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The new user of interactive multimedia: Can advance organisers help?

Don Cameron and Jane Barratt
School of Occupational Therapy
Curtin University of Technology

The problem

How do you help the new user of an interactive multimedia (IM) database grasp the structure, range and depth of contents, and in addition access information within a reasonable time frame and with minimum trauma?

This was one of the issues faced when a decision was made to develop an IM database, "Recreation Perth", a resource of information on recreational activities and facilities. This database allows therapists and their clients ready access to descriptive information which can assist with selection of appropriate activities to match individuals' needs. As information for entry into this database was accumulated, it was realised that much of the material could also be of interest to the general public and applied to localities other than Perth. With this potential diversity of users, it was decided to format the material in a way which could be accessed as simply as possible by a wide range of users. Later versions could be adapted to meet specific groups' needs if demand justified.

It was decided to use Apple Mac LCs with HyperCard and Authorware Professional as the multimedia platform. This combination satisfied the design criteria and was readily available and familiar to the designer. Video, sound and animation sequences are being integrated using QuickTime, an extension to Apple Macintosh system software, which allows the IM package to be completely housed within the computer.

Material for a pilot version has been filed under the headings: Indoor, Outdoor, Air, and Water for 73 activities. Information on additional activities have been collated and is awaiting entry into the database. The flow chart below shows the structure with textual information arranged under 6 main screens: Description, Location, Task Analysis, Skills, Special Needs and Variations.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Flow chart showing information path for an indoor activity

Additional information such as Safety, Equipment, References can be accessed and superimposed on the appropriate screen as can video, sound recordings and visuals where appropriate and available. A typical Task Analysis screen display is illustrated below showing a superimposed "Visual" window.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Activity analysis screen for tennis

Research was recently conducted to determine how practising therapists view the appropriateness of this format. Questionnaires were sent to local therapists to seek their assistance and results of this survey are currently being assessed. Meanwhile development is progressing to improve the user interface features of Recreation Perth.

One frequently reported problem with IM databases is user disorientation. The new user is frequently unaware of the quantity or scope of material available and can get lost in the maze of information. A number of developers have started to address this issue, but there has been little experimental research conducted to date (Chen, 1989; Cohen, 1984; Gaines and Vickers, 1988).

The interactive nature of this relatively new electronic media allows the user to move independently and non-sequentially through the available material. Although this freedom may be educationally sound, it has been found that some learners are unable to cope and become disoriented. Several reasons appear be at the root of this problem:

Designing IM for an homogeneous group who are generally computer literate, for instance first year engineering students, addressing these issues can be a significant challenge. For this particular IM database, the issues are compounded by the variety of potential users. Clients of therapists alone can include a diverse range of people with special needs including those suffering from physical and/or developmental problems which may limit their learning potential. How then are the needs of this diversity of users to be catered for while allowing the experienced person freedom to maximise the flexibility of IM without putting restraints in their way?

As a starting point, it was decided to focus the initial design on occupational therapy students who are anticipated to be the first to use the database. It has been noted that these students have a low participation rate in computer studies at school and currently have limited exposure to computers and computer applications in their undergraduate course. Therefore, with this limited computer experience it was felt that the first priority, after addressing the basic design, should be to investigate ways in which the package could be initially presented to the users in a way which would allow them to quickly assess its structure and how to find their way about it. This has necessitated scrutiny of learning theory and investigation of promising applications in order to minimise the above.

Focus on the learner

Learning theory has undergone a significant change in focus in recent years. Behaviourism had for a long time dominated learning theory with its concepts and principles being recognised as based on empirically established behaviour-environment relationships. The behavioural principles of contiguity, the law of effect, and practice, for instance, are of continuing value for an understanding of human learning. The behaviourists' aim has been to refine teaching methods to produce a universally acceptable behavioural outcome. For instance in the area of educational technology, behaviourists have examined each new teaching/learning technology for its possible potential in the transmission of information. This has frequently overlooked the learner as an active participant viewing him/her as a passive recipient of instruction.

To supplement behavioural learning theory, a different set of assumptions about how learners process information has now been put forward. These are based on principles of cognitive psychology which includes: attending to stimuli, accessing existing knowledge as a reference, realigning the structure of that knowledge in order to accommodate that new information, and finally encoding the restructured knowledge base into memory, which becomes accessible in order to explain and interpret new information. The meaning that is generated for material viewed is unique to each individual and cannot be controlled by the author. Rather, it is constructed by the learner using his/her existing knowledge (Jonassen, 1988).

To incorporate information into long term memory, it is necessary to provide a learning environment that stresses mastery, organisation, and encoding strategies. Elaborative encoding enhances the organisation and meaningfulness of materials being learned. Jonassen(1988) notes the shortcoming of most existing computer courseware, where the emphasis is on associations in short term memory, and advises that designers must make more use of deeper, semantic processing which requires the learner to access prior knowledge in order to interpret new material. Instructional developers of IM need to employ strategies which call on the user to employ this deeper processing when undertaking new learning experiences, and also consider the limitations of short term memory.

Hooper and Hannafin (1991) suggest that perhaps the underlying problem with the behaviourist perspective on the use of audio visual materials is that it attempts to optimise the capabilities of the technology rather than the learner. The full potential of the technology (and the learner) can only be realised when the cognitive requirements of the instruction have been identified and associated strategies prescribed accordingly. Instructional activities can then be developed to maximise the features of the medium that support most substantially the identified processing requirements. Hooper and Hannafin note that the design of emerging technologies remains comparatively insulated from research and development that might optimise the capabilities of learners through technology sensitive instructional manipulations. Therefore, with IM development, there is a need for the designer (or design team) not only to be knowledgeable in the capabilities of the technology itself, but also to extrapolate the implications of research from educational and cognitive psychology and apply it to fully utilise the capabilities of IM. Previous research findings related to the component technologies are obviously relevant to the designer, but there are also unique areas where IM differs somewhat from these. Developers need to address these to maximise the benefits to the cognitive processing of the learner. The diverse range of media available allows the designer to select stimuli to match the needs of the individual learner. Knowledge of the range of cognitive strategies utilised by individuals will assist in increasing the number of links between the information presented and existing knowledge in order to enhance understanding and retention.

One way of assisting new learners of IM is to provide advance organisers as a linkage between existing knowledge and the material to be learned.

Advance organisers

Ausubel (1968) advocates that advanced organisers be designed to serve as an organising or anchoring focus for the material to be learned, and to relate it to the existing cognitive structure of the learner. These "cognitive maps" are used to show the learner the structure and breadth of coverage of new materials, and are placed before the material to be learned. Although advance organisers have been discussed in educational circles since the turn of the century, it has only been since the early 1960's that extensive research has been carried out to test their effectiveness. Using meta-analysis and other techniques across a range of teaching areas, this research has demonstrated that they can play a small, though significant role, in assisting the learner move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Much of this research has focused on the use of written organisers, although several writers, Barnes and Clawson (1975) and Luiten, Ames and Ackerson (1980), indicate that there is some encouragement from the comparatively few uses of nonverbal organisers. IM, with its range of differing media formats, has the means of incorporating more diverse ways of assisting the user prior to entering new learning territory. Advance organisers with IM databases, could include information on how records are organised, what is searchable and how to access the contents. More research is justified in assessing the potential of advance organisers in an IM environment. In the few instances of reports on their use with IM, there is evidence that the availability affects both the amount and type of learning. Some authors claim mixed results especially in the presence of more powerful and pervasive lesson features such as practice (Ho, Savenye and Haas, 1986; Hannifin and Hughes, 1986).

Some controversy exists in relation to the effectiveness of advance organisers with students of different learning abilities. Luiten, Ames and Ackerson (1980) in an analysis of 135 studies, found that advance organisers were almost twice as effective with high ability students in comparison to that of low ability participants. Based on this finding, the authors claimed that the impression of many researchers that advance organisers should be most effective with individuals of low ability could not be considered valid.

DeVesta (1987) states that advance organisers are considered to be advantageous provided that the material is meaningful to the learner. This entails that the learner: has the background necessary to understand the material as it is presented, is motivated to learn the material in a meaningful way, attends to critical points in the material, actively uses the structure provided as a context. Hooper and Hannafin (1991:77-78) raise the issue of how much orienting information can be presented at a given time before cognitive capacity is overtaxed. In particular, they stress that developers should be aware of the limitations of short term and long term memory.

One way of coping with such limitations may be to structure the advance organiser using the cognitive strategies of analogy and imagery to assist the learner move from familiar to new materials.


In recent years, research attention has been given to the cognitive facets of how the learner's processing can be guided or directed by using elaborative encoding techniques. The use of analogies is one such process and appears to be a common way people apply knowledge from a familiar subject matter domain to one which is relatively new (Rumelhart and Norman, 1981; De Vesta, 1987). For example: cricket may be understood by Americans if it is compared to baseball, electrical resistance can be explained by using the analogy of water flowing through a pipe, and the division of a pie or cake is a common analogy by which the concept of fractions is introduced to students, where it is cut into 1/2, 1/4, etc. These orienting strategies activate individual schemata, thus providing a familiar framework within which to encode new knowledge meaningfully.

Rumelhart and Norman (1981:143) believe that analogical reasoning is the most common way learners apply knowledge in one learning domain to another. In this context, creating new schemata involves "systematic modifications of old ones". The above authors suggest that the appropriate way to teach a new domain is to provide the student with a conceptual model that has the following properties:

  1. It should be based on a domain with which the student is very knowledgeable and in which the student can reason readily.

  2. The target domain( new learning) and the source domain (schematic knowledge) should differ by a minimum number of specifiable dimensions.

  3. Operations that are natural within the target domain should also be natural within the source domain.

  4. Operations inappropriate within the target domain should also be inappropriate within the source domain. (p.358)
To assist with the transfer from familiar to unfamiliar, the designer can call upon the learner's ability to visualise through mental imagery.


The use of mental images to assist memory and improve understanding was a major research topic early in the twentieth century, but because of the dominant role of behavioural theorists, research in this area fell into disfavour until fairly recently (Langham-Johnson, 1984; Biehler and Snowman, 1982). Consequently, there has been little empirical research documented to date. This has made it difficult to generalise, but there are enough positive indicators of its value to educators to justify exploring its potential to IM.

The use of imagery has been promoted in many areas of psychology, including healing/relaxation and extending creative/physical potential. Although the cognitive process of imagery is perhaps most prevalent in its visual form, it can also exist in other forms such as auditory, tactile and articulatory.

Several studies in which students have been instructed to employ imagery have demonstrated that this can be an effective means of cognitive processing in aiding recall (Wood, 1967; Bower, 1972; Kulhavy and Swenson, 1975). However, these studies have been largely restricted to assessing the effectiveness of word-picture associations where subjects have been asked to form mental pictures of given words.

Verbal descriptions can be somewhat restricting in enabling the learner to encode new materials. A clear example of this limitation is found in cases where visual and verbal information are compared. For instance, an architect can translate his/her ideas regarding a house design to prospective buyers much more effectively by using an illustration than attempting to communicate verbally.

Results of recent research have found some promising findings in a number of areas where imagery is being used as a learning tool. For instance, Scruggs (1986) has found that gifted learners can actively use their 'imagery' capacity to enhance their 'textbook' learning. Sinatra (1984) discovered that there are unique individuals, not particularly gifted in the written literacy mode, who nevertheless excel in nonverbal, visuospatial, thought modes. In reference to another study, the same researcher noted that youngsters with learning disabilities have been found to be equal or superior to normal functioning youngsters at visuospatial tasks, but decidedly inferior in tasks requiring linear sequencing.

The designer using imagery must be aware of the individual differences in learners' abilities to manipulate mental images. Langham-Johnson (1984) and Herrman (1989), found that some individuals can modify mental images at will, whereas others apparently cannot.

The use of too much visual detail can lead to too much demand being put on the learner's working memory capacity. If a visual analogy requires the learner to divert too much of his/her cognitive resources to understanding the analogy, as pointed out above, then the chances of the new material being absorbed is reduced. Animation can be used to activate visual information gradually to accommodate the limitations of working memory. It could be that in some instances verbal analogies are superior to visual analogies, as they can be more readily displayed in abbreviated formats such as chunking and flow charts (Gagne and Glaser, 1987; Shapiro, 1985).

The generally positive indicators from the somewhat limited research encourages further investigation into the use of imagery, for instance as advance organisers designed to allow the learner to employ imagery of familiar materials to associate with new materials. In the case of an IM database, the new user could be presented with images of familiar concrete materials and be guided, regarding their relationship with unfamiliar materials.

Research agenda

The major problem for first time users of any complex computer system is lack of guidance, especially if they are entering new knowledge domains. Large homogeneous databases that are intended for browsing are a special problem for novices (Gygi, 1990: 284 ). Kearsley (1988) identifies the first challenge to designers of IM as the structuring of knowledge in such a way that an overview can be presented in the root document which will help to establish a mental image of topics covered to facilitate traversal and reduce disorientation.

As noted above, concern continues with the value of advance organisers. Seal-Wanner (1988) believes that students gain knowledge through trial and error experimentation that eventually leads to understanding of the system. Phillips and Hannafin (1988) agree, and claim that recent research has suggested that the effects of orienting activities and elaborations are often subsumed by more powerful instructional variables such as en-route practice. Phillips and Hannafin add that advance organisers may provide processing support where little or no inherent lesson organisation exists, but may be of little value in well organised lessons.

In Recreation Perth, an attempt will be made to establish the effectiveness of advance organiser strategies which endeavour to convey a sense of what the application does; provide guidance on menu choices; and demonstrate the function of possible linkages. Two types of organisers are being assessed: a flow chart and an animated analogy sequence.

Considerable thought was given to a suitable animated analogy sequence. A group of 42 occupational therapy students was recently exposed to HyperCard for the first time through both exploratory exercises and two assessment exercises before being asked to browse through the pilot version of Recreation Perth. They were then asked to consider the problems (if any) that they had with accessing and assessing the structure of the database, and to suggest appropriate analogy sequences which they felt would have been of assistance if provided as advance organisers. A wide variety of sequences were suggested, with little duplication of ideas. One of the more promising ones is displayed below in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Part of animated analogy sequence

A total population of 120 undergraduate students has been identified for the initial research. 50% will be from the School of Occupational Therapy which has a high tertiary entrance examination pass mark. The other half of the population will be Diploma of Teaching Studies students where the entrance requirements are comparatively lower. Three equal sized groups will be selected from each category. The first will form the control group, and will be briefed by demonstration on: the operation of the computer, mouse control, opening of the database at the main menu screen, and identification and operation of buttons. The remaining two groups will also be given the above briefing, but will also be given access to an additional advance organiser segment. Group Two will be directed to the flow chart map illustrated in figure 1, showing the structure of Recreation Perth, whereas the third group will be directed to an animated overview using an analogy to link with existing knowledge. All groups will be advised to explore the database, using the overview if available, and to stop after a set time.

On completion of the experiment, each subject will be given a questionnaire. This will assess the user's knowledge of the operation, of the database, categories of information which it contains, and attitudes to using this form of communication. Additionally, a record will be kept of the user's "path" of navigation within the database

It is hoped that an analysis of the results will be not only beneficial to the current project, but that it may assist future development of IM.


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Authors: Don Cameron and Jane Barratt are Lecturers in the School of Occupational Therapy, Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

Please cite as: Cameron, D. and Barratt, J. (1992). The new user of interactive multimedia: Can advance organisers help? In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 193-206. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/cameron.html

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