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HyperDocs and the Dilemma of “Yes, but…”

HyperDocs and the Dilemma of “Yes, but…”

Written by Karen LaBonte
October 09, 2020

My Journey Into HyperDocs

I first learned about HyperDocs during the summer of 2020. I don’t always set out to learn about every new digital tool or practice I read about, but HyperDocs was generating enough conversation– especially for something that’s been around since 2013– that I became curious. I heard a range of opinions, from they’re nothing but gussied-up worksheets, to they’re the promise of genuine transformation. I set out to form my own conclusions: are HyperDocs worthy of the hype or are they a hoax?

What Are HyperDocs?

First coined as a pedagogical concept  by Lisa HighFill, Kelly Hilton, and Sarah Landis, HyperDocs enjoys an extensive web presence.  There’s a website, a sharing site called Teachers Give Teachers (which is currently undergoing changes), an active Facebook group (40.4K members!), a book, The HyperDoc Handbook: Digital Lesson Design Using Google Apps, a weekly broadcast on the Facebook page, a Hangouts Channel, online workshops, in-person PD. There have also been innumerable blog posts about it, from teachers of kindergarten through university (for example, here, here, here) and it’s been the subject of podcasts, such as the Cult of Pedagogy’s How HyperDocs Can Transform Your Teaching.  And, it looks like HyperDocs is morphing into a business: the website offers free and paid versions, as well as several multi-session courses where only the first session is complementary.

The website tells us that HyperDocs are:

  • digital lesson plans
  • a digital space where course content is collected/organized for students to access
  • a replacement for worksheets
  • “the ultimate change agent in the digital learning classroom (np)”

From the book, HyperDocs are:

  • digital lesson design and delivery
  • “the teaching pedagogy involved when making important decisions about what to teach and how to teach with technology to redefine the overall student experience (p. 7)”

So, HyperDocs (plural) is a pedagogical concept and process of design; a HyperDoc (singular) is a specific lesson or unit designed with Google Slides or Docs.

The website’s start page gives this overview:

Things you can do with a HyperDoc
A true HyperDoc is much more than some links on a document.

      • Creators deliberately choose web tools to give students opportunities to Engage • Explore • Explain • Apply • Share • Reflect • Extend the learning.
      • Digital collaboration is choreographed to give every student a voice and a chance to be heard by their classmates.
      • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills can be developed through linked tasks.
      • Students have an opportunity to create authentic digital artifacts to show what they know and connect with a wider audience.

I read this and my educator’s heart skipped a beat– every bullet point contained a skill, practice, concept, approach I cared about and believed in. I started to get excited.

How to Create a HyperDoc

According to the book (p. 24), there are five steps to creating a HyperDoc.

Template of the HyperDoc format and layout

The HyperDocs Basic Template ©HyperDocs

  1. Determine your objectives;
  2. Select which learning cycle you will use;
  3. Select your packaging;
  4. Build the workflow;
  5. Design your HyperDoc.

A “learning cycle” seems to be a model structure for an instructional unit. For example, the basic HyperDoc template, right, shows the Engage-Explore-Explain-Apply-Share-Reflect-Extend learning cycle. But The HyperDoc Handbook wasn’t giving me a definition of “learning cycle” I could use to anchor my understanding.

So I went back to the beginning of the book and started to look more carefully at the way concepts and practices were put into language. I began to underline phrases and sentences I had questions about, or which didn’t seem consistent with previous statements. Thus began my own learning cycle with HyperDocs: excitement and interest undercut by a sense of “huh?”

The Claims: The Yes-But Begins

The Buts

Highfill, Hilton, and Landis make multiple claims for the educational power of HyperDocs. As I mentioned above, those claims entranced me. But as I explored teachers’ finished HyperDocs, I often felt tangled up between what I saw and what the text promised. So, in a typical English teacher move, I went back to the language of the claims talked back to the text and to myself.

A HyperDoc…

  • …is “transformative,” the “ultimate change agent”
  • …shifts the focus “from teacher-led lectures to student-driven, inquiry-based learning…” (p. 8)
  • …features “positive personalized instruction”
  • … is interactive
  • …offers opportunities for student choice
  • …offers opportunities for student voices to be heard
  • …offers the student a chance to create

Transformative, change agent. This is a big concept to claim, especially when the nature of the transformation is not specified. According to the The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, the word transform has a couple of meanings. The first, “To change markedly the appearance or form of” applies: a lesson or unit plan, even a worksheet, never looked so good. 

The application of the next definition is a less clear. “To change the nature, function, or condition of; convert….”  The object of this transformation is never really articulated. Does a HyperDoc change the nature of an assignment? A unit plan? Curriculum design in general?  The lofty assertion of “ultimate change agent” gestures toward the latter, and to teaching and learning writ large.

I balance these claims against statements like, “…a HyperDoc is really just smart packaging” (p. 26) or “Not all HyperDocs will be transformative; some will simply enhance the learning process and are lessons scaffolded in delivery that lead to a redefined experience” (p. 114) and I am confused.  This significant “but” looms over all the others.  

Student-driven. I’ll be honest, this claim makes me really mad. As literacy educators experiment with the affordances of the internet to develop new educational pathways, being inspired or being guided by student passions is a key idea (e.g., Teaching in the Connected Classroom.) To use the term “student-driven” capitalizes on (exploits?) research-based innovation. It would be OK with me if that’s what was happening in most HyperDocs. But when I read through the documents and ask these questions, I am troubled by the answers.

What was the spark that made the HyperDoc necessary, or an ideal approach? Was it a student’s curiosity? A student’s authentic questions? Even if the topic is standards-driven, is the overall big idea for the unit something students authentically encounter in their daily lives, or is it a teacher’s idea of what that should be? Are the objectives and activities authentic? Were these determined in concert with the student(s)? I think of Knobel and Lankshear’s (2007) caution against asking students to engage in digital busy work, where “learners use new technologies to perform lower-order tasks (e.g., research using teacher-assigned sources)” (p. 101). 

Positive personalized instruction is a related claim. This implies that a teacher adapts a HyperDoc according to the needs of each student. I haven’t seen examples of or discussion about this, except in discussions about students being able to work at their own paces. Many HyperDocs offer students choices about assignments they can complete, but the student is picking from teacher-designed options. 

Interactive. With or between what? A student working on a HyperDoc is typically actively switching from one task or assignment to another. Does this signify meaningful interaction between content and a student’s lived experience?

Then there is this statement: “We like to think that when a student consumes technology, the information goes from the computer to his brain, whereas when he creates it, ideas go from him to the computer” (p. 81).  The creative, intellectual interaction is between a student and a hard drive…? (Images of HAL from 2001 A Space Odyssey float by). The student is “consuming” technology? This conception of interaction is not only under-developed and inadequately expressed, it’s chilling.  

Student voice. I wonder if, when the student was expressing him/her self, to whom were they speaking? The teacher? Classmates? People in the school, community, other? (The computer?) Could the student articulate who their audience was? Most important, did the student expect a response? In other words, was the student’s “voice” intended to be heard as part of a real conversation, or was it more like a message in a bottle?

I’ll acknowledge that my Buts may be a response to underdeveloped thinking and writing, but if this is an editorial failure, perhaps the book wasn’t ready for prime time.

The Docs

In trying to understand my yes-but response to HyperDocs, I’ve also reviewed scads of them. I’ve observed that, at its least developed, a HyperDoc is a multimodal worksheet with lots of links and spaces where kids fill in the blanks with information they’ve gleaned from teacher-selected media.

In these HyperDocs, new material is presented in the Explain section of the doc. Often, this section is the same length, or sometimes not even as developed, as other sections. In the least successful instances, the Explain section is simply a compilation of readings or tasks that related tangentially to each other and to the sections before and after. Typically, though, they don’t build meaningfully on one another to fulfill an overarching question or concept of real import (i.e., authentic). Sometimes, the instructional links lead to the equivalent of pages of text that a student would need to navigate on his or her own.

I found myself thinking how lonely such an exercise would be, how easy it would be to feel lost.

The Yes!

At its most thoughtful, a HyperDoc is a multimodal exploration of a topic or theme that asks students to individually take on challenging concepts or materials. I say “individually” because, no matter how gifted a teacher is, it’s pretty easy for students to hide during large group instruction.

The HyperDocs I found most compelling offered no outs. Instead, carefully scaffolded instruction stops at frequent intervals and asks students to interact with new material and show their understanding. These HyperDocs also engage students in the meta perspective of the topic and/or skills, so students are ultimately being pushed to remember the why of their activity.

One I appreciate is Essential Questions About “Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé” by Nadia Razi, an ELA teacher in California. I’ll be completely honest– when I saw this HyperDoc, my first thought was hot mess. It just didn’t look as put together (well-packaged) as other HyperDocs. The directions in the upper righthand corner of the doc say simply, “Click everything.” As a teacher who typically over-explains everything, I initially felt disdainful of this. Then I “clicked everything.”

This two-page HyperDoc has so much going on that my jaw dropped. The first page has six sections: a HyperDoc Playlist for students to listen to as they explore; Historically Black Colleges and Universities; Queen Nefertiti; Voices of Homecoming, a HyperDoc of 12 Black musicians, writers, political activists, speaking about Blackness and success; Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival; Beyoncé and Blackness. These links open to multiple resources, sometimes to other HyperDocs.

The second page holds [only] three large boxes, but that’s deceptive (oh, is it deceptive)…. The top box tells students that “writing effective essential questions helps you develop a profound understanding of the text,” a clear rationale if I ever heard one. That takes students to a separate HyperDoc made up of five seemingly simple slides.

The opening slide is a quote by Thomas Berger: “The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” This anticipates the universal student complaint, “Why do we have to do this?” and throws down a combination gauntlet-invitation. That’s followed two slides of instruction titled “Costa’s Levels of Inquiry,” and “Asking Critical Questions.” In the final two slides, students apply what they’ve learned. On one slide they read questions and evaluate what aspect of the question makes it a good one for discussion. On another, they create three questions of their own, each corresponding to a level of inquiry, and they justify what makes each an appropriate question for discussion. These assignments demand that students not only read the instructional material, but that they understand it. What the assignments don’t do is beat a dead horse– students practice just enough to move ahead.

The middle box holds the ultimate assignment: “After exploring the links, write one essential question about a topic that you will seek to answer upon watching Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé.”  It sounds so simple! But the students have developed two things that makes success unavoidable:  a multi-faceted wealth of background knowledge to tap as they watch Beyoncé’s video, and solid instruction and practice in questioning.

The bottom box links to the questions students created. These are terrific in their authenticity and complexity.

What makes this a compelling HyperDoc for me?  It’s focused on the work of a cultural icon, Beyoncé– that matters to kids (and adults, too). It offers information about multiple facets of Black history and culture, which is great, but even more important, it layers in profoundly positive messages about Black identity without being preachy. It offers lots of instruction without being overwhelming and asks kids to apply that in targeted assignments that give kids just enough practice without beating a dead curricular horse. And, while there’s a specific final assignment, there isn’t a single right or wrong endpoint.

Is it innovative? Transformative? Sure. Most important, it’s solid, invigorating instruction.

In Conclusion

A piece of technology, or a single technology tool, no matter how innovative or engaging, is never the source of educational transformation. It might spark new methods, say, in assessment or content delivery, which might contribute to larger discussions about innovations, but that’s not transformative in the most profound sense of the term.

Transformation begins with a shift in mindsets, about the world, the future, the changes in society and cultures, and how the purposes of education will best prepare our youth for that future world. It involves different understanding of possibilities, a willingness to rethink everything one has ever known, from the foundations up.

As we start to understand what that entails, we are seeing some important new perspectives: the new nature of our societies is participatory; our educative work with youth demands that we actively connect them to larger worlds and the variety of peoples therein; learning focused on content in narrowly constrained categories doesn’t prepare youth for what’s new; learning to be deep and creative thinkers is not something that can be measured on a test.

Right now, these perspectives aren’t what schools are expected to address, nor what teachers or students expect the foundations of teaching and learning to be.

The HyperDoc is not likely to change that.

Quick Comments About  The HyperDoc Handbook: Digital Lesson Design Using Google Apps

The book is not an inexpensive purchase for 122 pages of content. Because someone I respect mentioned he’d bought the book because he likes to support teachers, I swallowed hard and bought in.

The Benefits of the Book

  • The information scattered across their website is collected in one place.
  • The book gives detailed how-tos about using Google Slides and Docs, including screen shots of specific steps.
  • The authors create charts that show how these models match up to the HyperDocs templates. They include Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model (he discusses it here), Webb’s Depth of Knowledge chart, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Standards, and Four C’s.
  • The authors emphasize instructional strengths of the HyperDoc: it can transform the way a teacher presents subject matter, enable students to work at their own paces, capture student attention with compelling graphics, including fonts, illustrations, colors.
  • At the end of the book, they present student comments about how HyperDocs fulfill their wishes about schooling.

I Wish That The Book (and the Website)…

  • included an index
  • gave more than a cursory overview of the “well-known guidelines” to reflect on a HyperDoc’s effectiveness. While a handbook is traditionally a hands-on, how-to resource, ideally it also offers a more nuanced discussion of some of the educational foundations of the practices it describes. Links to deeper explanations and/or discussions of Webb’s Depths of Knowledge perspective, the SAMR model, and the ISTE Standards would be an important addition to this book. (For example, Webb didn’t design the chart or the model, and has, in fact, disavowed them. That seems like an important piece of information. )
  • paid more attention to how the auxiliary tools they mention (e.g., Padlet, ThingLink) help realize broader academic and/or social-emotional purposes.
  • weren’t transforming into a for-profit venture.
  • indicated that the authors are part of the team at ElevateBooksEdu, the publisher of the HyperDocs Handbook, making the book essentially a self-published venture.



Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). New technologies in the work of the secondary English classroom. In Teaching secondary English with ICT (pp. 107–134). Open University Press.


“Arrows” by Geralt from Pixabay

“G” by Mizter_X94 from Pixabay

Cross-posted to my blog.

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