UniServe Science News Volume 9 March 1998


Developing Software to Support the Collaborative Use of Hypertext in Learning

Stephen Provost,
Department of Psychology, University of Newcastle

The tension between science and practice in Psychology presents some interesting and unusual challenges for the university academic. Psychology is the scientific study of behaviour and its causes, but it is also the name of a profession whose goal is the improvement of human welfare through the use of these scientific principles. Psychology programmes are accredited by the Australian Psychological Society (APS), which has promoted a "scientist-practitioner" model of the discipline, ensuring that both aspects of the discipline are represented within any programme with an emphasis on the scientific knowledge base at an undergraduate level. Getting this balance right is not an easy task: an undergraduate programme which focuses heavily on the scientific understanding of psychology may meet APS requirements but find itself under some pressure from students and other stakeholders to be more "applied", while one which pays more attention to professional training may find itself under uncomfortably close scrutiny from the APS accreditation team. Finding the right mix of science and practice is an issue which has exercised most academic psychologists minds at some point in time.

This CAUT funded project involved students enrolled in a conventional psychology subject with a clear emphasis upon the scientific basis of the discipline (PSYC311, Associative Learning). One component of their assessment required the students to participate in the collaborative development of a hypertext document on any topic relevant to the subject. Hypertext is non-linear text, and it requires the author(s) to consider how texts may be connected in order to provide the reader with a pathway, or pathways, through the material. The intention of collaborative hypertext is to "force" students to consider the relationship between their work and others, in order to successfully link the group's documents. This should create an environment in which a superior understanding comes about through the social processes engaged by the common task which, in an ideal situation, models the ways by which academic material is created and disseminated (see, for examples, Barrett 1992).

Students received instruction in writing hypertext markup language (HTML) documents for delivery on the World Wide Web (WWW) in two, two-hour long laboratory sessions. Only one student in the class was familiar with HTML, and about half of the students had "surfed" the WWW on previous occasions. They were then organised into groups and began work on a topic of relevance to the subject. The only instructions were that each person should produce at least a couple of "screenfulls" of information for the group, and that each group should then organise itself around whatever work was necessary to link these documents into a single hypertext. During the semester two further laboratories were set aside for problem-solving on this task as well as other assessed tasks in the subject. During the final laboratory session students gave a brief presentation on their work, and submitted the final HTML document for assessment.

Following the presentation students were asked to complete a questionnaire evaluating the HTML project, as well as attitudes to technology, and teaching in the subject, as well as providing some demographic information. Students enjoyed the collaborative hypertext project, and believed that it had enhanced their understanding of the subject. Their evaluation of teaching reflected this positive attitude to the HTML design. However, those students with a negative attitude to technology tended to like the collaborative hypertext project less, and also tended to be less complimentary about teaching.

Some examples of the students' work may be found at

Although the work was generally of a higher standard than I would have expected in essays or lab reports, the most impressive feature of almost all of the hypertexts was the students' ability to integrate the scientific information with their interests in the practice of psychology, rather than enhanced understanding. The hypertext medium had also allowed them to demonstrate an ability to "pitch" their work for quite disparate audiences, including the lay public. The hypertexts created by these students encapsulate the importance of understanding the scientific basis of associative learning for psychological practice, freeing me to focus upon the content of the subject area. Finally, the quality of the HTML was quite astounding, given the level of instruction received. This last feature was almost irrelevant from an assessment perspective, but students had spent considerable effort, outside normal class times, in acquiring these skills. This project was certainly the most enjoyable experience I have had in undergraduate teaching, and I hope that it has left the students with some useful skills and ideas to consider. Further information regarding this project will be provided at the Web Workshop being planned by UniServe Science on 17-18 April.

Barrett, E. (1992). Sociomedia: An introduction. In E. Barrett (Ed.), Sociomedia: Multimedia, hypermedia, and the social construction of knowledge (pp. 1-10). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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UniServe Science News Volume 9 March 1998

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