Telepresence, Hypertext, On-line Courses, and Literacy Skills: A Review of Four On-line Articles.

Donna J. Martin
Northern Illinois University

Telepresence, hypertext, on-line courses, and literacy skills involve controversial issues that have implications for the design and development educational software. In At the Heart of it All: The Concept of Telepresence, Lombard and Ditton (1997) offer an intriguing discussion of the developing concept of telepresence, the perceptual illusion of nonmediation.

 In Bridging the Gulfs: From Hypertext to Cyberspace, Bardini (1997) provides a historical review of hypertext and contrasts the associationist and connectionist concepts of hypertext.

In contrast to the theoretical concept of telepresence and historical review of hypertext, Benyon, Stone, and Woodroffe (1997) review the challenges they faced in developing prototypes of an on-line class for the Open University and call for pedagogical guidelines for developing such courses. Their article is titled, Experience with Developing Multimedia Courseware for the World Wide Web: The Need for Better Tools and Clear Pedagogy.

Lastly, Barnes (1996), in Literacy Skills in the Age of Graphical Interfaces and New Media, provides a beginning investigation of how traditional literacy may be affected by graphic interfaces and the processes of reading and writing are changing: the reader becomes writer.

A description of each article is provided and followed by individual critiques. All four articles are available on-line and are referenced with hypertext links at the end of this review.


Lombard and Dittonís article is the most conceptual and perhaps the most intriguing of the four. They focus on experiences that seem ìreal,î but are created and maintained by a variety of new technologies. A definition of presence is: ìthe perceptual illusion of nonmediation in which the medium appears to become either invisible, or transformed into a social entityî. They describe the invisibility or transparency as a ìlarge open window, with the medium user and medium content (objects and entities) sharing the same physical environmentî whereas in transformation, the ìmedium can appear to be transformed into something other than a medium, a social entityî to be more like human-human interaction. The authors point out a general lack of research and operationalizing of the concept of presence. As a starting point, they propose six conceptualizations of presence.

Academic and practical dimensions of the concept of presence are explored. Media including television, radio, film, computers, teleconferences, virtual reality are referenced throughout their discussions. An interdisciplinary approach to the concept of presence is offered by drawing on research in communication (both interpersonal communication and media camps), psychology, and computer technology fields. Also highlighted for practitioners are points of interest in skills training and task performance.

Excellent descriptions and examples conceptualize and operationalize both the causes and effects of presence as an invisible medium and a transformed medium. High, medium, and low presence are sometimes rated. They discuss media characteristics; visual display characteristics; aural presentation characteristics; interactivity; and obtrusiveness of medium. Psychological and physiological effects are explained from both invisibility and transformation of media viewpoints.

While Lombard and Ditton are quite state-of-the-art in their conceptualization, it must be noted that they are writing from a communication standpoint. In surveying presence in skills training for fields such as the military and medicine/surgical, they also indicate presence can lead to persuasion, which for them is ìprovocative.î I caution, however, that effectiveness of media should not be confused with learning. Persuasiveness of media should not be confused with development of critical thinking skills. Lombard and Ditton offer interesting concepts that prompt me to ask: What is the educational value of presence? How can presence be treated in instructional technology to enhance learning? Does learning increase with increased presence? How may psychological and physiological effects of presence vary according to user demographics?

Hypertext to Cyberspace

Bardini offers an excellent historical focus on hypertext and highlights the tension between the software user and software/system designer. Ted Nelsonís work on association that tends to focus on the individualís creativity is contrasted with Douglas Engelbartís work on connection that emphasizes more group collaboration elements. For Nelson, association hypertext tends to organize information whereas for Englebart, a connection view of hypertext tends to allow individuals to communicate and collaborate.

Bardini discusses and advances Brenda Laurelís work on the interface between user and computer to propose the concept of dialog between user and computer. He asks, ìWhy canít we users, inscribe the designer? . . .A call for symmetry is a call for the reflexive designer. When using a system, the user should be able to change it, to redesign it. To call for an extended virtuality is to call for an alternate reality where roles can be exchangedî (Bardini). He concludes the ultimate interactivity is the connection between users and designers.

While his advances of Laurelís work and information on connectivity between user and designer is interesting, I have trouble operationalizing the concept for interface design. I found his work a bit difficult to follow when he was trying to ìbridge the gulfî from discussions of history of hypertext and interface design to issues surrounding cyberspace. Bardini is also writing from a communication background; his discussions of association and connection do not particularly focus on any aspects of the learnerís increased ability from either viewpoint. A weak section on engagement could benefit from the use of information such as Lombard and Dittonís article on presence.

On-line Classes

Benyon et al. comment on the limited information available on the web as a ìteaching medium,î and reflect on taking a ìtraditional, distance learning course and transforming it into a course delivered over the World Wide Webî. They discuss their work as a team through the phases of the instructional design, multimedia development, integration of material, implementation and evaluation. The context is the development of a post-graduate course, User Interface Design and Development, for ten students in nine countries. The authors indicate that the delivery of the course via the web was chosen in order to increase student worldwide access to courses, to investigate the possibilities of hypertext for increasing flexibility of materials, and to integrate various media and increase interactivity.

Their reflection discusses the hypertextualizing of the course and limited choices of authoring and presentation software to meet their pedagogical goals. Through their description of developing prototypes they write on the limiting aspects of links in HTML, browser difficulties in using frames and Java, and navigational problems. They are currently working on a third prototype to integrate more multimedia applications. Lack of available guidelines for hypermedia design, difficulty dividing large documents into usable units, and problems created by gaps in technology all present challenges to continued course design. In stating their goal to facilitate, not restrict the studentís use of materials, they conclude that they have yet to realize ìpedagogical benefit arising from simply hypertextualizing existing course material.î

Although the authors discuss the difficulties they faced in transforming the course, I suggest that they transferred, rather than transformed, their course. This article must be viewed as a work in progress as the authors are reporting on their intensive project to increase access of courses to students worldwide. It is a very realistic and practical application of an existing university course to an on-line course. Too often only success stories are reported; this article is a rather frank discussion on the challenges and barriers the authors faced in prototyping and their need for significant revisions in their next prototype. They come back to the necessity to keep the studentís learning as a goal in development and design. Although I raise some questions about the applicability of Lombard and Dittonís concept of presence to learning, if presence can enhance learning, then Benyonís team may benefit from developing a presence in their work. They may also want to consider how the different perspectives of using hypertext, connectionist or associationist, may influence their work.

Literacy and Graphical Interface

ìIn fact, learning the literacy skills required to communicate using new media could overwhelm people into illiteracyî (Barnes, 1996). In her work, Barnes covers four major issues: graphical interfaces may have an impact on writing skills and possibly language; how new media like hypertext and multimedia may affect dissemination and categorizing of information; while communication skills may be expanding, learning skills are becoming limited; and increased computer use leads to a further gap between technological ìhaves and have-nots.î

Some limited research is provided to describe of how the process of reading has changed by the introduction of graphical icons and a greater concern on how text looks, rather than the content of the material. With the advancements in word processing and graphic design, the reader becomes writer and the ìtext is no longer fixed and staticî. Barnes claims that the ìpotential cultural consequence of graphical interfaces is the disruption of word-oriented languageî.

Although Barnes seems to address literacy issues in general, most of her limited research is gathered from higher education settings. Near her conclusion, she refers to research that concludes technology may affect functional illiteracy in general society. While her article otherwise seems to deal with higher education research, she follows up the estimation of illiteracy in general society with an estimation of literacy skills in high schools in New York City. She asserts that ìthe addition of computer related literacy skills could result in an overall rise in illiteracyî. There are great inconsistencies in the research cited for which groups could be affected by technology to support such an overall assertion. Further, in the discussion on multimedia, she seems to refer primarily to the use of multimedia in high schools, although her two citations regarding literacy involve studies in higher education settings.

As I write from an adult education perspective, I am interested in the possible effects of technology on literacy, but there is little data in this article to support adult education investigations. Further, the concept of literacy needs to be better refined to clarify the investigation and resources cited.


These authors represent a balance of hypertext history, practical applications of hypertext, effects of computer and other media on literacy skills, and theoretical framework of presence. New concepts of presence and developing concepts of hypertext are especially relevant to the interface designer. While each author somewhat surveys the research controversial to their topic, controversy between the topics can be demonstrated. Barnesí concludes that literacy skills are adversely affected by graphic interfaces while Benyonís group struggles to provide even greater access to on-line courses in a university environment and increase graphics through multimedia. In turn, their struggle with limitations of hypertext contrasts with the optimistic conclusions of Bardini on associationist and connectionist forms of hypertext. While Beynonís team and Barnes are hesitant about the use of technology and replacement of traditional skills, Lombard and Ditton look forward to explicating the experiences that are offered under the conceptualizations of presence in the use of technology. These types of tensions surface in choices made by the interface designer. Although there are questions about the applicability of some ideas to learning environments, all authors provide valuable information to inform the work of instructional technologists and educational software designers and developers.

Lombard, M. and Ditton, T. (1997). At the heart of it all: The concept of telepresence. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (on-line serial) 3(2). Available:

Bardini, T. (1997). Bridging the gulfs: From hypertext to cyberspace. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (on-line serial) 3(2). Available:

Benyon, D., Stone, D., & Woodroffe, M. (1997). Experience with developing multimedia courseware for the world wide web: The need for better tools and clear pedagogy. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. (on-line serial) 47(1). Available:

Barnes, S. (1996). Literacy skills in the age of graphical interfaces and new media. Interpersonal Computing and Technology. (on-line serial) 4(3-4). Available:

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