Stephen P. Victor
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education
University of Houston
Houston, Texas, USA
Abstract: The Internet has only begun to be seriously studied, yet it promises to be a fertile area for research. This paper proposes a qualitative study of a public school district’s Web pages to analyzed possible messages taught about the nature of knowledge and the role of the schools in its formation and transmission.
Much has been written on the overt impact of the Internet on the curriculum, but what is the role of the Internet in the transmission of what has been termed the “hidden curriculum” (Apple, 1990)? This paper summarizes a proposal for a qualitative analysis of a public school district’s Web pages. The study will analyze the potential messages—both overt and hidden— presented in these pages about the nature of knowledge and the role of the schools in its formation and transmission.
Information Theory and Information Design
Perception and Cognition
Constructing an Information Architecture
Business Process Analysis
The Information Architecture Process
Guidelines for Constructing an Information Architecture
An Information Architecture Model
Instructional Applications of Information Architecture
The Social Construction of Knowledge
Information Design, Objectivism, and Constructivism
What clearly emerges from the literature review, I believe, is the importance of considering user or learner needs at every stage of the process. Sound information architecture, then, is user-centered. The four phase model of information architecture I describe (Design, Develop, Deploy, Document) may be viewed as a framework for research into the processes of creating user-centered information: design of information (needs, audience, and task analyses), development of information (writing, graphical production, page/screen layout, programming), deployment (implementation and evaluation of the information product), and documentation of the product (to feed into future expansions and revisions).
Furthermore, information architecture can serve a rhetorical or ideological function in its use as a tool for the reproduction of culture. Because of my interest in theorizing the practice of Web design, I will present below a fuller treatment of the portion of my literature review dealing with information architecture and ideology. I hope readers will bear with what might appear to be—indeed could very well be—a tangential excursion into unusual areas of cultural studies.
Dick Hebdige (1979) adopts an almost purely theoretical approach in discussing his subject: the meaning of style in the development of subcultural groups. While he chose as his immediate area of study the punk rock movement that arose in Britain in the mid-1970s, his work is an extended meditation on the use of cultural artifacts by a subculture to define itself, to set itself apart from the dominant culture. His methodology, though qualitative, seems to employ none of the usual techniques of observation and interview for data gathering. He rather uses such artifacts as newspaper articles and radio and television interviews as his primary source. There is indeed little evidence that he even attended a musical performance or even personally met any of his subjects. His study traces the historical roots of the punk movement from the development of reggae among the black immigrant working class youth of the 1950s and 1960s, the mingling of these youths with white working class Mods in the 1960s (and resulting racial tensions), to the emergence of punk in the 1970s. The punk’s transformation of clothing and musical forms is for Hebdige representative of the larger process of style in the formation of social identity. In his interpretive framework cultural artifacts—safety pins used as jewelry, plastic trash bags worn as clothing—become texts bearing meaning for the interpretation of cultural activity. He grounds his interpretation in a semiotic analysis of the appropriation of signifiers by the punks and their reassignment of them to new signifieds: “safety pins and bin liners signified a relative material poverty which was either directly experienced and exaggerated or sympathetically assumed, and which in turn was made to stand for the spiritual paucity of everyday life” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 115). The punks’ style becomes a parody of bourgeois life: “beneath the clownish make-up there lurked the unaccepted and disfigured face of capitalism…beyond the horror circus antics a divided and unequal society was being eloquently condemned” (p. 115). He cites Mepham, who writes that it is necessary to identify the “generative sets of ideological categories” and to trace the replacement of these sets by different sets. With the punks, Hebdige notes, it is difficult to identify consistent “generative sets” of signifiers; items such as the swastika, apparently stripped of its traditional meaning (fascism) and worn by the punks merely for shock value, “its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning: from its potential for deceit” (p. 117): “The key to punk style remains elusive. Instead of arriving at the point where we can begin to make sense of the style, we have reached the very place where meaning itself evaporates” (p. 117).
These contradictions make a traditional semiotic analysis difficult if not impossible. Hebdige turns for a solution to a branch of semiotics that attempts to deal with such problems. This branch discards the traditional reading of texts to reveal a fixed number of meanings for the idea of polysemy, in which each text generated a potentially infinite range of meanings. Attention is directed to those places in the text where meaning is most in doubt; the emphasis is placed on the process of meaning construction rather than on the text as a final product (p. 118). Literary expression is viewed as a signifying practice, in which signifier and signified are separated and assigned new relationships and meanings: language is “an active, transitive force which shapes and positions the ‘subject’ (as speaker, writer, reader) while always itself remaining ‘in process’ capable of infinite adaptation” (p. 119). Reading punk “texts” through this critical lens, then, Hebdige suggests that the punks deliberately presented a disunified set of significations: they “played up their Otherness, ‘happening’ on the world as aliens, inscrutables” (pp. 120-121). Their ensembles “did not so much magically resolve experienced contradictions as represent the experience of contradiction itself in the form of visual puns (bondage, the ripped tee-shirt, etc.)” (p.121, italics in original).
For Saussure, language is a system of signs, of differences with no positive terms. Language does not describe entities that exist independently in the world but rather precedes their existence, making the world intelligible by means of differentiating concepts. A sign consists of a signifier (sound-image or written shape) and a signified (concept). Because signifier and signified seem for us inseparable (the sound-image dog belongs with the concept dog), we believe language to be transparent, something that labels unproblematically an entity in the world. Further, in Saussure’s theory, language is a social fact. Social groups generate signs, agreeing to attach specific signs to specific signifiers. A community creates a signifying system as a means of producing social organization; “[l]anguage therefore comes into being at the same time as society” (Belsey, 1980, p. 42). Communities also create ideology, systematic representations of the meaning of events, the roles of individuals in society—in the form of discourse, myths, stories, history—and this ideology is necessarily grounded in language. Just as signifier and signified in language seem inextricably linked—to the extent that language seems transparently to describe reality—so does the linguistic nature of ideology make it seem to describe “reality” as it actually is. Recognition of the arbitrary nature of the signifier-signified relationship has profound effects on our view of the world:
If signifieds are not pre-existing, given concepts, but changeable and contingent concepts, and if changes in signifying practice are related to changes in the social formation, the notion of language as a neutral nomenclature functioning as an instrument of communication of meanings which exist independently of it is clearly untenable. Language is a system which pre-exists the individual and in which the individual produces meaning. In learning its native language the child learns a set of differentiating concepts which identify not given entities but socially constructed signifieds. Language in an important sense speaks us…. Differences and distinctions which seem obvious, a matter of common sense, cannot be taken for granted, since common sense itself is to a large degree a linguistic construct (Belsey, 1980, pp. 44-45; italics in original)
Lacan’s radical interpretation of Freud posits that identity and subjectivity (the idea of the individual as subject) are grounded in language (Belsey, 1980, p. 59). At birth, the child has no sense of identity, no sense of itself as distinct from an “other.” In the “mirror-phase” of development, the child sees itself “as a unit distinct from the outside world” (Belsey, 1980, p. 59). The child learns to identify with this unitary, autonomous self. However, to participate in society, the child must learn language, it “must enter into the symbolic order, the set of signifying systems of culture of which the supreme example is language” (Belsey, 1980, p. 59). In learning to speak, the child learns to differentiate between “I” and “you,” and in identifying with the first person singular pronoun, the child becomes a subject:
Subjectivity, then, is linguistically and discursively constructed and displaced across the range of discourses in which the concrete individual participates. It follows from Saussure’s theory of language as a system of differences that the world is intelligible only through discourse: there is no unmediated experience, no access to the raw reality of self and others. (Belsey, 1980, p. 61)
Further, the subject “is constructed in language and in discourse and, since the symbolic order in its discursive use is closely related to ideology, in ideology” (Belsey, 1980, p. 61). Industrial capitalism, Belsey suggests following Althusser (1972), requires the existence of subjects, individuals who believe themselves to be autonomous, freely acting consumers of material goods. The conventional role of culture in ideology is to reinforce the position of the subject: to maintain the sense of a stable identity free of contradiction. Because ideology always masks its activity, there is a naturalness to the status quo; it “makes sense” that things are as they are. The role of literature in a capitalist society is to maintain the “sense” of the dominant ideology, to present a unified subject, capable of acting freely. Literature, as ideology, interpellates the subject, addressing individuals who, in their recognition of the address, are constituted as subjects (Althusser, 1972). Literature, art, and other cultural artifacts, are commodities that reinforce the subject’s place in the social formation and reproduces the dominant ideology. In terms of my own research interests, one could say that Web pages interpellate those who view them, drawing the viewer into the mesh of ideology that permeates our perceptions of ourselves and of our relationships with others. The conventional critic, therefore, presents for the reader what Barthes terms the “readable text”: s/he collaborates with ideology in the masking of multiple discourses, “diverting the reader from what is contradictory within it to the renewed recognition (misrecognition) of what he or she already ‘knows’, knows because the myths and signifying systems of the classic realist text re-present experience in the ways in which it is conventionally articulated in our society” (Belsey, 1980, p. 128). The radical critic must examine literature in terms of its production, as a composite of many discourses. No longer the passive consumer and re-packager of ideology, the critic becomes an active producer of meaning, deconstructing the “readable” text to create the “writable text”: the text in which multiple meanings and knowledge in diverse, often contradictory, forms, are laid bare. Practitioners of critical qualitative research, such as the critical ethnographic methodology of Phil Carspecken (1996), act in similar ways, disentangling the many meanings present in human experience and cultural activity.
Generally in qualitative research, hypotheses are not stated at the outset but are expected to emerge as the study progresses (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1996) Consistent with this approach, I will attempt to construct and test hypotheses during the course of the study in an effort to formulate grounded theory. I will, however, begin with the following grounding questions:
Data will not be collected from any human subjects.
These phases are described in detail below.
As an example of the process of reconstructive analysis, consider the following.
The brightly colored image on the school's main page immediately arrests one’s attention:
Figure 1. Brentwood Elementary home page
The image is of boys and girls of several different ethnic groups holding hands. The intention is no doubt to portray the multicultural nature of the student body. The smiling faces are probably intended to convey a positive impression of the school as a pleasant or fun place to be. The children stand holding hands, alternating by gender. Applying a traditional gender role interpretation to the clothing and hairstyles (skirts and long hair for girls, pants and short hair for boys), there are 8 girls and 14 boys. Interestingly, when two boys are standing together, they do not hold hands. No girls stand together. Only one girl, in the upper left corner, does not have a boy on either side. All the other girls have a boy on each side.
Possible objective validity claims:
The school’s students are ethnically diverse.
There are more boys than girls at this school. (possible)
Possible subjective validity claims:
The school’s students are happy.
We are happy to be at this school.
We enjoy our school’s diversity.
We enjoy learning (backgrounded)
Possible normative-evaluative validity claims:
It is good to be happy at school.
Schools should be pleasant places to be.
It is good for schools to be ethnically diverse.
Girls and boys should wear clothing appropriate to their gender. (backgrounded)
Boys are more important than girls (backgrounded).
Boys should not hold hands with other boys (backgrounded)
Girls need boys for support (possible; remotely backgrounded)
The artist who created this image is named Lauren S., who seems to be a female student at the school. What does her art tell us about her view of her school and of the culture of the school? Most obvious, she seems to intend to portray the school as a pleasant place. It is possible also that she intends to portray learning as a fun activity. Whether she actually believes these claims is impossible to tell without asking her. It is also difficult to tell whether the school is really a pleasant place without visiting it, but the pages on the site create the impression that it is. The image seems to suggest a fairly traditional, heterosexist understanding of gender roles. Girls have long hair and wear skirts. Boys have short hair and wear pants. It is acceptable for girls and boys to hold hands but not for boys to hold hands with boys. The fact that with one exception girls stand between boys might suggest she views boys perhaps as protectors. The fact that she puts more boys than girls in her picture could suggest that she views boys as more significant in some way than girls. It could also simply suggest that as a girl on the brink of puberty (and presumably having a heterosexual orientation) she is more interested in boys than in girls. The genesis of her beliefs regarding gender would be interesting to trace.
As another example, the border art by Robert P.
on the Partners in Education page merits some analysis:
Figure 2. Graphic from Partners in Education page
Possible Objective Validity Claims:
Brentwood’s sports teams win more games than other schools’ teams. (implied but not explicitly stated)
Brentwood does indeed rule in a political sense. (highly improbable)
Possible Subjective Validity Claims:
Brentwood is better than other schools.
I enjoy feeling a sense of superiority to other schools. (backgrounded)
Possible Normative-Evaluative Validity Claims:
It is good for our school to be better than other schools.
It is good to exult in one’s superiority.
Robert seems to be demonstrating a stereotypically male aggressiveness toward rivals in other schools (most likely in the area of sports or other competitive events). This belief in the superiority of Brentwood to other schools appears to be reinforced in the statements of staff members analyzed in previous sections [not shown in this summary]. Robert appears to have learned that it is appropriate to believe in (and exuberantly proclaim) the superiority of one’s own school to other schools.
I have included these two samples of qualitative analysis as examples of the sort of interpretation I will conduct on the district’s sites. As noted above, this interpretation will be augmented with semiotic analysis.
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Maboudian, W. L. (1999). A comparative analysis of gender differences as represented visually in school Web sites. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Houston.
Victor, S. P. (1999). User-centered Web site design: A model for development. In P. De Bra and J. J. Leggett (Eds.), Proceedings of the WebNet 1999 World Conference on the WWW and Internet. Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.
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Cyberread refers to the effect produced on the reader by the fact that the Web page is accessed through the computer and that the reader is aware the Web site was produced through school authorities. I suggest that it might be useful to separate the two rather unrelated elements of the definition. The first, that the page is accessed through the computer, seems closely tied to technological competence, and its effects might be expected to diminish as computer usage increases and viewers gain increasing familiarity with technology; when the computer, in other words, becomes merely another form of presentation, like the book or the television screen. The second element, awareness that the Web page is officially sanctioned, seems to offer much more fruitful terrain for critical analysis and deconstruction of meaning.
Cybiotic is “a subset of semiotic meaning within the context of the Web page” (p. 20), and includes syntagmatic relations created by elements—navigation controls, menus, visuals—that generate meaning. When considered in conjunction with the first aspect of Maboudian’s definition of cyberread, this term might prove useful in deconstructing the role of computers in the formation of ideology. When navigation, menus, visuals become familiar, as unnoticed and “natural” as the margins of the printed page, what hidden discourse can be contained within them?