Other important qualities of hypertext as an educational medium derive from the last two aspects of the digital word to be discussed — its creation of virtuality and its capacity to reside on and travel through electronic networks like the Internet. Even when residing on isolated, so-called stand-alone computers, hypertext draws importantly upon various forms of virtuality.
As I have explained elsewhere, since electronic text-processing is a matter of manipulating computer-manipulated codes, all texts that the writer encounters on the screen are virtual texts. Using an analogy to optics, computer scientists speak of "virtual machines" created by an operating system that provides individual users with the experience of working on their own individual machines when they in fact share a system with as many as several hundred others. Similarly, all texts the reader and the writer encounter on a computer screen exist as a version created specifically for them while an electronic primary version resides in the computer's memory. One therefore works on an electronic copy until such time as both versions converge when the writer commands the computer to "save" her version of the text by placing it in memory. At this point the text on screen and in the computer's memory briefly coincide, but the reader always encounters a virtual image of the stored text and not the original version itself; in fact, when one describes electronic word processing, such terms and such distinctions no longer make much sense.
Such virtuality plays central roles when combined with another fundamental feature of digital technology — its ability to join in large, even worldwide networks. The existence of the digital word as a code, which permits an indefinite number of readers on a network to share the same text, also produces several other effects, one of which is a kind of placelessness. I began this essay by pointing out that Newman's assumption that the university had to be a place served as an important, if unexamined, premise in his conception of higher education. Such an assumption is entirely appropriate given the role that long-traditional conceptions of education granted to the idea of presence — to the assumption that student and teacher communicated, however one-sided that relationship might be, in the presence of each other. Until the invention in the last century of first physical and then electronic recording of human speech and the invention of the telephone, speech obviously required that speaker and listener, lecturer and audience, teacher and student share the same spatial location.
From the Renaissance onward, however, learners both within and without educational institutions have used information technologies to educate themselves outside the presence of individual instructors. Printed books, newspaper and periodical literature, phonograph records, tapes, videodisks, and CD-ROMs form an unbroken continuum that begins with Renaissance self-help manuals that people of comparatively low social status used to acquire knowledge and skills that formerly required the services of private tutor or educational institution. Like the manuscript or printed book, digital information technology creates what we may term the virtual presence of an absent teacher that students consult at their need and convenience and not those of the instructor. Some means of storing digital information, such as floppy discs and CD-ROMs, share with books and manuscripts the fact of being dependent upon specific physical locations; that is, producers or distributors of such materials must deliver them physically to readers, and readers can only consult them when they are in physical proximity to them. Computer networks, which enable students to read materials stored thousands of miles away, promise to redefine the place of learning as radically as did the inventions of writing and printing — in part because networks like Word Wide Web enable hundreds and even thousands of people to consult the same texts at the same time, and in part because networks disperse the instructor's virtual presence even farther from the location of the stored text. Placing digital information on giant networks completely changes the learner's experience, conception, and assumptions about the place of learning
Newman, we recall, eloquently portrayed his sense of exile from his beloved Oxford, and when I began to think about placing his ideas of university education in the context of late-twentieth-century developments in educational and other technologies, I first asked myself, "Would Newman have felt exiled from a new electronic university in which, as one of my students phrased it, 'There's no <>mthere there'?" To the extent that to him Oxford meant a particular circle of friends, college setting, and the like from whom he felt separated, he would obviously still feel the same sense of loss. But the degree to which the future electronic university exists in cyberspace — in its interchanges on wide-area computer networks — he would not.
Last modified 18 October 2005