E-learning concepts - Table of Content


in the communication

Aims of learning Learning objectives

When you have completed this session, you should be able to

  • differentiate between the concepts of hypertext, hypermedia and multimedia,
  • understand the historical significance of changes in human communication.

Reading Reading

Hypertext, hypermedia, multimedia

HipertextThe three concepts listed in the title are interrelated; trying to define one of them will inevitably lead to the second or the third one.

Social scientists rely on written materials, so it is easy to understand their excitment over the features that text on the World Wide Web can have. There is the possibility of following innumerable links which lead in various directions and to many mental adventures, are seemingly infinite expandable and able to be searched, edited, and modified. Ever since the Internet opened up and made available for higher education institutions, many analyses have been published predicting fundamental changes in the history of human communication.

Though first advocated over 60 years ago, the newly exploited concept of hypertext is one of the mainstays of the technology and offers a new paradigm in the organisation of content.

Hypertext is about electronically stored documents interconnected through nodes, or links. Texts built this was can be extended through linking without obvious limit, and can be found, studied and read by following the linkages. When reading a text, it is easy to follow new text 'nodes', offering new branches, by uniquely identifying the next document in the chain. The identifiers used in the nodes are called “hyperlinks” or simply links.

„Electronic linking shifts the boundaries between one text and another as well as between the author and the reader and between the teacher and the student. It also has radical effects on our experience of author, text, and work, redefining each. Its effects are so basic, so radical, that it reveals that many of our most cherished, most commonplace, ideas and attitudes toward literature and literary production turn out to be the result of that particular form of information technology and technology of cultural memory that has provided the setting for them. This technology - that of the printed book and its close relations, which include the typed or printed page - engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable.” (Georg P. Landow, 1991)

Hypertext does not force the reader to follow a strictly linear route. Any path can be followed by clicking on a link in the text, and it allows for a relatively easy return to the original text itself. In the confines of a single document, we often do this when we read a footnote or follow a reference to the back of the book. We also do similar when we pick up a completely different book referenced by the one we started to read. The only difference is that in the case of real we have to physically find it on the shelves of the library.

Hypermedia is an extension of the concept of hypertext. In addition to text (text documents), different kinds of media elements -- pictures, audio recordings or videos -- can be found in the referenced nodes. Hypermedia started to take off at roughly the same time as the World Wide Web which was also when hardware limits on the forwarding and presentation of media elements eased. Hypermedia is now becoming dominant on the Internet.

„Hypermedia is a holistic world and knowledge model, for it intends to include theoretically everything, the “whole”, and everything is inevitably related to everything. Specialization, which used to save the life of civilization, has become life-threatening, because the parts do not communicate with each other and we forget to think about the consequences. The storing capacity and the operation speed of computers allow us to approach the world in a complex, universal way again.” (J. Sugár)

Did multimedia or hypermedia come first? Hypermedia was certainly postulated before before multimedia; however, multimedia CDs came into existence before real hypermedia. This was soon followed by hypertext on the then largely text-based Internet. Now the use of hypermedia on the World Wide Web -- based on multimedia elements -- is firmly established. Multimedia can be considered to be a set of medium established for conveying a particular message – for instance an electronic syllabus – with finitely many predetermined access routes. It is more definite than hypermedia in that is is the development of established goals, but this fixed definition limits the potential of following unexpected and unanticipated routes.

The history of the hypertext

Working with the first computerized word processors was not particularly easy. Even today we tend to need some instruction in the use of word processor software to write even the simplest of letters. However the potential to search electronically stored texts on the Internet is so great partly because of its simplicity for researchers, authors, philosophers, librarians, etc. No longer do they have to physically search through thousands of pages of books in a library.

The names hypertext and hypermedia were first used by Theodor Holmes Nelson -- the American philosopher and sociologist(*) -- in 1963 when he was thinking about designing a universal, computerised word processor. With the prefix “hyper” he intended to emphasize that this is a kind of electronically stored text having fundamentally different structure from the traditional ones.
He presented his thoughts in 1965 to the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) conference about a word processor capable of supporting “non sequential” writing, and which could compare different versions of texts page by page, able to return to any of the previous versions. With the help of so called “connecting lists”, any unit of a given text could be linked to a similar unit of another text, with a link created between each.

Nelson’s idea was, in turn, a result of him having attended his teacher’s (Vannevar Bush) presentation about a computerized document processing system called Memex. Vannevar Bush was working as the scientific advisor of President Roosevelt in 1945. In this duty he had to coordinate the work of many thousand scientists. By reading linearly printed texts he was unable to make progress at the rate that his work required. In 1945 (a few months before the handing over of the first computer, ENIAC, was announced at a news conference) he drew up in his now famous article showing that the just as the human mind is more associative than linear, there would be great advantage in creating create a machine that could support this information arrangement.

"The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature. Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency." The tool MEMEX imagined by Bush is referred today as the intellectual ancestor of hypertext, however the appearance of “non linear” text structure is dated back much earlier. (**)

Nelson's presentation in 1965 did not create much interest because he was unable to support his ideas properly from a technical point of view. Computer scientist pronounced his ideas a daydream. In spite of this Nelson looked for sponsors, partners (computer programmers) and established the “Xanadu” project Over the next 20 years he with his workmates worked towards the realization of this dream. The technical solutions and underlying methods did not prove to be of value, in 1988 they convinced the company Autodesk to support the project. The software was completely redesigned and programs were rewritten but deadlines slipped badly. In 1992, months from completion, Autodesk went bankruptand financial support ended. Though he spent 29 years from 1965 to 1992 on the development, this was not enough for Nelson to prove that his idea could be fully realised, though he made many advances.

Meanwhile the English information technologist Tim Berners Lee (today the leader of World Wide Web Consortium) devised a simple plan for a World Wide Web of information, and presented it in 1989 to fellow physicists as CERN, in Geneva. His plans were accepted and as a result of the developments the World Wide Web (WWW) appeared in 1992. In 1993 CERN and MIT established the W3C consortium (Tim Berners Lee became its president) and shortly after the first graphic browser software -- MOSAIC -- was developed.

Ted Nelson did not like the WWW at all. In his criticism he pointed out that URL based identification is a much poorer solution than the one they had designed in XANADU. XANADU could have been able to identify all units, all letters, all picture fragments and the sound scraps of every document stored in the system, or on the 'net'. Perhaps it was this over ambition that held up progress?


Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a Canadian literature historian categorizes technical mediums into generation. The first generation mediums are simple extensions of biological sense organs. The second generation can be connected to the appearance of alphabetic handwriting, while the third is connected to the printing of books. The foundation of the fourth generation medium is analogue signal transformation. This covers the development of the radio, the telephone and the camera. Finally, with digital technology came the improvement of electronics and the creation of computers, and hence the establishment of fifth generation mediums.

In his books published in 1962 (The Gutenberg Galaxy) he postulated realtively heretical ideas that caused great controversy. He dared to question whether the closest educating medium to human nature was the written text or the printed book.

His other revolutionary statement was that technical mediums have such a great effect on society that they can change the forms or habits of human production, consumption and contact. In this way they are able to fundamentally influence the means of social development. “Medium is the message” that reformulates the world.

McLuhan did not fully back up his opinions, as would be expected from a scientific work. However through his avant-garde ideas he nevertheless generated mass reaction from his contemporaries – both pro and contra. The resulting disputes about his thoughts are not over yet. Prior to his work, no one had dared to criticize the positive aspects of writing and no one was thinking about how book printing had locked mankind into a visual world for centuries (pushing other sense organs in the process of knowledge acquisition into the background.). He also postulated the “typographic man” who was trapped in an artificial system of signs for centuries.

How is this all related to multimedia? Real pedagogy is mostly concerned with necessary and inevitable paradigm change. Education researchers have determined that, at this time in their development, neither multimedia nor e-learning can meet the levels of educational expectations claimed. The last word here goes to the respected scientist, Georg P. Landow. Though he does not give any recipe for the future, he does comfort us with the fact that our ancestors were not any better at transforming education than we are.

"First of all, such transitions take a long time, certainly much longer than early studies of the shift from manuscript to print culture led one to expect. Students of technology and reading practice point to several hundred years of gradual change and accommodation, during which different reading practices, modes of publication, and conceptions of literature obtained. According to Kernan, not until about 1700 did print technology "transform the more advanced countries of Europe from oral into print societies, reordering the entire social world, and restructuring rather than merely modifying letters". How long, then, will it take computing, specifically, computer hypertext to effect similar changes? How long, one wonders, will the change to electronic language take until it becomes culturally pervasive? And what byways, transient cultural accommodations, and the like will intervene and thereby create a more confusing, if culturally more interesting, picture?" (Georg P. Landow, 1992)

Let's try it! Exercises

Practical experience that assess the impact on learning of hypertext and hypermedia are realtively rare. Do any of your students use this technology when preparing their homework? If yes, do you think is useful or not?

Share your opinion with others on the forums.


1. J. Sugár: The medium of thinking, 1998 http://artpool.hu/hypermedia/index.html
2. Dr. Vannevar Bush: As We May Think, Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.
3. Marshall McLuhan: The Gutenberg Galaxy. The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press, 1962.
4. Georg P. Landow, 1991: Analogues to the Gutenberg Revolution,Johns Hopkins University Press 1992. (http://www.cyberartsweb.org/cpace/ht/jhup/contents.html )


*Ted Nelson's website: http://xanadu.com.au/ted/

**"Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage. Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ``memex'' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." (Vannevar Bush: 1945)