Computers & Texts No. 14
Table of Contents
April 1997

Multimedia, Multilinearity, and Multivocality in the Hypermedia Classroom

David Silver
American Studies
University of Maryland

In the past few years, it has been difficult to escape the ever-present rhetoric of hypermedia and hypertext within academia. From English departments to Computer Science labs, techno-enthusiasts and more-than-wired instructors have argued for the advantages of using hypermedia in the classroom. Less concerned with the rhetoric of hypermedia, this essay explores its three basic tenets, or what I like to call the 'Three Ms' - multimedia, multilinearity, and multivocality. Along the way, the essay puts forth strategic suggestions on how to employ such elements within the classroom.


The most immediately striking feature of a work of hypermedia is the way it comes at you. Hypermedia projects are not just read; they are viewed, heard, and felt. At the expense of employing a cliché, they are experienced. To a large degree, this is due to one thing: multimedia.

By using the term multimedia, I am referring to the practice of blending and blurring a number of elements to construct an ensemble. Multimedia elements can include text, photographs, images, and graphics, video and sound clips, and basic animation. They can exist side by side on a single screen; they can exist upon or overlapping one another; they can be hidden, revealed with a strategic button click or entered command.

For anyone involved in the task of weaving narratives, this capacity to employ multiple media is surely welcome. Although text-based narratives have functioned within society for centuries and remain powerful, it is difficult to find one that cannot be enriched and enhanced by an accompanying photograph, a sound clip, or a moving image. In a fascinating essay entitled 'The Rationale of HyperText', University of Virginia literary/hypertext theorist Jerome McGann puts forth five very different examples of projects altered by multimedia. In each example, the user can take the project to another level, explore it from a different angle, and make connections that are not immediately apparent in the original.

Of course, the idea of MTV-Generation students let loose with a barrage of digital bells and whistles may not be exactly what teachers are looking for. Yet with the proper introduction, multimedia can be used to generate new ideas and enthusiasm towards learning. Teachers should remind students that multimedia can and should be used to support an argument or thesis and/or enhance reader navigation. As Michael Roy notes in his essay 'How to Do Things without Words: The Multicultural Promise of Multimedia,' a well-designed hypermedia project resembles 'a vehicle that, while still allowing users to manipulate resources, also makes an explicit argument itself.'1


Along with its dynamic appearance, another striking feature of hypermedia is its lack of traditional linearity. Unlike the linear, largely sequential writing which characterizes print-based publications, well-designed hypermedia makes possible - if not promotes - non-linear or multi-linear presentations. Instead of offering readers a single, sequential path to follow, hypermedia projects put forth many, often interlinked paths, roads, diversions, and excursions. Theodor H. Nelson, a computer pioneer who first coined the term hypertext, describes electronic text as 'nonsequential writing - text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.'(Nelson 1981, 0/2)

As expected, by placing upon the reader a portion of the control over navigating within and through a hypertext, profound alterations arise. Some literary theorists, including George Landow of Brown University, argue that this alteration represents nothing short of a paradigm shift, one which threatens to break down traditional roles of readers and writers. As Landow notes in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, 'changing the ease with which one can orient oneself radically changes both the experience of reading and ultimately the nature of that which is read.'(Landow 1992, 5) Thus, according to Landow, not only are the roles of writers and readers subject to question within hypertext systems, but so is the text itself.

At the same time, hypertext writers, well aware of the partial loss of authorial control which accompanies the medium, adjust to such changes by altering their own writing. Generally less concerned with presenting a tidy, hierarchical argument, hypertext authors tend to write associatively and put forth not only nodes of information but also networks of related elements. In his book Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, University of North Carolina literary theorist Jay David Bolter expands upon this idea by noting that 'in place of hierarchy, we have a writing that is not only topical: we might also call it topographic'. (Bolter 1991, 25) Thus, according to Bolter, hypertext authors can take advantage of the rich and dynamic environment afforded by the medium and work in terms of space. This shift produces not only interesting textual appearances, but new forms of argumentation, forms which rely heavily upon juxtaposition, intersection between media, and interfacial placement. The result is one of heightened interrelations and intersections.

One of the most glaring by-products of non-hierarchical, topographic texts is a subsequent lack of closure. It is important to note, however, that this is not to say that hypermedia projects are devoid of any logic or rationale. Instead, it suggests that they exist as a number of potential closures or, in the words of Bolter, 'a structure of possible structures.'(Bolter, 158) In this light, a single, universal reading of a hypertext is futile, if not impossible. As hypertext theorist J. Yellowlees Douglas argues, each individual reading becomes 'one among many actualizations of the narrative's constellation of possibilities.'(Douglas 1994, 165)

Although a 'constellation of possibilities' may sound particularly exciting to some, how does it sound to instructors or, more specifically, instructors who must grade their students' projects? Here lies not only the logistical consideration of trying to grade a text which exists in many 'possible structures,' but also one of time. For according to many instructors involved in hypermedia, reading hypertext projects can take up to five or six times as long as print-based ones.(Ziegfeld 1989, 363)

To counter such potential pitfalls, I wish to offer two suggestions: storyboards or 'preliminary maps' and end-of-the-semester assessment papers. For many students, thinking in hypertext is a difficult task. Subsequently, their projects often result in a chaotic collection of hard-to-follow arguments, illogical connections, and missing links. To avoid this, instructors can require students to construct storyboards, or what I like to call preliminary maps. Although the maps will differ greatly between students and/or groups of students, they should all include a list of resources they plan to use, general themes and arguments, and the possible connections between the resources, themes, and arguments. Instructors should encourage the students to map in pencil and reinforce the idea of the map-in-progress, a perpetually changing, yet always thought-about plan of possibilities.

The second suggestion is to require students to accompany their hypermedia projects with a written assessment paper. This paper can include a brief description of the project and its general findings and conclusions, along with an optional guide for navigating through the site. It is important to make the navigational guide optional, for many student-designed projects are based on the user being forced to discover and explore the site on his/her own. At the same time, by having students provide general navigational comments or even a set of hints to 'solve' the hypertext, the instructor's task of grading obscure, impossible-to-find paths and pages becomes much easier.

Rossetti Archive Screenshot

The Hypermedia Rossetti Archive at, one of the projects discussed by Jerome McGann in his essay, 'The Rationale of HyperText'.


Accompanying multimedia and multilinearity is our third 'm', multivocality. Like the terms interdisciplinary and interactive, multivocality has become a popular, if not trendy term within academia. Yet despite its trendiness, it offers fascinating pedagogical and epistemological opportunities.

As many literary theorists have observed, print-based publications maintain authorial individuality, or univocality. Drawing heavily from Marshall McLuhan's seminal work, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), George Landow argues that the political economy of the printing press fostered (and continues to foster) the very tenets - a fixed vernacular, individualized authors, and unique texts - which support univocality.(Landow 1992, 92-4)

Hypertext, according to its supporters, works to foster the opposite. By using the term multivocality, I am referring to a text which contains multiple voices and/or approaches towards a subject or set of subjects. No longer bound by the physical limitations imposed by print technology, hypermedia projects can tackle a topic from an array of often conflicting positions. The result, like that of multilinearity, can be one of user-based direction and can produce what Scott Bukatman calls in his essay 'Virtual Textuality', a '"liberating space" of empowerment.'

This element is not lost on hypertext authors who not only make possible multiple readings of their work but also encourage it. It is not uncommon, for example, to find a work of hypertext less concerned with a single focus and more interested in using a number of multidimensional, shifting positions to approach their project. In this light, a single argument is replaced by a set of often conflicting ones.

Although a single author can explore and develop multivocality within his/her own hypertexts, things get more interesting when more cooks enter the kitchen or, to return to the classroom, when more students enter the hypertext. Luckily, with multimedia authoring software packages such as Toolbook and Director and networked technologies like the World Wide Web, such collaboration is possible. Together, these applications help to foster collaborative learning environments.2

Teachers can foster multivocality by encouraging students to 1) work in groups and 2) approach a single topic from an array of positions. For example, a typical hypermedia project devoted to, say, the Civil War may tackle the topic from the varying angles of economics, history, politics, race relations, cultural studies, developments in technology, etc. At the same time, individual students may want to explore how life was for a Southern plantation owner, a female slave, a Northern soldier, etc. By strategically interweaving these different voices within a common project, or common space, the topic grows richer and more dynamic.

Although multivocality often takes on more dynamic forms within group projects, it can certainly exist within an individual project. One interesting assignment is to have students argue two conflicting points regarding a particular topic, subject, or controversy. Having students introduce, develop, and defend two (or more) sides to an argument allows them to begin to appreciate the complexity of the topic, not to mention the intricacy of rhetoric and the subtlety of argumentation. If students become concerned that their true opinion is not expressed within the project they can attach a conclusion which defines clearly their position.


We have just begun to test and explore the possibilities of hypermedia and hypertext in the classroom. Instead of getting bogged down by the prognostications about what the technology may do, teachers are perhaps better suited to act as testers, lab technicians, and field workers in order to examine how it can be used.


1. Michael Roy, 'How to Do Things without Words: The Multicultural Promise of Multimedia,' in Edward Barret and Marie Redmond (eds), Contextual Media: Multimedia and Interpretation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995): 59. Another essay from this collection, Marie Redmond and Niall Sweeney's 'Multimedia Production: Nonlinear Storytelling Using Digital Technologies,' may be useful to teachers attempting to get students to think hypertextually.

2. This notion of collaborative learning environments now receives a great deal of attention within academia. One particularly interesting approach to the subject is found in Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). See also, David Silver (1996, 104-112).


Bolter, Jay David (1991). Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Douglas, J. Yellowlees (1994). 'How Do I Stop This Thing?: Closure and Indeterminacy in Interactive Narratives,' in George P. Landow, ed., Hyper/Text/Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Landow, George P.(1992). Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bukatman, Scott (1995). 'Virtual Textuality.'

McGann, Jerome (1995). 'The Rationale of HyperText.'

Nelson, Theodor H. (1981). Literary Machines. Swarthmore, PA: self-published.

Silver, David (1996). 'Sharing (Hyper)Texts: Using the Web to Foster Collaborative Learning,' in Randy Bass and Jeff Finlay, eds., So, What Can I Do With It?: A Practical Guide for Using Technology in Teaching American Culture. Washington, DC: American Studies Crossroads Project.

Ziegfeld, Richard. 'Interactive Fiction: A New Literary Genre?,' New Literary History 20. 1989.

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