Hyperlinked information versus hierarchical information.

Does your teaching impose on pupils a silo-based hierarchical view of information? Presenting information that would be better viewed as a complex inter-linked web of related facts. Or to put this more simply, do you teach to a textbook which by it's very nature has to be organised sequentially, chapter after chapter?

A really nice guy called Roy Stringer, who was Hypermedia Architect for Amaze and who unfortunately died far too early, spoke at one the Apple European Education Conferences in 1996.

In designing digital learning materials he was most concerned about the user rather than the provider of the content. This led him to think hard about how to organise the information the learner would need to access. The conclusion he had come to was that complex sets of information were best organised around a 3D shape, specifically a dodecahedron. Why a dodecahedron? Because every node is only one click away from 4 or 5 other nodes, and any of the 12 nodes is a maximum of only two clicks away. Digital can do things that paper cannot.

This conclusion implies that he was thinking about the inter-relatedness of the information as more important than hierarchical or linear organisation of information. How many times have you found yourself studying something complex and unable to really understand it without going sideways to some other concept that you need to understand better, before you can properly understand what you are working on? You can’t get away from the fact that knowledge is inter-related. There are very few areas of knowledge where one concept on its own provides the basis for understanding a next-stage concept.

The particular example he used to illustrate what he was saying was a DVD that Amaze were producing as a learning resource for immunology - one of the most complex areas of medicine. Roy had gone to meet with the prime world expert on immunology; the guy who had written the standard textbook, in use by students in the majority of medical schools. Roy asked him to structure everything that students need to know about immunology into 12 topics - to fit the 12 nodes of the dodecahedron. This request created an argument; the standard textbook had 24 chapters and the expert just could not get his mind around reorganising the information in a different way. This was his life’s work and much effort and thought had gone into how to organise the information to be presented. And the answer was 24 chapters. They parted without agreement and with no idea how the contract to produce the digital learning resource would be progressed.

About a week later Roy received a telephone call from the expert.

“Will 14 topics do” were the opening words from the expert. Roy’s logic about how users needed to cross-refer across the whole body of knowledge had so challenged him that in the intervening week he had completely re-thought his understanding of immunology. He had re-structured how he thought about it and linked it all together. I’m going to challenge educators to do something similar in a few paragraphs, to give you a feeling for the amount of effort and thought this involved.

But before I do, I must mention the next bit of Roy’s creativity in the organisation of this area of knowledge. Each of the (now 14) nodes had a 3-minute animated video giving an overview of the topic at this node. These were extremely dense videos, and if you could watch all 14 videos and understand everything that was presented, then you could say you understood immunology thoroughly. And the videos were hot-spotted, so that when there was something you didn’t understand you could pause the video and link directly to that topic.

These video stories were more important than completeness of information. Stories communicate; they are memorable. In knowing the story you can take some statements on trust while exploring others in depth. And you can always go back and fill in the gaps in your understanding. How often do teachers teach about a small part of the overall story, without helping pupils see the bigger story?

A couple more implications for education for you to think through.

If you are a teacher or school leader the way the curriculum is organised controls a lot of what you do. In the UK that means 10 national curriculum subjects and some sub-divisions in those. But these subjects were set in stone a century ago. Very many of the most interesting current areas of knowledge now fall down the cracks or chasms between the subjects. For example, working in modern technology involves pretty much equal competence in physics, maths and design&technology. The most interesting and active areas of science currently are not the traditional 3 areas of physics, chemistry and biology, but biochemistry, physiology and genetic engineering. If you teach languages, you probably think of written language, oral language and pictorial language in separate silos. The reality is that language young people are immersed in is multimedia.

Spend a bit of time thinking about whether the current school curriculum sub-divisions of knowledge are now most appropriate, or whether they should change. It is said that some of the best computer programmers are people who have studied linguistics. Concepts like energy pervade many subjects. An argument can be made that what happened in history and currently happens in the world (geography) is the study of how people strive and interact socially within the constraints of resources, locality and weather. And I remember a Maths adviser who wanted to stop the teaching of maths for five years, on the basis that in that time numeracy would come to be taught across all the subjects that needed it, then allowing mathematics to be re-introduced as the area of knowledge and study that it should be.

Or think of this from the point of view of a pupil doing a piece of work that will be presented through hyper-linked multimedia. The value of the information the student has sourced and the quality of how they organise it depends entirely on the use that others can make of it. To insist that it should be organised against a historically determined curriculum is to deny the relation of education to the realities of the world pupils are living in - unless that curriculum structure and organisation can be shown to be truly relevant in the current world.

The core truth here is that basing an education system around a set body of knowledge structured in a particular way is past its sell-by date. The amount of knowledge has been exploding for decades. Back in the 1990s when I worked with the computer designers at Acorn, the half-life of an electrical engineer’s knowledge was said to be 18 months. In that period they would have to learn a new half of the knowledge they currently needed to do their job. I hesitate to think what their half-life of knowledge now is.

The big black cloud that is stopping education responding to this kind of very deep change being catalysed by digital is assessment. If we were to move from assessing knowledge against a set curriculum structure, to assessing how knowledge was marshalled and presented to enable users to do what they need to do, how could we do this practically and economically, and in a standardised way so that qualifications have wide currency?