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Hypermedia, Multimedia, and Reader Cognition

by David Hailey and Christine Hailey.


This paper presents results of two quantitative and three qualitative studies on how users respond to hypermedia, hypertext, digital multimedia, and traditional multimedia (35mm slides and tape) environments.  Five studies were performed, comparing and contrasting individual preferences and cognition.  Many of the results of these studies refute traditional “common knowledge” concerning learning in digital media, implying that hypermedia may be an ineffective approach to CBT instruction—especially for learners struggling with their instructional material.


According to Vannevar Bush (1945) thought processes can be described as, “the association of thoughts in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by cells of the brain” (page #)  Springboarding  from  this idea, instructional technologists, technical writing instructors, and developers of  computer based training (CBT) technology (e.g., Fiderio, 1988; Jonassen, 1989, 1991; Jonassen and Wang, 1993) have increasingly claimed that the similarity between the structure of thought processes and the structure of  hypermedia imply that hypertext and hypermedia are ideal media for teaching and learning.  Called “learner control research” (Williams, 1993, Jonassen and Wang, 1993) or “self-directed research” (Fischer and Richards, 1995) this instructional philosophy assumes that students learn best when mapping their own paths through  a given instruction set.

On the other hand, according to Thomas Reeves in “Pseudoscience in Computer-Based Instruction,” “neither the computer literacy movement nor the specific applications movement [proponents of learner control research] have demonstrated strong effects in typical educational settings” (1993, p.39).  In fact, an examination of existing research reveals little empirical evidence that a hyper-approach to instruction in any way enhances learning.  Nonetheless, the proponents of learner control research theory continue to press their argument.        

In a recent study in Utah State University’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department (MAE), we accumulated evidence that substantially undermines arguments by learner control research theorists.  We will argue in this paper that hypermedia and hypertext may be ineffective as instructional media—especially in an environment where students are struggling with the topic.  In brief, we have determined that within the context of this study a majority of students have a great deal more difficulty learning in a hypermedia/hypertext environment than in an identical multimedia environment (see definitions in next section). In fact, only the very best students seem to be able to work within a hyper- environment with no loss in learning potential.  We present the results of five usability studies of a real-world project done in hypermedia and multimedia formats.  We will also suggest how technical writers, and their teachers might use the information we present.