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The Synergy of Hypertext Theory and E-Learning

From the archives of TechCommGeekMom’s greatest hits from her grad school blog…

[I told you I was going to start posting these! Here’s the first of a few I’ll be posting from my grad school blog. This is one of the communication research papers I turned in for my Communications Research class. At least it’s about one of my favorite tech comm subjects, which is e-learning. –techcommgeekmom]

Hypertext theory, as the soul of interactive and mobile learning, has its foundation in how users interact with media as presented through technology. E-learning is based on the interaction of users interacting with technology in order to learn information. In this essay, hypertext theory will be explained, as well as how it lends itself well to e-learning and mobile learning.

The Origins of Hypertext Theory

Hypertext theory can say that it has its earliest origins in storytelling in some instances, as storytelling—in the spoken tradition—did not limit the storyteller through a linear journey and destination.  According to David Jay Bolter, nineteenth century writer Ludwig Wittgenstein was considered one of the first to have conceived of the notion of hypertext. Wittgenstein published his Philosophical Investigations in 1953 as a series of philosophical paragraphs that were not meant to necessarily be printed in a linear or hierarchal fashion, but rather interconnected in a way similar to a network and promulgated the earliest ideas about how hypertext theory worked (Bolter 108). Wittgenstein is given the credit because his was the first essay of its kind to be written in this manner.

David Jay Bolter and George Landow, contemporary theorists on hypertext theory, credit Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes for forwarding us through to the concept of hypertext theory. Landow wrote that Derrida and Barthes argued that researchers should leave behind the notions of the linear and the hierarchal means of disseminating information, and replace them with ones of ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks (Landow 1).  According to Dr. Norbert Elliott, noting that Landow is especially as the historian of hypertext, that Landow explained hypertext theory as a communication theory where “…the more we understand about hypertext the more we understand about what computers do to composing and the composing process, the more we can reflect back on literary theory (Elliot).” Elliot also paraphrases Bolter by stating that the exchange between the reader and the computer is different than reading regular text, as content written in a hypertext mode allows the reader to become part of the information processing event (Elliot).  The concept of using hypertext in a learning environment, then, lends itself very nicely into e-learning and mobile learning environments, because not only does the reader learn on a multitude of levels, but it also allows the reader to become a more interactive part of assimilating the information.

What is Hypertext Theory?

Hypertext theory accounts for the way people read content on the internet, including social media, and how they interpret information on computers rather than print. When considering the ontology of hypertext theory, it would seem that hypertext would require the constructionist point of view, because when looking at how it relates to new media communication, the use of hypertext constructs a means for extended communication of information beyond the linear or hierarchal. The epistemological consideration of the theory is that the use of hypertext easily extends the creation and growth of knowledge, because it allows the end-user of the information to look beyond through the use of hyperlinks to other subjects, and its non-linear layout allows the user to go well beyond the original content. The axiological consideration of the theory concentrates on the concept that the use of hypertext will make reading and gathering information more accessible to the masses as compared to conventional methods and in turn, will be able “…to activate the educational potential of hypertext, instructors must rethink and reconfigure the subjects, procedures, assignments and evaluation methods they use…(Landow 327).” Hypertext theory also takes into account several other theories, such as discourse, socio-cognitive and new media theories. In this respect, hypertext theory is a well-rounded view because it looks not only puts the reader in control of the intake of the content, it allows the reader to go beyond the original confines of the text itself.

The theory establishes a universal typology by dealing with the cognitive social relationships and individuals and through visual representations, such as the use of video and images as well as text. However, it is unclear if it allows us to gain insight due to the typology based on how content is displayed. This could change one’s perception, depending on how the content was laid out, and this would have an impact on learning information.

Since the main thrust of the theory deals with the idea of content not following a linear or hierarchal sequence unlike other theories, hypertext theory is one which does not postulate sequence. Landow spoke about the author’s relationship to the text producing asynchronous collaboration, forming as either a “…limited one inevitably appearing when readers choose their own ways through a branching text…” or one that “…appears only in a fully networked hypertext environment that permits readers to add links to texts they encounter (Landow 103).” Landow further asserts that in the end, particularly when one considers the World Wide Web, “…the editor, like the author, inevitably loses a certain amount of power and control (Landow 103).” An example of this that comes to mind is Wikipedia or wikis in general.  The relationships that are assumed in hypertext theory are those between the end-user and the rest of the world on the Internet. Almost anything and everything is available at one’s fingertips, so the variables are endless. The implication of this means that all data and information, in the end, is interconnected, and that ultimately the end users can choose the extent of how much information needs to be learned or choose the path to which they assimilate information. From an educational view, this provides students with more opportunity to not only learn required material, but look beyond and learn additional information related to the subject at hand on their own terms.

Landow points out that there are two main parts to the accessibility and operability of this theory. He asks, “First, does the Internet democratize information and empower users?” He answers that it does, providing an example that shows that anyone anywhere can access the same information, provided there is no governmental filtering like the regulations imposed in Singapore or China for search results and findings. He also asks whether the quality needed to access information is an important enough factor to distinguish media from one another (Landow 328). While this might suggest a kind of internationalism as a result, I see it less as internationalism but rather more universalism, in that all media—barring any filters that block the information by an outside party—is available to all end-users, and thus availability to infinite information empowers all end users to learn what they want to learn.

Impact in E-Learning

Landow defines hypertext theory further by demonstrating that there are three main points that promote educational freedom and empowerment. First, he points out that “…reader controlled texts permit students to choose their own way,” meaning that such texts allow users to explore as they wish. The second point shows that with this informational freedom, “…the sheer quantity of information the reader encounters, since that quantity simultaneously protects readers against constraint and requires them to read actively, [making the reader have] to make choices.” Last, but not least, he states, “…the reader also writes and links, for this power, which removes much of the gap in conventional status relations between reader and author, permits readers to read actively in a much more powerful way–by annotating documents, arguing with them, leaving their own traces.”  (Landow 327, 343) With the ability of the reader to control the direction of learning based on open choices that can fill in learning gaps, this certainly proves itself to be in line with educational thinking, especially when learning independently through e-learning and mobile learning.

The downfall of the use of hypertext in e-learning, according to Margaret Driscoll, is that with so many choices available through hyperlinking, a learner could get lost, and find it difficult to find their way back to the start. Additionally, she points out that the learner can be unpredictable in how they are in how they choose to hyperlink, as vital information could be missed in the process of hyperlinks overlooked. (Driscoll 155) While this is certainly a valid concern, the positives of interactive opportunities between learners and information available on the Internet outweigh these variables that can work against the learner in most circumstances.


Landow sums up hypertext theory well when he concluded, “As long as any reader has the power to enter a system and leave his or her mark, neither the tyranny of the center nor that of the majority can impose itself.  The very open-endedness of the text also promotes empowering the reader.” (Landow 343) It is this self-determination, this ability of the reader to independently determine the path of information to follow that allows hypertext theory to work so well when speaking of mobile or e-learning.  The finite constraints of printed text and static multimedia content limit learners from fully exploring the richness and vastness of information available globally. With the explanation of hypertext theory and the interrelation between readers and technology established, hypertext can easily be extended to its use in education, especially e-learning and mobile learning.  E-learning and mobile learning are able to take hypertext to the next level, by not only allowing students to be able to read content and learn information beyond the traditional static text, but with mobile learning in particular, that hypertext process is now limitless as far as the end-users location as well. As long as end-users have a device such as a smartphone or a tablet that can connect to the Internet, they can access any information about anything anywhere, and are not bound by anything except connectivity to the Internet.  With that infinite ability to access information through hypertext content, there is no limits to learning, nor are there any limits to allowing independent thought to be encouraged, as research can be accessed from as many sources as possible, encouraging the end-users to ultimately create their own conclusions rather than be limited to those of restricted resources.

Works Cited

Bolter, David Jay. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. 2nd ed. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

Driscoll, Margaret. Web-based Training: Creating e-Learning Experiences. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2002.

Elliot, Norbert. “Theory in Communication: Notes on the Traditions.” PTC 604 – Lecture 3 – Theory in Communication: Notes on the Traditions. iTunes, 18 September 2009. Web. 15 October 2011.

Landow, George. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and the New Media in an Era of Globalization. Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.


Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who currently employed at Cox Automotive, Inc., and freelances as her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, BASF North America, Merck, and Deloitte, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog,, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. She is very active in the STC, as a former chapter president for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter, and is currently serving on three STC Board committees. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog. All content is the owner's opinions, and does not reflect those of her employers past or present.

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