IIMS 92 contents
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Creating interface metaphors for interactive multimedia

John G Hedberg and Barry Harper
University of Wollongong
Interactive multimedia creates a cognitive load problem for users who cannot understand the organisation of complex information stored in a variety of representations. This paper describes the development, production and evaluation of a particular interactive multimedia laser disc called Eco-Sim, which has been based around an ecology simulation and employs a number of different interface metaphors in presenting the material to the user. Key issues that need to be addressed in the development of interface metaphors for this type of learning material will be discussed and the evaluative research used in the development will highlight the major issues of the development process.


Over the past five years, there has been a major growth in the application and use of interactive multimedia resources for learning. These major developments have occurred through changes in information technology software and hardware which allow the integration of multiple sources of information to be linked and presented together. Ambron & Hooper (1988, 1990) have put together a collection of articles that not only trace these major developments but also suggest areas for key research. This development has occurred coincidentally with the proliferation of sophisticated software authoring tools, which have given educators greater individual access to the production and design of learning packages. This rapid technological development has often outstripped the design models employed in the development of multimedia materials. It 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).

Faced with a multitude of possible choices and paths through complex materials, a learner can easily become confused and a powerful vehicle for learning can become a time consuming problem. Navigation strategies can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of learning, but a number of different systems can be employed. There are a number of problems with the existing research including:

  1. the need to investigate the cognitive demands of different navigation systems in interactive multimedia learning materials
  2. the extent to which current interactive multimedia design models address the issue, and
  3. the importance of navigation in achieving improved learning outcomes. (Hedberg & Harper, 1991).
As a starting points it may seem self evident to claim that the important issue we consider is the need to establish a context. When employing multisensory stimulus material it is possible to increase the level of reality generated but at the same time it is important to make links to what the learner already knows or conceptually can readily understand. In this light the use of metaphors which are graphic and holistic are very important. This is not to disregard the use of language links but to realise that more quickly recognised visual links might save time and limit misinterpretation.

Once the context has been established, the design of effective, and intuitive navigation systems employing interface metaphors must be attempted. The importance on conceptual clarity in the quest for knowledge by navigation cannot be overstated. The options are multitudinous: graphics based, test based, positional, relational, the list is as long as inventiveness of the designer. The major constraint is the universality of the metaphor choice or convention and the elimination of barriers or inconsistencies in the design.

Navigation systems and learning

The complex integration now possible with this variety of hardware and software combinations raises problems for the user in that multiple paths are possible to the same or different end points. Learners are faced with the problem of understanding what learning possibilities might be available from where they are in a multimedia learning environment. When a student can branch down multiple paths and rapidly change the direction and focus of the learning sequence, there is possible interference with effective learning through the inappropriate application of information by the learner to their internal schemas. Navigation systems can facilitate the understanding of a students learning sequence and reduce the problems of poor learning schema development. A number of approaches have been discussed in the literature, such as the Guide metaphor where a character is created and used by the author to link ideas and visual travel through the hypermedia materials (Oren et al, 1990). Other suggested structures include those which are based on ideas 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 (using a plan of the possible paths), and hybrid navigation (mixtures of both) (Hedberg & Harper, 1991).

Recent research into the area of Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1988) has demonstrated that materials can be designed to focus on the appropriate development of schema and hence improve learning efficiency. Such an approach provides an alternative theoretical basis for considering the problem of navigation and this approach will be combined with current concepts of interface design to implement the interactive multimedia simulation package

Instructional design theory and hypertext environments

An understanding of the theoretical issues raised by navigation systems can support the growing development of intelligent interactive teaching environments. Interactive multimedia environments can create high levels of cognitive complexity and many researchers have raised the possibility of employing expert systems to facilitate learning in these environments. The major projects being developed throughout Europe, such as MATIC (Commission of the European Communities, 1990) - a Europe wide project to develop computer based environments for producing intelligent interactive teaching systems and DELTA which has a broader focus on the use of information technology in education and training - are focusing on not only developing effective computer based learning environments, but also on adapting the product to the learning styles and characteristics of the users. Sub-projects of the DELTA project, such as TOSKA, illustrate this trend with an objective of producing a "Universal Teaching Engine" which is able to support the authoring process under varying constraints established through different content domains, learner requirements, and even technical versatility in terms of the level of sophistication of the equipment used.

This trend in intelligent instructional design for interactive multimedia products is exemplified through the ID Library Project (Gustafson & Reeves, 1990) and probably more interestingly through the work on second generation instructional design models (Li & Merrill, 1991). In the ID Library Project, a systematic approach to problem solving formed the structures through which the user ""walked". The conceptual arrangement was based on a commonly accepted model of the development process and the user was allowed to make forays into specific areas from the central instructional systems design model. If all of these types of developments are to prove effective, they must be based on the results of basic research in all aspects of the instructional process. In Merrill and his associates' work, the instructional design process has been re-conceptualised and the resulting computer based design assistant (ID Expert) uses a mix of cognitive science, learning theory and earlier instructional design theories to build well designed materials through the identification of elements, processes and how they relate. In Merrill's terms, content structure consists of entities, activities and processes, which form the basis of design. After these have been instantiated the course is organised through algorithms which create an organisation by relating the content elements and the goals of instruction. The final phase is to examine the transactional strategy which is appropriate to the students and the content.

In the current study, we have evolved a Design Metaphor approach which uses some of the elements espoused by Merrill. However, there are a few important differences, the identification of knowledge structures is less rigid allowing freer conceptual models of the subject matter as opposed to the hierarchical structure of component design. The resulting plans generate a two level structure one focussed upon the content elements and a holistic plan for their relationship, and the other a series of tools which can be applied as required through the exploration of the content. This translates conceptually to a stack structure in a hypertext environment. The resulting hypertext system enables the learner to investigate the content, while using content/context specific tools to collect ideas, data, and investigate processes. Conceptually this can be imagined as a set of content elements and a set of tools which enable each element to be manipulated and any underlying data or information to be collected into new combinations unique to the learner. The third phase in the design metaphor approach is to examine the proposed interactions from the users perspective.

Design model examples

A number of multimedia design models have been developed which illustrate the combination of complex learning environments and which also increase the demands for effective navigation. "Life Story", a design model produced by the Apple Multimedia Laboratory, is based on a BBC television drama about the discovery of DNA by Jim Watson and Francis Crick. An annotated movie storyline is the major feature of the information landscape of this package. The navigation system employed in this design model involves basing the unfolding of events associated with the two competing teams of researchers around a time line metaphor in the shape of the two arms of the DNA helix. The user can follow the time line of discovery, query any aspect of the story through background information, interview the original researchers, be lead through the video by a narration or review the explanatory sections of the video. Sub-components of the navigation system all allow direct access back to the time line metaphor. Each key scene and related subject in the movie is documented through the HyperCard information landscape using what is called a pamphlet. All pamphlets in the system have the same structure, which includes summaries, questions, links, see also and exhibits. One of the main advantages of the annotated movie structure is that the narrative provides a common thread that ties together all subjects in the information landscape.

Some commercial packages have been developed which are based on an ecological theme, relating directly to the content of this project. The design example, Paul Parkranger, produced by Apple's Multimedia Lab, Lucasfilm Ltd., and the USA National Audubon Society, combines HyperCard graphics and text with video material taken from a PBS program on the endangered wetlands. The package makes excellent use of the interactive nature of the media. An interactive "room" in the cabin of a naturalist detective character, Paul Parkranger, is used to create a two dimensional browsing space. By accessing files in a filing cabinet or items on Paul's desk, the user can locate different pieces and types of information, collect data for analysis, interview local inhabitants, view video of the local environment on a time line and access expert advice. Using this data the student is able to suggest informed solutions to the problems of saving and maintaining the wetland environment studied. This type of package uses inquiry and problem solving techniques to great effect and is able to 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 on the endangered wetlands, which makes full use of the interactive nature of the project.

A second example, that has now been produced commercially, Ecodisc, was originally developed as an Advanced Interactive Video product by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and based upon a BBC TV secondary schools Science Topics program called Ecology and Conservation. Ecodisc is primarily a simulation of a nature reserve, in reality, the Slapton Ley Reserve in England's South Devon (McCormick, 1987). It is the user's role here to either simply study the Reserve and its flora and fauna and possibly carry out standard biological sampling procedures, or to take the place of a trainee reserve manager and to formulate a plan for the future of the reserve based upon the information gleaned from a study of the location and the views of a range of local interest groups and individuals.

Designing a specific simulation

From this range of conceptual beginnings, an interactive multimedia ecology simulation called Eco-Sim has been developed as a component of a broader partnership. Apple Computer Australia and the University of Wollongong have embarked on a project, called the Christopher Columbus Program - Down Under, to research effective applications of interactive multimedia in education and training, and to develop educational courseware employing alternative learning strategies for Australian and overseas markets. A local high school, Keira Technology High School, is currently collaborating with the University in this partnership. The process involves a team model approach (Harper, 1991) in which the team will be supported by programming of the experimental materials., using authoring approaches matched to the navigation models, as well as production experts.

The criteria which have been applied to the design of this package in order to achieve the syllabus objectives of the project include:

The objectives in terms of facilitating the learner's navigation include: The adaptive navigation system, has been based on the cognitive load expectations of navigation requirements of learners as they control their learning strategies and create new learning paths in the simulation of a number of related ecosystems. The elements which can be manipulated in an adaptive learning system can include:

External cues:

Internal cues In the development phase of this package a thorough analysis of the current conceptual models of navigation employed in learning software has been essential. Previous research studies have focussed on some general cognitive models which may be employed in multimedia software design (Hedberg, 1989; Hedberg and McNamara, 1989). Linked to this analysis of the current models will be the development of a computer management system which will be employed to handle the collection of learning path information.

There are many other design structures that could be used for this type of package but the key features will include the development of inquiry and problem solving techniques as well as browsing and reporting facilities. The reporting facility would not only act as a key instructional feature but could be used effectively by teachers to develop classroom presentations. A further feature not included in the design examples discussed would be a user tracking facility that reported to the supervising teacher the areas of the package explored by the individual users. This data would be used in evaluation of the package and by teachers in their planning and evaluation.

Evaluation issues

Once the package prototype is completed, equipment and software materials will be placed at two school sites and the prototype learning environments will be tested. At the time of writing, all the information has not been collected. Important issues for the package will be the use of mathematical modelling techniques which allow visualisation of data and the application of data modelling techniques to the learning paths. Collection of learning path tracking data using embedded software probes thus enables different navigational models to demonstrate different mathematical patterns.

The evaluation involves two main approaches. One on one testing of the prototype materials including the verification of the methods for data analysis of complex multi-path data. This will involve pilot testing with school age children to examine the interactions they wish to undertake This type of data collection varies from subject to subject and requires the development of special techniques for its analysis and interpretation. Once the final product has been developed, an analysis of the usage patterns using data modelling techniques will be employed. This evaluation strategy will be used with larger groups of students, who will be set learning tasks individually in the multimedia environment, and the tracking data collected for analysis.

Analysis of the collected data provides the group with an interesting opportunity for the continued development of techniques to extract the maximum amount of information for feedback to developers and commissioners of interactive materials. Simple statistics such as how many users have used the system and the lengths of time they used it are relatively simple to extract, but more sophisticated analyses of how a particular interactive package is actually being used by users (what sections are being used, to what extent, what is not being accessed, where users exit the system, by what method, and so on) are difficult to quantify in a way which can be used to provide feedback on the future modification of complex interactive systems. Such methods of analysis are being developed by members of the group, particularly to analyse the use of the public area version of The Parliament Stack, where statistics covering the 64,000 uses of the system during the seven months of its operation.


A number of interactive multimedia packages have been developed by the authors over the past six years. In each, the multimedia design has only been effective when the design metaphors incorporate intuitive navigation systems, which are necessary for efficient learning and for more complex learning activities to be accomplished. Expert 1 systems are being used to develop materials but we feel that this approach is too limiting in the hypertext environment. The Design Metaphor approach allows creative structures and at the same time requires a staged development: Content analysis, strategy analysis and transaction analysis to influence the final structure of the hypertext environment. In this paper we have focussed upon the design and provision of effective, and intuitive navigation systems and the importance on conceptual clarity in the quest for knowledge using navigation systems. The design approach allows the materials to be adapted to the learners requirements and the individual to create new structures and paths in the materials.

The change in locus of control from instructor to learner raises a series of hypermedia issues about cognition, motivation and navigation which need to be explored (Grabowski & Curtis, 1991). It is also possible to extend (or encapsulate) the model of the Design Metaphor approach to the latest operating systems available on microcomputers which enable the current versions of notes, diagrams, sound files, or digitised images to be "published" and users to ,"subscribe". The implications for creating dynamic knowledge structures and the organisation of learning experiences are profound.


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Authors: Associate Professor John Hedberg is Coordinator of the Information Technology in Education and of Postgraduate Programs, and Dr Barry Harper is Director of the Interactive Multimedia Laboratory. Their address is Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, PO Box 1144, Wollongong 2500, Australia.

Please cite as: Hedberg, J. G. and Harper, B. M. (1992). Creating interface metaphors for interactive multimedia. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 219-226. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/hedberg.html

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