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
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)
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.
Let's consider an example of multimedia used in a learning situation
that exhibits potential benefits.
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.
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
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
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
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.
These pages are maintained by Jon Pearce
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