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Authoring and Design for the WWW


Hypertext and the style of documents

Electronic technology might be regarded as neutral, having no implications for the overall style of the documents which it delivers, but this position is difficult to defend. For example, there is evident difference in style between letters sent by post and letters sent by e-mail. A relatively unfamiliar technology has encouraged a rethinking of modes of address and styles of information.

Harnessing new technology allows us to rethink an HEI's information strategy. We can create a richer, more flexible and multivocal information resource for students and staff, under the influence of electronic media.

The electronic medium promotes alterations to our documents in two important respects:

These represent 'micro' and 'macro' views of the same issue.

Language style is principally concerned with style within a single document, say one describing the Teaching and Learning Methods used in a given set of courses. The language style needs to be one well suited to the electronic medium in order to make documents as usable and enjoyable to read as possible. The structural style is concerned with the broader issue of deciding what component documents should constitute, for example, a description of a course, in the light of the intertextuality which electronic media both permit and promote.

Of course the decisions made about the two issues influence each other: if we decide to use hypertext linking to incorporate the work of several authors in an HEI document, that has implications for the styles of each of them.

Language style

What is the right language style for documents on the Web? We can usefully distinguish two differing styles, the expository and the declarative, only one of which we believe is well suited to Web publishing.

Expository texts

Expository texts are well suited to the continuous reading and writing practices of traditional paper documents. Premises lead into arguments which in turn lead to conclusions. The Introduction to a paper-based course document might develop an argument over two sides of closely spaced text, equivalent to approximately eight screens if displayed electronically. The structure of the argument is made clear through the use of connecting words like 'therefore', 'though' and 'however'. The whole document is designed for more or less continuous reading, aims to have a unified voice, and often encourages passivity in the reader.

Declarative texts

Declarative texts are characterised by short, named sections which can be read in a number of orders. The semantic structure emerges from the 'physical' structure of paragraphs and document parts and the connections between them. Concepts of association and consequentiality which would normally be signalled through words are instead signalled by hypertext links. The way these links are used indicates whether the text to which the end-user jumps is parenthetic, glossarial, or has some other relation to the text which triggered it. This is a modular approach to writing which to a certain extent is foreign to academic traditions.

It might seem that - since for technical reasons only short chunks of text can appear on screen at once - there would be a greater need for the connecting words which tie conventional texts together. However, experience seems to suggest that the positioning' of the chunks in hypertext structures does the work of articulating the relationship between the parts, without the addition of the standard grammatical constructions.

For on-screen, hypertext documents, the declarative approach is preferable. Not only does it seem to be easier to read and understand in the context of hypertext screens, but it has other benefits. Carefully planned, such modularity in documentation can facilitate maintenance, and encourage authoring based on team-work. It may also promote a more active form of reading in the end-user. The relevance of this to academic material is pursued under The Web as an educational medium (p46)

The pluralism of electronic media

Current HEI documents do little to represent the supposedly pluralistic, changing nature of modern academic practice, in which students are allegedly encouraged to be inquisitive, to formulate their own opinions and to make for themselves the best use of the resources that the HEI provides.

HEIs offer a diversity of information, using many separate documents but they are generally official views of the most dull kind. They do not in themselves begin to represent student-centred approaches. Why cannot students themselves contribute to HEI documentation? It is odd, and regrettable, that the hard-won experience of each cohort of students is 'wasted' by not being passed on to their successors.

In some respects, the hypertext linking of multiple contributory documents can be seen as resembling conversational exchange, where closure and fixity are diminished by comparison with a paper document of the traditional kind. It is important to capitalise on these strengths.

Avoiding the deadening effect of technology

Computer technology can have a beneficial influence in provoking new thought. On the other hand, the use of computer systems can easily have a deleterious effect. Perhaps the most notorious example of the influence of computing has been in Computer Aided Learning, where there are instances of discredited approaches to teaching and learning being encapsulated in electronic form simply because they were technically easy to do. In using interactive electronic techniques to present HEI information, there is a danger of embodying - perhaps accidentally - the least acceptable hierarchical aspects of the organisation, again because it is technically easy to do (HTML documents tend to acquire a hierarchical structure by default). It is essential to prioritise a student-centred view, yet the majority of Web-based HEI information systems use the hierarchies of Web documents to mirror the hierarchies of the institution.

Inseparable form and content

The form in which information is published cannot be divorced from its content. This has implications for the writing style, the document structure and the visual and interaction design. The authoring and design of hypertexts needs to take into account this sympathy between content and form. Documents need to be structured in a way which articulates their meaning and function.
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