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Identifying directions for interactive multimedia: A university dilemma

Lexie Henderson-Lancett
Curtin University of Technology


If we are to understand the issue at hand, getting interactive multimedia into teaching and learning, it may first help to place it in the broader context of the current situation in universities and to briefly analyse the historical influences. This paper will explore both of these aspects and propose a reason why interactive multimedia is not widely used to enhance the teaching and learning processes.

An historical growth path

The growth of microcomputers in universities has a very short history indeed. At the outset universities provided centralised computing services where all access to facilities was via the mainframe. With the advent of microcomputer technology with its increased capacity and affordable price to universities and students, the face of computing facilities quickly changed. A distinct thrust towards an 'electronic campus' is metamorphosing in the USA, the UK and Australia. In his review of the electronic campus, Nigel Gardner (1989), director of the UK's national Program of Information and Communication Technologies, identified a progression of development in the USA towards getting computing power to all on campus, or the notion of the 'electronic campus'. Gardner suggests a three phased growth can be identified beginning with the introduction of cheap microcomputers. While this phase was led by Camegie Mellon whose ambitious plan was to have a micro on campus for every student by the middle of the decade, it was fraught with difficulties and problems as to who should do the purchasing, student or institution, and the influences of rapid change in technology. However, what did emerge was evidence of the effect of microcomputer technology in increasing student productivity.

The second phase saw an emphasis on networking led by the major projects at Brown - IRIS, MIT - Aethena, and Camegie Mellon - Project Andrew. It also saw the influential consortium EDUCOM enter the arena to assist in investigating planning processes for new computer environments in tertiary institutions.

The third phase towards reaching an electronic campus is what Gardner terms the 'information' phase, and is signified by particular styles which campuses have chosen to manage information. Investment in computer and communication technologies has seen the 'convergence' of libraries and computing centres, also, the appointment of 'information managers'. But what is also emerging is the need to look beyond the technical aspects of an electronic campus to issues related to changes demanded in administrative, organisational, and educational structures and practices, as well as to the social and political environment in which these changes are to occur.

Implications for Australia

It could be suggested that indeed very few tertiary institutions in Australia can be sighted as having progressed through these phases or stages. However, the phases identified by Gardner provide a continuum along which we could plot our own campus progress. A survey of Australian universities would, no doubt reveal not progression from one distinct phase to another, but a convoluted mixture of phases struggling to gain understanding, commitment and direction.

It might well be asked, is this progression one which Australian Universities will go through. It appears so. The absence of large, powerful and lucrative computer companies in Australia simply means that our universities will not be afforded the same opportunities of hand in hand leading edge development work between corporation and campus. And, unlike the leading universities in the US, Australian institutions are in the main, public institutions, dependent on government funding and the conservatism which that imposes. Hence we are doomed to become followers of general trends rather than leaders setting the pace and direction of the electronic campus.

What change occurred?

The critical issue evident in Gardner's review, is that the uptake of microcomputers over a single decade has moved from a fascination or interest in their effects on learning, to becoming a management problem of gigantic proportions overly concerned with coping with what the technology has to offer. Stated in another way, there has been a distinct shift away from a focus on how computer technology can enhance learning, to a focus on how the technology can enhance the university as a competitive business. This shift is also evident in Australian institutions and warrants exploring, for it is here that some of the reasons for the current dilemma exist.

On first appearances perhaps the shift in focus can be attributed to the impact of fast changing technology offered in the desktop computer. Microcomputers are dynamic, their configurations literally change overnight, and with each morning there are more choices available, more decisions to make. Often the plaintive cry emerges from an academic, 'I do wish they'd stop bringing out new things!', or we witness a major research project focusing on 'currently available' technology. These are signs of difficulties being experienced and perhaps many of us have actually sat google eyed, unable to cope with the speed of change. Literature on change processes indicates that often those affected will take a fall back position, doing the 'easy thing' first. In fact this is exactly what has happened in private enterprise.

In the Harvard Business Review, July-August 1990, the following article by Michael Hamer appeared indicating the pitfalls of doing the 'easy thing' first:

...heavy investments in information technology have delivered disappointing results - largely because companies tend to use technology to mechanise old ways of doing business. They leave the existing processes intact and use computers simply to speed them up.
This form of computer implementation caused businesses to fall behind, to even close as the going got tough and we entered the recession of the 1990s. And the response:
...Instead of imbedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over. We should 're-engineer' our businesses: use the power of modem information technology to radically redesign our business.
The process of 're-engineering' is cutting costs to businesses by as much as 80%. The same process needs to apply to the management and organisational structures of our universities, but more importantly and more easily accomplished, is to apply the process of 're-engineering' to every course on offer on every campus.

'Re-engineering' change on campus

For some years the idea of using microcomputers to 'enhance' the teaching and learning processes has been a statement only (LHL, Corn Sc Com). It has in the main fallen on the ears of goggle eyed listeners, trying to cope with rapid change, and, unfortunately taking the 'easy option'. What is required is a rethinking of old teaching processes and the devising of new methods that utilise computer and communications technology. Only when this re-thinking about course content and delivery occurs will the focus for computer utilisation turn back to learning, away from mere activity, and interactive multimedia might just get a gernsey!

Recognition of the change processes associated with the uptake of microcomputer and communications technology is clearly an issue. It is evident in the documentation of the progress made by US universities who by necessity must be competitive. Having a competitive edge means developing unique offerings. One example of a prominent campus who has progressed through Gardner's phases (Yendt 1990) and is now rethinking its course offerings, is Stanford University in California. It has, by Australian standards, superb resources including a division devoted to assisting academics implement computers in teaching, even a development team to produce interactive multimedia courseware. Yet in 1990 they could cite only twelve such projects completed. But, it is a heartening start!

Where do we stand and where do we go?

Given that some difficulty would exist in identifying Gardner's phases in Australian universities as each moves towards an 'electronic campus', clarification of some of the influential factors may assist in understanding our unique situation. Influences on decisions in Australian universities come from two sources, external and internal. External influences are largely determined by three factors, such as market forces in the computer industry: which has become extremely diversified; the constant change of technology; and the forms of government funding available to university staff. Internal influences can be broadly attributed to forms of funding and the way they are awarded; individual academic decision making; the presence or lack of policy, strategic planning or committed direction; and the extremely important need for each university to remain competitive. Looking at these as a combined force, it is easy to understand that a struggle within universities exists. by examining only a few of these some solutions will be offered.

Taking the funding issue first. Unfortunately non of the major players in the computer industry call Australia home. 'Me implications of this are extensive, the most important of which is that the big companies cannot be looked to as major sources of funding for development as they are to our USA counterparts. Funding from commercial interests is limited and usually targeted at research and development activities so that Offsets obligations may be met. Even government funding from outside the university is usually attracted for the purposes of research. This is also currently true of internal decisions being made where an emphasis is being placed on funding research activities and not teaching activities, as indicated in the popular press in Australia during 1990. Hence both external sources and internal sources of funding emphasise 'rewards' for research and development, not 'rewards' for teaching. If the learner is to be the focus of our computer applications, both rewards by funding and rewards by recognition have to change and recognise that the microcomputer is as much a tool for teaching as it is for research.

The issue of change is perhaps the key issue, for the structures developed within universities to deal with it will provide the much needed solution. Computer technology will go on changing. This is not a bad thing, we simply have to devise solutions to capitalise on it by changing funding structures and purchasing patterns, by becoming informed decision makers, by creating a vision, by producing policy and developing strategies that will move each campus in a focused direction. In other words, provide a management framework in which academics can grow and focus their attention on 're-engineering' their courses and enhancing learning. This can be summed up by Gardner in the following way:

Just as industry and commerce has realised that information technology is, first and foremost, a boardroom issue rather than a technical one so universities in Britain, the USA, and elsewhere are appreciating that campus computing policy may underpin the whole future strategic direction of an institution, and its ability to survive in a more competitive environment (Gardner, 1989:347).
The combination of changing academic reward structures along with the provision of clear direction through university policy will actually bring about an environment which is conducive to course 're-engineering' enabling unique relationships to be developed between the learner and the technology. However, this cannot be done in isolation from the market forces, trend patterns and future projections. To ignore development projections from the computer industry would be to put ones head in the sand and be left behind. At this conference alone, we will see a shift from the concept of 'multimedia' to 'integrated media'. And that projection was made in the middle of the last decade.


Axton, K. (Chairman) (1985). Teaching, Learning and Computers in the Primary Schools. Report to the Commonwealth Schools Commission. Canberra ACT.

Gardner, N. (1989). The Electronic Campus: The First Decade. Higher Education Quarterly, 43(4), 332-350.

Hawkins, B. L. (Ed.) (1990). Organising and Managing Information Resources on Campus. EDUCOM Academic Publications Inc. USA.

Henderson-Lancett, L. (1984). Year 6 Learn to Write Using the Word Processor. In A. D. Salvas (Ed.), Computing and Education - 1984 and Beyond. Computer Education Group of Victoria.

Please cite as: Henderson-Lancett, L. (1992). Identifying directions for interactive multimedia: A university dilemma. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 599-602. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/henderson-lancett.html

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