The humble hyperlink has now had a profound effect on learning. It is the ‘warp drive’ of online learning. You can find, locate, explain, look, buy, sell, bid, follow, friend; literally go at hyper-speed to new worlds. We now do it without thinking, in every Google search, Facebook update and Tweet. It is the springboard to further knowledge and takes you in leaps to people, places, products and pleasures you would never have dreamed off before the coming of the web.
Knowledge is not held in our minds alphabetically or in a linear or hierarchical menu structure. Knowledge is held in different ways, procedural, episodic, semantic, and called up into working memory, but it is fundamentally a neural network, physically and representationally. A hyperlinked representation of knowledge is therefore a much more useful learning tool as it reflects this structure and allows us to learn new knowledge structures that fit into our existing pre-requisite networks. These networks are personal and hyperlinked networks allow us to move through knowledge in a way that fits our existing structures, expectations and intentions. The brain is hyperlinked and so knowledge needs to be for efficient learning.
Knowledge wants to be free
You can tell that knowledge wanted to be free from the tyrannical, linearity of print by the evolution of the page itself, page numbers, footnotes, appendices and indexes, all things we find in print used to find things quickly, follow up, expand on a topic or go off and find another suitable text. These physical link devices, in print, show a yearning for hyperlinks long before they were actionable on the web. This yearning is driven by curiosity and learning.
Break with linear past
Hyperlinks are therefore profound in that they make a break with the largely linear past. Print, film, television and radio are not neutral in terms of their pedagogy. They are linear media that instil linear habits in learners. Books are greatly loved but their linear format and print publishing formats, it has been argued, have led to long linear formats that trap learners into a specific view by a specific author. Long reading lists have become the norm in Higher Education, which is more process than pedagogy. I have argued that this ‘reading’ of texts from lecterns led directly to the one hour, uninterrupted, linear lecture, which is a pedagogic dead-end. Broadcast television led to half hour and one hour formats that were blown apart by YouTube, Khan and TED. Overlong formats tied to schedules. Similarly with radio, freed by podcasts. Both video and audio have been time shifted and can be used by learners where and when they want to.
Further opportunities for learning
At one level hyperlinks can be used for simple clarification by linking to the meaning of a word or glossary definition. More expansively they can link to citations or other links on the web. However, their real force is in following your line of inquiry into more detail. Far from being a shallow medium, the web offers much depth through such links. Wikipedia has lots of useful links making it a network of knowledge, unlike paper encyclopaedias, arranged alphabetically. This makes the knowledge base more useful as there’s not only more opportunity for further research, it’s faster and one can get back in a click.
Social media and links
Hyperlink holds the web and networks together, the links between content and people. It’s the ‘social’ glue in social networking that hold people and people together. Facebook and Twitter are packed with hyperlinks and people tweet links as a matter of course. Social media is hyperlinking.
Adding a hashtag (#) to a string of letters in Twitter e.g. #todaysevent brings Tweets under that name together, so that you can click on or search for what’s being said under that topic. This is what allows things to trend. This takes hyperlinking to a new level, acting as metadata for a search. It not only aids search, it has allowed people to Tweet learning conferences, talks, lectures etc. and others to read their tweets, amplifying the event. Similarly, with @donaldclark, used to tag Tweeters. This is hyperlinking to streams of past and live content.
Web and links
Links were seen by Tim Bernard Lee as a fundamental part of HTML. He understood the importance of links as a navigational feature from within documents and screens. The cleverness of a hyperlink is that it can leap to a URL, webpage or place within a webpage, even a file or page within a PDF file. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) attribute a font, colour and style, even have a hover box. It is important that hyperlinks are clearly differentiated on screens and it is good design practice in online learning to avoid images and words that look like they hyperlink but don’t.
The web of things connects objects with embedded computers. This is everything from mobile phones, household appliances, clothes, cars, sensors and so on. These are already used to control household energy consumption. Work is being done on wirelessly, linked devices such as Tricorders that record vital physiological signs, even blood analysis for dynamically gathering data about your health. Protocols have already been developed for such links. This has interesting possibilities in learning as it extends the reach of simulations and learning by doing.
Invisible adaptive hand
But something far more radical has happened with hyperlinks. Google and other large scale web companies, like Facebook an Amazon, have algorithms that harvest links and their use. The quality and quantity of links matters and that data is used to refine search and drive recommendation engines. So, behind the scenes, links are used to improve search and recommendations and therefore improve the speed and quality of learning experiences.
This is the promise of ‘adaptive’ learning, from companies like Cogbooks, where algorithms get to ‘know’ your pre-requisites and needs, then deliver learning to you, like a SatNav, keeping you going in the right direction and getting you back on course when you go astray or get stuck.
Hyperlink as MOOP
As a MOOP (Massive Online Open Pedagogy), the pedagogic power of hyperlinks is immense. They are immediately available to the learner at the appropriate point in their personal learning experience, can immediately link to any other point in any other digital asset, reducing research time, and the learner can get back through the browser to the point of departure. Hyperlinks are automated, research pathways, available to the curious and critical learner. It fees learners from the linear constraints of print and reaches out into links to other media, such as video, animation, graphics, images and audio, greatly expanding the possibilities for more efficient learning. They also work behind the scenes in search and recommendation engines to improve the power of the learning experience for the individual.
There is, of course, the danger that we suffer in learning from having too many links and therefor too many choices. We've all, at some time, found ourselves linking and vectoring away across the web and not having gained much. While this is true, the freedom of choice is largely a positive thing in learning. It frees us from fixed, linear narratives and opens up the possibility of multiple sources and a breadth and depth of opportunities unknown in our history. It is a far more natural way of dealing with new learning as it matches the way our brains learn. In all of these senses it is irreversibly positive.
Like all great technology the humble hyperlink has become so well loved and used that it has become all but invisible. We use them constantly but are barely aware of their immense power. They are literally intuitive extensions from the web that is our brain to and from the web and eventually to the internet of things. Above all, hyperlinks enable personalised learning. It’s wonderfully simple and may turn out to be one of the greatest inventions in the history of communications and learning.