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Multimedia and Education - Is There a Conflict?

Jon M Pearce
Science Multimedia Teaching Unit
The University of Melbourne
Parkville, Victoria, Australia

Greatest thing since sliced bread

It's great! There we were, a few short years ago, cleverly crafting blocks of characters on our computer screens to make crude animations come to life. A few hours of BASIC programming later and another "educational" package was let loose on unsuspecting students. Then bit-mapped graphics came along, and soon screens were ablaze with pictures, animations, text of all shapes and sizes, colour. No more crude stick figures - this was real life. Another medium was infiltrating education.

Just as we were getting used to mixing freely text and graphics colourfully on our screens, along comes multimedia. Now even a buffoon can be taught the finer points of General Relativity as he, or she, is taken on a guided tour by Einstein himself; all the contortions of three and four dimensional thinking clearly displayed for any mind. At last, education has reached a watershed whereby the transferral of knowledge is only limited by how many bytes, megahertz and colours you can afford to buy.

So where's the problem? Why do so many sneer at multimedia as if it were the latest trendy fashion doomed to die before the next?

Alan Kay, often hailed as the father of microcomputing, makes the comment:

Most people think that by taking something and making images out of it, you can bypass what people aren't getting from books. But that's, in fact, not true. Images beg to be recognised, and words beg to be understood.

(Byte, Vol 15, No. 9, September 1990)

Defining Multimedia

What is multimedia? Good question. Many will answer by saying that it is the application of a variety of electronic media to a task: computers, video, sound, CD-ROMS, laser discs, and the like. In practice, it appears that the application of multimedia to education involves presenting a great variety of different things via the computer. If the computer can present text, animations, still pictures, moving pictures, sound as well as traditional software applications, then it is regarded as multimedia.

There is no point being picky about this. The purpose of this discussion is to focus on what these aspects of computing offer to the learner, and how it will affect what and how we learn.

A Place for Multimedia

Let's consider an example of multimedia used in a learning situation that exhibits potential benefits.

Diseased Apples

A student studying plant disease diagnosis is presented with a computer-based learning package to help develop skills in reasoning, analysis, diagnosis and treatment. She runs the program and is presented with a textual description of problems that a farmer is having with his apple orchard. A picture of a stylised tree is presented from which she can choose to examine various parts: leaves, roots, bark, soil, etc. She can "take" samples away to a laboratory where she can later apply various analytical techniques to them and be given the results.


Many questions arise in her mind. When does the disease first manifest itself? What is the weather like in the area? What do the fruit look like? Does the farmer use a fertiliser? Fungicide? What birds inhabit the orchard? And so on. The answers to many of these questions come from the computer in the form of a snippet of video or a still picture. There is value in both: the pictures allow her to zoom in and examine closely the texture and colour of scrapings from the trunk of a tree; the videos offer a different way to present information. Sometimes it's the farmer talking, discussing his problem or environment. At other times it adds information of motion: strong winds in some parts of the orchard while other areas are sheltered, grubs crawling through the surrounding soil, running water from a dam overflow. Sounds are presented giving clues as to the dominant bird life.

Analysis and Diagnosis

She takes her selected sample to the "lab" and selects a variety of available tests. The results from some simulate the printouts from a lab computer. Others are shown on screen as a short movie of the actual experiment: how quickly the colour changes as drops of indicator are added to a solution, the strange nature of a precipitate that forms on titration of two solutions.

She finally makes her diagnosis and types it into the computer. She immediately receives feedback based on the questions she asked (and didn't ask), tests she carried out, line of inquiry she followed. Her tutor receives a copy for recording purposes.


At the end of the exercise she has benefited much from the facilities of sound, still pictures, video and, of course, the computer's programming. The tutor has been able to offer an exercise that would be too expensive if it were done using real people. The process has been one of having access to a database of information in a way that encourages the student to think in an analytical manner and use her knowledge to draw conclusions or suggest actions to support her hypotheses. The feedback at the end might offer insights to alternatives ways to obtain the same outcome, strategies that the student might not have been aware of.

Throughout the process, the computer has been controlling the media, but the student has been controlling the computer. The example is highly interactive and offers benefits that neither book, tutor nor video could offer alone. The example is not fictitious either. It represents part of a package developed by Terry Stewart (Massey University, New Zealand) and was presented in a seminar at this university in December last year.

Learning Issues

Deep learning involves actively engaging the mind to construct an image, rather than recognising an image. There are times when it may be wise to present less on a computer screen so that students are led to form their own mental images, rather than have predigested ones presented for them. That is not to say, however, that someone else's image might not be useful. If a student has trouble forming any image, then viewing some intermediary images might help in the construction process.

The point at issue here is that a student's ability to visualise, to form her own mental model of a process or concept, is an extremely important one. We must take great care that visual presentations are not used to stifle the development of such abilities. Careful imagery may be the trigger to enhance such abilities.

For example, the problem that a teacher of chemistry has in representing 3-dimensional images of molecules has always been a difficult one when using 2-dimensional surfaces such as blackboards and computer screens. To view an animated rotating view of a molecule might be a necessary experience for many students if they are to ever to be able to understand the relative placement of the various atoms. However, if it is the teacher's aim that students understand sufficiently the mechanisms determining the placement of atoms around each other so that they can predict the arrangement for unseen molecules, then the students must be able to make the transition from being presented with the 3-dimensional model, to being able to visualise it for herself. In this sense, the computer presentation is being used as a stepping stone to help the student develop her own visualisation skills.

Knowledge Database

There are some distinct and obvious areas in which multimedia is appropriate and well suited to science education. Many of the sciences require that students have access to vast amounts of data. For example, when studying frogs, it is desirable to have on hand information about the variety of species, their habitat, geographical areas in which they are found, sounds they make, pictures of them, their young, and so on. Such databases are now rapidly being produced and being made available on-line to students. They have clear advantages over books because of features such as sound, animation, search facilities, comparison facilities, etc. In short, they may contain all the knowledge of frogs that you want your students to have access to. Updating such a resource is relatively straightforward and the distribution is relatively inexpensive.

However, for all that knowledge of frogs packed into one package, there might be nothing there that helps a student to understand some aspects of frogs. This might well be intentional by the author of the package, but the ease with which such databases can be produced might unintentionally lead to an overemphasis in course work on basic learning of knowledge, rather than the higher order skills of analysis and synthesis.

Conceptually . . .

Other areas of study are high in conceptual development and low in the presentation and learning of knowledge. The physiology of frogs, for example, and much of the study of physics, relies on developing strong conceptual understanding rather than the acquisition of knowledge. In such areas, it is important that the images presented encourage the development of new concepts and not merely the recognition of them. We must encourage students to look beyond the screen, yet to use screen presentations to aid in the construction of their own concepts. It is crucial that this deep learning takes place in an active manner; it will not result from a shallow, passive activity.

Multimedia in Tertiary Education

It is interesting to observe how quickly multimedia has been taken up by tertiary institutions compared with secondary schools. The latter have invested fifteen years of exploring what computers have to offer and have thus had time to examine and reject the shallow learning offered by drill-and-practice style of software. Tertiary institutions have been much slower at taking up the challenge of using computing in learning. The pressure to cope with large groups of students (several hundred enrolled in a subject) has tempted many to off-load teaching to the style of interactions offered by authoring packages, without regard to the cognitive skills being developed.

The promise of multimedia, and the relatively large sums of money available in tertiary institutions, presents a strong temptation to hand over more teaching responsibilities to software packages that are little more than beautifully dressed drill-and-practice presentations, or knowledge recognition games. The credibility given to such software by colour, movement, video, and sound can distract from a critical assessment of its pedagogical value.


Even the relatively innocuous decision by a lecturer to improve the presentations of her lectures by using on-line presentations might be fuelled by the deceptive reasoning that a better presentation leads to better teaching and therefore students will undertake more effective learning. Its begs the question as to what students gain from lectures and whether improving the presentation encourages the good attributes or reinforces the bad attributes!

There is no doubt that the advent of multimedia has much to offer tertiary education and we can expect to witness great changes over the next few years. It not only offers a new medium, but a renewed focus on what we teach and how we teach it. However, we must not be distracted by the glitter and we should be particularly critical about how the application of this technology might drive our educational aims.

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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 .