for students to become hypermedia authors, they must learn not only the content they will present in the hypermedia document but also the tool skills they need to use the software. Carver, Lehrer, Connell, and Erickson (1992) emphasize the importance of master teachers who have a thorough understanding of design skills, and can embed explicit discussion and practice of the whole process of design into daily classroom activity. Thus, they suggest, hypermedia becomes an object of instruction as well as a medium for teaching and learning (Turner & Dipinto, 1992).

Our study raises issues about literacy and the integration of technology that we feel extends these findings and points to important directions for future research.

  1. Conventional approaches to teaching writing are built on pervasive, but severely limiting, assumptions about the nature of text and of literacy:
    • Text organization is linear (i.e. beginning, middle and end)
    • Text production proceeds in a linear fashion.
    • Text means the written word and recorded symbols
    • A report is one long stream of uninterrupted text
    • Reading and writing are solitary endeavors
  1. The skill and ease with which students mastered a range of multimedia and hypermedia technologies, and the surprising outcome that students at the "lower" end of literacy skills and abilities as measured by conventional means assumed initial leadership roles, suggest that:
    • Conventional understandings of "ability" are constrained by these traditional assumptions about the nature of literacy. When teachers change the publishing environment, a whole new set of competencies and requirements emerge.
    • Conventional understandings of text as linear and uninterrupted give way to an experience of multi-faceted, recursive, and malleable knowledge construction.
    • The conventional power structures and communication patterns of the classroom are transformed
    • when students generally seen by their peers and by their families as "less able" produce the most interesting and exciting work.
    • when students teach and learn from each other
    • when teacher instruction takes on the character of "just in time" intervention

Students who have the freedom to use adult technology tools in ways that are usually always unpredictable grab air that schools and teachers usually donít even know is there. Learning how to follow them down these new slopes creates research and pedagogical challenges that are truly exciting and energizing even for the most cautious educational skiers among us.

Act Four: June 16, 1998

This paper was finished and up on-line last week. Michele Jacobson was packing, getting ready to take off to Freiberg. Almost eight months had passed from the first Power Point experiment, and the whole class was winding down for the year. Students had decided that they wanted to invite parents and other community members to an evening they were calling The Best of Grade 6, 1998. The room was humming as 62 children, heads down, were pulling together an exhibition of their top work for the year.

"Hey, Ms. Friesen, can you come and see what we did to the Bears thing?"

"In a minute, Ross. Here, talk to me for a sec till I can get to the computer. What did you and Michael do to your Power Point? I thought you were going to present it next week."

"Oh ya, we are. But we went and looked at it. We haven't seen it for like a long time. We couldn't believe it. And you know what? I remember exactly how I felt when we finished it. That was the best thing I ever did in school. I was so proud of myself. I remember just what it was like when we showed everybody. And you know what else?"

"No, Ross, keep talking. Are you saying you don't like it anymore?"

"Not that. But when me and Mike looked at it again, we could see a bunch of stuff we didn't do very good. So we went and changed them all. And you know what, it's sort of weird. Like, I look at our project now and it's like I can see how much I learned this year. I can see what my really best stuff was in the fall. But I can see all the other stuff I figured out since then. So we just fixed it up. We got a better background, and we cropped those pictures so there aren't any edges."

"Ya, that's right." By now, Michael had joined in. " We decided none of those sounds really had anything to do with bears, either, so we took them all out. It's way better now."

Sharon held her breath as Michael continued.

"I never went back to any of my things before when I was in school. I never thought I should just go and look at them. But when we did that, it was weird. It was like I was looking at my own learning. It was just like I was looking at my own learning."

We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet.

Margaret Mead

*All student names used in this paper are pseudonyms.




Carver, S. M., Lehrer, R., Connell, T., & Erickson, J. (1992). Learning by hypermedia design: Issues of assessment and implementation. Educational Psychologist, 27(3), 385-404.

Marchionini, G. (1988). Hypermedia and learning: Freedom and chaos. Educational Technology, 28(11), 8-12.

Rushkoff, D. (1996). Playing the future: Hows kidsí culture can teach us to thrive in an age of chaos. Harper Collins: New York.

Turner, S. V., & Dipinto, V. M. (1992). Students as hypermedia authors: Themes emerging from a qualitative study. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 25(2), 187-199.