Writing Layered Texts, A Pathway to Multimedia Presentations

P M Roberts

Communications and Information Management

University of South Australia,

Magill, South Australia, 5072.

Email: p.m.roberts@unisa.edu.au


Research studies show that word processing has brought only minimal benefit for academic writing, findings which highlight inadequacies in this softwareís support of the cognitive processes of writing, in particular, the planning and revision of texts. Lack of planning when writing with a word processor results in a ëtext senseí problem, represented by a difficulty in ëknowingí or recalling the text. In contrast, page layout software encourages the planning and revision stages of writing by its required preparation of draft page outlines before composition. Page layout software also encourages ëlayeredí writing in commentaries on the main text in a representation of hypertext, but in a single plane. A current study shows that reluctant writers appear better able to cope with writing smaller, but related pieces of text, enjoy communicating with graphics as well as text, and, in writing ëlayeredí texts, they gain a conceptual understanding of multimedia formats.

1. The cognitive needs of writers

Hawisher (1989) reports that, for over a decade, word processing has had the potential to assist the presentation of academic and professional writing through its text-editing capabilities, yet many students continue to spurn the use of computers as writing tools, preferring to write their first and subsequent drafts by hand, and then to use a word processor (as a typewriter) in the presentation of a final version of their writing. Thus the benefits of word processors for student composition so far have been minimal, with the revision of previous drafts remaining a surface, cosmetic process, without structural alterations, despite the obvious usefulness of the word processorís 'cut and paste' facilities.

Other writing researchers such as Bridwell-Bowles et al (1987), Haas (1989) and Eklundh, (1990) have demonstrated the inadequacies of word processing software in assisting the cognitive processes of writing, and in particular, planning and the revision of texts. Haas (1989) in studies of the writing of university undergraduates, reports there was less planning of writing when students worked with word processors, and she identifies writers who feel pressed to begin writing sooner when using word processing. Haas suggests these results may provide an explanation of the ëtext senseí problem, that if a writer plans less when producing text with word processing, they may experience a difficulty in ëknowingí or recalling that text.

Bridwell-Bowles and colleagues (1987) found that word processing encourages an over-attendance to lower level concerns, that is, revision at a word or sentence level at the expense of high-level (conceptual) planning, although it is unclear exactly why the word processor encourages this attention to lower level concerns.

The limited view of the writerís text may actually discourage attention to the whole document, and encourage writers to be concerned only with what they can see on the screen. Eklundh (1990) supports this idea, noting the difficulty, when writing with a word processor, to gain the 'global perspective' of a text which is necessary for its structural review.

These various studies relate writing difficulties to the development of wordprocessing software on a linear base, a factor which has impeded the cognitive processes of planning, writing, and revision. The non-linear structure of more recent electronic writing technologies such as hypertext may be more supportive of the cognitive demands of writing, as well as more accommodating of different styles of thinking. Bolter (1991), Joyce (1988) and Landow (1992) point to the radical changes brought about by hypertext, predicting that the future of writing will be an electronic, non-linear hypertext, of connected and related, multi-layered information.

Other strands of writing research (LeBlanc, 1992; Neuwirth and Kaufer, 1989; Sharples, Goodlet and Pemberton, 1989; and Smith, 1991) have led to the design of hypertext systems to assist the cognitive mapping of writing from source documents, and which allow the planning stage of writing to proceed in non-linear fashion. This new phase of software development by writers and educationalists is quite different from the past when software development was the sole province of computer scientists and programmers. The products of this new stage in computing have the potential to accommodate differences in the cognitive and writing styles of users, but, while more sophisticated writing systems show much promise, the usefulness of current alternatives to word processing software, such as page layout software, should not be overlooked.

2. Representation as Analogy

Russon, Josefowitz and Edmonds (1994) describe an experimental study involving the use of ëa familiar but complex analogyí as an effective way of maximising learning for novices. These authors provide a useful summary of the utility of ëadvance organizersí in assisting learners in linking new with familiar material, which foster both a sense of relevance and a reduction in anxiety. In their study of newcomers to learning with computers, Russon and colleagues found that familiar analogies as advanced organizers offered these ëenhancing qualitiesí and allowed learners to ëmap the newí onto familiar material. They define an analogy as ëinformation which is congruent in amount and organization to target material, but which is about a different topicí.

The research literature supports the effectiveness of analogies in promoting the understanding of new concepts, especially for new learners (for example, Hesse, 1988) although the particular quality of an analogy may bias how new material is understood (for example, Greinder, 1988). The transferability of learning may also be impeded if the analogy is insufficiently transparent or similar (Gentner and Toupin, 1986; Hesse and Klecha, 1990).

Learning with computers creates problems for students inexperienced in computer use which can develop into avoidance of computer-related education and work (Roberts, 1994). Russon et al (1994) cite a small body of work relating to the use of analogies in computer programs for novice learners (for example, Allwood and Eliasson, 1987; Beard, Mantei and Teorey, 1987; Carroll and Mack, 1984). Beard et al found paperwork analogies helpful in understanding simple database retrieval concepts, but not more complex concepts. Carroll and Mack noted their learnersí spontaneous invoking of a typewriter analogy when learning word processing. The retention of typewriting techniques may prove a disadvantage to learners in absorbing the quite different concepts of text editing, and this dilemma with the use of analogies has been noted above (Greinder, 1988).

In view of the studies detailed in the literature, it was considered that there was value in the use of analogy for the physical representation of concepts involved with writing with multimedia, and this technique was used in the study described later in this paper.

3. Multimedia: a conceptual approach

Douglas (1993) provides a definition of hypertext as a ëdiscursive mediumí, noting that as an environment for reading and writing, it represents an intriguing and compelling paradox, for while its content looks like the printed word, its technological apparatus places the printed word in an environment almost free of the physical constraints and characteristics traditionally associated with printed texts. Douglas warns of the challenges for both writers and readers using hypertext, and the need for them to re-examine their understanding of what reading is, as well as their motivation for producing texts, in the face of the ability of hypertext (and multimedia) systems to foster the creation and reading of ëopení texts. These electronic texts offer ëa suspension of (the authorís) preferred meaningí, in other words, they are texts in which the reader can become the writer and overcome this ëpreferred meaningí to create their own.

How might these most central and potentially controversial notions involving hypertext be conveyed to students as they explore different ways of writing with computers? The need for a conceptual approach to hypertextual writing is obvious, both as a pathway to understanding its web-like structure, and, as well, its potential for the creation of ëopení texts, for reading and writing.

The genre of newsmagazine writing presents itself as a powerful analogy (and conceptual tool) for understanding the complexities of hypertext, as well as the potential of hypertext to revolutionise our traditional notions of text.

Newsmagazines, by their very nature, represent a new form of electronic writing. Formatted with page layout software similar to that used by student writers, their very structure and visual presentation allows easy analysis, and provides a sense of familiarity. That these magazines are composed and typeset centrally, and then transmitted electronically to regional areas of the world for the addition of local content, is a familiar notion, compatible with online communications and co-operative writing, both of which are well known to students. But the style of information presentation of these magazines makes them an even more valuable analogy for students in their understanding of new ways of writing, and reading electronically.

The newsmagazine presents its information in fragmented but connected pieces, and departs from a text-only approach to communicate with various formats of text and graphics, created with the purpose of gaining attention and facilitating understanding. Designed to be read in trains and buses as much as in lounge rooms, the newsmagazine allows readers different entry and exit points from its stories by segmenting them into main text and commentaries.

These commentaries appear to exist on a different level from the main text, thus creating the illusion of web-like connections with the main story. As such, these ëlayeredí texts are a powerful analogy for students, which aids their understanding of the electronic construction of hypertexts, as well as the freedom of the reader to depart from the traditional linear path of reading.

It is these facets of newsmagazines which have been used as conceptual tools in the study outlined below.

4. The Study

This paper describes a study of Arts undergraduates at the University of South Australia, who, in writing with page layout software, moved beyond mere page design to exploit this softwareís potential for the ëlayeringí of information. Using a newsmagazine style of writing, typified, for example, by Time and Newsweek magazines, the students took a word processed story and transformed it into a layered text.

Examples of news-magazine writing were readily available in the university library, and their unique features as a writing genre were analysed by the students. For example, in a recent story on heart attacks, the Time magazine writers departed from their main theme of the incidence and cost to society of the prevalence of heart disease, to create various subthemes or layers to the main story. One such subtheme was a list of recovery chances, based on the closeness to medical assistance at the onset of the attack. Another was a commentary on risk factors in the prevalence of heart attacks related to personality typed individuals who were the most likely sufferers, while another significant section was an interview with patients who had suffered a serious heart attack and had then made an excellent recovery.

Through desktop publishing techniques, the themes in this article had been integrated on the same or adjoining pages, but were separated by textual and graphical means, such as the main, columned textís weaving its way through ëislandsí created by graphics and photographs, and by the separate, coloured and boxed panels of text which contained the subthemes. Here was choice for the reader, either to follow the main text through the pages to its conclusion, or to digress to the accompanying subthemes, and later, maybe, to once more resume the main story.

So, here in Time was a practical example, if in a contradictory, and linear, print form, of an electronically layered hypertext. That is, instead of the subthemes being hidden from view in electronic layers distant from the main text, the page layout of these articles provided a hypertextual, visual example on the one plane. This journalistic model created a conceptual analogy of hypertext for students yet to undertake projects in multimedia presentation.

The writing task undertaken by the students involved using the word processed form of the original article written for Ms magazine by van Gelder in 1983, entitled The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover, and transforming it into a layered text. Briefly, the story involves deception (described more recently as gender swapping) on the Internet. A male, New York, psychiatrist masquerades as a disabled female, named Joan, and develops online, electronic relationships with a host of unsuspecting women. The motives of Alex (not his real name) for these several months of deception are uncertain. Whether Alex saw himself as an earlier Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire and could argue some valid professional reason for his actions, such as gaining further understanding of the female psyche by acting out a female role, or whether he sought only personal gain, will remain a mystery. Certainly, Alex (in a complicated sub-plot) developed a sexual relationship with one of his new female, íon-lineí friends and eventually was unmasked. An interesting outcome was the reaction of Alex's 'victims' when his impersonation was finally exposed. Many did not condemn him, but would speak only of the pleasure and benefit of the closeness of their electronic interaction with Joan (Alex's female persona).

First the students analysed the story of the electronic lover, and its many facets became visible as layers, or stories within stories. There was much to interest the male and female students, and their responses to Alexís deception were varied and not necessarily gender-based. Page layout software allowed the composition of diverse pages, each exploiting text and graphics to construct 'commentaries' on the main story. The commentaries may have been as minimal as 'pullquotes' or as substantial as a lengthy panel of text, or may have involved the use of graphics alone to provide an insight and addendum to the main story.

There was a significant increase in student understanding of the meanings and issues contained in the story as they wrote with software which allowed the visual representation of these layers. They created four pages of writing in the newsmagazine style, providing a synopsis of van Gelderís original article, as well as graphics and commentaries which reflected what the individual student perceived as the main issues in this narrative.

Before writing electronically, the students created pencilled drafts of the layout of each of their four pages, much as an architect would make preliminary sketches of individual living or working spaces before proceeding to the formal plans of a building. Of importance here was the visual advantage of seeing discrete but connected pages of text, a view which is denied to the writer when working in the linear, connected-text medium of wordprocessing. Of great significance was the studentsí planning, not for the purpose of page layout only, but as an integral part of their story-telling, an element frequently missing from the work of word processing writers.

After completing their desktop publication, the students were asked to describe how the story might have been enhanced further in a multimedia format, for example, with the use of audio/visual interviews with Alexís so called ëvictimsí. There was an imaginative response from these students which demonstrated not only their acknowledgement of the potential of writing in a multimedia format but their conceptual understanding of how this could be accomplished.

5. Conclusion

Hypertext and multimedia present advantages and disadvantages for readers and writers. Theoretical arguments insist that hypertext is a system which offers an absence of direction, where textual meaning can be suspended on an immediate level, thus allowing its readers to compile their own experience of the text as a whole. Such is the case with the fragmented but connected texts of the newsmagazine writing genre which allow discontinuous reading without loss of meaning. The problem for writers who use hypertext is the need for a conceptual map so that information might be juxtaposed without loss of meaning in an environment of transparent windows, paths and links and which lacks the traditional structures of chapters and closure.

The students in this study demonstrated the usefulness of page layout software in providing a pathway to the conceptual understanding of writing with multimedia, as well as their enthusiasm for writing in this format. Reluctant writers seemed better able to cope with writing smaller, but related pieces of text, and enjoyed communicating with graphics as well as text.

The outcomes of the study suggest the potential of multimedia for writers and also for readers to interact more fully with the layers of information in a textual piece. Certainly, in this study there was a significant increase in student understanding of the meanings and issues contained in the story as they used software to allow the visual representation of these layers.

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