In addition to producing cyberspace, networked digital textuality also creates another kind of virtuality that has important educational effects. [I have drawn in this paragraph upon my Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), the relevant portions of which are available on the Web] This form, which we may term "virtual presence," concerns the way the hypertext reader and writer experience other contributors. Such virtual presence is of course a characteristic of all technology of cultural memory based on writing and symbol systems: since we all manipulate cultural codes, particularly language but also mathematics and other symbols, in slightly different ways, each record of it conveys a sense of the one who makes that utterance. Hypertext differs from print technology, however, in several crucial ways that amplify this notion of virtual presence. Because the essential connectivity of hypermedia removes the physical isolation of individual texts in print technology, the presence of individual authors becomes both more available and more important. The characteristic flexibility of this reader-centered information technology means, quite simply, that writers have a much greater presence in the system, not only as potential contributors and collaborative participants but also as readers who choose their own paths through the materials.

The fundamental connectivity of hypertext, which makes it have such potentially powerful educational uses, promises to reconceive many institutions and practices of education as we know it. For example, the electronic linking that so readily crosses the boundaries of individual texts also permits students to move easily from one level of difficulty to another and from one discipline to another. This characteristic of hypermedia obviously demands active students, new forms of evaluating their work, and greater emphasis, even in the humanities, upon the kind of collaboration characteristic of much scientific research. Another effect of linking involves its drawing faculty research and student learning closer together than is possible in book-based educational systems — an effect of which Newman, who thought universities were places for disseminating knowledge and not contributing to its creation, might have approved.

He might also have approved hypertext's creating habits of relational thinking. My own initial work with hypertext suggests how this technology so apparently alien to Newman, who had little good to say for technology, provides a useful introduction to the way hypertext supports his general educational principles. Most of the earliest attempts to employ computers in education drew upon their abilities to perform simple, repetitive tasks as means of helping students memorize large amounts of factual information. Such computer-assisted learning, which is often encountered in language acquisition, runs the risk of using a kind of rat-maze approach to education, in which students begin at one point and find themselves driven relentlessly through a narrow range of sequences that are often difficult to quit.

In contrast, hypertext, which emphasizes perceiving and making connections as well as the power of the reader to choose his or her path through large fields of information, both effectively provides easy access to large amounts of information and, more importantly, develops the skills needed to do something with that information. In this way, this new educational technology conforms to Newman's emphasis that education must consist of more than the simple accumulation of facts. For example, in "Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning" Newman explains that he does not mean to disparage

a well-stored mind, though it be nothing besides, provided it be sober, any more than I would despise a bookseller's shop — it is of great value to others, even when not so to the owner. Nor am I banishing, far from it, the possessors of deep and multifarious learning from my ideal University; they adorn it in the eyes of men; I do but say that they constitute no type of the results at which it aims; that it is no great gain to the intellect to have enlarged the memory at the expense of faculties which are indisputably higher. [107]

I do not wish to exaggerate or unduly emphasize Newman's possible approval of the aims and effects of such new information technologies, particularly since he had the greatest skepticism about the beneficent educational effects of technology. Newman, after all, expressed the greatest hostility to the effects of steam-driven, high-speed printing that made periodical and book literature cheap and thus available to a large number of people — and that was responsible for dissemination of knowledge in a wide number of subjects, including the natural sciences and political economics, down the social and economic scale.


Victorian Web Overview Religion John HenryNewman Next Section in Print Version

Last modified 18 October 2005