Hypertextualized futurism

Posted: March 31, 2008 in Futurism, Pedagogy, writing

The other day I was reading a book about computers and writing (Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age) and got to thinking about hypertext. This led me back to my own post about screen readers and a thought about text books. I’ve helped to write one text book so far, and it seems likely that I will be doing so again in the not too distant future. When writing this first one, price was a major concern. Books cost too much, especially considering that many students never even open them, or that some classes require as many as 10 books.

When I was still an undergrad, I remember paying about $200-300 every semester for books. Of course, I was a philosophy major, so very few of my books were text books (and I had a 10% employee discount from my father). It was not unusual for my friends to pay as much as $400-500 every semester. This is why screen readers made me think of saving money for students. But I think I’ve come up with another way.

Earlier this year, the person I helped to write the text book suggested that we would use it for a year or two, then write a new edition with appropriate changes, corrections, and additions.

Now, the book costs more than I think it should already (this is the fault of the publisher; we made it as concise as possible with as few permissions as we could). The changes being proposed are substantive; students will need the newer edition. So one semester’s students won’t be able to sell their book back and another won’t be able to buy books used.

This, and my thoughts about hypertext, crossed over one another. (Maybe you saw this coming. If so, that just means my reasoning is clear). What if someone wrote a hyper-text book. That is, a text book online in hypertext. Students could pay for a password, one that would forever grant them access to the book. As the authors desired, they could update the book, and every edition would be the same price as the first. There wouldn’t be any selling back, but there wouldn’t need to be. All the work is done by the writers (ie, no publisher save for possibly the web server), so overhead costs are very low. It only needs to be produced once for each revision.

In addition to price, this would have several pedagogical benefits. Hypertext allows non-linear writing. As the book mentions something important but not immediately relevant, a link could appear. Students could ‘play’ on the site, and read the book in any order they wished. Every time they had a problem, they could look for that problem and use it as a base to jump off into other topics and suggestions.

It’s an ambitious project, almost a wikipedia for an academic classroom. But because it’s so easy to update, it can benefit from user testing along the way. Every time a student has a problem that isn’t covered in the book, a new essay could be produced to answer that specific problem. The essay could be woven into the book, and suddenly it’s that much better. After a few years of this, I imagine a comprehensive text would be complete, one that answers virtually every question and solves virtually every problem a student might have. But the best part is that the book would NOT then be printed; it would remain so that the few additional problems that come up could be solved. It could be updated to make sense with the changing times, the new technologies, and the new media. When the next new media develops (whatever it is), the book can just be transfered there, or at least develop an extension into it.

Basically, this would produce a text book that students could access virtually for free (at least comparatively) and one that would be the most accessible and usable text book those students had ever encountered.

One last note on new media: I think that predicting what the next new media will be is a fool’s errand. I don’t think that people could have predicted the jump from radio to record, or to television, or to the computer. In retrospect, the developments look obvious. But there are countless examples of people attempting to predict even the next stage of the computer and failing miserably. (Aasimov thought that computers would always be huge and use tapes, for one).

So I think the only prediction that is likely to come true is this: Whatever the new media is, it will be something that I can’t yet imagine, but that will seem so obvious when it arrives that I’ll say ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ It’ll happen organically, and after a few years it’ll be common place, but I’ll start saying things that mark me as a member of an older generation (‘In my day, we had to work on two dimensional screens’ or ‘when I was younger, our computers weren’t quantum, and we had to wait to get answers to our questions’) and I’ll likely even say these things as if I thought that it was better before this new technology ‘ruined everything.’ Of course, it won’t, as Steven Johnson argues (Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter).

  1. Shrivel says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Shrivel!!!

  2. cogitas says:

    You say lost in translation… is there any way I could better explain it for you, any questions you have?

    Thanks for visiting and complimenting my blog, by the way.

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