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Multimedia CD-ROM: A new dimension in distance education

John A. Harris, Leonard L Webster and Clive Murden
Monash University College Gippsland
Interactive multimedia study and resource materials have the potential to revolutionise distance education, particularly in science and technology, by providing the learner with the quality of educational experience previously restricted to the on campus tutorial or laboratory session.

Multimedia teaching/learning materials offer the distance education student increased control over the learning process, simulation of laboratory experiences, access to the visual information so vital to scientific studies and more effective tutorial support.

The Monash Gippsland Distance Education Centre is undertaking a major project to research, develop and evaluate the use of multimedia CD-ROM in distance education. Resource and study materials of various types are being developed on CD-ROM and trialled with distance education students.

This paper describes the development and trial of the first materials produced within this project.

1. Rationale for the project

There are now over 40,000 Australian students undertaking degree studies by distance education through the eight National Distance Education Centres (DECs). For these students, the constraints of distance, job or family commitments make distance education their preferred, or even their only feasible mode of study.

Undertaking degree studies by distance education involves the student in studying at home using a variety of materials. Textbooks, together with study guides and readers prepared by academic staff are the major learning resource in most courses and these are predominantly distributed to students in printed form. Audio tapes and, to a much lesser extent video tapes and computer disks, are used to supplement the printed material. In recent years, and almost solely in computing courses, downloading of some study material to a student's PC via a modem has been introduced, together with two way electronic transfer of assignment work.

Courses which involve a high level of conceptual, visual and practical content, such as science/technology courses and visual arts courses pose particular problems in distance education mode. Although the use of home experimental kits and videotaped experiments (eg. Shott, 1985; Higgins and Kirstine, 1991; Patti, Mayes and Lyall, 1991) has been effective in enabling some of this content to be covered at home, there is still a very substantial requirement for on campus attendance in these courses. Meeting this requirement is both difficult and very costly for students living long distances from the University.

The challenges to minimise the on campus face to face time, to increase the effective use of this time and to increase the level of interactivity and visual quality of study materials therefore remain important ones. Furthermore, interest in addressing the same challenges in relation to on campus courses and students is steadily growing (Baldwin, 1991). CD-ROM, as a currently available proven technology, has significant potential to help us meet these challenges. CD-I and other technologies may increase this potential when readily available.

2. Why CD-ROM?

In considering the adoption of any new educational technology it is essential to remain objective and realistic. Many of the technologies which were predicted to revolutionise teaching/learning have failed, for a variety of reasons, as Gayeski (1989) has pointed out.

The questions formulated by Bates (1984) in relation to the use of videodisc provide a good framework for assessing the appropriateness of CD-ROM for distance education.

  1. Objectives - what do we wish to teach; how and to whom?

  2. Accessibility - to teacher (including ease of design, development and distribution) and to student (ease of access - in home or elsewhere?)

  3. Teaching function - the particular role of the medium and why is it the best?

  4. Ease of production - time demand on teacher; necessity for team involvement; level of professional expertise required?

  5. Costs - of design and development, of distribution, of presentation?

  6. Learner control - ease of use; level of interactivity?
In the current project, CD-ROM is being trialled and evaluated for the teaching of any discipline offered by distance education, but with emphasis on science/technology.

The content material to be emphasised in the project is:

  1. that where full colour image (single frame or with simulated motion) is central to effective learning. Examples include laboratory demonstrations to introduce or reinforce theory, real world applications of theory, simulation of experimental activity and provision of a visual database which is rapidly and easily accessible.

  2. that where interaction and self directed non-linear learning are particularly important, requiring the capability of browsing through text, numerical and visual materials on a range of alternative pathways; for example the necessity to provide access from many points throughout study material to revision and reinforcement of key concepts and definitions. Hyperlinks (text-text, text-picture and picture-picture) provide the most effective method for enabling this non-linear learning.
Hall et al (1989) have investigated the use of videodisc controlled through Apple HyperCard for the presentation of similar content material. The greater accessibility and lower cost of CD-ROM systems (Murden, Webster and Harris, 1992) makes these a preferred option to videodisc for use in distance education.

3. Development of the initial CD-ROM trial disc ("Disc One")

3.1 Content

Although the project had been proposed to have particular emphasis on science/technology courses it was not seen as exclusive to these. Expressions of interest were therefore sought from all Schools conducting courses by distance education. Topics from the discipline areas of Art History, School Librarianship and Chemistry were chosen for inclusion on the first trial CD-ROM.

These topics were chosen predominantly because of the level of commitment of the academic staff concerned, a criterion seen by the project team as essential, both within the project itself and for any future development in the use of the medium. However, the breadth of coverage of content, teaching/learning processes and student background offered by these three discipline areas was also seen to be most appropriate for the initial trial CD-ROM. Development work undertaken on each topic will be outlined below, although the Art History topic has been deferred to Disc Two due to the inability to satisfactorily finalise copyright release arrangements for reproduction of art works in time for pressing Disc One.

3.2 Structure and design

Instructional design effort has been focused on:
  1. logical structuring of content material and concepts

  2. screen layout designed to aid readability

  3. encouraging students to move from a linear to a non-linear learning approach through the use of hyperlinks

  4. developing a user interface which combines comprehensiveness of tools with user friendliness
The disc is structured with a main menu listing the individual content topics and the 'Help' program. All programs are mouse driven, with an icon bar, containing thirteen icons, present on all screens. Text and image (quarter screen) are displayed simultaneously and images can be scaled up to full screen by the user. Hypertext links, both text-text and text-image, are used extensively. The 'Help' program can be called from any screen.

3.3 Chemistry Topic - Electrochemistry

This topic constitutes about 10% of a first level chemistry unit in the Bachelor of Applied Science Degree. Study materials presently consist of a printed study guide and problem set. While not being a particularly difficult topic, it does combine both conceptual and mathematical material. It was felt that the incorporation of colour image, graphics (including some motion) and hyperlinks would increase both the effectiveness and the impact of the study materials.

The primary objective in this part of the trial was to evaluate the feasibility of CD-ROM as a direct replacement for the printed study guide. Therefore the approach taken was to base the CD-ROM material closely on the printed study guide (to enable more valid comparison in the evaluation), to incorporate hyper-linked images and graphics wherever appropriate to assist and enrich the learning process, and to provide text hyperlinks to enable the material to be utilised more effectively in a "self tutorial" mode.

Because distance education students have a range of levels of background knowledge, and often have unexpected 'gaps' in this background, hyperlinks to definitions/explanations of basic concepts have been used extensively.

Worked problem examples from the study guide have been transferred to the electronic medium but the accompanying problem set has still been used in print form and submitted for assessment and feedback. A limited number of standard CBI, multiple choice questions have been incorporated to test student reaction to the combination of this approach with the hypermedia presentation.

3.4 School Librarianship Topic - CD-ROM in Education

This topic involves information, which librarianship students must study, on the use of CD-ROM in schools, with particular emphasis on library use. It includes resource material in the form of seven resource articles, which present various approaches to the introduction and use of CD-ROM. There is also an introduction and overview written by the unit lecturer.

This topic provides a limited example of the potential of CD-ROM to present a database of resource material, and particularly to enable hyper-linking within the body of the material as well as via indexes. The project team is keen to further develop this type of application.

3.5 Art Theory Topic - Pop Art Multimedia Database

This topic covers the work of British, European and US artists of the Pop Art school. The presentation is very heavily image based, with a database of approximately 150 images of art works proposed to be incorporated.

The database contains sections for over 50 artists, as well as an extensive overview and introduction to the Pop Art era. The volume of text included enables the extensive use of hyperlinks, thus enabling the student to cross reference various aspects between artists. It is hoped that this will in turn enable the student to develop new perspectives and insights on this area of art.

Despite a very successful instructional design phase and the achievement of satisfactory digital image quality, the pre-mastering of this topic had to be deferred due to the inability of the team to finalise in time the copyright release arrangements for the art works included. This is an area of considerable complexity and difficulty. The extent of reproduction of art works in electronic form worldwide is still limited and experience in Australia with this process and the handling of copyright release appears to be almost nil. However, support for the idea has already been received from major galleries and discussions are currently under way with the copyright societies regarding works of interest in the project.

Work on development of this topic will be continued with a view to its inclusion on the second trial CD-ROM.

3.6 Development system used

Development of the material for the first trial CD-ROM has been carried out using the IBM LinkWay hypermedia software on a hardware system based on a 80386 PC clone (Murden, Webster and Harris, 1992). CD-Formatter software (Crowninshield Inc, Massachusetts, USA) enables formatting in the ISO 9660 standard format required for CD-ROM and also enables the hard drive of the PC to simulate the CD-ROM drive.

4. Evaluation of the initial trial material

4.1 Trial arrangements

At the time of writing, the Electrochemistry topic has been trialled by a sample group of distance education students, currently enrolled in the unit containing this topic.

The sample group consisted of seven volunteers from a distance education group of thirty one, all of whom were offered the opportunity to participate. These students agreed to use the trial material in place of the normal printed study guide. They then completed an examination on the topic to test the effectiveness of their learning of the material. Six of the seven participants also completed an evaluation questionnaire on both content and presentation of the material. This questionnaire was processed by the College's Educational Development and Research Unit to maintain confidentiality.

Each student in the sample group was provided with a PC (80286 - 16 MHz, 1 MB RAM, 40 MB hard disk, VGA screen) to take home. This enabled the learning material to be trialled in the normal distance education environment. Each PC had been fitted with an external CD-ROM drive, but a last minute problem occurred with the pre-mastering of the CD-ROM. This necessitated the learning material being trialled as a simulated CD-ROM from the hard disk, to avoid delaying the students' study programs. The students had all had more than ten hours experience on a PC, but only two had extensive experience (greater than 100 hours).

4.2 Responses to the evaluation questionnaire

4.2.1 Learning from the computer

Students were asked to rank the overall experience of learning from the computer on scales from 1 (negative) to 5 (positive) in the areas of attractiveness, stimulation, satisfaction and ease of operation. Responses were positive on all scales, with no responses at the lower end of the scale (1 or 2). Some reservations were expressed about the ongoing value of the method "after the novelty wore off'. As one student put it, "It would require a totally new approach to work to change from working surrounded by a variety of resources to looking at a single screen."

Most students ranked learning from the computer as better than learning from print materials, with supporting comments relating to the use of graphics and pictures to aid learning, and to the advantage when searching for a key point or word. One student found difficulty concentrating on reading from the screen and another saw little difference in the use of screen and print materials.

The comparison of print materials and computer based study material is an important one. The distribution of text based material on CD-ROM has the potential to drastically reduce printing and distribution costs for the Distance Education Centre, but the convenience and effectiveness of the use of this material by students must be carefully assessed and taken into account. Further investigation of this aspect of the project is planned.

Asked about their preference for mouse or keyboard as an input device, only half the respondents indicated preference for the mouse, somewhat surprisingly. Ibis may be related to a desire expressed by some participants to increase their computer skills as part of the process of learning with the computer.

Students were asked to indicate whether they preferred to work through the material in a few long sessions or many short sessions. Most used a combination of both and comments indicated a wide range of reasons for this.

4.2.2 Multimedia presentation

Responses to the value of full colour images, animated graphics and hyperlinks as aids to learning were all strongly positive. The combination of quarter screen pictures with text and the amount of text presented on each screen were seen as appropriate by all but one student, who argued for more text on screen. The text size and font (CGA, Helvetica 8) were seen as inappropriate by half the respondents; this limitation of LinkWay clearly needs to be addressed.

The ability to expand the quarter screen images to full screen size was only seen as helpful by half of the group. This response was somewhat surprising, as the full screen image enabled more detail to be discerned. One participant reported having difficulty in returning from the expanded image to the "working screen", which may account for a negative view of this facility. This aspect needs to be further investigated.

Students found it easy to move to any desired section of the material for the purpose of reviewing it, but half of them had some difficulty with the meanings or the use of the icons. Supplementary documentation or an in built tutorial on the use of the icon bar may be appropriate.

The majority of the respondents indicated that they would like to have more study/resource material in CD-ROM format; two remained neutral. All indicated that if study materials were generally available in this format they would purchase a PC and CD-ROM drive.

4.2.3 Summary of the evaluation

Students responded positively but not uncritically to the presentation of study materials on a CD-ROM. The potential in relation to full colour image, graphics and hyperlinks was particularly noted. The ratings relating to presentation indicate both the positive response and the ambivalence on some issues.

There was concern by some about the "novelty value" of the method, about reading text, and about the limitations of being confined to a single screen, although the rigidity was also seen as a potentially advantageous factor in enhancing learning and in the ability to locate information.

Despite the reservations, both scaled and open ended responses indicated a willingness by the students to further explore the potential of the method.

5. Conclusion

CD-ROM does have the potential to bring an enhanced dimension to distance education study materials through the use of multimedia and hypermedia. Accessibility to the software and hardware required is growing rapidly and the costs of development and production are falling. Hopefully this will encourage wider involvement in developing and optimising the use of the methodology and the technology, not only in distance education but increasingly for on campus "open learning" as well.

6. References

Baldwin, P. (1991). Higher Education: Quality and Diversity in the 1990s. Policy Statement by the Minister for Higher Education and Employment Services. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, October.

Bates, T. (1984). Selecting Media and possible roles for interactive video in the Open University in Fuller, R. G. (ed), Using interactive videodiscs in open education courses. Institute of Educational Technology, Open University, Milton Keynes.

Gayeski, D. M. (1989). Why information technologies fail. Educational Technology, February, 9-17.

Hall, W., Thorogood, P., Hutchings, G. and Carr, L (1989). Using HyperCard and interactive video in education: An application in cell biology. Educational and Training Technology International, 26(3), 207-214.

Higgins, P. and Kirstine, W. (1991). Provision of experimental work in science to distance education students. Paper delivered at ASPESA Biennial Forum, Bathurst NSW, July 15-16.

Murden, C., Webster, L. L. and Harris, J. A. (1992). Developing multimedia distance education courseware: Choosing software and hardware. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 369-381. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/murden.html

Patti, A, Mayes, R. E. and Lyall, R. (1991). First year university chemistry by distance learning. Paper presented at Eleventh International Conference on Chemical Education, York, August.

Shott, M. (1985) Teaching physics at a distance. Distance Education, 6(1), 102-127.

Authors: John A. Harris is Head of Distance Education Development, and Leonard L Webster and Clive Murden are Research Associates in the School of Applied Science, at Monash University College Gippsland.

Please cite as: Harris, J. A., Webster, L. L. and Murden, C. (1992). Multimedia CD-ROM: A new dimension in distance education. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 81-88. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/harris.html

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