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Interfaces to interactive multimedia learning environments

John G Hedberg, Barry Harper and Christine Brown
University of Wollongong

Interactive multimedia learning environments provide a rich and complex field for investigation. The underlying information analysis and the structure determined in the analysis of the knowledge domain can be enhanced by effective interfaces or inhibited by an illogical and confusing view. These underlying information structures are the forgotten components in the development of interactive multimedia packages. This paper discusses three simple learning environments and the way in which the learner is supported in retrieving and using the resources contained in them. These learning environments include the award winning CD-ROM package Investigating Lake Iluka, an educational information management example and a distance learning study support system for adult learners. It emphasises the importance of constructivist framework in creating an environment which is dynamic and manipulable by the user. Of particular interest is the use of interactive multimedia within each learning environment and the resulting interfaces which can simplify the task of information retrieval and the search for solutions to learning tasks. The paper discusses user evaluations and concludes with some guidelines for the development of such learning environments.

There is currently a great deal of interest in the application of interactive multimedia learning environments to the educational process. Such environments have the potential to provide a rich and complex field for investigation through use of a variety of media sources. This interest has occurred following changes in information technology software and hardware which allow the integration of multiple sources of information to be linked and presented together. 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 using organisational formats such as hypertext.

This rapid technological development has outstripped the design models employed in the development of multimedia materials and there has also been a lack of understanding of how the analysis of knowledge domains can lead to use of effective interfaces. In addition, the technology has allowed new and more complex instructional strategies to be employed which bring with them new opportunities for more efficient and effective learning. These learning strategies can be controlled by the learner and can employ a variety of cognitive modelling opportunities to facilitate learning (Hedberg, 1989).

Over the last decade there has been a significant shift in emphasis in the learning process generally. This shift is manifesting itself in a number of ways which include:

These trends have also permeated the training industry with many in house industry training programs focusing on effective performance and problem solving rather than the ability to remember facts and repeat theory without real understanding about its applicability. In short there is a movement from "inert knowledge" to "situated cognition".

Multimedia design in a constructivist framework

Recent curriculum documents in many western countries emphasise the skills of investigation, reflection and analysis to generate or refine knowledge. The appeal of cognitive process training to support this development is obvious, and it seems far more efficient to provide the student with general purpose problem solving than instruction on specific solutions to specific problems.

There has been considerable controversy, which will no doubt continue to simmer, over the clarification of constructivism as opposed to objectivism. The constructivists argue that learning outcomes depend on: the learning environment, the prior knowledge of the learner, the learner's view of the purpose of the task and the motivation of the learner. The process of learning involves the construction of meanings by the learner from what is said or demonstrated or experienced. The role of the teacher in this context is one of facilitating the development of understanding by selecting appropriate experiences and then allowing students to reflect on these experiences.

To the learner, the constructivist learning experience may not look welcoming. It may seem daunting and complex to those who feel ill prepared for such creative freedom and choice of direction. Often constructivist learning situations suddenly throw students on their own management resources and many fend poorly in the high cognitive complexity of the learning environment. Cognitive support tools and the explicit acknowledgment of the double agenda of metacognitive self management and learning can help. The scaffolding and coaching of the cognitive apprenticeship model offer another solution.

A number of multimedia design models have been developed which illustrate the combination of complex learning environments and which also give students their own real control over their learning environment. (See for example, Laurel, 1990; Ambron & Hooper, 1990).

In the projects discussed in this paper. the model employed (Figure 1) was based on a more organic and iterative approach than traditional instructional systems design (Hedberg, 1993). Phase one took the basic information derived from a needs assessment and converted it into a description of the Project space - the information which was to be included in the materials, how it was structured, what the target audience understood about the information and how it might be structured for the audience. Possible structuring devices included concept maps of the ideas and links that were to be included in the project.

The second phase reviewed the basic description and sought to link the elements through an appropriate instructional or presentation strategy. It also sought to identify metaphors which help both the design team and the final presentation of the information structure. The outcome of the second phase was a formal description - a design brief. The detail would enabled the reader to understand the underlying knowledge structures and the ways it was proposed to link them conceptually and intuitively.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The design process used for an interactive multimedia package.

The third phase was essentially a third pass at the same material, this time with the express goal of linking the design ideas into a potential interaction structure. One output of this phase was an interactive mock up of the interactive materials using a tool like HyperCard to illustrate not only static display of information but also the graphical and visual metaphors used to create understandable links. The information included in the prototype included any combination of visual, motion, static graphics, sound and data landscapes as appropriate to the concept under development.

Each interaction consists of a node point which forms the basis of the interaction, a set of options which provide links to other nodes or additional information attached to the current node. One of the links must relate to earlier travelled or preferred paths through the materials, and each choice must inform the user about what is likely to occur as a result of a choice. These can translate into the traditional concept of results (correct or incorrect) or information feedback choice, but should also include simple feedback elements such as confirmation of choice (feedback that a button has been selected) or performance support enhancement such as suggested hints, or revision of the underlying concept/principle which might be employed to make the choice. Depending on the instructional strategy chosen another element might include the concept of duration, either time or the limit of options based upon previous choices or paths taken. What constitutes each of these functions and what they create in terms of cognitive skill development for the user are determined by their physical manifestation in terms of navigation options.

Investigating Lake Iluka

The potential of both the technology and learning strategies to incorporate the recent initiatives in education have lead to the development, production and evaluation of a particular interactive multimedia CD-ROM based package called Investigating Lake Iluka. The package has been designed to facilitate access to an information landscape through the learner's choices by: Investigating Lake Iluka has been based around an ecology simulation and employs a number of different interface metaphors in presenting the materials to the user. The package is based on the concept of an information landscape that incorporates the biological, chemical and physical components of a range of ecosystems that make up a coastal lake environment. The user is given some problem solving strategies to investigate this information in a variety of ways using the range of measuring tools provided. They can collect biological, physical or chemical data as well as media information and 'construct' their own understanding of the basic ecology concepts embedded in the package. This facility has the potential to increase student understanding and control of their learning through control of their learning environment. Inquiry and problem solving techniques have been embedded in the package through case studies of ecological scenarios presented to the user via media reports of problems posed directly to the user. Each scenario can be investigated using the package tools. It is expected that users will develop a broad array of scientific investigation skills using this realistic simulation. One of the unique features of this package is the facility for users to generate their own customised report which can be refined and presented independently of the package.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Investigating Lake Iluka - where the user is presented with a problem and a set of suggestions to help them solve a problem not simply choose an answer to prepared multiple choice questions. (Program from Interactive Multimedia Pty Ltd, Old Parliament House, Canberra, ACT 2600)

Support in Investigating Lake Iluka

Paris & Winograd (1990) have defined metacognition as knowledge about cognitive states and abilities that can be shared among individuals, including the affective and motivational aspects of thinking. Cognitive strategies can be addressed directly in the structure of an information landscape The affective and motivational aspects of metacognition are embedded in the interface.

The problem solving nature of Investigating Lake Iluka lends itself to metacognitive support through a number of means:

You need specific and accessible knowledge to solve problems. An information landscape such as Investigating Lake Iluka provides the knowledge base and the knowledge schema of experts in association with a mechanism for the student to collect, analyse, assimilate and synthesise responses to problems. The ability to see a bigger picture is facilitated by rapid information access and retrieval.

Embedded content independent strategies are general learning strategies incorporated within available content. They support local learning but emphasise strategy transfer as well (Osman & Hannafin, 1992) . A well structured information landscape will provide a template for a range of content. The strategies used in Investigating Lake Iluka could well apply to other tools and other problems.

Information conduit - a quality assurance tool

As part of a large project on quality assurance within the University of Wollongong (Fasano et al., 1994), the need for an interface to the variety of information within a university online system that supports quality management was identified. The main goal of the design team for this package was to design an interface and information structure which would enable members of the organisation to understand the structure and functioning of the organisation, identify sources of information, make links between disparate collections of information, juxtapose different forms of representation of information, and thus make informed decisions which are congruent with and contribute to organisational goals when working individually or in quality teams. To achieve this goal, a number of assumptions were made:
  1. If individuals/teams were going to contribute to organisational effectiveness then they would need access to the appropriate information in order for them to undertake their job role.

  2. A good information system should be used for more than the designers intended, and should thus be extensible by the users, congruent with the organisation's mission and values.

  3. All members of the organisation needed access to information. However, not all need currency and not all in the same representational form. Issues such as the degree of precision, and sufficiency of coverage for the decision need to be addressed.
The aim for this package was to design an information access system which would vary according to information needs. The information system would provide links between ideas and representations of information. These links under the control of the users would enable the user to decide on the "best" alternative for a course of action. By these means it was envisaged that user decisions will be in concert with the overall development of the organisation.

The initial planning guidelines for such an interface included:

  1. User friendly structure which intuitively "teaches" the user what information is available, how the information is structured, and how it can be retrieved.

  2. High degree of interactivity which enabled the user to determine the form in which the information was to be presented, with the belief that the knowledge derived from accessing information would be greater than the individual information elements. The user would be able to develop new concepts and relationships which may not necessarily be already included in the package.

  3. A concern for the cognitive load which older information systems place upon the development of new forms of reports and presentation of information. The information system would thus allow opportunity for self learning and the construction of personal collections of information, linked and manipulated to affect individual and organisational goals, and which may result in concepts about the organisation beyond the component information elements. However, the system should use a standard data file structure to minimise the need for wasteful duplication. In this regard, support structures such as the cut and paste to a notebook metaphor might be useful.

  4. A concern for the separation of function between the maintenance of the information sources and access to them. A major problem with any information system is its currency and how easy it is to maintain. By keeping the basic functions with those who have direct responsibility for them rather than centralising it seemed a useful goal which did not create a new work load and set of organisational constraints which would work in the opposite way to the quality assurance principles espoused.

  5. The differentiation between currency and comprehensiveness of information would assist in determining whether an individual needed immediate access to the mainframe data set on whether they required access to a regularly updated copy or subset. In either case the access was to appear relatively easy and employ a simple interface which necessitated little or no instruction.
Using the instructional design model outlined about, phase one of the design process involved taking the basic information derived from a needs assessment and converting it into a description of the project space. The basic information structure was built around the findings of a University wide Information Needs Audit, with consideration for the importance of presenting information based upon published indicators of performance. In addition, it was expected that several indicators might be developed during the course of the project which might require a form of representation which was not the same as the traditional numerical data sources commonly quoted in the literature. As a starting point the work of DEET funded projects were used to identify that most of the indicators were compilations of raw counts, percentages, trends or ratios. While most often they were presented in tabular form, other forms of presenting the information such as trends over time or groupings might provide additional insights into the developments over a period or comparisons with other benchmarks or groupings. For example, the development group identified that a facility would need to be provided, together with the associated data, for users to "flip" between a selection of data points described as numbers and their representation in graphical form.

A major proviso was placed on the extent of the provision of such flexibility of presentation. It did not seem sensible to duplicate the range of functions and sophistication of spreadsheet and charting programs, beyond the simple functional tabular/ graphical presentation described above. It was therefore considered more important to provide cross application transfer of data, through the simple convention of cut and paste, than to provide sophisticated data representation facilities within the package itself.

The growth in the sophistication of the technology over the past two years, also suggested that some information might be presented in a temporal sequence. For example, if the growth in student catchment area could be mapped over the past ten years, the series of overlapping maps might be presented in a short animated movie in digital video. This temporal presentation of information can also be viewed one frame at a time, and examined for trends and pattern changes by faculty or for the institution as a whole.

Interfaces and information finding

The complex integration now possible with the variety of hardware and software combinations available to information systems users raises problems for the user in that multiple paths are possible to the same or different end points. Users are faced with the need to understand what access possibilities might be available from where they are in an information environment. When a user can branch down multiple paths and rapidly change the direction and focus of their information search, there is possible interference with information gathering through the inappropriate interpretation of the information structure by the user. Other concerns include disorientation with location, cognitive overload when following several trails or trying to remain oriented, flagging commitment and a poor presentation rhetoric or metaphor (Gluck, 1990; Heller, 1990).

The second phase of the instructional design process reviews the basic description and seeks to link the elements through an appropriate instructional or presentation strategy. It also seeks to identify metaphors which help both the design team and the final presentation of the information structure. The outcome of the second phase was a formal description which enabled the design team to understand the underlying knowledge structures and to develop ways to link them conceptually and intuitively.

Part of the solution to this phase of the design model was to provide a simple consistent structure and document access process, that has a strong intuitive element. This has been implemented within this package by using a standard point and click metaphor, an apparent hierarchal document structure, similar to the Macintosh finder file representation, and a set of standard navigation icons that are accessible from any level in the package.

Application of the third phase of the instructional design model resulted in an interactive mock up of the interactive materials illustrating not only static display of information but also the graphical and visual metaphors used to create understandable links. The icons shown below, on the main menu screen of the package, represent the information structure developed for the package, illustrating the visual metaphors.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Main Menu Screen of Information Conduit

In order to reduce the cognitive load on the user at the various levels of data display, a "Back" button was also incorporated to ensure the user always had the option of either stepping back to their most recent decision or choosing an entirely different inquiry from the main menu level.

In reducing the learning time and the complexity of an information system, the interface incorporated some in context help and a desire to support effective user operation through the incorporation of performance support systems. That is, each component of the interface software had to present information with metacognitive support for self management of the information retrieval process, knowledge construction and problem solving. A number of approaches have been discussed in the literature, such as using "guides" where a character is created and used by the designers to link ideas and visual travel through the hypermedia materials (Oren et al, 1990). Other suggested structures include: "wizards" to help the development of complex uses of the software systems by walking the user through a step by step series of decisions; or the structuring of navigation systems 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 (visually mapping position on a plan of the possible paths), and hybrid navigation (mixtures of both) (Hedberg & Harper, 1991).

The particular performance support elements of the interface software have been incorporated using the help button that employs the balloon help metaphor. This facility can be switched on and off through repeated clicking on the help button and can be active on all screens of the application. The package has also used, where possible, the standard elements available through the normal desktop, for example, the use of the folders/files in a directory list structure to show how the information is structured.

Rather than give the user a set of pre-designed inquiry sequences that assume some user need, a more interactive approach was devised to effectively provide the user with an information landscape and the tools necessary to explore and investigate the information contained within it. The change in locus of control from the information provider to the user raises the issues of cognition, motivation and navigation which must be addressed for an information system to have user support and autonomy. This is where the level of flexibility and adaptive nature of the navigation system is important.

Typically, navigation systems exemplify a number of representational forms (Hedberg & Harper, 1992), many of these have been employed within the Information Conduit Package. For example, the navigation cues included main icons with repetition of the icon throughout the package (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Main icons

At the lower levels these were reduced to basic iconic representations (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5: Subsidiary Level Icons

Moving through the content in terms of main idea to minor idea or visually expanding folders (directories) to reveal what is a smaller component of the larger was the underlying aspect of the hierarchical elements in the design. Most information has a subdivided or categorised structure. 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 hierarchical information access maintains the overall metaphor of the information landscape, and yet also allows the user to retrieve more detailed information in a variety of forms such as textual, video or audio format. This has been achieved in this interface package using the hierarchical maps and choices in the directory systems. For example, the buttons are the major structural support, but the folders in the right window below also work to demonstrate a simple hierarchical information structure.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Hierarchical presentation of information

Other devices such as geographical or spatial relationships were employed in the main menu to access a wide variety of information sources directly without the need for complex menus and lists of options. Each building in Figure 3 could be clicked upon and the underlying information relevant to that building accessed.

A series of data display screens which varied according to the type of information to be displayed were developed to enable the individual user to extend the information sources or to select elements from the existing sources and recombine them into new forms and, in turn make these available to others. The interface should be seen as consisting of two major components, the first being the information structures, and the second being the manipulation of the information once it has been accessed. Depending on password access priority, some segments of the information are not available to the user, access is determined by the information provider so that when a user attempts access to restricted data, access is gained through standard sign on dialogue displays.

In general, the approach adopted focussed on three major ways to manipulate data:

A distance learning study support system for adult learners

The push in Australia toward improving university teaching has been supported by government initiatives through such instruments as the National Teaching Development Project and is now being taken up at the University level as part of the quality debate. Some tertiary institutions have responded to the move by introducing a teaching qualification as part of the expected qualifications of new staff members and also offering Tertiary Teaching Diplomas as part of on the job training.

There is also a close link developing between the use of new instructional technologies and quality instruction with much of the initial funding from the Committee for Advancement of University Teaching supporting multimedia based instructional materials for students. Use of this technology also has the potential to significantly improve off campus instruction and on the job training and to this end a product called the Study Guide Builder was developed to test out some of the assumptions about using this technology in the distance learning mode.

The Study Guide Builder allows the user to simply construct, through menu items, a series of multimedia based instructional modules and then link together each module as a topic within a course. The author only needs to obtain a set of resources such as textual information, readings, video segments, sound segments, graphics and animations and with the aid of this package and menu choices, a sophisticated multimedia package can be quickly and easily constructed. The resulting materials can be produced without authoring in the traditional sense and yet the student has the capability to select their learning sequence, their learning resources and to employ visual, aural, graphical and integrated packages in achieving their required learning outcome. A sample screen from the users perspective is shown in Figure 7. From this point the student can select a video clip, a document, a graphic or a sound file. There is no constraint on the use of the system and so selecting and quoting from sources can be undertaken electronically if the student so wishes to construct their own views of the issue.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Study guide builder module


Instructional design models are starting to catch up with the demands of the new learning technologies and the changes in philosophy which underscore recent instructional packages. The advent of interactive multimedia technologies provides a challenge for the designers and the users in that they have now a wider variety of resources to access and in many forms of representation. If a point can be made by using a dynamic visual sequence rather than a textual description then it is more likely to be quickly grasped and employed in new contexts. The three projects have attempted to devise interfaces to complex structures which facilitate their use by keeping the design clear and apparently simple. Each project while trying for different instructional goals has sought to provide resources which could be extended or at least selected from to construct new meanings for the user. The preponderance of courseware adopting a simple purpose strategy and essentially linear models of ideas presentation is not only demotivating it can assume more time for its completion than effectively designed random access devices such as books. These products demonstrate how creative approaches do not need to be constrained by a view that the user is incapable of using the easily learned conventions and exploring the issues of relevance and interest at the time they wish.

The examples of practice described in this paper employ concepts such as metacognition to support the understanding and structure of the environments in which users find themselves. Use of the design model in the development of a number of interactive multimedia packages has produced a wide variety of different packages each with the utmost flexibility for the task and ease of access to large resources of information. It is hoped that this approach will encourage other designers to provide a structure in which the user feels not only comfortable but also is positively motivated to explore and develop new ways of conceptualising information.


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Authors: John Hedberg, Barry Harper and Christine Brown, Information Technology in Education and Training, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, Northfields Avenue, Wollongong, NSW 2522. Email: J.

Please cite as: Hedberg, J. G., Harper, B. and Brown, C. (1994). Interfaces to interactive multimedia learning environments. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 92-100. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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