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Making the most of electronic media for teaching and learning

Alan Burton and Sue Wynn
Edith Cowan University

Presentation software has matured to the point where it is quicker, and easier to use than the traditional alternatives of the word processor or even hand written slides. Some educators and academics use presentation software to prepare high quality slides for conferences and other presentations, and increasingly we see that these presentations are delivered using electronic media. However, the technology is not yet being widely used for everyday teaching activities, because lecturers - particularly those who do not have a technical background - find the hardware and software too complex, too bulky, too difficult to set up, and too temperamental to use on a regular basis. In addition many of them are unaware of the range of possibilities that exist for packaging and distributing electronic lectures and other course material to both students and colleagues. In the main body of this paper, we describe an affordable and technically straight forward strategy, for providing all of the facilities, training, and support necessary to enable lecturers to simply plug in and play their presentations in almost any teaching area. We also discuss how improved networking and telecommunications, and the emergence at Edith Cowan University of the virtual campus, provides opportunities to assist staff and students involved in both internal and distance learning programs.

1. Introduction

Despite all advances in technology, the most widely used visual aid is still the overhead projector. It is perceived by lecturers to be simple and straight forward to use, and it is generally readily available in every teaching room. The obvious problem with traditional acetates for use on an overhead projector is that once created, they take time and effort to edit or update. This often means that lecturers continue to present overheads with spelling or typing errors, as well as overheads which contain out of date information. It is also unusual to see graphics or illustrations on traditional overheads unless they have been photocopied - which often means poor quality, drawn by hand or provided at great expense by a graphic designer.

With desktop presentation software it is a very simple procedure to include a wide variety of high quality graphic images, ranging from maps to cartoons, graphs and charts. The obvious benefit of desktop presentation software is the amount of control that the lecturer has over the whole process - from start to finish, and the high quality output which is available to those who use such software. In addition the presentations are readily and easily copied and distributed to both students and lecturers using electronic mail facilities and computer network servers.

In the Faculty of Business at Edith Cowan University a handful of lecturers have been using presentation software, and a variety of projection devices to deliver lectures electronically. However, despite the availability of both software and the necessary hardware, the majority of lecturers are still reluctant to experiment with these techniques. We believe that this is due to a number of factors: the low level of computer literacy of many lecturers; lack of access to training, or lack of time to attend training courses; real or perceived problems associated with projection technology, such as availability, portability, complexity, and reliability; inadequate room lighting and poor layout; and lack of awareness of the potential benefits of electronic presentations with respect to time saving, improved quality, storage and distribution.

We believe that if lecturers are to be encouraged to take full advantage of presentation software and the associated technology, then a well defined strategy is required that addresses all of the problems and issues outlined above.

2. Software and hardware

If presentation software is to be used to its full potential within a school, or faculty, or indeed across a whole university, then it is essential that all academic and support staff are using the same software packages. The only way of ensuring this is to purchase software on the basis of site licences. Many software vendors offer very good deals, and a typical agreement might allow each member of staff to install one copy of software on their desktop machine, with the option of installing a second copy for home use. In addition to staff licences, licences for computer laboratories are also required so that presentations can be distributed for viewing by students. Without a policy of standardisation then different departments, and even different individuals, may end up working with packages that are mutually incompatible. Training then becomes almost impossible, as does technical support.

Given that everyone is using the same package, exactly what package they use is perhaps a secondary consideration. However, for day to day use, what is required is not necessarily the best or most powerful package, but a package offering an optimum compromise between the factors of cost, hardware requirements, ease of use, power, and flexibility. At Edith Cowan University in the Faculty of Business we have standardised on Microsoft PowerPoint as the tool available both to lecturers, and in the student computer laboratories.

As with software, there is a need for some standardisation of hardware, unlike software however, it is not essential that all members of a School or Faculty have exactly identical machines on which to prepare their presentations. It is essential however that everyone has a suitable machine with which to develop, view, and present their presentations. The big issue here is mobility. Unless teaching areas are equipped with computers (and there are all sorts of problems associated with this) then staff must be provided with laptops, because few will be willing, or indeed able, to drag desktop machines with them into lectures. If the laptops do not have good quality colour flat screen displays, then external monitors will also have to be provided. Compatibility between machines is important as is compatibility with the projection equipment, otherwise problems can arise whenever presentations are copied, shared, or presented using different projection media. If a variety of machines are being used, then software must be provided that enables presentations to be transferred between common platforms such as Macintosh and Windows.

3. Computer literacy

The level of computer literacy among academic staff can be surprisingly low. With the exception of those working in areas where computers are regularly used, few will be able to pick up an unfamiliar package and learn how to use it effectively. While we have no figures to support our claim, we have encountered many lecturers - and even some secretarial staff - who are using standard packages, such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation software, at a cripplingly low level of productivity, and often in complete ignorance of the true capabilities of the packages. This inability to exploit the capabilities of new technology has an enormous hidden cost to the organisation.

Training is the simple and obvious solution, which means that money and resources have to be made available for staff development. At Edith Cowan University we have been very fortunate in this respect. We have an ongoing policy of staff development which includes basic computer literacy, word processing, spreadsheets, and most recently, presentation graphics. Since November 1993 we have been providing introductory level half day courses in the use of presentation graphics, that are currently attracting participants from all over the university. In recent months we have found that advanced level courses in presentation graphics are increasingly popular as staff who completed the introductory course come back to further improve their skills.

We also run regular seminars and demonstrations in which staff are shown the projection technology available for them to use in various teaching locations. We discuss the various advantages and disadvantages of the different methods of projection, demonstrate how to set up and use the technology, and discuss some of the common problems that can arise.

Communication and presentation skills are key factors in personal advancement. There are numerous courses and organisations around training people in these skills, and yet there are fewer organisations to teach people the cognitive ergonomic aspects of slide and overhead design. We have found that most lecturers quickly gain the basic skills needed to use presentation software, but that they are inexperienced with respect to data analysis and presentation, slide design, slide layout, and the selection of appropriate colours. For example, they quickly learn how to draw impressive looking graphs, but they often do not know how to select the most appropriate style of graph to use. Creating an effective presentation involves much more than simply typing a few words and sentences onto a piece of paper and then producing a slide or transparency. Readability, legibility and factors to aid retention must be taken into account. At Edith Cowan University we are now presenting workshop sessions that address these issues. (A Workshop entitled Creating Slides and Overheads for Electronic Presentations will also be presented by Sue Wynn here at the LETA Conference).

If they are to be able to take full advantage of electronic media for copying, distributing and accessing presentation material, then lecturers also need to know how to use electronic mail facilities and computer network servers.

In addition to training staff in the use of presentation software, we are also working to ensure that all of our students have a minimum level of computer literacy will enable them to access, view, copy, and print presentations and other course materials that have been stored on the computer networks. At present all first year students in the Faculty of business take a core unit in Information Systems that covers basic computer literacy, word processing, spreadsheets, simple database work, and an introduction to the DOS operating system. In addition all students are shown the very basics of the Windows operating system, and how to view, copy and print lecture material prepared using presentation software.

It is widely agreed by both employers and academics that communication and presentation skills are vital for young people entering the work force in the 1990s. We therefore ensure that all students enrolled in the school of Management Information Systems are taught the skills, principles and techniques needed to use presentation software to a high professional standard.

4. Projection technology

4.1 Liquid crystal display panel

Probably the most common projection technology is the LCD projection panel sitting on top of the overhead projector. The LCD panel is connected to a computer and the images on the computer's monitor can be projected via the panel and the projector. This is a fairly cumbersome way of making a presentation, not to mention difficult to carry around!

It is possible to purchase a more sophisticated LCD panel which has either a memory or a floppy disk drive. This means that there is no need for a computer as the presentation can be read straight from the LCD panel. The disadvantage is that updates cannot be made on the fly.

The biggest problem with LCD panels is the quality of the overhead projectors. Most come equipped with a standard 250 watt globe, whereas the LCD panel works best with a 300 watt or greater quartz halogen globe. One solution to the need for all this equipment is to have a trolley set up with a powerful projector, LCD panel and laptop or desktop computer. The trolley can then be moved from room to room with minimal inconvenience, unless of course there are steps and stairs to negotiate, or the presenter has to take the trolley to a room via the outdoors and it is raining!

The average price for an LCD panel is $7,000-$9,000 for one that will project in colour from either a PC or a Macintosh. Many panel displays are too slow for video and animated graphics, but the newer active matrix panels are now able to cope with full motion video. A 500 watt OHP can cost an additional $2,000-$3,000.

4.2 Video projector

Another projection option is the video projector. Video projectors can be temperamental and have traditionally not been commonly used. The biggest problem with them is that a standard video projector will not project digital data from a PC. In the past a presenter would have to operate up to five different pieces of equipment if he or she wished to use a combination of slides, video, audio and computer output. With the advent of multimedia, a number of new projection devices have come on the market.

One of these is the LitePro which is a three in one device with the ability to project video, can project directly from a computer (PC or Macintosh), or from a 3.5 inch without a computer. It has a 400 watt quartz halogen globe and can project images in millions of colours. It is light, small and can be carried easily. This is a fairly expensive option at $15,000, but it replaces a whole raft of equipment.

4.3 RGB projectors

Another option is an RGB projector. This is a device which is generally mounted from the ceiling and is therefore a permanent fixture in the room. An RGB projector is sometimes known as a "Barco" and has three light guns - a red, a green and a blue (hence RGB).

RGBs usually project a stronger, crisper, larger and brighter image than an LCD panel. The projectors themselves cost between $8,000 to $25,000 and the interface device is another $1,000. The interface connects the computer to a plug in the wall which in turn is connected to the projector. Because the image is projected from the ceiling there are no problems with members of the audience having their vision obscured by the projection device. The speaker can also move freely in front of the screen without casting a shadow.

A disadvantage of this system is that the room lighting needs to be dimmed to produce optimum readability. This can cause problems with the audience taking notes or the speaker/lecturer maintaining eye contact with the audience.

4.4 PC to TV adaptor

A useful piece of presentation technology for the small room presentation, is the PC to TV interface. This simply enables the speaker to connect a laptop PC directly into a television in order to project the computer images. The Video Expert PV-680 PC to TV Adaptor costs $570 ex tax, plus additional for an AC Adaptor. This particular interface is for a DOS environment, but Macintosh adaptors are available for similar prices. Some of the Macintosh laptops come with an adaptor plug as an accessory.

4.5 Other projection technologies

Other new products on the market are the Sony LCD Data Projector and the Bell & Howell Desktop Projector. Sony's projector requires the fitting of an interface board to match particular needs (ie. Mac or PC). This projector also offers an auto focus and zoom feature which are not available on other systems.

The Bell & Howell system projects a strong, sharp image and is relatively portable. Both the Sony and the Bell & Howell are capable of projecting both computer and video outputs.

The VideoShow Presenter is a hand held remote control which provides a miniature screen for the presenter's use. This prevents the presenter from having to look at the overhead screen thereby turning his or her back on the audience. The VideoShow Presenter has some other features which are also invaluable to the presenter. It allows the presenter to preview the next image and bring up speaker's notes - neither of which are possible from the computer.

4.6 Scanners and cameras

A scanner is a device used for converting line drawings or pictures or photographs into a computer readable form. Scanners come in black and white or colour and are useful for scanning images into presentations. However, they are expensive, and image editing software is usually required to convert the scanned images to the required sizes and formats. Using a scanner is probably too complicated and time consuming for most lecturers to bother with on a day to day basis. However, digital photography may offer an effective alternative.

The Apple QuickTake 100. It is a relatively cheap ($1,000) digital camera enabling the user to take colour photographs and download them straight into a PC or Macintosh without any further scanning. The QuickTake is easy to use, it doesn't have film, but can store up to 32 images at a time in internal RAM. At a higher resolution 640 x 480 pixels, it can store 8 images. A cable connects the QuickTake to the computer and the images are transferred to the hard disk of the computer. Images can be converted to any of the major graphics file formats and can be manipulated using software such as PhotoShop.

In a recent review, Jeff Bertolucci of Australian PC World (May 1994) described the Apple QuickTake 100 as a significant step forward in the evolution of digital technology. At the moment it is still too expensive, requires a considerable hardware investment, and it provides photographs of indifferent quality. But as prices come down, and the photographic quality improves, then over the next year or two this is the kind of technology that all professional presenters should be looking at.

4.7 Media support

With any of the sophisticated technologies it is useful to have good media support. Technicians are needed to set up some of the RGB projectors, but things also go wrong with relatively simple projection equipment. It is important to practice with the equipment, understand the vagaries and test each presentation before going in front of an audience.

5. Storage and distribution

5.1 Storage

The advantages of storing a series of lectures electronically on one or two floppy disks as opposed to a large, heavy file containing acetates is fairly obvious - not to mention the monetary and ecological savings to be had when all that plastic is no longer needed! But once we look beyond individual lecturers to the functioning of an entire department or school, there are even greater advantages.

In the first instance disks containing lectures could be maintained at some central location, They are then immediately available should anyone have to stand in for a colleague at short notice. If a course has not changed substantially from one semester to the next, then a complete series of lectures is available for a new lecturer to use or update as they wish. Presentations are also easily copied and distributed where two or more lecturers are sharing a unit, or where they are teaching the same unit on different days or at different locations.

In the second instance however, we can go one step further and eliminate even the disks. Presentations can be easily distributed over electronic mail systems that are able to carry enclosures. Alternatively they can simply be placed on computer servers to be copied and used by any authorised staff member. In our Faculty some lecturers regularly exchange and distribute presentations via email, in the future we hope to establish a more universal policy whereby all presentations and other teaching and administrative material are placed on a common network server.

5.2 Computer networks

Staff and students may not always have access to common computer networks, which means that material may have to be duplicated for student use. In common with many tertiary institutions we use Macintosh machines, whereas the majority of student facilities are based on IBM compatible machines, which means that material may have to be converted between platforms. Not all lecturers will wish to make their presentations and notes available to students, but if material is to be made available, then it is essential that students have the skills necessary to retrieve and view them.

5.3 Packaging

Where students have a low level of computer literacy it is possible to take presentations and package them up neatly so that they can be accessed at the click of a mouse. In the Windows environment a presentation can be linked directly to the executable files that control the viewer. A program item and an icon can then be created for each presentation, and a series of presentations can be placed together under a group icon. The student has only to click on the group icon as shown in Figure 1, and then click on the desired presentation within the group as shown in Figure 2. If students are using Macintosh computers, then this kind of setup would be normal.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Group icon

Figure 2

Figure 2: Program icon

The main disadvantage of these approaches is that the level of knowledge required to set up program groups and program items under Windows is probably too much for most lecturers other than computer specialists. However, it is entirely feasible that some sort of "packaging service" could be provided for these lecturers. On the whole we do not prefer this packaged approach, because our students are expected to be computer literate, and quite capable of searching for material within sub-directories.

5.3 The students' point of view

So far in this paper we have been discussing electronic presentations exclusively from the lecturer's point of view, emphasising the attractions and advantages of a totally paperless system of teaching and learning. In 1993 we decided to ask our students what they thought about the different ways in which material was being presented to them. We conducted a simple survey covering two groups of students whose lectures had been delivered using presentation software and a variety of projection media. Both groups were studying either major or minor options in the school of Management Information Systems. All of the students were in either their second, third or fourth years of study, and all had a high level of computer literacy.

The detailed findings of our survey are available in Burton and Wynn (1994) and we will not repeat the details here. In summary we found that one of their biggest criticisms of lecturers was the poor quality of handwritten overheads containing far too much information, using small, unreadable print, and generally having uninteresting formats. Student perception of the amount of effort expended by their lecturers was determined initially by the quality of the overheads. They were unanimously in favour of the use of presentation software. They favoured the use of full colour projection. But they still wanted printed lecture notes and slides to take away with them. We will be conducting a larger and more rigorous survey at the end of 1994.

5.4 Printing

The biggest complaint from our students has been that they are unable to obtain high quality printed output of presentations and other course materials because of the limited facilities available to them in the computer laboratories. We have found that the students' preferred option is - predictably enough - the least effort option, whereby printed lecture slides are provided. At six slides per page we are able to print reproduce a typical one semester course for sale to students on a cost recovery basis for between $5 and $10. The overwhelming majority of students are quite willing to buy them. The disadvantage of course is that the printed output has no colour and will not reproduce multimedia features, however as yet these features are rarely used anyway.

Not all lecturers are able to provide a full set of lecture notes prior to the start of a course, preferring instead to generate their presentations on a weekly basis, placing them on the student computer networks. We have recently upgraded printing facilities for our students to enable students to obtain laser quality output. The problem of course is "who pays" (this can be a sensitive practical and political issue!). We have provided such facilities in the past, paid for by our own faculty, unfortunately found that they were abused by a minority of students and soon wrecked. The only viable solution seems to be one of user pays. We have introduced a user pays system of printing for our students, at a cost of 30 cents per page, which will enable them to print the contents of a typical lecture for a dollar or two, say 20 to 30 slides at six per page.

6. Distance learning programs

Distance education is now big business in tertiary institutions and as competition for students increases, universities and colleges of technical and further education are looking for ways to enrich and improve the external course offerings.

It is well understood that a big factor in lecturing is the ability to communicate well, and yet students in remote locations tend to receive printed materials, maybe some audio and visual tapes and have minimal personal contact. Research conducted by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania has found that through the use of visual aids:

All this has significant implications for presentation skills and methods of presentation, but even more significance for students studying by themselves without the benefit of lecturer or overhead presentations.

At Edith Cowan University, the problems of students working in isolation are being addressed by the establishment of the Virtual Campus. The Virtual Campus gives distance education students the electronic equivalent of on campus facilities. Access is gained using a personal computer, a modem and standard voice telephone lines. when connected to the Virtual Campus, students are able to post mail to each other and to their tutors/lecturers, read notice boards, submit and receive files of work, explore remote data bases and engage in realtime conversations with others on the system.

The Virtual Campus is an opportunity for lecturers and tutors to send students up to date slides or overheads of lecture materials. The current system will not allow graphics to be transmitted, but certainly text based slides can be sent, allowing students to receive material as current as internally enrolled students receive.

7. Summary

If staff and students are to be encouraged to take full advantage of electronic presentation media, then a coordinated strategy is required addressing all aspects of production, delivery, and distribution.


Bertolucci, J. (1994). Taking Photos Without Film. Australian PC World, May 1994. Page 83.

Burton, A. & Wynn, S. (1994). The Electronic Lecture: Teaching and learning in the 21st Century. Paper presented at Teaching and Learning Forum 1994, held at Edith Cowan University, February 9 to 11.

Authors: Dr Alan Burton, School of Management Information Systems, Edith Cowan University. Phone 273 8523, Fax 273 8754, AARNet

Sue Wynn, School of Management Information Systems, Edith Cowan University. Phone 273 8502, Fax 273 8754, AARNet

Please cite as: Burton, A. and Wynn, S. (1994). Making the most of electronic media for teaching and learning. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 27-32. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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