Today Alice Downey asked me if the web rewires our brains and makes us dumber, for an item to appear in Reportage Online. This was promoted a Wired magazine article "The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains" (Nicholas Carr, 24 May 2010). Nicholas Carr is one of the keynote speakers at the World Computer Congress 2010, in Brisbane next month. He is talking on "Bringing the Cloud Down to Earth". I am one of the (lesser) industry speakers at the same event a few days later in the "Sustain IT" stream, talking on "Teaching Sustainable ICT Competencies with Tablet Computers: My first year's experience setting the global standard for green ICT professional education".Perhaps I will make my subtext "Bringing Nicholas Carr Down to Earth". ;-)
The reported research by Professor Gary Small at UCLA, indicating that brain activity was increased by surfing web links. Nicholas Carr's interpretation from this, and other research, was that web pages with numerous hypertext links were harder to read, understand and remember than traditional linear text. His conclusion seems to be that therefore the web was harming, or at least changing, the way people think. However, the conclusion that poorly written text is hard to read does not seem a surprising result and is not confined to the web.
A web page with numerous hypertext links is going to be distracting for the reader, but no more so than a printed article with footnotes, end notes and references (the print world's equivalent of hypertext). The author needs to asses what their readers want from a printed article, or a web page, and design it accordingly. If the reader needs short snippets of information for a free commuter newspaper (or its iPhone equivalent), then the material will be written differently to a university textbook.
There were well established guidelines developed for how to write text, before the web was invented. No doubt there were well established ways to tell a good story, before text was invented. New media, such as film making, adapted these techniques, just as the web has. If you are writing an encyclopaedia, or Wikipedia, then the work has a different structure to a novel. An encyclopaedia is not meant to be read from cover to cover.
Much has been learnt in the last 20 years about how to design web pages for easy reading and comprehension. Some of this is codified in the W3C's web accessibility guidelines and similar works. In teaching university students web design, I have challenged them to design for people who have disabilities, for the use of the web at large scale events, such as the Olympic Games, and in emergencies. This requires the designer to consider how to convey the required information as clearly and reliably as possible.
In the last few years the Australian federal and state governments have invested millions of dollars to advance the use of technology for education. Australia is now a world leader in the application of the web to education. This does not simply involve putting a whole lot of web links online and have the student click around. Computer software and techniques have been developed, underpinned by pedagogical theory, backed up by research and practical testing, on how to make web documents student learn from. As educators are trained in these techniques, they will become more widely known and applied in government and business, just as the web was developed in academia and then spread to the wider community. I will be discussing how I have applied some of the mentored and collaborative learning techniques in a Green ICT Course in a talk at the World Computer Congress 2010, in Brisbane next month.