Chapter 16:

Rethinking the Educational Process/Environment


Talistar's given name carried with it her life mission of knowing the error's of the past to bring wisdom to the present. Her current project was to find historical instances of institutions whose initial purpose was good but that had lost sight of that vision in the process of institutionalization. At the daily gathering her friend Meena asked her, "Have you ever heard of schools, classrooms, and public education back in the 20th century?"

Talistar answered that she had, but that this so-called "public education" had been such a short lived phenomena in history with such an imprecise purpose that she had not considered it as a good example in current category though it a wonderful example in another.

"And what might that other category be?" asked Meena.

"Dichotomies dissolved by wisdom." answered Talistar. "Yes, education in the 20th century was filled with dichotomies: teacher / student, in-class / out-of-class, pre-school / post-graduate, to name a few. But the greatest dichotomy was really between learning and life. Wisdom has revealed that they are one. In the 20th century they suggested only a vague understanding of this with terms such as "embedded training," "life long learning", and "delight directed learning." In our age the terms "learning" and "teacher" are archaic and schools inconceivable. We do not need to teach one another because we live in the light.

"You are right Talistar. In fact, I think that schools as an institution did not loose the vision of their purpose on their own accord. Rather, it was as if the vision were brighter elsewhere. Perhaps it was the flash of electronics before the new order. Whatever, I am glad that I live today and not in the age of conversion."

"I know what you mean, Meena. At that time they even made a distinction between education and training. They said that to be trained was being programmed like one of those machines that they called a "computer." And to be educated was to look up from the ground from which they came, to the horizon of possibilities, and to the heavens for which they were destined. I am glad that we are here."

This scenario is way too far out; however, its purpose is to push the limits on our current thinking about education. Will society come one day to a time when education is obsolete? Not in our foreseeable future. Nevertheless, this is not to say that our profession and our jobs are secure. The times are changing and education is changing with it. In this last chapter we turn, therefore, to philosophical issues in education. The hope is that in doing so we will lay out the dimensions upon which education will be restrung in the next millennium.

Once in while as educators we step back and ask, "What is education, and what is it to be educated?" While we may debate such subjects at length and come to no conclusion, changes and revolutions apply stress to our preconceived notions and help to expose them as well as new issues. The computer revolution and the advent of the electronic classroom is just such a cataclysmic change that is beginning to rip at the chords of education and shift our thoughts and values and methods. The transition to the electronic educational environment within a society that has already become one of information workers helps us to re-examine the purpose and even the definition of education.

The Definition of Education

It is interesting to look at how the definition of education has changed over the years. Going back to 1828, the first definition was taken from the American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828:

EDUCATION: n. The bringing up, as of a child; instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

EDUCATE: vt. To bring up, as a child; to instruct; to inform and enlighten the understanding; to instill into the mind principles of arts, science, morals, religion and behavior. *To educate children well is one of the most important duties of parents and guardians.

The second definition is taken from Webster's Encyclopedia of Dictionaries in 1978:

EDUCATE: vt. To cultivate and discipline the mind and other faculties by teaching; send to school.

The third definition is taken from Webster's New World Dictionary in 1988:

EDUCATE: vt. To train or develop the knowledge, skill, mind, or character of, esp. by formal schooling or study; teach; instruct.

Three trends can be seen in these definitions. First, there is a shift in providers of education from parents and guardians to schools and finally to formal schooling. While this trend has led to public education for all, it has in turn produced institutional environments and mass produced curriculum and cookie cutter students. Electronic educational environments have the possibility of transcending institutions and breaking out of the institutional mold.

The second trend is a change in the content of education from dealing with personal and moral character to utilitarian skills. In recent years there has been an effort to reverse this trend; but with no agreement upon state sanctioned moral values, it is a hopeless endeavor for public schools and must be relegated to alternative private and home-based education. The electronic environment for education will give aid to the latter forms of education.

The third trend is a shift from the emphasis on understanding to training of skills. Although there is a tradition in education of emphasizing understanding over rote learning, we seem to moved more recently in the direction of skills-based training. The well round liberal education of the past has given way to practical major with a clear career path. The problem with teaching for understanding is that it does not have immediate results. On the other hand, training can be applied immediately. In many cases teachers try for both, but generally there is not enough time and understanding is the first to drop out. In the electronic education environment and the automated world of tomorrow it may be that both are possible and even that understanding will take precedence over trained skills. Such skills will be automated and monitored by knowledge workers who are responsible for understanding how the machines work.

As education moves into the next millennium and as classrooms, students, and teachers become connected and switched on, how will education change? Certainly some things are different, new skills are required, and what we mean by educated will be somewhat different. For one thing, there is hopefully, less of an emphasis on factual knowledge and more of an emphasis on process and knowing how to know. Analytical thinking and construction are more important. But with these come presuppositions. In critical thinking the presupposition are the values by which one discerns good and bad, right and wrong. In construction, similarly the presupposition are the motives, the designs, and purposes that drive generation of new things. Oddly enough, the new electronic educational environment may serve to turn the clock back to restore virtues lost in the effort to standardize education.

A key theme in electronic education will be the importance of navigation, not what you know but knowing where to find what you need to know, knowing how to collaborate with others, teamwork, etc.

Navigation and Education

The dictionary definition of the verb "navigate" is (a) to travel through a space or medium, (b) to steer or direct a course through that space, and/or (c) to plot a course through that space. The term navigation in each of these senses has been applied to the activity of traversing hypermedia as a part of the spatial metaphor of hypermedia. However, as the navigation metaphor is unpacked, we find that the target domain to which it is applied is much richer and more complex than originally thought. Hypermedia is more dimensional and more erratic than the physical space we inhabit in day to day life. Hypermedia, for example, allows for an n-dimensional space of nodes and links and it may seem erratic by providing jumps both within and across vast domains of knowledge. Nevertheless, the geographic metaphor of navigation is useful and compelling.

In this section we consider the distinction illustrated in Figure 1 between (a) learning to navigate and (b) navigating to learn. In the first sense, navigation is a process that has educational value. As such the act of navigating itself takes precedence in that the emphasis is on learning to navigate. The importance of navigation is depicted in Figure 1 by the thick links between nodes. In the second sense, navigation is a process that leads to the content of education. As such, navigation is a secondary function in that the emphasis is on the information one acquires at destinations along the way. The educational content of the nodes is depicted by the area of the squares in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Relationships between navigation and education as a function of the educational value of the paths and the educational content of the nodes in a hypermedia system.

Hypermedia systems in education involve both aspects and results in the two-way table shown in Figure 1. The initial training of users on how to use the system involves training on browsing, searching, and other operational aspects of the interface (Cell A of Figure 1). Beyond the superficial level, students learn to navigate by learning about the content and structure of the hypermedia database. They learn about what leads to what (Cell B of Figure 1). The second row of cells in Figure 1 represents the case when the database embeds additional content at the node level.

Navigation as an Educational Process

At the lowest level, navigation is the act of traversing the database to get from Node A to Node B. When the hypermedia database is implemented using menu selection as the mode of interaction, navigation can seem as simple as the press of a button. However, this view confuses driving with navigation. Pressing a button is one thing, knowing where it goes is another.

In the educational use of hypermedia an important part of the learning process is learning to find. Students must learn to find their way around. They must become familiar with the terms and relationships that are an inherent part of the hypermedia database. As students explore, they become aware of the content and range of the domain as well as the organization of the knowledge. In terms of Figure 1, they begin to seek out the educational value of the paths and the content of the nodes, hopefully progressing from Cell A to Cell D.

It is useful to extend Shneiderman and Mayer's (1979) distinction between syntactic and semantic knowledge about computer programming to navigation in hypermedia. Syntactic navigational learning will refer to the learning of activities and operations that move through the hypermedia database without reference to its content (e.g., Cell A of Figure 1). Syntactic knowledge would include knowing that a left arrow goes to the previous card, a right arrow goes to the next card, and that a "go to ..." command jumps to a designated card. Syntactic navigation is like knowing how to drive a car without regard to destination. In driver's education students learn the appropriate rules, procedures, and skills by driving around with the only restriction being that they return to the point of origin. Similarly, in syntactic navigation through hypermedia, students learn how to click, browse, and search without regard to the actual content of targets or results of searches.

A number of empirical studies have investigated the syntactic side of navigation (e.g., Norman, 1991; Shneiderman, 1992). For example, much of the research on menu selection can be thought of as being on the syntactic side of navigation. When the goal is to get to Function X, it involves training on the use of the interface but does not directly impact the general education of the student. Most research is concerned with performance in terms of speed and accuracy in locating a target and not on comprehension.

On the other hand, navigation by semantic relationships entails learning associations in the database as well as comprehending its global structure. Semantic navigation involves learning the paths and organizational structures that themselves have educational value (Cells B and D of Figure 1). For example, one might learn that by selecting "herpetology" one gets to information about the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians, or that by selecting "column" one gets to a selection of styles of pedestals, shafts, capitals, friezes, and cornices. When the information itself is arbitrary as in a phone number or variable as in a temperature, learning the path to a piece of information may be as important if not more than the information itself. Designers of many interactive hypermedia packages have embedded semantic relationships in the navigational process (Dede, 1991). One may learn these relationships by generating mental models of the system. For example, a student in geography may learn that Canada is to the north of the United States by learning that to get to Canada from the United States one would travel north.

In one theoretical view, learning by traversal from Node A to Node B is an association of elements. As a theory of learning, associationism contends that it is the simple linkage of one concept with another that forms the basis of knowledge and the process of thinking (Thorndike, 1906). In contrast, learning by discovery may occur through exploration of the database. Students infer relationships and structures in the database as they explore. Theories of learning by discovery contend that it is the restructuring of elements into a more meaningful form that constitutes true understanding (Wertheimer, 1959). It is not yet clear to what extent hypermedia fosters learning by rote association or by conceptual understanding.

Nevertheless, educational hypermedia environments must support both path learning as well as inference of global structures. To be knowledgeable on a topic one must know both the step-by-step sequence to follow from sign posts to landmarks as well as the global dimensions and the general lay of the land.

Navigation in Support of the Educational Process

While exploration and search through a hypermedia database are important, the bulk of the educational material to be learned is probably located at the node level (Cells C and D of Figure 1). When this is the case, navigation takes on the secondary purpose of getting to the node and returning with the knowledge. Node learning refers to learning the material embedded in a particular node in the hypermedia without an emphasis on association with other nodes. For example, when the student comes to an article on Abraham Lincoln, node learning involves the reading, comprehension, and memorization of the information in that article alone. Research on learning at the node level in hypermedia is lacking although one might assume that what we know in other contexts of education transfers to hypermedia. While this is probably a good initial assumption, it is worthy of additional research. Some aspects such as node size and access to ancillary information are beginning to be investigated (Black, Wright, Black, & Norman, 1992).

When navigation is a secondary function, it is easy to under value its importance. We forget that conventional education entails many aspects of navigation that seem unrelated to education but without which education would fail. What if a student cannot find the classroom on the first day of class? What if a student cannot find his or her homework? What if a teacher gives an assignment to find an article on tree frogs and the student doesn't know how to look up articles in the encyclopedia. As the educational media shifts from the physical space with paper-based materials to a hypermedia space with screen-based materials, search, access, and retrieval will become more and more critical to the success of the system. Consequently, educators must not neglect the syntactic side of navigation in Figure 1. More and more each discipline needs to consider how to teach its students to search for relevant information in the field. It is no longer sufficient to merely give the titles of the seminal texts and readings and journals in the field. Now we need to give the WWW jump stations, search engines, and appropriate keywords for retrieval.

Matching Navigation to the Educational Objective

In the domain of geography, navigation depends on the purpose and type of the journey. Navigation of a sailing boat is altogether different from that of an oil tanker or a submarine. Similarly, designers of hypermedia interfaces for education need to tailor the type and properties of the navigational system to the educational objectives. Even at the most elemental level of the interface, menu selection can serve different objectives. Norman (1991) distinguishes between four primary functions of menu selection: pointing (moving to a new node), command control (executing a procedure), output (displaying information), and input (data or parameter specification). Design considerations for systems that are predominantly command control (e.g., printing files, performing computations, editing documents) are quite different from those that are for information retrieval (e.g., searching for a string, finding documents with a keyword). In one case, the user may need to be aware of the specific path that leads to the current state because each step is a part of the process. In the other case, how the user got to a specific location is irrelevant but knowing the consequences of the current selection is critical. Once a document has been found, how it was found is no longer important, but what is done with it is.

When the educational objective is to learn semantic links between nodes (Cells B and D of Figure 1), the navigational process should be accomplished in a way that promotes learning of relationships. For example, if the student is to learn the definition of an architectural term used in text and its associated picture, it makes sense to have all three information sources on the screen simultaneously rather than sequentially. Hypermedia systems that flip from card to card may obscure associations. Instead they should be designed to pause long enough on multiple objects to instill a relationship.

Similarly, if the student is to learn the meaning of a particular path (Cells B and D of Figure 1) such as a logical sequence from Node A to Node B to Node C, it is important not to jump pass B. Nor is it desirable to require an indirect or circuitous path from A to X to Y to B to Z to C. Such intervening steps (X, Y, and Z) reduce the logical association between the principle nodes. Carter (1992), for example, found that intervening steps reduced the likelihood that information would be associated and used properly.

When navigation is syntactic and merely in support of education, the system should be easy to use and require only minimal cognitive load and effort. Navigational support tools should be provided that further speed access and reduce the extent to which the learner must engage in mundane page turning to access information or remember arbitrary paths to relocate where information is hidden. Extensive research in menu selection provides many guidelines and tools for more rapid and efficient navigation (Norman, 1991).

Sediment and the Collection of Educational Materials

The materials of education as illustrated in Figure 5.1 are just areas in the diagram. The previous section emphasizes the organization of knowledge in that area and navigation through that knowledge base on the part of learner. In this section we consider the laying down of that knowledge as a temporal process over years of course development by educators. In a typical scenario, an instructor may conceive of the need for a new course. He or she may identify a textbook or a set of readings as the basis for the course. In some cases the instructor may write the textbook or a publisher may contract someone to write the book. These materials settle as the bedrock or foundation for the course. They are fixed materials in the curriculum, unchanging from year to year or from school to school within the same jurisdiction. On top of these materials are the unique, personal materials and additions that the instructor brings to the course each time it is taught afresh. These may be personal anecdotes or current events that relate to the foundational materials in the course. In a similar way, on top of these are student materials. These again may be personal examples and contributions but also their notes and products which may prove useful in teaching the course the next time.

When all of the these materials are hosted in a dynamic electronic media, several significant changes will occur. First, the fixed materials can be relaxed. Electronic texts are more fluid and changing. Printed textbooks are in essence the author's collection of what he or she thinks is important. In the electronic media one does not need to collect per se but point to the what is important. Second, rather than specifying a printed or even an electronic textbook for the course, one can instead specify a path though the extended hypermedia of the World Wide Web. Third, as new knowledge is generated by scholars and scientists it is automatically incorporated in the corpus of materials and the path through those materials. Finally, even the personal notes and examples become a part of the shared media on the WWW.

The Ultimate Initiative

Chapter 1 introduced the objectives and promises of the switched on classroom; Chapter 2 suggested that the solution to past failures ultimately rests on a universal, top-down systematic rethinking of the educational computer environment; Chapter 3 presented the critical functions of such a system; Part II of this book outlined the architecture of a system HyperCourseware(TM) that serves as one prototype for a universal educational environment for the switched on classroom and beyond.

But this is just a start. What is needed is a national, if not international, educational initiative to build a universal electronic infrastructure for education. From K-12 to college to continuing education, from campuses and classrooms to homes and offices with distance education, from classes to programs to degrees, from exercises to unit studies to degree programs, from admissions to registrars to particular classes, a universal, electronic educational environment is needed. How do we build this new environment? What will it take? The easy answer is money. The hard answer is creativity. The real answer is people.

Money and Funding of Projects

A lot of money is going to research on education, the development of multimedia materials, and the building of an electronic infrastructure. Some have despaired at the marginal impact of a large number of small, focused projects. Others have pointed to the failure of a few well funded programs to produce hard results. Should we continue to fund many small programs or only a fund large centers? Should we fund the development of subject specific materials (e.g., a multimedia site for learning about the planets) or generic tools for hosting materials (e.g., an authoring system for unit studies)? Should we support research on the effectiveness of different hypermedia and interactive learning environments or should we provide workshops and training for teachers? Should projects be funded by federal government agencies, state and local government, or corporations.

The easy answer is to support all of the above. Each provides support for an important facet of the overall answer. But of course merely throwing money at a problem is rarely the answer. In this case the answer lies in the management and integration of the pieces. In the same way that HyperCourseware as a prototype is modular yet integrated and generic yet hosting specific material, this initiative needs to be modular supporting the development of many different tools for education that work together in a seamless manner. Furthermore, it needs to support the development of specific course material that fits into the generic shells and tools that are developed by others. Essential development needs to platform independent, having an open system architecture, it needs to be scalable, integrated and connected.


If we do not produce new ideas in midst of change, we will merely automate the methods of the past. While there is something to be said for automation as was done in Chapter 3, ultimately it will produce mechanization in education. We need to stay ahead of the wave. We need to experiment with new methods; we need to turn things upside down; and take nothing for granted.


The greatest asset of education is the wealth of people that are involved in it. It will be the hard work and enthusiasm of many people who are interested in others and in knowledge and in technology that make it happen. They are the ones who will bring creative ideas to the table. They are the ones who will risk their careers. They are the ones who will sacrifice time and who will suffer many frustrations, set backs, and failures for those brief moments of success.

In the course of new frontiers, there are as a colleague of mine points out the frontiersmen and pioneers who take risks to explore and develop new lands. After them follow the settlers who at less risk but much hard work make the land fruitful and yield a harvest. The same will be true in the development of the electronic educational environment. Pioneering teachers and schools are forging their way into this new land. Others are waiting until the path clearer, the roads are built, and land is cleared. In the past, explorations had to be funded as do current developments in education. Moreover, there was a call to adventure and a challenge to the spirit. Today there are two challenges. First, for teachers and schools to launch out on high risk projects, new courses, electronic classrooms, and the ultimate challenge, the totally electronic educational environment. Second, for students to jump in and become prototype students of the future who take there notes on laptops, do all research in electronic databases, and submit all of their assignments electronically to their teachers.

Beyond the technological frontier is a very human one. Many of us have talked about how our role as teachers will change as a function of technology from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. Sentiment has been nearly universal to disparage the role of the teacher as a lecturer and the fount of knowledge and wisdom. This is hard to take for some teachers who prefer to distance themselves from their students. But to many, it allows them to come down from the pedestal and form a comfortable rapport with their students. The role of teachers is hopefully changing from masters to servants. And the role of students is changing from passive observers to active seekers of knowledge.

Administration and the Anarchist Alternative

Who will manage the ultimate educational initiative? Unfortunately, it will no doubt be yet another institution, perhaps on Talistar's list. Such a top-down institution seems, however, at odds with the spirit of the education. The administrations of the world will try to organize and control the electronic educational world, but individuals will constantly disrupt the rules and the order to maintain an equilibrium with individualism and change.


The advent of the electronic educational environment and all of the changes that it entails is inevitable. It is not that we must brace ourselves for change as one braces oneself against the surf, instead we work to sail with the tide. This chapter encourages the reader to rethink education and to restructure the roles and categories that we are used to. This will not be easy for many administrators, officials, and teachers. However, as suggested in Chapter 14, it may be natural for the next wave of students. The rest of us must be challenged to move ahead.

Although it is trite to say that this not the conclusion, but rather the beginning, timing would suggest that it is true. We have come to the end of the current iteration of this book; and the author is already thinking of its next edition. It will not be a discrete edition, but rather continuous change, additions, and updating since the book is itself a part of the electronic educational environment. Consequently, in conclusion I invite the reader to return periodically to see how things are going.


1. Do you think that a society could be constructed in which there were no schools, teachers, or students? How would knowledge pass to the next generation?

2. Write a 250 word proposal for a project to be funded by the National Initiative for the Development of an Electronic Educational Environment.

3. How would you organize your life if you became a total electronic student? What would it take and how would you do it?

[Table of Contents] [Chapter 15] [Postscript]