IIMS 92 contents
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Interactive multimedia in education

Peter Olaf Looms
Planning and Evaluation Officer
Danmarks Radio (Danish Broadcasting Corporation)
Following a brief clarification of the term interactive multimedia, this paper reviews the current situation regarding the use of interactive multimedia in education, with specific reference to compulsory education. Using examples from Europe and USA, the author outlines current trends regarding the use of multimedia, obstacles to be overcome before their use is widespread, and two scenarios for interactive multimedia for the next three years.

Interactive multimedia - terminology

The term " multimedia" is used here to describe any system where information in the form of text, figures, images, sounds or moving images is displayed on a screen. In some cases this will be a computer screen, in others a television monitor, where the use of computer technology is hidden from the user (Looms 1991a). As multimedia require peripherals capable of storing quantities of sound and images, some kind of optical disc is commonly used.

Unlike films or videotapes which are linear in their structure, multimedia are interactive in the sense that the user can actively make his own way through the material. Each path is unique. The user interacts with the system by means of an input device. This is commonly a mouse, a remote control unit, a touch screen, keyboard or even a bar code reader.

But interactivity is more than accessing data. In a recent article, Benny Karpatschof talks of interactive competence, that is to say "the ability to solve tasks which could neither be solved by computers without people, or by people without computers" Karpatschof (1991). It is the ability to exploit the synergy of interactive systems which may well be as important as the three Rs in education.

The current situation - USA and Canada

Although the LaserVision video disc was introduced some 14 years ago, the CD-ROM in 1986 and consumer formats such as CD-I and CDTV in 1991, interactive multimedia are still relatively uncommon.

USA is by far the largest market. The most widely used format is the Laser Disc video disc. By the end of 1991 according to three different estimates (THE magazine, Pioneer Electronics of America, Multimedia and VideoDisc Monitor ), there will be somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 videodisc players in use. This corresponds to an average of 3 to 4 players per school, as the coverage is 29% of the 70,000 schools in the USA. The availability of CD-ROM drives is lower: some 17% of schools have at least one drive.

At least 75% of the videodiscs players in use are used with a remote control unit or a Laser BarCode light pen using a common interleaved 2 of 5 bar code system, the patents of which are held by Pioneer. The introduction of a US$200 player produced by Panasonic for the Optical Data Corporation in connection with its agreement with educational authorities in the state of Texas marked the turning point for the format earlier in 1991. Sales of this player have passed the 15,000 mark, although the bar code reader is not yet available. Sony has also released a combiplayer with a bar code reader using the Pioneer standard.

Until this year, computer controlled videodiscs have been two screen configurations (a computer with its monitor beside a television screen connected to the player). Software has usually been delivered for Apple Macintosh using HyperCard but publishers and producers are now also releasing products for IBM using LinkWay, or in some cases Plus. One screen configurations using a video card are not common in schools.

There are more than 1,100 educational titles available in USA. Major producers include Optical Data Corporation and ABC News Interactive. Publishers of school books and television stations such as TV-Ontario and WGBH-Boston have also entered the educational market (Looms, 1991b).

Prices for videodiscs with teacher notes and software range from US$60 - $1,300, the average being around $500. The trend is towards packages of educational materials (books, software, teacher notes, lesson plans) of which the video disc is a part.

It may come as a surprise that most of the materials described are used without a computer, although software is usually supplied with the titles. The discs are commonly used in group work, and provide a reliable and cheap way of accessing stills, video and sound in a way which would not be so easy and reliable with other media. CD-ROM seems to have a significant impact in connection with reference works in particular at college level. Students are now allowed to search CD-ROM versions of databases which in the past were only available online.

The current situation - Europe and Australia

Compared with the USA, the use of interactive multimedia in Europe and Australia is still at an experimental stage. Universities are regular users of databases on CD-ROM, but otherwise the use of interactive media is found in a tiny minority of educational institutions, in spite of national and European Community development programs to promote interactive video and CD-ROM since 1984.

In the UK, 22 publicly financed interactive video titles have been produced (Mapp 1991), and there are some 1,500 systems in schools, most of which are computer based. The use of simple materials with bar codes has only appeared with the last two years.

In Denmark, the absolute figures are, of course, smaller as there are only 5 million Danes. Three percent of primary and secondary schools have videodisc players, half of which are used with bar code readers. There are approximately 120 video disc titles available, ten of which are Danish. The remainder are imported titles from Canada and the USA, the UK, Australia and other European countries. Well designed resource discs in a range of subjects transcend national frontiers and cultural differences. A good example comes from Australia. Three of the four Australian titles are used in English as a Foreign Language and are highly rated by those using them as the underlying methodology is widely accepted in Denmark.

As far as CD-ROM is concerned, the change from experimental to mainstream status may well take place in 1992 in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain and Scandinavia (Looms, 1991b). John Barker in his article on the British CD-ROM in Schools scheme lists 46 titles available to schools, most of them from the USA (Barker (1991).

Multimedia - obstacles to be overcome

Multimedia have had a limited impact on Danish schools since their introduction more than five years ago. What factors have limited the acceptance of video discs and CD-ROM?

As far as innovation in the Danish primary and lower secondary school system or "folkeskole" is concerned, the policy has been to encourage, evaluate and coordinate experimentation at local level. For several years, individual teachers and schools have been able to submit proposals for educational innovations to the Folkeskole Development Council and receive partial funding for extraordinary expenses in connection with the proposed project. The Council monitors and evaluates the results, and the best of the projects generate a body of experience which can lead to general changes in curricular guidelines or educational methodologies. In 1992 the Ministry of Education Media Office is to focus on the evaluation of multimedia titles already in use.

Innovation spreads in a "bottom up" fashion by using innovative teachers to present concrete cases and the rationale behind them to their peers on in service teacher training courses.

When computers were first introduced into Danish schools, they were used primarily in computer science. The current policy is to integrate the use of information technology (IT) into all subjects where this is relevant and effective.

When it comes to multimedia, there are several interests at stake. On the one hand, information technology advisers at Ministry level and computer science teachers see the need to expose school children to examples of IT as a preparation for dealing with it in later life. They do not question the need to use the technology. In their eyes, the major problems concern the practical issues of funding and standards. On the other hand, teachers of mainstream subjects regard IT as just one of a number of tools to meet their educational needs.

In our experience, computer science teachers tend to promote IT indiscriminately, using computers because they are available rather than because they are the best solution in a given situation.

"Ordinary" teachers using optical discs in subjects such as modern languages or history have a series of obstacles to overcome before they become regular users. But having done so, they are often more credible instructors for their peers than teachers of computer science because they are good at justifying their use of the technology.

Some of the obstacles that need to be overcome are:

Knowing what multimedia is and what is available
Relatively few teachers have first hand knowledge of multimedia technology and a mere handful are familiar with the titles available for educational use. Until 1991, the only titles were generic titles from elsewhere in Europe and the USA.

Multimedia for education are currently available through two outlets. The most important is Compact Data (a specialist distributor and consultancy team which was formerly the subsidiary of a major Danish publishing group) and the publishing wing of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

Computer manufacturers have promoted multimedia in a limited way by donating drives and discs to schools.

The gap between reading about multimedia and wanting to use it
Promoting a multimedia title can be a challenging matter. Where multimedia are used for distributing well known resources such as data and software, end users familiar with computers can be reached by means of conventional promotion. But where the content of the multimedia is not an extension of existing educational practice, the gap between reading about the product and using it may be considerable.

A good example of the latter is the BBC product "The Eco Disc" which was released two years ago in an Apple Macintosh multimedia version. The multilingual disc contains a simulation of a nature reserve in southwest England and allows the user to explore environmental issues in one of nine European languages.

Educational users first begin to use this simulation in the classroom when they have seen the product demonstrated, grasp the underlying idea and have successfully tried working with it on their own (Hoirup, 1989).

Explaining multimedia products to a teacher in an article such as this is as big a challenge as explaining to someone from the 19th century what a television is.

There is no simple solution to this problem. In our own organisation we have devoted a lot of time and energy to presentations and courses, followed up by the loan of equipment and titles to energetic teachers around the country. In the short term, by concentrating on these opinion leaders, we hope they will discover for themselves the potential of some of these products in their classrooms. In the medium to long term, these are the people who will decide whether the products are adopted by mainstream educationalists.

Knowing how to use multimedia in the classroom
In industrial training, there is often a good case for individualised instruction - having as many workstations as students. In Danish schools, this is felt to be both unrealistic (the funds are not available) and undesirable.

As schools have moved away from computer science as a separate subject to the integrated use of IT in normal classes, there is normally one computer with one CD-ROM drive or video disc player in the classroom. Its use requires the class of up to 25 students to be organised in groups of two to four students, working in turn with the multimedia and other materials.

With the notable exception of "The North Polar Expedition" most multimedia have been produced with individual or small group users in mind. Considerable ingenuity is required on the part of the teacher to combine the use of multimedia with other individual and group activities.

Hardware and software - the chicken and the egg paradox
One of the classical problems facing multimedia is the chicken and egg paradox. Users are reluctant to use a medium unless there is a plentiful collection of titles relevant to their needs, and publishers are hesitant to invest in titles for a market that does not yet exist. The decentralised structure of the small Danish educational market has made the commercial production of multimedia a hazardous proposition. This is why the first commercially available video disc titles in Danish only appeared last year. This year saw the release of several CD-ROM titles, all of them subsidised productions ("Siulleq/The Greenland Project", "The Nordic Area Today" project and the Nordic CD-ROM project with statistical data).

Add to the lack of titles the fact that many of the titles released a few years ago required specific drives or configurations, and that marketing people prematurely heralded the appearance of "edutainment" products on CD-I or CDTV, or multimedia CD-ROM derivatives such as DVI and CD-ROM/XA and it is easy to see why most educationalists adopted a "wait and see" attitude.

The use of the SCSI interface on drives and the appearance of an increasing number of DOS/Macintosh compatible titles have already improved confidence in the CD-ROM format. Initiatives in the USA such as the Pioneer/Bureau of Electronic Publishing package of six CD-ROMs for US$350 and a six disc minichanger for US$1,295 could well be emulated in Europe. If the Multimedia PC (MPC) specification announced by Microsoft's chairman William. Gates at the Sixth Annual Conference on Multimedia and CD-ROM (San Jose, 18-20 March, 1991) is adopted globally and assuming hardware costs continue to fall, it could represent a stable set of standards to further reduce fragmentation of the education market.

When LaserDisc players and CD-ROM drives first appeared, they were relatively expensive: DKK 15,000 (1,100) in 1986. Over the last five years, prices for both computers and drives have fallen, so a complete system with computer and CD-ROM drive (and cables!) can be had for DKK 17,000 (1,500). A LaserDisc player and bar code reader costs between DKK 5,000 and DKK 13,000. As was mentioned earlier, titles have also fallen in price, costing from DKK 1,700 to 5,000. This may seem reasonable, but the figures should be seen in relation to school budgets.

Table 1: Budget for educational resources at a typical Danish folkeskole

YearNo. of pupilsTotal budget
Budget per pupil


One can see that school budgets for paper, photocopies, chalk, exercise books and computers have fallen steadily in line with reduced enrolments, while spending per pupil has almost kept pace with inflation (2.4% per annum).

Buying one computer and CD-ROM drive in 1991 requires 3% of the school's total budget or the equivalent of the total budget per pupil for 17 pupils. The equivalent figures two years ago were 5,3% and 32 pupils.

Likely scenarios for educational multimedia for the next few years

To conclude, I would like to explore two possible scenarios for CD(X) formats in Danish schools for the next two to three years. Anything beyond that is too uncertain. The first is "The cautious option" and the second "The optimist's option". Before dealing with the two, I will outline some of the demographic changes which are common to both.

The fall in the birthrate has already been reversed. This, coupled with population movements, will lead to increased folkeskole enrolments from 1993 onwards. School budgets per pupil will not change, although total budgets will.

By 1994, the recent decentralisation of the running of schools will be fully implemented, as school boards assume full financial responsibility for the school's activities as well as for agreeing on the curriculum. Pilot projects where this decentralisation has already been fully implemented show that decentralised decision making and the right to reallocate funds within the overall budget brings with it greater flexibility and a broader cost awareness. There are already instances of schools finding funds for multimedia by making one off cuts in the allocations for building maintenance.

Critics of the decentralisation reform point out that curriculum development is a time consuming and therefore costly affair when devolved to 9 times as many bodies. In the field of IT, it is argued that technical expertise will be spread too thinly, and that bulk buying agreements will no longer be possible, leading to higher costs.

Current government policy is to promote the upgrading of IT in schools by reducing manpower costs. There is no support for the idea of central government funding or subsidies for IT in schools. County and local education authorities have not endorsed this approach and are reluctant to fund initiatives on their own.

At the school mentioned in table 1, the 1991 budget for building maintenance, playgrounds and recreational areas is 1.08 million kroner, twice the sum used on educational materials. For the first time, there is an incentive to plan holistically and to reap the benefits of savings in maintenance to pay for new activities elsewhere.

The cautious option

The optimist's option


Barker (1991). CD-ROM in Schools - Special Report. INSIDE IT, Issue 56, 14 August 1991, England, 4-7.

Hoirup, Mogens (1989). CD-ROM in schools - what is required? In CD-ROM Europe '89 Conference Proceedings, Hammersmith, UK.

Karpatschof, Benny (1991). Det selvorganiserende menneske og den selvorganiserede fremtid [Autonomous Man and the self organised Future]. Uddannelse, The Journal of the Danish Ministry of Education, No. 10/11, November 1991, 579-586.

Looms, Peter Olaf (1991a). Economic and design issues of large scale multimedia databases. Proceedings of Conference on Hypermedia in Museums, Pittsburgh 14-16 October, 1991.

Looms, Peter Olaf (1991b). Television stations and the video disc. Internal paper (5 pages) available from DRIVE.

Looms, Peter Olaf (1991c). CD-ROM in Europe's Schools, The European Multimedia Yearbook 1992, published by Interactive Media International, London, 99-101.

Mapp, Leslie (1991). Multimedia in UK Schools. The European Multimedia Yearbook 1992, published by Interactive Media International, London, 101-102.

Page, James (1989). The Jean Tallon Project. CD-ROM Europe '89 Conference Proceedings, Hammersmith, UK.

Author: Peter Olaf Looms
DRIVE, Danmarks Radio
Islands Brygge 81
DK-2300 Copenhagen S
Tel +45 3167 1233 ext 6884 Telefax: +45 3195 3110

Please cite as: Looms, P. O. (1992). Interactive multimedia in education. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 419-427. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/looms.html

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