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May 13, 2011

The non-linear text

The institutional report we just turned in (enjoy) is a particular case of the non-linear text. It is designed, produced, and read differently than a linear document. NCATE has been long encouraging the so-called “electronic exhibit rooms.” Those were meant to save time and space, and make all documents available online. However, as M. Turner (2007) notices, experts often “offer learners a ‘flat’ body of text on screen that imitates the presentation of a paper document. But what is on screen is not a ‘page’ of text. It appears that a ‘page’ of text on screen is more difficult to make sense of than the same information presented on a printed page […] Linear content fails both to engage with the medium and, to use its unique expressive resources.” She claims that
[T]he starting point for writing online media needs to acknowledgment and embrace the medium’s different structure that is distributed rather than linear; and for the content to be constructed and presented to take advantage of that difference. The structure of the Internet, as an example of this type of media, is an ephemeral network of distributed nodes in potentially continuous connection. In this network there is no centre, no beginning or end and no certain direction—just islands of stored information; hosted it is true, on real hardware housed in a multitude of real buildings across the world, but the Internet itself is not a ‘thing’, in the way a book is a thing. (Turner 2007)
We all are only beginning to learn how to deal with the non-linearity of the information. There are no conventions, only the gut feeling on when to link and when not to link. We still tend to write in long sentences, and cannot produce website-friendly chunks of text. Those habits of mind that professional web masters learned perhaps a decade ago, are elusive to most of us, who do not build websites every day.

Several issues came up at different stages of production:        

1. Architecture. The website we produced has 1935 files in 122 folders. Of course, a couple hundred of them are not text – they are pictures, backgrounds, bullets, logs, style definitions, and other machinery that makes any website work. Several hundred are student work samples and course syllabi that all our programs graciously submitted. But the rest are text or data files. There is a limit to human ability to keep track of only so many documents. This makes possible the errors of redundancy – when text is re-produced, and in some cases versions of the same text may contradict each other. Every web designer knows to avoid redundant information, for it creates challenges for maintenance. To manage that, one can use a flat structure, where all files are in the same directory, or a hierarchical architecture, where everything is in folders and subfolders (Say, /Standard 1/St1Evidence/data). The hierarchy is much easier to navigate in production, because files can easily be found. It makes no difference to the reader. However, the flat structure encourages reusing of the same documents for multiple purposes. We ended up using a mixed design – documents of a similar kind – program reports, syllabi, student work samples – were in separate folders, while the main body of the report, documents and supplementary reports were flatly positioned in the main directory. Looking back, we should have used just a little more hierarchy (even though we had naming conventions, it was hard to remember what each file was called). For example, we should have a folder called assessment instruments, and samples of activities, etc. We did not have money to hire a professional web designer; learning curve is to be expected.
The challenge is to produce the most information-rich environment which requires the least amount of reading. I know our Reading faculty will object me saying this, but the new literacy is all about how to read less, and learn more. The non-linear text allows to write very briefly, and put most of text and data n the contingency pockets – in case the reader wants to learn more, or needs help understanding, or simply wishes to check the accuracy of information the writer provides. Skillful readers have always known how to scan and skip; the non-linear text allows all to do what only the best were able to do before. This is really the architectural challenge for the non-linear web-based text. Of course, NCATE does not know any of this, so they still expect a 30 page narrative. This confuses and discourages the writers from taking advantage of the non-linear writing. Even in fiction writing, only the most sophisticated of readers could read the allusions to the earlier parts of the story, and to larger cultural references. This is an important part of enjoying fiction – figuring out the allusions. But it also alienates children and less educated people. It makes serious writing an exclusive experience, a marker of class. But it does not have to be that way. If you are well-read, and encounter, say Ulysses as referring to the novel in your book, you just keep on reading. But someone else can digress, learn about it, and keep reading. All writing in all ages is already hyper-texted. It is just the case that many of these links are hidden – some on purpose, and some out of pride and arrogance.

2. Collaborative production. Different parts of the report were written by different people, some of it directly on the web. We had to limit the number of authors to avoid a complete chaos on the site. But then dozens of other people contributed to the report – they had to send us the information, we would then edit, format, and position on the site, link, etc. That is a tremendous waste of time and energy (thank God for low cost/high expertise labor of graduate assistants). In the next generation of report writing, all people would be able to submit their pieces directly onto the site, with a few people editing and linking these resources. That is the Wikipedia approach to text production. I wish it occurred to me eight months ago when we started; otherwise we would have done the report as a wiki book.  It would not look as fancy, but would be a lot more efficient in terms of labor. The budget office and the library director could just paste something on pages we created for them, or create their own pages. It is ironic, because I actually have an experience producing a wiki book with my students, and should have considered that option. The other advantage – my co-authors would not have to learn the Dreamweaver, which is actually a professional tool, not for amateurs like us. If you never use it again, it is a waste of time. Of course, we made a number of technical mistakes that all cost time to fix. Another lesson – I should have been the editor, and not write any parts of the report myself. There is a different mindset for each role, and it is a conflict to be both. We should have planned for much more editing time to avoid burning midnight oil, and develop an explicit set of instructions in what to look for.

3. Reading. The author used to have most of the power by structuring the text in a linear fashion, with a beginning and the end. Even if one wanted to skip a portion of the text, the rules of such skipping were laid out by the author who supplied a table of contents and the index page to guide the reader through the experience. Now the power balance has shifted radically toward the reader. She can move in any direction, including leaving the author’s text entirely, and going somewhere else. The boundaries between the author-produced and external text are almost completely obliterated. The color of your banner is the only thing that reminds the reader where he is. How any author does still manage to say what one wants to say? Who is responsible for accuracy of the information? It is even more important for the genre we were engaged in, the report writing. The non-linear text needs a test reader, someone who would examine it, and talk about one’s experiences, critique, and help organize the site. In linear text writing, most of us can easily imagine a reader, because we all have had much experience as readers. We cannot yet imagine a reader of non-linear text, who skips most of the text, hops around, comes back, scans rather then reads, and needs help staying focused on  the message we want to get across.

These are my linear thoughts on the non-linearity of the new written media. 

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