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:
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: 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.
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)
The problem solving nature of Investigating Lake Iluka lends itself to metacognitive support through a number of means:
The role of the teacher is vital to the editing process at this stage. Students need to be encouraged to be critical in appraising the relevance and credibility of material. They also need to be guided through the development of a report on the problem posed.
The role of the teacher is to ensure students record data collected in a systematic and scientific way.
The role of the teacher is to help students evaluate issues of hidden agenda, conflict among experts, alternate sources of information and timing of information release.
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.
The initial planning guidelines for such an interface included:
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.
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: 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: Main icons
At the lower levels these were reduced to basic iconic representations (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: 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:
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: Study guide builder module
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. Hedberg@uow.edu.au
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. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech94/ak/hedberg.html