8(1), November 1990, pages 99-103

Software Review
A Hypertext Program

Reviewed by Richard B. Larsen

What Is Hypertext?

Hyper seems to be the "in" prefix these days. It appears in everything from sports medicine (hyperextensions) to the latest in software (hypereverything, beginning with HYPERCARD for the Macintosh). As applied to computers in the classroom, hyper has to do with interconnected files, visual-component relational databases, and accessibility to cross-referenced areas of knowledge. Now there is a relatively new hyperstar on the microelectronics horizon: hypertext.

Basically, hypertext provides a new way of getting at knowledge: recursively, non-linearly, even, to some extent, intuitively. It may be, in fact, just what one of its developers claims: "a radical innovation that goes far beyond the traditional linear view of data (rolled-paper mentality) to linking and cross-referencing ideas, relationships, footnotes." It is most certainly a legitimate educational use of the computational speed and memory capabilities of the computer, providing instant access to interrelated parts of text.

A properly designed hypertext program is like a giant web of knowledge with many intersections, or nodes. The user can go to and from these nodes at the speed of lightning--or to be more accurate, at the speed of a microprocessor. After the user visits all of the nodes, he or she then has a complete understanding of the topic, theoretically. Hypertext thus provides an example of one area where learning theory comes reasonably close to program execution, for the nodes in a hypertext program are in fact the points around which learning can be maximized.

How Does TRANSTEXT Work?

There are at least three hypertext programs currently on the market: BLACK MAGIC (shareware), CROSS PROCESSOR, and TRANSTEXT. It is the latter, from MaxThink, Inc. (Kensington, California) with which I am familiar, although the operational principle is surely the same for all three. That principle is to encode file names in a certain manner so that an EXE (executable) program recognizes these file names and can call them up from any point in a text.

With TRANSTEXT, files to be linked must be marked by brackets, thus: <filename> or <filename page#> or <filename page# line#>, depending on how specifically the destination text or graphic must be pinpointed. Keyed to the brackets, the controlling program (HYPERREZ.EXE, in the case of TRANSTEXT) highlights the file on screen and calls it up at a keyboard command. The text files must be written in ASCII and preferably with TRANSTEXT--a potential pain for heavy revisers or those dependent on their own word-processing package. The text files should be given a serial name that clearly indicates their function. They may be called "links", 'leaps", or whatever; I call mine "screens."

TRANSTEXT is a three-disk set, in its 3.5" form, requiring two drives and 512K of memory (a hard disk is recommended). The other part, besides HYPERREZ (the main file-control program) and TRANSTEXT (the patronymic word processor designed to handle ASCII files according to the specifications of HYPERREZ) is "tools," a set of utilities for tracking, linking, and otherwise manipulating the files created by TRANSTEXT and controlled by HYPERREZ The product may sound a bit complicated, but the cleverly presented manual does a good job of guiding users through the maze. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes a little bit like a game--and a very interesting one at that.

If you create a HYPERREZ-derivative program with TRANSTEXT and "tools", you are legally able to distribute is freely to students and colleagues. The HYPERREZ portion is shareware; that portion plus your ASCII files comprise your distributable program. MaxThink, Inc., is giving nothing away, for every time a user loads HYPERREZ.EXE for any purpose, the very first screen is a reference to, and advertisement for, MaxThink, Inc. All other screens are created by you, the programmer; they are ASCII files either done from scratch or (less likely) adapted from those contained on the HYPERREZ disk. Additionally, the Help screen provided can be changed to suit the needs of the programmer.

How is TRANSTEXT Used?

In General
When one of your students sits down to learn from the HYPERREZ derivative program you created with TRANSTEXT--i.e., your interlinked ASCII files--he or she begins by pressing a hot-key combination: ALT-W is the one provided, but it can be changed. The student next sees a menu--your work, again, adapted from a supplied template--from which the student selects a bracketed, highlighted file, any one of the many you have created.

It doesn't matter whether or not the student starts with the file you have intended to present first. Remember, the files are all interlinked, so from wherever the student starts, he or she will have virtually instant access to all files in the program. The files can be accessed (with ENTER) whenever their bracketed names are highlighted on the screen, or the student may choose to return to the Main Menu (with a CONTROL-HOME command). Other program-designed keystrokes perform necessary but less essential functions.

It must be emphasized here that the interlinking of files is the most difficult part of creating a HYPERREZ-based program. The "stitching and unstitching," to borrow a phrase from Yeats, "must seem naught"; that is to say, your student should be able to glide effortlessly through the program, picking up the interlinked bits of information in a pattern which you have deemed most appropriate for that particular body of knowledge. (This interconnecting is what can become a challenging "game" for you.)

The manual recommends print-screening the files at some point well into the creation of your program, but just short of the final revision. You can then shuffle paper around and visualize the arrangement of ideas more conveniently and completely. I took this recommendation and am glad that I did, for there is simply too much to try to work out in the mind--too many links and counterlinks to be made. Once you have finished the shuffling and made some red-ink revisions and notations, you are ready to return to the keyboard and polish it. With a hard disk, you can switch files quickly; therefore, you can fine-tune links efficiently.

Little will your students suspect, or appreciate for that matter, the hours put in to make the program run correctly. If nothing else, you will gain the respect of your computer-wise colleagues for your programming skills.

A Specific Example
I acquired TRANSTEXT at the recommendation of a colleague, a psychologist. He and I are part of a long-term campus project to upgrade academic standards along a broad front. My task was to provide students with a computer-based tutorial on research-reporting as a species of critical thinking, and my first idea (because I have been desktop publishing for some time) was to create a desktop presentation. The programs that I looked at had admirable graphics but seemed, in the final analysis, a bit too gimmicky; the graphics took students too far away from the world of the printed word.

My colleague suggested using a hypertext program, and it wasn't long before I had spent some of our grant money on TRANSTEXT (the best-known of such programs). Not long after, I was convinced that I had made the right choice.

Strange how things just seem to dovetail when one is on a proverbial roll. No sooner than I had the software, I received from one of my sophomores an elegant piece of research on William Faulkner, one of those reports that sometimes lead one to suspect plagiarism. But not only was Joanne a mature, hardworking, intelligent student, she was also quite honest--I heard this from her two former composition instructors.

Putting two and two together, I came up with an inspired five. I would use the entire text of Joanne's report as the core of my hypertext program, showing, on one hand, how its six parts link together, and, on the other, how Joanne went about presenting her critical thinking so that it came out so coherent. The three parts of TRANSTEXT seemed perfect for the job.

The three parts of TRANSTEXT were perfect in fact, and it was exciting for me to discover new ways of indicating how elements within a body of knowledge relate to one another and to a whole. The most tedious part of the project was the first part--entering in the report text as an ASCII file. Luckily, I recognized internal links that I might not have discovered otherwise. Interviews with Joanne helped as well--a sort of protocol analysis in retrospect. The end-product, currently in use by selected students, has 32 separate files in addition to HYPERREZ.EXE and a few utilities. All 32 files are ASCII texts, and they average about 3000 bytes each. These files are linked optimally to instruct students in the close relationship between critical thinking and research-reporting.

I am more than happy with the fruit of my labor: I am proud of it. Like most readers of this journal, I love learning-and-doing at a keyboard; and when you can combine love with service to others (and factor in pride, too), you are, I think, doing very well. It pleases me to know that my program will go some way, over the long run, toward helping students' develop critical thinking skills. I have always had in mind the image of an individual student learning--the hypertext way--from a program that I developed with TRANSTEXT.

Is There a TRANSTEXT in Your Future?

Some new technologies are breakthroughs; others merely push a process along. Hypertext, in its present incarnation, lies somewhere between these poles. It may not usher in a new millennium in microcomputer-based education, but it is hard to ignore.

The reason hypertext programs like TRANSTEXT cannot be disregarded is that they open new doors to learning for students, new ways of seeing things; for instructors, they offer an attractive alternative for presenting material. Designed well, a TRANSTEXT -created program can lead students through a body of knowledge in a manner precisely prescribed by the instructor. That is a goal which we in higher education have had in mind since--well, since we began teaching. As hypertext technology progresses, it will provide, I am sure, another example of how computers help us rethink the tools of our trade and become better at using them.

Richard Larsen teaches at Francis Marion College in South Carolina.