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Using multimedia technology to enhance the teaching of science

Jon M Pearce

Science Multimedia Teaching Unit and School of Physics

University of Melbourne

Michael W Nott

Science Multimedia Teaching Unit

University of Melbourne

1. Introduction

The aims of teaching science at primary, secondary or tertiary level are varied. We expect students to learn many facts about the world and be able to put them to good use. We expect them to learn techniques that are applicable in a practical sense. But science learning goes beyond this acquisition and application of knowledge: it encompasses an understanding of scientific method; an ability to do science; an ability to communicate to others the outcomes of experiments and investigations. We also hope that students will develop an excitement and curiosity about science and come to appreciate the interactions between science, technology and society.

This learning must take place against other powerful influences. For example, many hold a negative attitude towards science, blaming it for many of the problems in the world: pollution, cancer, weapons, greenhouse effect, nuclear accidents-the list goes on. It is a hard, but necessary, step to guide students to see through such feelings and make the decision to study science.

Another important, and ironic, example of influences on learning are the students' own experiences, which may get in the way of effective, deep learning. Oftentimes, a student's own (mis)interpretation of nature, shaped by a decade or two of everyday life experiences, can be an extremely resilient barrier to "correct" scientific ideas. Accepting new understandings layered on top of old beliefs might suffice for success in a semester examination, but often the old beliefs of many years' standing come back all too quickly as the shallowly "learned" ideas fade.

More and more we are turning to technology to help with both these motivational and cognitive aspects of science learning (see, for example, Nott et al, Ref. 1). This paper addresses critically ways in which this can be done and presents examples to illustrate the points raised.

2. Technology and teaching

How does the technology we use in teaching affect the way we teach science and the way students learn? How might technology enhance student motivation and understanding of science?

The available technology has certainly affected the emphasis we place on the various goals of science teaching and the degree to which can hope to achieve them. For example, when the main teaching technology was chalk and talk, students were offered the warm, glowing feeling of being taught be a real scientist or teacher with real life experiences, anecdotes and emotions. When done well, this was a very effective method of teaching science. But it was limited. There was limited opportunity for students to study and describe complex systems, to interact with them and to get feedback from them. The science curriculum had to be carefully chosen so that it meshed with what could be taught or learnt at the time.

Even with overhead projectors, videos and calculators, the curriculum was constrained by that which fitted the students' own mental technology. Take physics as an illustration: it has developed an undeserved emphasis on simple algebraic equations because that is what the students can manipulate and is easy to assess. For example, the real-life motions of objects moving through the air are too complex for simple analysis and can only be studied in the ideal case of no air resistance, resulting in simple formulae. A consequence of this is that many students regard physics as a formula-plugging exercise applied to an idealised world. The complexities of the real-world are often regarded as examples in physics that "just don't work". Computer modelling could help redress this type of problem, but it is slow to be taken up.

3. The promise of multimedia

Innovations in multimedia and related computer technology is promising to lift many of these restrictions. They offer students direct access to complex mathematics in the same way that calculators gave direct access to square and cube roots. Through simulations we can now study things that are too small, too large, happen too slowly or too quickly to be observed in real life. We can see representations of things that are too hard to visualise, and carry out experiments which, in real life, would be risky, unethical or too expensive.

In short, the simulation power of modern computers opens up a vast world for exploration which should enable us to address more effectively many of the science teaching aims listed above. We are able to move from a teaching mode relying on abstract descriptions of a system (oral or text) to one of interacting with real representations of the phenomena being studied. The richness and fidelity of such simulations is now quite extensive. Sophisticated graphics let a student explore an on-screen environment as if he or she were actually there: seeing visual clues, monitoring significant data, changing parameters and observing the results. Virtual reality adds a potential further dimension-enabling a student to actually think he or she is working in the simulated environment. She can involve her whole body in walking through a landscape, picking up an object, rotating it to examine it and performing some experiment representing that of a practising geologist, for example.

There are already numerous examples of technology-enabled shifts in the styles and content of teaching and learning. In a large traditional university like the University of Melbourne, for the purpose of science teaching, we can identify the following:

(i) Access to complex teaching and learning databases

In Chemistry at the University of Melbourne there is now more emphasis placed on learning organic molecular structures and isomerism than there was 10 years ago-a change that in no small way has been facilitated by the use of multimedia to portray sets of animated organic chemical reactions either in lectures or as reference materials for self study (Capon et al, Ref. 2, Project 4) and to select and rotate molecular structures in three dimensions and answer challenging questions in self-paced learning modules (Capon et al, Ref. 2, Project 5).

A beautiful example of the development and use of such databases is through videodisc recordings of living cells (Pickett-Heaps et al, Ref. 2, Project 3). The videodiscs allow lecturers to show exquisite examples of microscopy of living cells while describing the processes involved. Students may play the recordings back for review in multimedia classrooms. Typically such databases have little or no ancillary teaching and learning strategies embedded and are favoured by teachers who want to develop their own course materials and strategies while employing the best possible resource materials. Whereas in the past this might have meant the teacher using the materials in lectures, or writing laboratory and tutorial notes to accompany the databases, increasingly such databases form one half of an interactive multimedia hybrid, with the database remaining on a CD-ROM or videodisc and the interactivity being derived from a program on the computer or on the Web. At present such hybrid systems are particularly favoured because of bandwidth problems with the Web and the proposal that at present it is easier to market and copyright a "shrink-wrapped" product rather than a Web-based project.

(ii) Providing backup materials for traditional teaching

Increasingly university teachers are faced with larger classes and, at least in first year studies, it is difficult to conduct small group tutorials. Teachers are therefore providing materials on the Web to enrich their lectures and present students with problems to solve. Group learning strategies, another strength of the tutorial system, is also supported by the Internet. A good example is presented in teaching Botany by Guest et al (Ref. 2, Project 2). Dr Guest is putting all his Microsoft PowerPoint™ slides, normally only shown on the screen in the lecture theatre, onto the Web using Adobe Acrobat™. He and his students will also develop a database of complementary sites on the Web so that they can have an additional research resource for their projects. Students communicate between themselves and with Dr Guest using a communications package embedded in the Web. Such strategies will approach their full potential when Internet connectivity from the home becomes commonplace.

(iii) Augmenting practical classes with interactive multimedia

One of the common applications of multimedia for teaching science is the use of interactive programs for augmenting or replacing practical classes (Pearce et al, Ref. 3). In the School of Chemistry the amount of practical class teaching in first year has decreased from an average of 3 hours to 2.5 hours per week. This extra time and more (some tutorials and lectures have been repurposed) is devoted to sessions in a 40 workstations multimedia teaching laboratory. Fritze and colleagues developed a system called TutorialTools (Fritze, Ref. 4) which allows for interactive tutorials, informed by instructional design principles, to be produced easily. Fifty modules have been produced to date (Ref. 2, Project 6) and serve up to 1500 students. Chemistry has researched the effectiveness of the modules compared to other forms of teaching (McTigue et al, Ref. 5).

Biology has undertaken a similar project but with smaller numbers of students (Ladiges et al, Ref. 2, Project 1). Rather than being used to replace practicals, the Biology multimedia exercises generally are designed as pre- or post- practical tutorials. The course on Australian Flora and Fauna is one where visual images and interactive simulations afforded by multimedia naturally enhance the learning experience and prepare the students for the laboratory bench.

(iv) Linking teaching with research

Multimedia presents significant new opportunities for learning. One is the ability to make stronger links between teaching and research. Professor Bowler's work in Earth Sciences is an excellent example (Bowler et al, Ref. 2, Project 7). Professor Bowler has offered 30 years of research data on South Eastern Australia land forms, climatology, hydrology, anthropology and history to the multimedia development team so that students can become virtual researchers as they learn content material. With the aid of images, maps, cross-sections and a "head-up display", they can explore the region and extract relevant research data.

4. Can we overdo multimedia?

As we strive to embrace the best that technology can offer, we should consider whether we can go too far. Two possible dangers come to mind: that we might deceive students and that we might remove their requirement to think!

(i) Are we being deceptive?

A reality-rich simulation presents far more that just science: it paints a picture, invokes emotions, and, some would say, engages the "other" half of the brain. But could we be sending deceptive subliminal messages? For example, when we let students perform a dissection and then press "undo" when the wrong organ is chopped out, what message do they take away with them? Or when a "patient" is restored from death to life with the press of a backshift? Are we deceiving students when we let them browse a geological site, observing rock formations, scanning aerial surveys from the comfort of a notebook keyboard when the data they are exploring required weeks of manual exploration in a hot, dry environment with little comfort but a stretcher at night in a well ventilated tent?

Most modern software shields us well from making serious mistakes. There is usually a warning, a check or a reprieve. We can comfortably explore, take chances and learn in a relaxed way. But much of real life is not like that. Even in a prestigious university, for example, a research physicist uses much equipment that is jerry-rigged and full of potential dangers-explosions, radiation leaks, carcinogenic leaks are a mere dial-twist away, and there is no "undo". It is a far cry for the security of a good simulation.

(ii) Do we discourage learning?

There is a balance to be maintained in effecting good learning with multimedia. It's the balance between, on the one hand, a highly refined piece of software requiring great sophistication on the part of the computer, but little on the part of the student, and on the other hand, a minimalist presentation on the part of the computer but great cognitive powers and persistence to interpret it on the part of the student.

The use of high-end multimedia to provide motivation, relevance and clear expositions of concepts and ideas must be balanced with sufficient low-end prompts, points of contention and encouragement for cerebration and reflection in order to encourage good learning. Laurillard (Ref. 6) emphasises this as a need to reflect on the goal-action-feedback cycle of learning. Sometimes a simple sketch will invoke more thought about a structure that a fully rendered picture.

5. Two types of simulations

Maybe it is helpful to be aware of two different types of simulations in the light of the above discussion: traditional simulations and "reality-rich" simulations.

(i) Traditional simulations

Traditional simulations aim to engage students in some science and hopefully affect their understanding of it. Such simulations often have graphical outputs so that the effect of changing a variable can be explored and understood. They can be extremely complex and, in effect, act as an extension to the mind enabling the student to manipulate a mathematical model far more complex than her own mathematical abilities.

An example of such a traditional simulation is a CAUT funded project developed by Pearce & Jamieson (Ref. 1, Project 8; Jamieson & Pearce, Ref. 7) to provide physics students a richer environment in which to learn about a technique for studying the structure of matter. The project involved the design of a computer program to simulate the operation of a nuclear microprobe (a large piece of equipment that is only accessible to research students). The simulation is unusual in that it uses real research data as well as simulated data. This gives students the added motivation of exploring data that have only recently been obtained within the School of Physics' research group.

The main screen from the simulation (Figure 1) shows a representation of the microprobe, together with the graphical output which students are required to interpret. These graphs change dynamically as students adjust various parameters of the simulation. Whilst the aim of this part of the package is to let students control the microprobe, change variables using sliders and "get a feel" for how the graphs change, there is no attempt to make the students feel that they are actually at the controls, driving the machine. In fact, from this part of the package, students gain little idea of what the microprobe looks like, how big it is, where it is housed, etc.


Figure 1. A screen from the physics simulation MarcShop

The package was deliberately designed this way because the aim was for students to develop skills in interpreting the science. This requires a considerable amount of deep thinking-mental manipulations to change parameters, make predictions of likely outcomes, interpret graph changes in the light of expected outcomes, and so on. The package doesn't give answers directly; it gives a representation from which answers can be deduced through cognitive activity.

(ii) A "reality-rich" simulation

The other type of simulation are those which put the student "on location". They might be game playing in nature or they might even involve virtual reality gear and all the audio, visual and tactile feedback that such systems offer. Such systems try to emulate reality with ever increasing fidelity. Figure 2 shows a screen from the Lake Mungo Project (Bowler et al, Ref. 2, Project 7) showing a desert terrain with a head-up display in the foreground which the students use to carry out an exploration of the surroundings.


Figure 2. Screen from the Lake Mungo Project

Such simulations are highly visual but are, of course, not reality and hence we must question what learning outcomes students might gain from them. It might appear "obvious" that such rich, high-tech environments should have the potential to achieve much better learning in students than poorer, low-tech substitutes. But we have been fooled before by methods which appeared to achieve good learning in science, as measured by exams, yet left students with little applied understanding when confronted with a real situation.

We should also be concerned about the role model we set up for what being a scientist means. Do we convey accurately what it is like to be a physicist, a biologist or a chemist? Which one wears the white lab coat and pours coloured liquids? Which sits in a corner of a vast building surrounded by steel piping and machines? Are we improving on what a textbook, video or teacher offers?

6. An insidious epilogue

Of course we have a free choice of what learning technologies we adopt with our students. There is not a vast amount of significant research into this area yet, but when it comes we will be able to make an informed choice and tailor our teaching accordingly. Or will we? Picture this scenario:

It's five years down the track. A major evaluation research project brings the surprise findings that sophisticated multimedia inhibits students' ability to form their own mental models; the Web encourages surface learning in a plethora of tangential subjects; and virtual reality systems are sending students into an unknown psychotic state. What turns out to be the "best" learning medium? It's text! Text based simulations, which display only text-output as the result of the simulation's calculations, are found to encourage peer to peer discussions, enhance students' creativity, promote deep learning and ability to interpret complex ideas.

Could we ever take note of such (fictitious) findings? Could we put effort into developing teaching materials using anything less than the most up-to-date technology when the neighbouring school or university says "we can do that with colour, motion, sound, virtual reality-the works!". Or when a publisher is looking for the brightest most colourful product that will sell?

There is no going back. The technology is here, is advancing and will be used for our teaching, in one way or another, no matter what evidence as to its effectiveness comes forth. It is our concern that we find appropriate ways of harnessing this technology so that truly effective and desirable learning outcomes are achieved. It is our goal to improve learning in science by encouraging cognition, not by replacing it.

7. References

1. Nott, M. W., Riddle, M. D. and Pearce, J. M., Enhancing Traditional University Science Teaching using the World Wide Web, Proceedings of the World Conference on Computers in Education VI, Tinsley, J D and van Weert, T J (Eds), Chapman & Hall, London, 1995.

2. SMTU Expo Program, Science Multimedia Teaching Unit, Melbourne, 1996. Copies of this booklet are available from the author.

3. Pearce, J. M., Riddle, M.D. and Nott, M. W., Science Laboratories, Computers and Multimedia; Opportunity for Change, Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, University of New England, Lismore, 1993.

4. Fritze, P., TutorialTools, an interactive tutorial generator, Proceedings of the Apple University Consortium Education with Technology Conference, Christchurch, 22-25 August, 1993.

5. McTigue, P. T., Tregloan, P. A., Fritze, P. A., McNaught, C. and Hassett, D. M., "A Self-Paced CAL-centred Tertiary Chemistry Course", Proceedings of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Pearce, Ellis & Hart (Eds), Melbourne, 1995.

6. Laurillard, D., Rethinking university teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge, London, 1993.

7. Jamieson, D. N. & Pearce, J. M., "Virtual Laboratory for Ion Scattering to Probe Atomic, Nuclear and Microscopic Structures", Proceedings of the Second Australian Computers in University Physics Education Conference, Pearce & Jamieson (Eds), Melbourne, 1995.

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These pages are maintained by Jon Pearce ( jonmp@unimelb.edu.au), Department of Information Systems. The opinoins on them do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Melbourne. Tel: (613) 8344 1495 Fax: (613) 9349 4596. Last update: September 16, 2003 .