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Supporting the multimedia courseware author: An introduction to the ACT-IT Project

Brian Inwood
City of London Polytechnic

Existing commercially available multimedia authoring tools provide a range of facilities that allows easy integration of the media elements, and some form of procedural control for media playback. Most authoring systems do not support the author in the courseware design cycle, which requires the author to have skills in the domain to be taught, a knowledge of the learners, a teaching strategy, a knowledge of interface design and aesthetic and creative abilities. The ACT-IT project is addressing these needs in various paper and computer based solutions.

For the educationalist with limited resources the appeal of computer based multimedia as a teaching tool is somewhat diminished when an attempt is made to construct a piece of effective multimedia courseware in a reasonable amount of time. Existing commercially available multimedia authoring tools attempt to shield the author from the technical complexity of media combination by providing a range of facilities that allows easy integration of the media elements, and some form of procedural control for media playback. The authoring facilities are presented as a set of available tools and little intended constraint of the use of those tools is placed on the author.

Preliminary work in the ACT-IT project has identified many other areas in which an author of multimedia courseware needs to be supported to aid in the production of that courseware. Just providing flexibility in media combination and procedural control does not help the author as the limits of their personal abilities in other areas of demand are reached. Authors also have real organisational and resource limitations to which authoring systems do not adapt.

The ACT-IT project is developing a system which will help authors of computer based training courses to use multimedia technology to make learning easier. The emphasis is towards meeting the needs of learners who need extra help in learning IT skills. The ACT-IT system attempts to support the author in all aspects of courseware design and production, and to this end the ACT-IT system is a method which is realised in paper based and computer based support; that is, it is not just an authoring system as the ACT-IT author will be provided with a range of tools, guidelines, methods and other appropriate authoring solutions.

In developing the ACT-IT system the possible needs of an author were derived from first principles. It is from this work that the limitations of existing authoring systems have been recognised. This paper discusses some of the limitations of existing multimedia authoring systems in the context of producing effective courseware in a reasonable amount of time, and then describes how the ACT-IT project aims to overcome some of these limitations.

The working environment that has been specified for the ACT-IT project is 386 and 486 processor based desktop personal computers. The software aim of the project is to produce an authoring system for building courseware, with the emphasis on practical commercial results for any project outcomes. This paper works within that same perspective, and consequently limits its discussion of multimedia to that environment. Although the main emphasis of the ACT-IT project is towards learners who need extra help in learning IT skills, the discussion here does not preclude applicability to other situations.


The European Multimedia Centre (1991) describes multimedia as 'a convenient term to describe emerging and converging technologies'. This definition of multimedia has a technology based perspective and correctly reflects the technology driven nature of multimedia. Using this technology based perspective the output media types usually associated with multimedia might be categorised as follows: This categorisation is arbitrary and has its basis in the way that the media are produced and manipulated using typical commercial multimedia hardware. In practice there is a spectrum of possibilities between the visual media elements, and there are associations between the elements, for instance sound is usually coupled with live video.

In the multimedia human-computer interaction the dialogue will be through a combination of both system output (the media types described above) and human input, and control of interaction. The control of interaction will involve all or some of:

To illustrate, the interaction message might be "press the button", the corresponding interaction object an on screen button, and the input device a touch screen. In a multimedia application the interaction message and interaction object can be made up of one of the output media types, and the input device is commonly one or a combination of: The popular view of multimedia goes further than meaning a natural extension to the usual text based human-computer interface as just described - it also suggests user control, random access, repeatability, object orientated functionality, special delivery hardware and improved communication.

The improved communication of multimedia is the result of using more and richer media, and the result of special effects, combinations, and transitions of the different media. The special effects involve particular exploitation of multimedia. For instance a video sequence can be paused and an important area of the image highlighted. A video sequence can be coordinated with an animated graph to illustrate some dependent relationship. Perceptual illusions of some media are possible - 2D, 3D, 'trick figures', virtual reality, simulations of fabric or material type (eg text can be made out of chocolate); sound can appear to be in the distance, or close by. Transitions are possible between the interface types and include fade in and out, sunbursts, tricks (eg crumble, emerge from object), and magnify. One popular PC presentation package advertises as providing over 40 different transition types.

The courseware authoring process

Multimedia applications can be constructed with a programming language (eg C++), although it is more likely that an authoring system will be used. An authoring system allows the easy and direct manipulation of media, usually with a visual interactive interface. Commercial authoring packages have various qualities and operating metaphors.

The PC authoring packages AuthorWare Professional from AuthorWare, Inc. and IconAuthor from AimTech Corporation use a flowcharting metaphor, where icons representing different procedural functions or screen snapshots can be selected and dragged onto the flowchart line, the resulting flowchart being the final multimedia construction. Functionality in both is powerful in the general sense, not catering for any particular application requirement.

Digithurst's PictureBook uses a book and page metaphor for media construction, where each page is essentially a screen snapshot. The pages are designed by the author to include objects, where the objects are either pieces of media or interaction objects with a particular given function. The functions provided allow for user control between pages in a final book. PictureBook provides a sophisticated search engine which allows a finished book to have hypertext qualities. Because of this facility books are especially suited to presentation applications.

Goal Systems's Syllabus is a multimedia authoring system aimed at the corporate market. Construction of multimedia is based around a list of tasks or objectives detailed in a text based outliner. Actions at the base level of the outliner are associated with a set of one or more screen designs. Built into the multimedia constructions are user monitoring facilities to help particularly in the building of courseware.

The hypermedia authoring package HiDES, developed at the University of Southampton, UK, is a dedicated system for collecting multimedia material into a set which can be linked together in a hypertext way. HiDES is particularly aimed at courseware building for the historian. Of special interest is its provision to a learner of a notebook where references to media (but not the actual content) can be recorded and saved for further use.

There are many other available authoring systems which work in similar ways, and provide various useful facilities. Presentation packages are also beginning to incorporate multimedia support, thus becoming possible alternatives to authoring systems.

The previous paragraphs describe the authoring functions in terms of what is provided by the authoring system. From the author's viewpoint, the authoring system is a tool in a cycle of development that iterates through phases of course design, course construction and course delivery to the learner. The phases are closely coupled in that course construction might aid the course design (eg a learner's notebook is provided by the authoring package as an option to the author, as in HiDES), or perhaps the delivery module drives the course design (eg learner monitoring facilities are automatically provided in the delivery system for use by the author, as in Syllabus). The author is required to know what needs to be taught and how it will be taught. The author is required to design the course and the delivered system.

Some benefits of existing multimedia products

An examination of existing multimedia authoring systems, applications and courseware shows some common and useful elements, including the previously mentioned 'outliner', 'notebook', and the user monitoring facilities.

Task outlining is particularly important in the context of the ACT-IT project which is aiming to aid authors in the teaching of IT systems. Most IT systems are suitable for task decomposition (probably having been subject to a task analysis in systems analysis and interface design during initial product development) and so the provision of a facility to the author which allows a similar task analysis and a corresponding logical connection to parts of the produced courseware is going to be useful.

Note taking is a well documented technique available to a learner for more effective learning eg Bretzing et al.(l987), Suritsky and Hughes (1991), Peper and Meyer (1986), Nist and Simpson (1988). Among its other benefits, it promotes memorising and understanding of the material, allows for the permanent recording of a course for the learner's later use, and allows the learner to detail points that the course author could not have anticipated for a particular learner.

Successful existing courseware is characterised by having a good exploitation of multimedia capabilities, where success usually comes through good user interface design. Typical of good user interface design is the method of having fixed screen layouts used throughout an application. Areas are allocated for interaction controls, and a place for the media to convey the required message. In this way the user interface design principles of consistency, orthogonality and 'look and feel' are addressed. Sometimes an application will use a technique from the set of common multimedia exploitation methods which are in common practice. These methods include 'talking heads' and maps. Both 'talking heads' and maps are supported in scientific literature as being useful for the purposes of teaching.

A 'talking head' can be and usually is a video clip of a human conveying the author's message. The 'talking head' enables the courseware author to speak to the learner in a very natural, flexible and human way, acting as the interface (from the learner's point of view) between the learner and the system/course, helping the learner to relate to the experience in a primarily 'human-human' way rather than 'human-machine' way. In a standard text on educational psychology, Glover and Bruning (1990) draw attention to the need to establish a good personal relationship between the teacher and the learner. They cite the earlier research of Rogers (1983) which suggests that effective teachers interact easily with learners and that learners tend to see them as 'warm' and 'authentic'. Glover and Bruning (1990) suggest that "Effective teachers are able to establish a rapport with their students from the beginning".

Maps are cues to the learner to enable them to track their position or status in a system. In the context of multimedia courseware a map has the purpose of providing the learner with an overview of the IT skill being learned and information about his or her current level of accomplishment with respect to it. The map can also be used as a navigation device allowing the learner some choice about what to learn next. Maps basis in science and practice include the "knowledge of results" literature which demonstrates that learning (particularly perceptual and motor learning) can be enhanced by real time feedback of performance details eg McCullagh & Little, (1990).

Limitations of authoring packages

Existing authoring packages primarily attempt to relieve the demands of technology in the construction of multimedia. Integration of multimedia hardware under operating system control (as in MicroSoft's Windows 3.1) is going some way to help in this direction, allowing any multimedia hardware to be used without unnecessary concern by an author of a particular authoring package. In the main an authoring package supports the assembly of multimedia, and will help in providing facilities for special effects, transitions, and combinations etc without any particular demands on the author. However, authoring packages provide little or no support in the areas of what might be technically possible (authoring systems provide a set of tools which the author is left to use to the best of their ability); and there is no concern for the actual production and manipulation of media content.

Software solutions to the production and manipulation of media content do exist, but require another level of ability. For instance the production of animations using Autodesk's Autodesk Animator Pro requires a good knowledge of animation principles and a high degree of skill to operate its sophisticated interface. A skilled operator can produce professional results, whereas a novice will struggle to produce something that would be acceptable in a serious piece of courseware. It may be that producing courseware will be a cooperative effort, where individual authors have different skills and levels of expertise - authoring packages do not explicitly support this cooperative work.

Authoring packages work from the basis of the author having all facilities when in reality an author will be constrained by the resources available, including:

Authoring systems could support the author in these areas by enabling the author to specify the delivery system for instance "I have a floppy disk, a PC with touch screen, and I cannot use video". The authoring system then adjusts its operation to suit, perhaps disabling video support. The authoring system can then monitor the author as the resources are consumed and provide feedback like "you have used 60% of the floppy disk storage space".

The scope of the limitations described here work within the boundaries that authoring tools constrain themselves, that is they are to relieve the demands of technology. Little attention is paid to the demands on the author with respect to the courseware design cycle.

Demands on the author

A multimedia authoring system that provides nothing other than a set of tools for media construction places many demands on the author working in the cycle of courseware development, including the requirement to have (amongst others) These requirements are now considered using the following elements which have been identified as being present in pictorial messages (Barker and Manji, 1988). Although originally associated with single pictures, they apply equally well to the multimedia environment. The aspects describe the source of loads placed on the user (the courseware learner) of any message, which in turn the author must understand and consider in courseware design. Each one of the elements can be considered in the light of the loads on the author as previously described.

Message content, context and rules

Delivered media has an actual deliberate message as determined by the author, it has embedded contextual rules that aid in understanding of that message, and most importantly in a multimedia environment there are contextual relationships with the environment, which in the multimedia application could be other media. Using the simplest of output media types that might be used in a multimedia environment (text) we can see the complications. Similar levels of complication exist when using the other media types - computer generated still graphics, computer generated moving graphics (animation), real life still graphics (eg photograph), real life moving graphics (eg live video) and sound.

Control functions

The author will need to consider the control mechanisms that will be provided to a learner, and who will have the control at any given time. Interaction requires consideration of the interaction message, the interaction object and the interaction device. The control can be over the individual media element, or the control of the complete system.

Aesthetic content

Interface design is subject to a layer of consideration that has become known as the 'look and feel'. The types of things an author needs to consider in dealing with 'look and feel' encompass screen design, cultural differences including language and associated factors, the style of presentation be it formal, informal, brassy, etc, and environmental considerations, for instance a human in a dark room with audio speakers will have a different sensation to the human using the same system in a bright room and using headphones.

Other functions

The primary purpose of a piece of courseware is to teach; for the author this means designing the mechanics of presentation of the constructed multimedia. The mechanics can range from whatever the author thinks best to using a formal recognised teaching strategy.

The ACT-IT solution

As previously stated a multimedia authoring system that provides nothing other than support for media construction places many demands on the author of courseware, including the requirement to have (amongst others) The ACT-IT system reduces the load on the author in these areas, by supporting the complete courseware design, production and delivery development cycle. The ACT-IT system also supports the author by adapting to the author's available resources, and by providing resource management aids. The support is provided through paper and computer based guidelines, tools, methods and procedures. Each of the above areas of load have been identified as requiring specific support.

The ACT-IT project's remit is to work in the specific areas of teaching IT systems to learners who may need extra help in learning. To this end the ACT-IT system has knowledge about existing IT systems, and the problems that learners have. The author's knowledge about the domain to be taught and about the learner group is supported by this information in various ways. The knowledge is both static and dynamic, in that it is available as a reference for the author and in that it has a dynamic part to play in the design and construction of the courseware.

The ACT-IT project has a teaching strategy available for the author to use. Appropriate knowledge representations to support the chosen strategy are provided and these in turn help the author in structuring courses. The author may choose to vary the strategy in various ways.

The need to support the author in interface design, in style and in aesthetic and creative abilities is done in a variety of ways. One fundamental solution to this requirement in the ACT-IT system is to provide the author with templates. In its simplest sense a template is a fixed screen layout which an ACT-IT author can fill in with various media types. There is a set of templates available to the author of various configurations and purposes. The use of templates has various advantages, and addresses various problems of the courseware design cycle.

First, there are advantages to be gained in interface design. Evaluations can be done by the system designers on the supplied templates to ensure they conform to good user interface practice, and a consistent 'look and feel' can be built in. The templates can be designed to exploit the benefits of using multimedia. Secondly, templates can be provided for specific purposes. These purposes could be for a particular teaching objective, or to cater for a particular learning ability or impairment. The templates can have functionality built in, including user control. Finally, the use of templates allows the author to concentrate on course building rather than screen and interface design.


The pressures to exploit computer based solutions in teaching increase with the needs to educate more and a wider range of people, in a variety of subjects. These people may be students in traditional teaching institutions, or they may be the person on the street who is disadvantaged by not knowing how to use current information technology. Courseware designers and producers will use multimedia in pursuit of this wider education, but will require more and better tools to match. The ACT-IT project is one of many research activities that is pushing in this direction.


Project 113, 'Application of Computer based systems to Training in Information Technology: a multimedia prototype' (ACT-IT) is being funded by the Commission of European Communities (CEC) under the Technology Initiative for Disabled and Elderly people (TIDE) pilot action research program. The work is being carried out by a consortium consisting of the City of London Polytechnic and Interactive Multimedia Systems, Dublin. The pilot work is due for completion by April 1993.


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European Multimedia Centre (1991). A beginner's guide to MULTIMEDIA, published by the European Multimedia Centre, London.

Glover, J. A., & Bruning, R. H. (1990). Educational Psychology: Principles and Applications, Third Edition. US: Harper Collins.

McCullagh, P. & Little, W. S. (1990). Demonstrations and knowledge of results in motor skill acquisition. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 71(3, Pt 1), 735-742.

Nist, S. L. & Simpson, M. L. (1988). The effectiveness and efficiency of training college students to annotate and underline text. National Reading Conference Yearbook, 37, 251-257.

Peper, R. J. & Mayer, R. E. (1986). Generative effects of note taking during science lectures. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(1), 34-38.

Rogers, C. R. (1983). Freedom to Learn for the 80s. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Suritsky, S. K. & Hughes, C. A. (1991). Benefits of note taking: implications for secondary and post secondary students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 14(1), 7-18.

Author: Brian Inwood is in charge of multimedia development in the Office and Business Systems Research Group at the City of London Polytechnic, UK. He is involved in user interfaces, particularly the human factors of computer based learning environments, and more recently groupware. He is a member of the ACT-IT project team. Of more topical interest, he obtained his BSc in Computer Studies from SAIT, now known as the University of South Australia. He can be contacted at: City of London Polytechnic, Department of Computing and Information Systems, Office and Business Systems Research Group, 100 Minories (Tower Hill), London EC3N 1JY or email at:

Please cite as: Inwood, B. (1992). Supporting the multimedia courseware author: An introduction to the ACT-IT Project. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 60-68. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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