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Navigation options in interactive multimedia

John G Hedberg and Barry Harper
University of Wollongong
Navigation is a unique problem for the interactive multimedia environment - the user must browse information often with a number of options and choices. These options are cued by a number of different devices. Navigation can take a series of forms: It can allow increased learner control, by indicating learning options; it can provide a physical model of either the learning sequence or the layout of the information; or it can be adapted to meet the learner's requirements and even allow the user to specify the relationships he or she wishes for the information. Information in a multimedia environment can include any form of representation, text, graphic, picture, sound, animation or motion video. These options increase the difficulty in organising information by the learner. Faced with a multitude of possible choices, inputs and paths through information landscapes, a learner can easily become confused and a powerful vehicle for learning can become a time consuming problem. This paper reports on a study of the navigational demands of hierarchical, relational and sequential navigation systems in interactive multimedia learning materials and discusses the instructional design implications for learner generated and instructor generated interactive multimedia materials.


Considerable interest in the educational efficacy of the application of interactive multimedia resources for learning has developed as the use of this technology has emerged. A number of interactive multimedia simulation packages have been developed to incorporate high quality visual materials in the form of graphics, pictures, sound, animation or motion video. Some of the packages are prototypes and we are now starting to see some commercial products produced and released on the market. This major growth in the application and use of interactive multimedia resources for learning has occurred through changes in information technology software and hardware which allow the integration of multiple sources of information to be linked and presented together (Ambron & Hooper, 1990). This development has occurred coincidentally with the proliferation of sophisticated software authoring tools, which have not only given educators greater access to the production and design of learning packages but also enabled information to be structured in new ways which allow the simulation of a greater variety of learning models (Hedberg & Harper, 1992).

This rapid technological development necessitates a closer examination of the ways in which information is accessed and the concept of an information landscape has been introduced into the literature to indicate that this information can be represented and retrieved in a number of ways and in a variety of forms. It has allowed new and more complex instructional strategies to be employed in instructional software which offer the potential of more efficient and effective learning. While these learning strategies can be controlled by the learner and can employ a variety of cognitive modelling opportunities to facilitate learning (Hedberg, 1989), research on the efficacy on the variety of information access systems is lagging behind the technological developments.

With interactive multimedia the potential to shift the control of learning from the instructor, either as the teacher or through computer control and management, to the learner has been an important theme for many authors. Bork (1991) has supported the use of the media for student centred applications as opposed to administrative centred or teacher centred applications with this form of learning strategy a recurring theme throughout modern pre-tertiary curriculum documents. Current technologies facilitate the use of such materials by individuals and small groups and challenge instructional designers to develop educational systems to take full advantage of the interactivity not simply in terms of user control but to enable users to actively chose their learning strategy.

As the use of this technology has developed the concept of user control has become an important and essential issue. There needs to be consideration of how much user control over learning strategies is the most efficient. Hedberg and Perry (1985) have proposed that used effectively, the technology can allow users to interact in ways that the designers of the system did not plan and that good instructional design of interactive multimedia materials makes it unnecessary for materials to be structured for the learner. Effective student use of unstructured materials however, will depend on the type of access to the information the user can obtain, that is, the navigation options available to the user.

Navigation systems and learning

There are a number of problems with the existing research on navigation systems, these include:
  1. the need to investigate the cognitive demands of different navigation systems in interactive multimedia learning materials

  2. the extent to which current interactive multimedia design models address the issue of navigation

  3. the importance of navigation in achieving improved learning outcomes and

  4. the efficiency of navigation systems in giving control to the learner.
An understanding of the theoretical issues raised by navigation systems can support the growing development of intelligent interactive teaching environments. The complex integration now possible with this variety of hardware and software combinations raises problems for the user in that multiple paths are possible to the same or different end points. Learners are faced with the problem of understanding what learning possibilities might be available from where they are in a multimedia learning environment. When a student can branch down multiple paths and rapidly change the direction and focus of the learning sequence, there is possible interference with effective learning through the inappropriate application of information by the learner to their internal schemes.

Navigation options

Navigation systems can facilitate the understanding of a students learning sequence and reduce the problems of poor learning schema development. A number of approaches have been discussed in the literature, such as the Guide metaphor where a character is created and used by the author to link ideas and visual travel through the hypermedia materials (Oren et al, 1990). Other suggested structures include those which are based on ideas such as sequential navigation (using cues to show how far you are along a path; the clues varying from a simple screen number of the total or some conceptual description of the sequence), visual navigation (using a plan of the possible paths), and hybrid navigation (mixtures of both) (Hedberg & Harper, 1991).

Using the computer to model the knowledge base and to give the learner the freedom to interact with it gives autonomy back to the learner. Rather than give the learner a set of pre-designed learning sequences that assume some learning model, a more interactive approach could be developed by giving the user an information landscape and the tools necessary to explore and investigate the information. The change in locus of control from instructor to learner raises a series of hypermedia issues about cognition, motivation and navigation which need to be explored (Grabowski & Curtis, 1991) and the outcomes applied to the current navigation systems. This is where the level of flexibility and adaptive nature of the navigation system is important.

Package designers have used a variety of techniques in screen design to present navigation cues for users. They include:

Defining navigation types

Research into the area of Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1988) has demonstrated that materials can be designed to focus on the appropriate development of schema and hence improve learning efficiency. In effect any navigational system must employ elements with as much intrinsic meaning as possible. However, creating this link between action and meaning may not be as intuitive as designers sometimes assume, but this link can be enhanced through understandable and well chosen metaphors. Together with the growing emphasis on Constructivist approaches to the design of multimedia learning experiences, an alternative theoretical basis for considering the problem of navigation can be constructed. Navigation systems exemplify the following representational forms:

Modal - selection of either graphic or text to carry most meaning and be the governing way information is presented. If the user has a preference of either form of navigation, should this be available, or should one consistent mode be available to the user? The following icons from The Parliament Stack represent a purely graphic mode of navigation.

Parliament Stack icons

Relational - how elements relate through objects such as stack maps. Stack maps are graphic representations of the information outline showing key nodes or decision points. When used, it should be ever present and accessible from all parts of the materials. A number of interactive multimedia packages make efficient and effective use of this navigation tool. The great advantage for the user is the availability of rapid access to location in the information landscape by cutting across the conceptual forms of representation of the information The following example is again from The Parliament Stack.

Stack map of the Parliament Stack

Hierarchical - moving through the content in terms of main idea to minor idea or visually clicking to see what is a small component of the larger. Most information has a subdivided or categorised structure. Each element of this structure of the information metaphor should be able to be used in conjunction with navigation around the overall metaphor or information environment. The information structure is often chunked to allow the hierarchical classification or structuring of the information to be accessible level by level as the detail is revealed. This type of navigation form is often strongly associated with a metaphor to represent the information and then what might be called sub-metaphors or maintenance of the metaphor is used to continue the analogy of the metaphor to more detailed information levels. This type of hierarchical information access maintains the overall metaphor of the information landscape, and yet can also allows the designer to represent the more detailed information in a variety of forms such as textual, video or audio format rather than maintaining the higher level metaphor. A simple hierarchical menu structure is shown below.

A simple hierarchical menu structure

Sequential - moving through a database one card at a time either forward or backward. This type of navigation tends to be most appropriate at the lowest level information level or chunk and also is most appropriate when common elements need to be accessed. The following palette represents such a simple sequential structure.

A simple sequential structure

Geographical/Spatial - selecting parts of a whole by an inherent physical/geographic relationship. This approach might be exemplified region by using a map as the link between objects.

Conceptual - choosing between different key conceptual representations of the information landscape. Information access of a larger contextual nature can be embedded in learning packages in a variety of forms. The metaphor concept is commonly used for this type of information organisation system. There have been some quite good examples of this type of navigation implemented in current commercial packages( McCormick, 1987). The following two examples are for an ecology simulation and a series of learning tools in an instructional sequence.

Examples of metaphor concept icons

A number of representational forms can be used for navigation which have the potential to allow greater user control of information landscapes. There are a variety of strategies that can be incorporated into these navigation systems, but we know little about the effectiveness of the claims for clarity of access and development of user centred learning outcomes. These examples are drawn from a current research program that is investigating the range of navigation processes that can be applied to interactive multimedia.


In this paper we have focussed upon the research issues associated with the design and provision of effective, and intuitive navigation systems and the importance of conceptual clarity in the quest for knowledge using navigation systems. The change in locus of control from instructor to learner raises a series of hypermedia issues about cognition, motivation and navigation which need to be explored (Grabowski & Curtis, 1991). The variety of options available to instructional designers now need to be evaluated in the light of the various instructional paradigms so that clear guidelines for developers can be determined and made available. Only with detailed information about the user perceptions and use of navigation systems for interactive multimedia packages can we hope to effectively master the technology for improved learning outcomes.


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Bork, A. (1991). Computers and Educational Systems. Australian Educational Computing, September, 34-37.

Grabowski, B. L. & Curtis, B (1991). Information, Instruction and Learning: A Hypermedia perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 4(3), 2-12.

Hedberg, J. G. & Harper, B. M. (1991). Cognitive demands of navigation in interactive multimedia. Interactive Learning International, 7(3), 267-268.

Hedberg, J. G. & Perry, N. R. (1985). Human-Computer Interaction and CAI: A review and research prospectus. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 1(1), 12-20.

Hedberg, J. G. (1989). The relationship between technology and Mathematics education: Implications for teacher education. In Department of Employment, Education and Training, Discipline Review of Teacher Education in Mathematics and Science. Volume 3. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. pp10-137.

Hedberg, J. G. & Harper, B. (1992). Creating interface metaphors for interactive multimedia Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, Perth, WA, January 27-31, 1992, pp 219-226.

McCormick, S. (1987). Ecodisc - an ecological visual simulation. Journal of Biological Education, 21(3), 175-180

Oren, T., Salomon, G., Kreitman, D. & Don, A. (1990). Guides: Characterizing the interface. In B Laurel (Ed.), The art of human-computer interface design. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, pp 367-381.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.

Author: Associate Professor John Hedberg is Coordinator of the Information Technology in Education and of Postgraduate Programs, and Dr Barry Harper is Director of the Interactive Multimedia Laboratory. Their address is Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, PO Box 1144, Wollongong, 2500, NSW, Australia. Email

Please cite as: Hedberg, J. G. and Harper, B. (1992). Navigation options in interactive multimedia. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 10-16. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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