Online Hypertext Learning and the Transformation of Higher Education


Martha M. Smith (US)


Higher education is one of the most conservative of our social institutions. Yet in the last several decades, colleges and universities have faced enormous pressures from within and without. Shrinking budgets, demands to keep up with information and communications technologies (ICT’s), changing student demographics with an increase in non-traditional and distance students-these realities have upset the familiar balance of power on many campuses. With many commercial providers now entering the marketplace, the competitive scene is changing. Some traditional schools are even trying to capitalize on a hoped for a financial windfall from online distance education. This paper uses the contrast between traditional classroom-based linear learning and Internet-based hypertext learning as a focus and metaphor to examine the ethical dimensions of the transforming challenges of ICT’s in higher education. The empirical basis for the study is the growth of distance learning programs in Library and Information Science and the needs of adult pre-professional students in LIS master’s programs, the roles of the faculty, and prospects for the scholarly research apparatus that underpins the continuing emergence of new disciplinary configurations.

The following description of linear and hypertext learning styles has been developed in observations and interviews with LIS students. It demands much further study, but in the tradition of grounded theory, gives a start for testing observations and moving toward generalizations.

Linear Learning Style


Hypertext Learning Style


The Internet and distance learning software make it possible for higher education to be global in ways that were not possible before. New ways of teaching, conducting research, publishing, and communicating within scholarly circles raise many issues concerning academic freedom; intellectual property rights and sharing; tenure and promotion; student plagiarism and other misuses of data and systems; and accreditation and other measures of quality. These ethical issues challenge all who are associated in higher education. Using a five-point model (Access, Ownership, Privacy, Security, and Community) from my previous work on information ethics, this presentation seeks to describe some of the key dilemmas now faced in learning, teaching, and research and to suggest in what ways ethical analysis and reflection might contribute to institutional discourse. A distinction is made here between ethical analysis and the moral context in which ethical thinking takes place. For purposes of this discussion, I assume that institutions function within a moral environment which can be described and analyzed using the traditions and methods of philosophical and ethical thinking. The topics in the model divide the issues into five categories noted below. These categories are useful to structure reflection and also to demonstrate the conflicts among them. For example, access to certain information may compromise ownership or privacy. Community building through information sharing may diminish the capacity for owners to secure their intellectual property rights.

On ACCESS: How can hypertext learning enhance access to education for more people, particularly for working adults? Should institutions provide access to appropriate ICT equipment, courseware systems, skill building, and learning resources? What must be done to protect access to unfiltered web resources? Can online hypertext learning be interactive enough to compensate for the loss of the face-to-face experience?

On OWNERSHIP: What is the proper role for copyright in the university and in scholarly publishing? Who owns online courses, syllabi, and other faculty-created resources? Can higher education be delivered by the “Professor in a Box”? Can faculty members sell their intellectual property to the highest bidder? What do the Open Source movement and the Open Source philosophy mean to faculty, students, and administrators? What role should faculty unions have in protecting faculty intellectual property rights?

On PRIVACY: What privacy safeguards can be in place to preserve academic freedom for faculty and privacy protection for students to encourage open discussion? What data gathering and statistical methods are appropriate to improve quality while protecting privacy? Should certain kinds of information (medical, legal, financial) receive special care?

On SECURITY: Is there adequate security for personal data? What encryption tools are needed in education systems? Are there sufficient redundancies to keep systems secure and reliable? What about the challenges of national security and governmental efforts to use various systems to increasing surveillance?

On COMMUNITY: What is needed to build a global intellectual community in cyberspace? How can the dominance of English be balanced by multi-language sites and resources? How should issues such as Information Democracy and the Digital Divide be addressed in higher education?

Other general questions emerge from the specific issues.

  • How is the digital, hypertext environment transforming the moral landscape of higher education? Can a better understanding of moral agency counteract the tendency toward an attitude of technological determinism?
  • What are the conflicting values held by stakeholders (students, faculty, administrators, boards and governing agencies, society)?
  • What strategies might be employed to resolve differences and balance interests?
  • How can institutions of higher education maintain the strengths of the traditional linear styles while embracing the advantages of new hypertext styles?
  • Is there a way to define a socially responsible role for higher education within the larger society?
  • What curricular, programmatic, and administrative changes might be made?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the right to free access to information by any means and across all borders. Article 26 deals with education. Section 2 calls for a high standard: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” Looking at these in relation to higher education, will it be possible to move toward new normative understanding? Is there a linear morality that is being replaced by a hypertext morality? How can we contribute to making such a transformation inclusive and responsible?