December 1996

Root Page of Article: Going Into the Woods, by Christine Boese

What are the drawbacks to creating an exploratory structure adapted to the thinking style of the user?

To some, the main advantage to getting to know a subject (X) the way a kid gets to know the woods is also its biggest drawback. To understand this, think of the way we have traditionally learned about X.

A traditional school model of learning often sets up teachers as the classroom experts on X. The teacher presents the information to be learned and then gives tests to make sure the material has been completely absorbed.

Outside of a school setting we have to know and understand about a great many things in the same way. You can't say to the IRS Auditor, "Oh, I didn't feel like reading the part about Adjustments to Income." Outside of a school setting some call this an "Information Transfer Model" of communication and learning.

This is a very different model from getting to know a subject the way a kid gets to know the woods. There may not be any tests on the woods, but many kids get to know that area far better and at a higher level than they know their schoolwork. Furthermore, they like it in the woods, or else they wouldn't be there. Motivation is a key consideration in multimedia and hyperfiction as well.

The lessons of the woods are not divided into tidy subjects. As a matter of fact, no two kids are likely to have the same experience of the woods. Does that mean the Zen kid doesn't know the same woods as the group building a fort or the two best friends nursing baby field mice in a pile of dead leaves? Yes and no.

The problem is that in the course of exploring the woods, one could miss a whole section of it, say because a mean dog lives over there, or because you just never got around to it.

But what if X was brain surgery? Would you like someone cutting open your head who had gotten to know brain surgery the way a kid gets to know the woods? I doubt the insurance would cover it.

Is this to say that All Important Stuff and requires the Information Transfer Model, while superfluous and entertaining subjects, art, and games can be left to random exploration? What kind of value system is implied here? If the woods are of such little consequence, no one should despair when they are cut down for encroaching urbanism and to protect children from child molesters.

And perhaps those of us considering careers in creative media should go into highly linear and non-interactive forms if we want to do "truly important" and high paying work. Lucasfilms Wants You!

People who have been strongly conditioned to accept outside authorities usually like the Information Transfer Model. They make good worker bees. But sooner or later most relatively autonomous people are expected to think for themselves, even brain surgeons. Especially brain surgeons. And that is something many of us learn in the woods. So in addition to making learning a largely passive rather than active experience, some people are concerned that the Information Transfer Model will lead to a decline in critical thinking skills.

Many of these people are watching the development of multimedia very closely. For if multimedia can simulate the experience of the woods, then perhaps there is hope for a model of active learning and participation directed by the multimedia user, accepting or rejecting information from a variety of authorities, making his or her own information in linked documents or multimedia artifacts, and sharing that information and interacting with other users.

On the other hand, there is a possibility that navigating through a multimedia product can become just as passive of an experience as channel surfing on TV. If the choices implied are so insignificant that no thinking is involved, then navigation becomes just a simple thumbs up, thumbs down.

My idealized woods offers a far richer environment than that, with opportunities for real interaction. For instance, there was the time we dammed the crick and it flooded the basements of three houses (that time we used sandbags).

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