Thinking about... Linkiness

I love the "linkiness" of the Internet, and I am worried about the future of links. This worry probably just goes to show that I am OLD not only by calendar-years but also by Internet-years. There is more and more happening outside the world of the browser, such as mobile apps full of content that is, unfortunately, not linkable, searchable or discoverable with a traditional search engine.  And even in the world of the browser, there are more and more walled gardens, free to enter, yes, but walled off. Which means: not open.

Consider, for example, the walled garden being built by NextThought. My school has just decided to invest appx. one million dollars annually in the NextThought platform. It's in beta now - - and you can even log on and give it a whirl if you want. (BTW, the million dollars is just money for the software; I have no idea how much is being invested in video development.) This platform will no doubt abound in excellent content created by professors at my school, but it is not linkable - not from outside, and not even from inside. The URL is unchanging. So, for example, here is a screenshot of a video, one of many fine videos, available at, but it is not linkable outside the system, not bookmarkable outside the system, not searchable, not discoverable.

Indeed, even within the system, if my students and I were trying to use this platform, I could not send an email with a link to this video, encouraging the students to watch it. Instead, I would have to explain, click by click, how they reach the video (go to Law and Justice and click, scroll down in the left-hand menu to section 16 and click, look on the right-hand side for the 16.6 debate, and then click for the video).

Prior to this investment in NextThought, my school was heavily investing (i.e. time and resources, if not software development funds) in iTunesU, a platform which is less closed off than NextThought, but which is also very poor in terms of linkability, searchability, and discoverability. The course management system used for all courses at my school, Desire2Learn, is completely closed, with no access to content for anyone not officially enrolled in a specific course. That means if you have course content that would useful to students in more than one class you are teaching (or in a course someone else is teaching), you must manually copy the content and then maintain multiple copies of that content, updating that content in multiple places if/when it needs to be edited. So much for linkiness.

As I said above, my concern about links and linkiness probably betrays my age as much as anything. My first acquaintance with the Internet was in a world of links, lots of links, a hyperabundance of hyperlinks which thrilled and delighted me when I first discovered it back in the late 90s. So, here we are 15 years later, and I wonder if the Internet would excite me in the same way if I were just discovering it now. What I loved from the start about the Internet was the sense of openness about it, including its openness to authors, people like me, who wanted to create pages and sites in order to connect with others online.

To this day, the online resources that are most valuable for my classes are simple, unsophisticated, completely open websites abounding in content created by passionate people, driven by their own dedication - sites like Hare's Sacred Texts Archive, Ashliman's Folktexts, and Heiner's Sur La Lune Fairy Tales (to name just a few). For videos, we have had YouTube since 2005, making it possible for anyone to stream video online. In fact, videos at YouTube have this huge advantage: videos can be embedded in other pages, which means the content can go where it's needed. Just as an example, here is one of Vi Hart's videos, embedded here in this post via YouTube and Khan Academy:

These dedicated and pioneering individuals did not need millions of dollars' worth of software and yet more millions of dollars in development money to create their content (even Salman Khan started off just "doing his own thing" there at YouTube back in 2006). In my own classes, my main goal continues to be to teach my students how to use free tools like Google Sites to create their own webpages and share their thoughts and ideas with others online, using the open Internet. (I have asked repeatedly if we could adopt GoogleApps at my school, and I have been told repeatedly that we cannot do that because GoogleApps would be "too expensive.")

So, this new platform at my school is all shiny and bright as you can see if you log on and take a look (very shiny and very bright!), but it doesn't look like I will actually be able to use it for anything since I cannot link to anything there, nor can anyone else. It surprises me that faculty would want to pour so much time and energy into content that is inherently self-limiting in this way. There are many websites, like the ones I cited above, with content that I consult every single day, content that the sites' creators published 5 or 10 or more years ago, just by using simple HTML webpages. I regularly embed YouTube videos in my course materials, even if I do not develop video myself, So, I have to ask: Where will all these shiny and bright new videos be 10 years from now if they remain locked inside the NextThought platform? And what will the Internet itself be like in the future if we are not building it together, link by link?

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Comments? Thoughts? Please feel free to share your ideas in the Google+ space linked here or another Google+ discussion here.

And here are more posts on Teaching and Learning Online.

Published: September 21, 2013.
Updated: September 23, 2013. Added Vi Hart video and comments re: video at YouTube.