9(2), April 1993, pages 59-70

The Role of Hypermedia in Synthesis Writing

David B. Palumbo and Doris Prater

The spoken word, the written word, the still image, and the full-motion image are currently the most common vehicles for symbolizing and communicating ideas. Proponents of hypermedia, the associatively related, nonlinear interconnection of multimedia materials (such as text, audio, static images, and video images) are now claiming that a new technology-driven medium has emerged. If this assertion is true, then a variety of benefits will be derived. The long-term effects of the invention of writing suggest the impact that a new communication medium may provide (Dede & Palumbo, 1991).

One potentially powerful use of this new technology may be in providing new, rich environments that enhance student capacities in literacy. In hypermedia programs, the reader/writer is able to interact with different chunks of information and establish relationships among them. Windows on the screen are associated with objects in a database, and machine-supported links within and between documents allow for nonlinear organization of text. Particularly in the cognitively complex task of synthesis writing, or combining information from multiple sources, the facilitative effect of hypermedia-based external representations would appear to have promise.

To understand more clearly what hypermedia can provide, consider the following illustration of how information might be presented. Suppose that a text document of Henry IV, Part II is depicted on the computer screen. Other information could be connected to a word or passage in the text. For example, a geographic term might be linked to a map of the world as known in the late 1500s or events described in the text could be linked to original source documents such as Holinshed's Chronicles. Other words in the text might be linked to present-day definitions or examples. The reader would be able to access a visual image of the Globe Theatre, hear music from that era, or view period costumes. The title of the play could be linked to a video enactment of its dramatization displayed in another window. Particular passages in the play might be connected to critical reviews, both historical and contemporary. The information presented would allow a topic to be explored in multiple ways.

As this new technology is developed in instructional computing, synthesizing information from multiple sources will take on new dimensions. The role of this new technology in facilitating discourse synthesis needs to be examined.

Discourse Synthesis

Spivey (1984) coined the term discourse synthesis to describe a hybrid act of reading and writing in which the writer combines information from a variety of text sources. From a constructivist perspective, reading researchers have for some time suggested that a reader actively constructs meaning by connecting and integrating new information encountered in the text with prior knowledge. When writers are processing information from a variety of sources, this activity becomes even more complex. The process then includes the operations of selecting, organizing, and connecting information from these separate sources (Spivey, 1990; Spivey & King, 1989). Comprehension and composing interact and lead to the construction of new mental and textual representations by the writer. Unlike conventional knowledge representation approaches that focus on functional semantic relationships, writing focuses on syntactic expression of semantic constructs. Writers accessing a body of documents must create an external representation of a new text, which in turn has a communicative intent of its own. This type of writing frequently presents difficulties for writers of all ages and ability levels.

As Spivey and King (1989) point out, synthesis of information is important because readers cannot, or do not want to, retain all the information from sources. They select from the available content and search for relationships that can subsume all or large chunks of information and turn it into a summarized whole. In selecting, organizing, and connecting content from a variety of sources, learners fashion knowledge from information. Hypermedia has been characterized as non-linear prose, interactive print, or dynamic text. Whereas a flat database whose structure is fields of records contains only declarative (factual) knowledge, Carlson (1991) points out that the basic elements of nodes (chunks of text or graphics) and links (connections indicating a relationship) both contribute to hypermedia's ability to create knowledge from information. Nodes deconstruct the linear sequence of print and make possible recombinations. Links indicate the relationship among the nodes of information and create a conceptual map. This new medium encourages synthesis.

It would appear that a particularly strong connection can be made between synthesis writing and new computer-based technologies, specifically hypermedia. Both synthesis writing environments and hypermedia environments support the cognitive demands of knowledge construction.

Ackerman (1991) suggests that the relevance or scope of the writers' prior knowledge will vary according to their intentions, their representations of the composing task, and their repertories of rhetorical and linguistic strategies. Further, the mix of topical, disciplinary, and world knowledge will be procedural as well as declarative. The composer's prior experience and learning will serve rhetorical purposes and functions as well as provide a network of related ideas supporting comprehension. Synthesis writing combines aspects of both reading and writing and, in addition, requires the writer to reshape ideas to fit their intentions.

The primary purpose of a written synthesis is to describe the structure and relationships among various authors and to simplify those relationships in such a way that general statements can be made. These statements lead to economies of memory, to the description of general laws, or to the generation of insights such as hypotheses for research or solutions to problems (Sokal, 1974).

Characteristics of Hypermedia

Slatin (1990) points out several fundamental differences between reading and writing in a hypermedia environment as compared with a traditional, linear environment. In the traditional, linear environment, a writer expects to "begin at the beginning" and "end at the end" and to be able to readily define which is which. Likewise, readers expect to predict what will happen next.

In the more freely structured environments allowed by hypermedia, such distinctions are not as easily defined. There are no predefined beginning and ending points to a particular hyperdocument. There is the possibility that both the writer and the reader may become lost in the complexity of multiple pathways of information access allowed in such systems. Yet such complexity is accompanied with tremendous potential. Linear presentations are often criticized for their predictive nature. Writing that is too predictable offers the reader no surprises.

Hypermedia is often praised because such systems may contain information from different presentation media (other than text). Both the writer and the reader have access not only to different types of information but to an increased amount of information. Yet Slatin (1990) points out that this is not the crucial component of hypermedia. The major difference is that hypermedia exists as an online, evolving environment in which users can be seen as both readers and writers. Reading in hypermedia environments is a discontinuous process, which, like thinking, is associative in nature. This differs from the sequential process inherent in conventional text environments. In hypermedia, readers can begin at a point of their choosing, progress at their own pace, follow their own pathways, and exit, not at the point predefined by an author, but where they choose. In essence, every user can define his or her own beginning and ending point as well as the sequence of material in between.

The potential power of hypermedia applications to synthesis writing can be more fully explored by examining its unique characteristics as discussed by Collier (1987, p. 270). Among these points are the following:

  1. Printed knowledge is inherently linear and often has arbitrary ordering focused on it by the print medium. Hypermedia systems eliminate such constraints in the presentation of information, allowing users to browse more freely through a data structure.
  2. Links enable semantically and logically related information to be tied together in conceptual webs. Using this representational architecture allows hypermedia systems to mirror some of the associational power of human memory.
  3. Linear information systems support only part of the potential web of interconnections. Authors choose which interconnections to present based on a hypothetical 'typical' user. Since the prior knowledge, experiences, and learning style of all potential readers cannot be accommodated, many users may be unable to adequately transfer desired information into their cognitive structures; the appropriate semantic relationships may be missing. Hypermedia, on the other hand, holds the potential for users to access tools by which they can construct personalized transitions between the information to be accessed and their cognitive structure. This would truly individualize the information environment.

The nonlinearity of the knowledge base, the potential for establishing unique, logically related conceptual webs, and the fact that the knowledge base is not constrained by a particular interpretation are powerful tools that will allow hypermedia environments to promote synthesis writing (Slatin, 1990).

Problem Solving, Knowledge Presentation, and Knowledge Construction

Cognitive theorists such as Hayes and Flower (1980) and Scardamalia and Bereiter (1986) have found useful analogies between writing and problem solving. Hayes and Flower propose a model of writing that divides the composing process into planning, translating, and reviewing. Planning involves the generation of ideas. These ideas are selected and arranged to create a plan that controls the process of actual text production, which is called translating. The Hayes and Flower model characterizes expert composing as an heuristic search through a space consisting of mental representations of possible text.

In synthesis writing, the search for possible text extends beyond one's own personal knowledge base and experience to combine information from multiple external sources. To accomplish the task of synthesis writing successfully, the writer must move from mere "knowledge telling"--the term Scardamalia and Bereiter (1986, p. 792) use for a simplified version of the generating stage of the Hayes and Flower model--to construction of a new text that combines the knowledge from a variety of sources into one. Ideally, this synthesis moves from a combination of "knowledge tellings" to knowledge construction as the new text is formed.

Scardamalia and Bereiter (1986) suggest that immature writers manage to cope with the difficulties of composition by converting all writing tasks into tasks of telling what one knows about a topic. As long as they follow a knowledge-telling strategy, they will never become successful writers. The principal weakness of a knowledge-telling strategy is that it does not contain provisions for explicit formulation and pursuit of goals, thus limiting the writer's ability to realize intentions through writing. A major difficulty identified by Scardamelia and Bereiter is to find school contexts that support writing goals other than knowledge display and self-expression.

Just as the cognitive demands of writing can range from simple retelling of information to construction of new mental and textual representations, the current applications of hypermedia technology vary. These applications can range from presentational tools to construction tools.

Hypermedia as a Presentation System

As a presentation system, the ability of hypermedia applications to exhibit information in a multimedia framework is emphasized. In fact, much of the excitement of lower-end hypermedia systems, such as HYPERCARD and SUPERCARD, tends to focus on their multimedia aspects rather than on the nonlinear attributes critical to any hypermedia application (Slatin, 1990).

This emphasis on hypermedia as a presentation system is exemplified in Oren's (1987) discussion positing that the designers of hypermedia applications should focus on constructing the most useful pathway for users to proceed through the information in a particular data structure. Oren's position is that hypermedia design should anticipate the needs of the learner and present information accordingly. However, hypermedia applications employed as vehicles for capturing, structuring, and presenting information will not necessarily be used to their fullest potential. For that to occur, the instructional process within hypermedia will need to become more formal.

A key claim of hypermedia proponents is that these systems will be effective as a teaching medium: Users can access a large knowledge base and seek out information that meets their particular needs, in terms of both their prior knowledge and their preferred learning styles. The development of systems to achieve these ends seems possible. However, simply providing an advanced presentation system, or even a more elaborate information storage and retrieval system that parallels the way that the human brain represents knowledge, does not guarantee that more effective or efficient learning will occur (Locatis, Letourneau, & Banvard, 1989).

A more constructivist environment--where the user not only browses the information base but also has the ability to build additional nodes and links--holds more promise to promote learning. The student's role as the maker of knowledge must be acknowledged. In summarizing writing, the writer must accomplish three cognitive/linguistic tasks according to Annis (1985): orienting attention toward the task, recording the information in the text in one's own words, and making connections between the new material and one's prior knowledge. As the writer works through these tasks, she or he constructs meaning.

Flood and Lapp (1991) argue that summary writing in its various forms is one of the best vehicles available for implementing a constructivist, process-oriented approach to teaching reading comprehension. Furthermore, Spivey and King (1989) point out that as writers synthesize information from multiple sources, they must participate in and contribute to an intertextual web of ideas. This web is transformed by key selecting, connecting, and organizing criteria and strategies.

In implementing such constructivist approaches to reading/writing instruction, the role of new technologies must be to provide support while allowing the student to take ownership of the learning. The student must internalize rules and strategies for meaning making as well as for accessing information in order for such an environment to move from knowledge presentation to knowledge construction.

One key to such environments is the level of interactivity promoted by the system. Although a system that provides the user with a choice of direction in terms of information presentation does promote some level of user control, and therefore interactivity, such interaction is focused at a basic level. On the other hand, a system that also challenges the user to connect information actively to other nodes, to add additional information, and even to question and/or extend the relationships defined by the hypermedia designer provides a higher level of interactivity. Many hypermedia systems support such an environment, yet little has been done to promote this obvious advantage.

To facilitate the movement of hypermedia systems from presentation systems toward instructional systems, more attention should be placed on the underlying process required for human knowledge representation. It is not sufficient to present information on a computer screen and assume that this will be accurately, adequately, and completely transferred to the knowledge base of the learner. Even multiple modes of presentation (a current theme of hypermedia proponents) do not assure such transfer.

Problems and Possibilities

If hypermedia is to live up to its potential to support synthesis writing, a number of key issues must be addressed collaboratively by educators in the fields of instructional computing and English/language arts. The issues are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Issue #1
The optimal degree of user-centered control needs to be addressed. The opportunity to create unique relational links and pathways through information must be balanced with the possible disorientation of the reader/writer. As hypermedia knowledge bases grow, the sheer amount of information inherent in them can be overwhelming. Many hypermedia developers are beginning to consider various navigational aids and representation structures that will diminish the possibility of users becoming "lost in hyperspace" (Dede & Palumbo, 1991, p. 15).

To achieve the full potential of hypermedia systems, developers should aim to empower users to actively construct information via typed linkages. Neuwirth and Kaufer (1989) point out, however, that the very potential strength of hypermedia--improving the management of loose collections of relatively unstructured information--has turned out to be a major potential weakness. Even highly skilled writers frequently focus on details at the expense of larger goals and attend to information that plays no role in later problem-solving (Neuwirth & Kaufer, 1989).

Development efforts explicitly concerned with writing tasks have been undertaken to create mechanisms for managing the loose collections of unstructured information. These include the use of hierarchical structures (Englebart & English, 1981; Neuwirth & Kaufer, 1989; Smith, Weiss, & Ferguson, 1987), the development of special link types for authors and reviewers (Trigg, 1983), and the construction of specialized interfaces for authoring that promote the nonlinear aspects of hypermedia as well as more linear presentation systems for conveying the information to readers (Trigg & Irish, 1987; van Lehn, 1985). Of these, the latter type seems particularly appropriate for the integration of hypermedia and synthesis writing instruction.

Issue #2
Current directions in hypermedia development may focus too heavily on the presentational features and storage/retrieval capabilities necessary for sophisticated representational systems. Developmental research in creating such constructive systems would be more strongly grounded in the psychological literature on learning and transfer than in the human factors and technological design communities.

Such research needs to focus on critical issues of knowledge construction and knowledge transfer. Particular emphasis is needed on the extent to which users can manipulate the knowledge base by adding nodes and/or links. Because much of the potential for hypermedia knowledge construction is based on the development of the learner's mental model of a particular domain, issues involving incorrect or incomplete mental models need further study.

Issue #3
Prerequisite knowledge of the learner must be considered. Current implementations of hypermedia as individualized learning environments presume the existence of specific prerequisite knowledge and the ability of the learner to draw successfully from that knowledge. However, because these required mental models are inherently incomplete for the novice learner/writer, information presentation systems will not successfully accommodate their construction of correct and complete mental models in the desired domain. In synthesis writing, the learner also needs to bring a minimum repertoire of rhetorical and linguistic strategies appropriate to the writing task.

Although there is a continuum between novices and experts in a particular knowledge area, a bipolar distinction between experts and nonexperts is appropriate in interpreting the potential of hypermedia as a learning tool. Problems with cognitive overload, user disorientation, superficial browsing and disinterest often reported by users of hypermedia may well center on the issue of the user's level of experience. Thus, while current hypermedia systems may well decrease the cognitive load of those users closer to the expert end of the continuum, they may well increase the load on users less familiar with the content of the knowledge base or the navigation of nonlinear structures. Even more devastating would be if such systems would promote the development of incorrect mental models for novice learners, which would then prove difficult to correct or modify (Fisher & Lipson, 1985; Palumbo, 1990).

Issue #4
Emerging information systems must be capable of representing information in more diverse ways than simple text. Hypermedia, with its multimedia capabilities, seems an ideal method for allowing retrieval of textual, graphic, auditory, animated, and image-based information.

Current proponents of database-oriented hypermedia development stress other benefits that nonlinearity offers in this area. These include the capabilities to mix both highly structured and loosely structured information, to allow for multiple representations of the same information, and to enable the extension of an information base in ways that may not conform to its original data structure (Marshall, 1987).

In the writing classroom, we need to assess the potential of multimedia environments as compared with traditional textual media. Currently, multimedia processors (such as MEDIATEXT, developed by the HiCE group at the University of Michigan) are being touted as replacements for conventional word-processing packages. Such environments allow the user to enter textual information as well as static graphics, sounds, and video. Research is needed regarding the potential for these environments in our educational system, specifically if writing process theory will contribute to their successful infusion.

Issue #5
Appropriate material for the hypermedia knowledge base must be selected. Although it is conceivable that in the future all information will be accessible in nonlinear, associatively related knowledge bases, such systems are not currently available. Decisions, therefore, must be made as to the starting point of the infusion of these technologies into reading/writing instruction. To develop a knowledge base of sufficient depth and breadth so that users fully benefit from the potential of hypermedia will require a tremendous front-end investment both in time and in resources.

It is worthwhile to point out that the concept of such systems is not new. Bush (1945) envisioned such systems as an integral part of our functioning society. Four decades later, computer technologies of sufficient power are available. Still, choices must be made as to the initial developmental emphases of hypermedia systems.

Criteria for the initial development of hypermedia knowledge bases that support synthesis writing might include the breadth and depth of the domains selected, the dynamic nature of some knowledge domains, and the overall importance of the information collected. For example, some domains of knowledge may involve relatively static, rule-based systems (i.e., Newtonian physics statistics, or the study of phonics) while other domains are more dynamic and open to multiple interpretations and perspectives (i.e., quantum mechanics, thematic literature, or historical events). Furthermore, domains that are likely to be of interest only temporally may not be worth the time investment required to develop materials.


There seems to be sufficient overlay between the requirements of synthesis writing environments and potential hypermedia environments to warrant efforts to merge the two endeavors. As our society moves headlong into the information age, we need to provide individuals with the tools to contribute successfully. These tools are both cognitive and technological. As the sheer volume of information continues to grow exponentially, the skills of information access, assimilation, and synthesis will become crucial if our society is to advance. Technologies to store and retrieve information efficiently will also be essential. Novel problem solving based on access to information will become a necessary job skill (Dede, 1991).

Synthesis writing is more than combining information from a variety of sources. Rather, it is the creation of a new whole from parts. It involves not the discovery of meaning, but the creation of meaning. If we are to meet the demands of the information age successfully, there needs to be more explicit emphasis on higher order cognitive development; and, emerging computer-based technologies can facilitate this process.

Doris L. Prater and David B Palumbo teach at the University of Houston, Clear Lake.


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