Thinking ’bout Linking

It was about a year ago that I wrote a piece for English Journal on teaching “blogging” vs. “writing with blogs” that was pretty much a re-hash of some blog posts that I thought were saying something. The trouble is, I wasn’t sure what they were saying. I’ve been fumbling at this one for a while.

I’ve always found something particularly special about writing online, or at least I’ve learned that there’re more options, more possibilities, and plenty of challenges that make writing online much more complicated than cutting and pasting a Word file into a text box and hitting “submit.”

But most folks that I see beginning to use digital writing spaces aren’t treating them any differently. And I can’t quite figure out why. I also can’t quite figure out how to articulate the differences, even though I think I get some, if not several, of them. And if I can’t articulate them, perhaps I can’t teach them. (Not sure about that, actually – but work with me.)

I think one good way to articulate some of the differences is to tell you a story. Here goes.

Tonight, I’m sitting in
a local cafe, enjoying a cup of wicked sweet coffee and some tunes. As I wrote that last sentence, and added the links in, I wondered how you would read it. Are you someone who clicks on any link you see in a blog post? Or are you more like me? I use a browser that shows me the URL of the link I’m pointing to, saving me the trouble of traveling here if, after reading the URL, I see that I don’t need to follow the link, perhaps because I already know the site, or I don’t want to go to the site, because I’m worried about pop-ups, or a virus, or something that I don’t actually want to see. I love that browser, except when it leaks memory.

I could continue, but I think (hope) I’m making my point. I could have written that paragraph without the links – but I would’ve need an awful lot more details to tell you as much as I did with the links. And you each will have worked your way through that paragraph differently. Some of you read and clicked and fiddled. Others of you read differently. (Oh – and here’s a minor nit – but how many of you, in that last sentence, read, ahem, “read” in the past tense? Present tense? Language is hard. But anyway.)

I don’t know what my students do/did when they see blocks of text with links. And I’m 98 percent sure that there wasn’t another teacher in my school who was thinking about how to explain that to students, much less about how they read that text themselves.

Digital texts have the potential to make a big, juicy mess of a linear experience. Or to turn a so-so piece of writing into a masterful collection of references, linktributions, and pointers to other good stuff. My hunch, a rough one, but one I’ve held for a while, is that reading and writing that way makes you (ultimately) a better reader and writer. I just don’t really think I know how to teach that way yet, or at least, I don’t know how to teach other people to think about teaching that way.

Will Richardson asked me recently (well, it was two weeks ago – but that counts as recent if you forgive me the week I spent sick. And I do.) about connective writing, and what a course on it might look like. I blame him for the frustrated typing that I’m up to right now. And the posts that I suspect are forthcoming. (And I’m thankful, too. I needed a push.)

What would such a course look like? What would it cover? How would it differ from a “regular” (I know – bogus term.) 9th or 10th grade high school writing course? How would it be the same? (Why wait until high school? I’ve been thinking through blogs as science or inquiry notebooks at the elementary school level.) What happens when we add video(s)? Pictures? Embedded widgets? I’ve got to believe that some analysis of what links do and how they do it would be a necessary piece of any such course. So, too, would be copious quoting and linking to others, building a network of classroom texts that would be added to the greater networks of the world.

I’d kill to teach that class.

Perhaps I’ve stumbled across another thesis idea. Again. Nuts.

Postscript – I had thought that perhaps I’d dig into the research on hypertextual writing a bit before I started down this post. I know these ideas aren’t new. But I couldn’t help myself. I made it four pages into this fascinating article before I started writing. Worth a read, I think.

30 thoughts on “Thinking ’bout Linking

  1. J Scott says:

    I’m currently dealing with the repercussions of trying to teach a history class the way you’re talking about teaching a writing class. My focus wasn’t on the technology, but on the learning of history. What I’ve learned (the hard way!) is that linear thinkers CAN do non-linear work, but they’re going to complain loudly to you, each other, their parents, your administrators, etc. I’m sure a certain amount of their struggles were the result of poor teaching, and I’m equally certain that the vast majority of my kids are better off having done this project. I can’t imagine trying to do this with a less supportive administration!

  2. Eric Hoefler says:

    Hey Bud,

    Hope this isn’t a tangent …

    For me, the greatest benefits of writing online vs. offline (in addition to the “connective” issue you mention) are audience and ownership. To quote myself:

    “The presence of an audience (other than the teacher and classmates) tends to drive students to produce more and better work, and students learn more from their own efforts (including their mistakes) if they care about the opinions of those who read their writings. Likewise, a sense of ownership of the space in which the writing occurs fosters similar outcomes. By ownership, I mean both the ability to influence how the space looks and functions and the ability to decide what writing will and will not happen in that space.”

    I’ve got ideas about these things scattered on my wiki: (see “Working with Blackboard,” “Developing Fluency and Reflection Online,” and the “Tech4TCs” series).

    Hope some of that is helpful. I’ll be digging into and following your thoughts about the “connective” aspect of all of this (something I haven’t spent much time on yet).

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Eric Hoefler says:

    Another thought, after reading J Scott’s comment: the messiness of non-linear work seems to me like a better external approximation of how the brain actually learns, so definitely worth pursuing in spite of the difficulty or complaints. Are there “linear thinkers” … really? Is linear thinking even very helpful as an initial approach to a problem? What do we mean by linear vs. non-linear thought?

    Thanks, J Scott, for prompting a bunch of questions!

  4. Joe Miller says:


    This article really got me thinking past about what it means to teach reading. Our students will become authors and publish to the Internet, but they will spend more of their time reading. I don’t have an answer and I will look to you to continue the conversation in this space, but do we need to rethink the way we teach reading? Maybe that is a little drastic. A better question are there skills and strategies that we should be working on with students to help them become more effective and efficient readers of text?


  5. lhuff says:

    I look forward to reading more as you explore this concept. It reminds me of the “making connections” reading strategy. We teach kids to make connections as they read:
    1. Text to Self Connections: How does the text connect to you personally?
    2. Text to Text Connections: How does the text relate to another text you’ve read?
    3. Text to World Connections: How does the text relate to issues or societal problems or current events?

    I wonder if using this connections strategy might be a foothold–prior knowledge–to introduce the “connections” we make as writers when we compose online texts with links and as readers as we navigate online texts with links.

  6. Mike Sansone says:

    I believe linking has two benefits to the reader, if done properly:

    1. Extend the conversation and discovery path outwards. Readers don’t ‘have-to’ click, but it’s a nice resource to have if the link is relevant.

    2. Give the reader an eye-rest. If the link is contextually relevant (and not just a keyword), it may slow the reader down enough to re-read — or at least remember. Your link to the grass growth above is a great example.

    Great post. Keep connecting. Like neurons firing in the brain – (linked) together, we are smarter.

  7. Kellie says:

    Hi Bud,

    Having just used a wiki with a class for a research project, this posting was incredibly timely. Although not blogging per se, I noticed something interesting with the wiki research writing vs. hard copy writing: the students took a lot more care to cite sources because they could be links. When I explained that any reader could then link to the source to read more, I saw some lights come on. And I don’t see lights too often when doing a research assignment . . .

    Something else your post jogged for me personally was the idea of tagging and what tags can do for a reader. That collection of topics might be a very powerful way for a student to figure out his/her own main ideas. Or, could we have students try to decide how they would tag some else’s post? Might be an interesting summary tool. So much could be done with online writing, and I don’t think I’ve totally wrapped my head around it yet. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, as usual!

  8. Hello, Bud,

    Back in the day when I taught English, I had a creative writing assignment where I had my students choose a picture, and then create a story via imagemap — they would create hotlinks off of specific sections of the image, and links between series of texts. Predictably, some kids loved it, others hated it, but they all talked about it long afterwards.

    The actual skills feel pretty similar. However, the opportunities for reflection (and metareflection) are a lot more obvious, and therefore easier to use. This is one of the main values I have seen, and it’s a subtle one that really only manifests itself over time. The option to create and add a broader range media allows for incrementally greater engagement; over time, the ability to quickly look back on old work and reflect on progress allows for more of what I’ll call “constructive navel-gazing” —



  9. Bud Hunt says:

    Thanks, all, for continuing the conversation. Lots here to respond to:

    @J: Yeah – I find that doing anything different results in plenty of cognitive dissonance – which I love.

    @Eric: Yep – Audience is essential. Ownership, too. We writing guys know that. But this connective stuff seems to be the “doing new things in new ways” bit that folks reach for with technology integration. Try as my dad might’ve, hyperlinks simply didn’t exist when he was teaching 6th grade. Not sure I want to go down the “is anyone a linear thinker” road – I find value in being linear sometimes. Othertimes, and this blog post and more and more of my writing are prime examples, I’m less linear than I’ve ever been in my life. I think hyperlinks are changing the way I think and compose. And that amazes and scares me.

    @lhuff: Yep – total scaffolding moment. And, as an aside, I dig your blog. want to find more time for exploring there.

    @Mike: I didn’t think about a cognitive advantage to stopping to smell the proverbial roses via linking. But that idea seems really important. Thank you for it.

    @Kellie: I don’t understand why more people don’t get pumped about the linktribution aspects of linking. It’s both easier and more functional than traditional citations – which are completely arbitrary. Sort of.

    @Bill: I so wish I were a kid in your classroom. What a great idea. And you know how I feel about the value of archiving work over time paired with more time to go back and do the navel gazing. Essential. It’s criminal it doesn’t happen more.

  10. After reading your post, I went to the paper you referenced and too read the first few pages, but then started skimming and looked for the examples in the end. Ended up at “My Body”. It gave me a deeper insight to hyperlinking in writing.

    When I initially read your post my thoughts went to the annual family Christmas email that used to contain words, pictures and the family website link. This year each of our names were linked to our emails, the events in our lives, i.e. cheer nationals video; college film major sample HD videos, link to one kids art on, links to our “Houston Pastry Chef of the Year’s” e-versions of articles about said award, etc. – (you get the picture) were abundant. I made sure each family member had a link. I was so proud of myself! But then I began asking those that received the e-letter if they had gone to the links . . .most said no, so I did my part in the educational process of my family in the 21st century and explained the “more” that they would know about our past years events if they did. So the long family letter, looked shorter as links provided the detail. But we have an ever long way to go.

    Your post and the subsequent article that you recommended has now broadened my horizon and thinking as to the possibilities and creativity available in using hypertext in my writing. Thank you! I plan to share this with the writer in the family – the one on

    I only can hope that my kids get teachers that teach utilizing this – it holds the ability to expand creativity and further engage their learning.

  11. Bud-I could not agree more! A class like that would not only be fun and educational, but in the 21st Century absolutely necessary! Great point,great post!

  12. Richard says:

    Here’s a fun game for you:

    Name any two web pages or just find two at random. Then, start on one of them and link your way to the other. Kind of like the Kevin Bacon game:

    Bud, I just clicked three times from your page and got to a book I was reading this morning:

    The way I got there was:
    1. Bud’s Blog
    2. Continuities (on the blog aggregator)
    3. The Math Less Travelled Blog

    and one more click and I was there.

    Small world.

  13. JackieB says:

    And in an even smaller world, the next comment is from the “author” of continuities. Huh.

    Anyway, this is a very interesting question. I’ve never really thought about how I read hyperlinked text. I have no idea how’d I teach this to students. How does it effect their comprehension of the original thought/article if they’re chasing down every link first? But can they read the piece if they don’t understand the terms/ideas? Hmm.. I’m off to read the article to which you linked…

  14. JackieB says:

    So, should I have read the linked article first, then made my comment?

  15. I guess this whole twitter break was worth it. 😉 Sent this to all my pre-service teachers. Can’t you keep writing this good stuff and still stay on twitter? Come on Bud!

  16. Lynsey says:

    Interesting ideas Bud. A year or so ago I was startled by one of my blog readers who protested that she had no interest in reading everyone else’s opinion, and that I should write more directly from my own experience. On reflection, I decided I also didn’t like to read documents glut-referenced (I mean who reads doctoral thesis/dissertations for fun?) so I tweaked the style sheet to make the links less obvious (but still available). Moving the idea along, perhaps it would be possible to revisit the linking so that linktributions were styled differently – i.e. links that flesh out an idea look different than those that merely reference a source. Wikipedia has a model for this with the little icon at the end of links that bust out of the site, absent in internal links. Good accessibility behaviours would include adding some meaningful documentation indicating link destination.

    The other issue alluded to in the Brooks document (search: Crotchless Horsemen, p.24) is that students will work hard on ensuring the links worked, images loaded etc. I have seen this behaviour in students before when the fine tuning of the document became important because a good presentation job was actually possible, and that tinkering was possible, and worthwhile. Thinking back to my handwritten, hand drawn school projects (complete with smudges, typos, glue squelches, et al) – I knew they were visually vile, and then ARGH! “Not your best work.” I believe there is a potential for generating better student work when the process of creation is separated from the process of presentation; and that there is an improved chance students will engage, and go the step or two beyond the constraints of the project, because they can and because the reward is immediately visible and – importantly – the skill set is transferable. The skills learned at school writing blogs and preparing video and images is directly useful to the facebook or whatever social networking option is the flavour of the day. I can’t say I ever found school projects motivating or in any way applicable to my after school life. Well, to be fair, I am much tidier with glue now, so it wasn’t a total loss.

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