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Using the electronic paper clip

Stephen Michael Barnett
Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE

This paper examines recent developments and trends in the use of laser disc in education. The release by many manufacturers in the nineties of laser barcode readable machines has resurrected the use and useability of laser discs. Laser disc is a technology that has existed for over 20 years. The development of computers, interactive authoring programs and now the use of barcodes has enabled the end user greater access to a wealth of existing material. Some writers have referred to the user of laser barcodes in printed notes as "electronic paper clips", enabling the learner or the teacher to access the images, be they still frame slides, audio, video or computer animation. The paper includes a discussion of the concept of repurposing existing laser discs to be used in the barcode mode and with computers. Often academic producers permit repurposing with no or low charge for distribution of the resultant courseware beyond the repurposer's institution. The use on the author's campus of a generic disc, Dental Diagnosis and Treatment: A Videodisc Atlas from the University of Iowa, with over 45,000 images will be discussed in this context. The concept of a consortia to develop material will be discussed also, with some comment on the use of the Internet to locate resources. The presentation will include a demonstration of the technology and examples of course notes and barcode texts. There will be an ancillary display of equipment and software.

Curriculum will increasingly be delivered through electronic media in the future, and students will use computers extensively during their education and throughout their careers. Increasing proportions of learning will focus on problem solving tutorials and traditional lectures will decrease, with a shift to resource based and more flexible delivery.

Learning environments must be highly interactive, and provide for the natural progression of inquiry and feedback, for learning to occur. The use of videodisc technology and simulations can allow this to occur. The use of barcoded notes in conjunction with videodisc has teen referred to by one European consultant, (Lut, 1993), as using "the electronic paper clip" He went on to say

In education new revolutionary techniques have never brought substantial changes in methods of learning: ideas have changed through evolution. Laser disc has been available for over twenty years. It needed this time to develop into a system which gives a real enhancement to traditional educational methods. It seems the industry can only create an educational revolution through evolution.
In fact the concept of the video disc has a surprising longer history than many of use may have been aware. The Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird, created the first video system in 1927, 50 years before its first commercial inception. His system was called phonovision. The discs were based on existing phonograph technology at 78 rpm and had the ability to capture and reproduce hazy images when played on a gramophone and connected to a Baird receiver. The images were barely recognisable and were reproduced at 12.5 frames per second at a resolution of 15 points per horizontal line, 30 lines altogether. During the 30s several copies were sold by Selfridge's in London.

The modern laser disc technology has great storage capacity - for example one of the veterinary discs we have identified has 23,000 slide images of veterinary pathology; a dental disc (Dental Diagnosis and Treatment: A Videodisc Atlas from the University of Iowa) has 46,000 slide images as well as video and audio. Laser disc has very high resolution of images certainly well above that of videotape.

Workers at Auburn University in the United States said:

Interactive video technology tends to encourage us to 'think big'. When we learn of possibilities like multiple branching designs, touch screen, still frame audio and all the bells and whistles, we begin dreaming of producing such complex and sophisticated courseware ourselves. We may spend so much time dreaming that we forget about simple designs that we might actually implement under existing budgetary constraints. (Branch, et al 1987)
An Australian commentator noted that:
Videodisc as a medium almost died before it existed. The only advantage that it had over videotape was that it had random access of sections of the disc and could hold frames in still motion without damage to the disc or the equipment. Videodisc is able to hold all types of media; film, video slides, graphics, audio and computer data. However, interactive videodisc combines the resources of videodisc with the ability of the computer to operate the disc. (Cheetham, 1988)
Others have avoided videodisc because of the cost of the hardware, (O'Neil, 1988) commented:
However, a note of warning should be sounded, as at least two problems exist. The first is that the videodisc is basically a single user system. The second factor is that of cost . Although it is good value for money, as a single user system it is beyond the budget of schools to buy in the numbers required for efficient class usage.
I will argue against the concept of the videodisc system as a single user device - we can consider a number of strategies for its use.

Another North American, (Lookcatch, 1989) provides some useful insights. He was writing in a training concept but I feel that his arguments are valid for a further education setting. It can be used in a small group situation which can provide for debate and group interaction; group presentation is simple to schedule, and in many cases is more cost effective than individual learning settings. Its use by pairs of learners rather than individuals also provides advantages - two students working together requires half the time it would take them individually. A very positive learning strategy mentioned was that working in pairs (or as Lookcatch put it - cooperative learning) facilitates learning through discussion - of course related issues with another contributes to more thorough comprehension.

Students have reported that the discussions themselves are significant learning opportunities. Researchers in the United States (Aker and Gordon, 1986) suggested after a study which examined the application of "group use" videodisc, that small group and individualised approaches must be combined to optimise the educational process. They found that whilst students found the technology easy to use and the group process valuable in examining the material available they preferred to work with others rather than alone with the machine. Faculty perceived the group approach as more consistent, a better use of class time and a more efficient use of financial resources when contrasted with individualised instruction.

The point has been made to arrange trials of learning settings to ensure the best solution - sound advice!

Other researchers (Milheim and Evans, 1987) also examined group instruction using interactive video and they stated that many students simply learn better in a group instructional setting where interaction with others can be very stimulating and that the different experiences of various students.

They also suggested the obvious cost benefits of not needing expensive duplication of equipment and the costs of new learning spaces. can also enrich the learning situation

Reinforcing one of the points made by Brandt (1986), is the argument to use interactive media because of the dangers or rarity of certain conditions or because of the costs involved,

Siegel (1990) said:

...The unique contributions made by this form of instruction is that it enables students and staff to diagnose and manage conditions that they might not otherwise be exposed to because of the rarity of the disorder or inadequacies within a given patient population, and without threat of bodily harm.
This line of thought was also taken up in the Australian context by Baker and Ziviani (1986) who said, quoting the work of Gayeski and Williams (1984):
The power of interactive video to simulate conditions which are rare, dangerous, distant or otherwise difficult for students or researchers to encounter is one of its most significant attractions.


Other criticisms in the literature have largely been because of the costs of developing discs. An alternative direction is to "repurpose" existing discs. Workers at the Telecommunications Development Center, at the University of Minnesota said:
Throughout the 1980s, interactive videodisc was hailed as a powerful tool for solving many educational problems. (Sayre and Montgomery, 1991)

They noted that the cost of videodisc production and delivery systems have greatly restricted its application. They received funding to undertake a research project to investigate low cost alternatives to videodisc production and implementation. The project focused on investigating the benefits and limitations of repurposing existing videodiscs for use on low cost hardware systems.

Ebert-Zawasky and Abegg (1990) used students successfully to develop lessons from generic videodisc material. This author wishes to examine this technique in his own institution as costs can be reduced, and students appear to benefit from producing their own learning materials.

Blanto, Robin and Kinzie (1991), graduate students at the University of Virginia found that they could inexpensively repurpose a feature film on videodisc, using a Macintosh computer with HyperCard and a Pioneer Videodisc player. Their paper provides good suggestions for "repurposing". Sayre and Montgomery in their study indicated that repurposing existing materials consisted of three initial stages. These were:

  1. Videodisc review. That is the locating of materials. This author has certainly found that it is not at all easy and has learnt that others have had similar frustration. A major problem is that much educational material is produced in education institutions but is not commercially available nor listed.

  2. Videodisc documentation. We could refer to this as 'shot listing' or providing a map of the disc. This is very time consuming but very essential and must be thorough and accurate. I have found disks with no frame listing available as well as disks with very good documentation.(The index to the Iowa Dental Atlas runs to over 800 pages!

  3. Program design. We could refer to this process as reverse storyboarding as we identify existing material, then storyboard the applicable frames, and then use instructional design to work within the constraints imposed by the material available.
Sayre and Montgomery suggested in their report that by repurposing a dedicated disc to achieve objectives similar to those of the original design, the instructional designer can obtain the maximum flexibility with the least amount of work. They also said that generic discs, although having the advantage of being widely applicable, require more work. A caution was offered by these workers who said:
Even with best case scenarios, repurposing remains a compromise because of design restrictions it inherently imposes. Success is dependent primarily upon three variables: the availability of applicable material, the budget, and the designers creativity.
The notion of repurposing videodiscs has been addressed by workers in Australia, who said:
It is worthwhile noting that programs can be produced to access useful frames and sequences on existing discs, and that the same videodisc can be used for initial presentation as well as the review system. The system is not limited to undergraduate training. Refresher studies and distance education both stand to benefit greatly. (Baker and Ziviani, 1986)
The prices we have been quoted make the discs well worth while purchasing just as repositories of images. However their use as they stand, with supporting software, supplied by the developers as self paced/open learning materials would also appear to have great value. Adding to this we have the opportunity to develop these stores of visual images into our own learning materials through the use of computer based learning packages such as Authorware Professional and HyperCard. (In virtually all cases, the developers of the laser discs have invited us to 'repurpose' their discs.) We can also create barcoded notes and, videotapes from captured images .

Barcoded notes

One of the ways in which we will use Dental Diagnosis and Treatment: A Videodisc Atlas, from the University of Iowa, is by using it in conjunction with barcoded notes. A barcoded text is a set of students or instructors notes in a print document made up of a combination of text and barcodes which are embedded in the text, which provide links to an accompanying text. These can be labelled within a barcode generating program with text and or frame numbers. The barcodes are similar to the supermarket or rental video library labels that we are all familiar with and can call up still frame images or video sequences. The technology has been developed so that there are now barcode compatible audio CDs. The texts may be created by commercially produced barcode programs.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Example of barcode printed by author.

Faculty may use barcoded texts in a variety of ways. These may consist of a set of tutorial materials for students or perhaps as part of the formal lecture material. The use of laser hand held barcode readers is very easy and even primary school children, well used to using vcr or cd remotes can master the simple barcode reading.

Why use this technology when more sophisticated computer based packages can use the same images and laser disc technology? The use of barcodes provides a less expensive and less complex alternative to computer based interactive video systems. Lilly, (1993) conducted an evaluation at the University of Iowa where he and his colleagues compared the learning effectiveness and cost efficiency of barcode instruction and parallel interactive videodisc tutorial. His team found no significant difference in the amount learnt by each group when one group used barcode instructional material and another used an interactive videodisc tutorial using the hypertext linked package Linkway (IBM).

In a cost effectiveness study, which compared the cost of developing and implementing the two versions of the same product, the hardware and software costs were essentially the same. Lilly 's team found that there were substantial cost differences between developing interactive videodisc tutorials and laser barcode texts in terms of staff costs. The comparisons were in their case 17 hours for the interactive against 11 for the barcoded material.

I have found little support for laser disc in Australia. There have been three laser disc projects based in Adelaide that I am aware of. All involved very large expenditures to create new discs. There is very little promotion of laser disc as an educational tool in Australia. Subsequently the cost of machines is quite high and this in turn make it difficult for a school or college to enter this area of learning resources. There has been little penetration of the domestic market with the Australian distributors 'drip feeding' the consumer with PAL format titles at high costs. Airfreighted NTSC discs are available but legal difficulties have hindered the expansion.

As I have suggested the penetration into the Australian education market is barely significant. I have seen only one barcoded supported disc developed in Australia, that produced by the Pickett-Heaps, a husband and wife team at the University of Melbourne. (The disc, Living Cells - Structure, Diversity and Evolution, is distributed in conjunction with an American text.)

Bruder, ( 1993) argued that teachers are opting for Level I videodisc products because

  1. level one products are more consistent with conventional teaching methods - the teacher is in control of the instruction.

  2. bar codes have become a popular publisher's tool and have become an ideal accompaniment to textbooks.
One article that I found, (Thorp, 1993), indicated that even elementary school age children were capable of developing original and fascinating video reports using videodiscs to enhance traditional textbooks and reference materials. Her students worked cooperatively using videodiscs image to illustrate their presentations. Thorp appreciated the fact that she could in her own use of the videodisc be selective about images that were pertinent to the lesson and display them in the sequence and time she could control. She could also select alternate or additional images.

Support for the educational user seems to be good in the United States. Pioneer Communications of America has formed a club - Pioneers in Learning, that provides educators with a forum for exchanging ideas on topics such as classroom strategies, training tips, new products, offers on courseware, software and hardware, newsletters, sample barcoded lesson plans.

I have also located an Educators Barcode Users Group, with a newsletter being available. We have actively communicated with our colleagues within the Dental faculty at the University of Adelaide and also with the staff of the School of Dental Therapy. We hope to act in a similar way to the North Americans and work as a consortia to jointly develop learning materials using the generic disk. Two staff members of the Dental faculty at Gilles Plains have already taken the opportunity to deliver classes using the Iowa disk, the next step being to prepare their own learning materials using barcoded notes with selected images. I have made a great and profitable use of the Internet in communicating with dental faculties and seeing this growing and a great adjunct and support in the development of learning materials.

In summary the use of laser disc remains a viable option and the use of barcodes notes provides a low cost option, giving flexibility to the learning process and increases the amount of resources available to the learner. Huub Lut gave us another expression "freedom behind bars". Why not try the 'electronic paper clip' and then enjoy 'freedom behind bars'!


Aker, S. R. & Gordon, J. M. (1986). Designing the Group Use Videodisc. Paper presented at the 36th Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association, 22-26 May 1986, Chicago, Illinois.

Baker, J. & Ziviani, J. (1986). Interactive Videodisc: Two Bites at the Cherry. In G. Bishop and W. van Lint (Eds.), CALITE 86: Proceedings of the fourth annual computer assisted learning in tertiary education conference. Adelaide: University of Adelaide, Office of Continuing Education.

Blanton, S., Robin, B. & Kinzie, M. (1991). Repurposing a feature film for interactive multimedia. Educational Technology, December, 37-41.

Branch, C. E. et al (1987). Producing a simple interactive videodisc - Auburn University uses videodisc technology to enhance veterinary learning. Educational and Industrial Television, Jan, 20-21.

Brandt, R. (1986). Interactive video: when to consider its use. Eric Document ED 272174.

Bruder, Isabelle (1993). What's New in Videodiscs? Electronic Learning, February, 12.

Cheetham, Alison (1988). The Aussie Barbie: New Speech Sensation. Unicorn, February, 14(1) 53-54.

Ebert-Zawasky, K. & Abegg, G. L. Integrating computer interfaced videodisc systems in introductory college biology. ERIC Document ED 324240.

Lilly, Gilbert (1993). Laser Barcode: A Versatile, Effective and Inexpensive Tool for Education. Interactive Healthcare Newsletter, July, 3-4.

Lookcatch, R. P. (1989). Options for interactive video. Training & Development Journal, December, 65-67.

Lut, Huub (1993). The Evolution of Educational Laserdisc Technology - Freedom behind bars. Interact - European Platform for Interactive Learning, September.

O'Neil, Daren (1988). How Good is it? Unicorn, February, 14(1) 54-55.

Milheim, W. D. & Evans, A. D. (1987). Using interactive video for group instruction. Educational Technology, June, 35-37.

Sayre, S. & Montgomery, R. (1991). The feasibility of low cost videodisc repurposing. Educational Technology, September, 57-58.

Siegel, M. S. & Craig, J. F. (1990). Evaluation of oral diagnostic and management skills using interactive patient simulations. Journal of Dental Education, 55(1), 49.

Thorp, Barbara (1993). Kids Can Create Videodisc Reports. The Computing Teacher, February, 22-23.

Author: Stephen Michael Barnett, Lecturer, Learning Systems and Resources, Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE, 100 Smart Road, Modbury, South Australia, telephone +61 8 207 8103, fax +61 8 207 1113, email

Please cite as: Barnett, S. M. (1994). Using the electronic paper clip. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 15-19. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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