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Multimedia BUT... (Boffins using Thingummybobs or Beginners Understanding Technology)

Suzanne E. McNamara and Leonard Webster
Monash University
Interactive multimedia offers unparalleled potential in addressing problems of time, space and distance in instruction and learning. Associated with the implementation of each technological facility however are 'human 'requirements. Further as the interface becomes more sophisticated and comprehensive there is an increasing possibility of a widening of the gap between potential and adoption. There is a need thus for examination of pathways and mechanisms which will facilitate appropriate 'balances' in the design, application and implementation strategies of multimedia to instruction and learning.

This paper puts forward some suggestions for dealing with the 'buts' which arise in the design and application of multimedia to instruction and learning. Based on the notion of research which examines ways in which instructors and users construct, adapt and manipulate multimedia based information and programs, the paper will discuss the achievement of 'balance' in relation to current theories and practices of instructional design.


Time and again in recent years technologies, and in particular computer technologies, have been publicised as mechanisms which can provide the ultimate in learning facilitation. With each new technological development we see additional features which can further enhance learning and assist us in devising new and better ways of achieving goals, whatever those goals may be! As a result of the mystique, power and dynamism of the technology, the salespersons, publicity campaigns and resultant devotees we now have within our grasp facilities which applications are limited only by our imaginations.

There are however barriers to the general acceptance of MM for instruction and learning. Many are 'human' barriers. This paper characterises those barriers as the BUT of multimedia.

The expression 'but' commonly indicates apprehension, alternatives, excuses, further considerations or reasons for second thoughts before a decision is made. In this paper BUT is treated somewhat differently, although the connotations described above may still apply. For the purposes of this discussion BUT represents the distance between expert enthusiast and novice. The BUT of multimedia recognises the substantial barriers contained in knowledge and experiential distance. However in contrast to the negative response such barriers often initiate, this paper maintains that one of the major strengths for the future of MM in education and training lies in the transformation and harnessing of this distance or these barriers into positive fusions which permit two way sharing along a continuum of experience.

A design envelope for multimedia

In promoting a more widespread holistic approach to the adoption and application of interactive multimedia it is suggested that there already exists a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the technology attributes and configurations at the expert level - one end of a continuum - while at the other end are the offerings of creativity and challenges of those not yet 'locked into' the more specialist frameworks; those to whom the expression 'interactive multimedia' assumes the title of the latest science fiction blockbuster motion picture.

As an example...

Scene 1: The exhibition hall was crowded. Each stand had the latest and greatest, newest releases and demonstrations of beta versions of soon to be released enhanced and upgraded software, hardware and various other 'ware'. It seemed that the materials displayed included every feature and facility of technology currently known to mankind. Multimedia was the 'buzzword' for one and all. Snippets of conversations included discussion of 'oops' based platforms, the inclusion of the more powerful data and image compression techniques in software, to notions of hybrid configurations, sub carrier phasing and new graphics architecture for a GUI system On a more academic note discussions revolved around the infinite possibilities of non-sequential linking, referential modelling and embedded cognitive strategy generation.

All those involved in the conversations either fully understood and were most impressed by developments - or the hall was full of extremely talented actors and actresses.

On the other side of town...
Scene 2: The lab was full. Each of the adult students had decided that they had 'better catch up with the technology and these computer things'... so here they were... eager to learn... and with the latest and best equipment in front of them. The course outline had detailed an 'individual approach'. Each student would have their own self contained workstation with a multimedia package which would introduce them to the world of computers in the workplace. The course leader (who had enthusiastically attended the exhibition the previous day) introduced himself and gave a quick demonstration of how to 'get started'. Unfortunately Betty didn't quite understand what he said. The demonstration was a little too fast for someone who had a definite, if well hidden, fear of technology. But Betty didn't want to appear foolish in front of people she didn't know. So she tried to appear as if she was doing something. Frustration finally forced her to seek assistance. The course leader came immediately to her aid. Very softly she whispered to him "It says press 'enter', but my keyboard hasn't got anything on it marked 'enter'. I've tried typing in the words but that doesn't work either. What am I doing wrong?" Apologetically she added, 'This seem to be a great way of learning - if you know what you are doing."

Many of us are familiar with scenes such as those described in earlier writings (eg. McNamara, 1990) and above. They perhaps illustrate the two ends of a continuum. They also suggest components and directions for a model of research into, and the development of adoption and integration strategies for MM in education and training - a design envelope.

The components of this model can be listed as user, design and management requirements. The directions are naturally multi-dimensional but feature a move towards the convergence of expertise and novice states. The underlying assumption of the model is one of a constant state of change. Neither the novice end of the continuum nor the expert end remains static. A user may have general computing competencies, but be a novice in a particular application; a designer may have highly developed skills in the field of video production, but be a relative novice in the combination of computer accessing of video information in the education and training field. While both novice and expert roles expand in the direction of expert, the notion of 'expertise' continually encompasses the challenges of novice within its expansion and concurrently shares its developing expertise across the continuum. The configuration of the model is represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A design envelope for multimedia

A multi-dimensional design envelope permits incorporation of many considerations in developing and researching MM for education and training. Considerations such as: The following sections will briefly examine each of these as considerations within the envelope.

The attributes of MM: Design tools

Several authors have described the various features of multimedia. Fox (1991) describes multimedia as the collective term for materials which include text, pictures, animated graphics, motion video and/or encyclopedic text and sound. Jonassen (1991) looks particularly at the capabilities of the computer in relation to the development of hypertext based instructional materials. He suggests that the true worth of hypertext lies in the notion of links and nodes; the information fragments and organisational structures which formulate the pathways to learning. Jonassen maintains that as hypertext is "not typically designed based on any consistent model" (p83) it permits adaptability and flexibility to any number of purposes, functions and design requirements. He details four types of hypertext systems as browsing, problems exploration tools, macro-literary systems and general purpose hypertext. As a design and development tool for multimedia, hypertext (and the variations of hypercard etc) offer avenues for instruction and learning which may meet the requirements of many of the present and future generations of learners dealing with increasingly vast and fluid sources of information which can be encountered in a multimedia environment.

BUT the notion of 'hyper' is not without the need for balance. Hyperactive hyperspace warrants hypersensitive hyperexplanations in dealings with administrators, management and other 'non-boffins' for whom even the terminology might be a turn-off. While the characteristics of the tools offer exciting and imaginative potential, eventual adoption of the design approach capabilities of hyper* demands a link between current knowledge structures (the prior experiences and expectation of clients, managers and administrators) and the unique facilities of the environment.

Jonassen (1991) alerts us to two possible problems with hyper* based materials. Firstly, while the lack of consistency in design models allows flexibility within materials, there is a need to balance flexibility with guidance for the user. Decisions as to appropriate structures of flexibility currently lie with the designer who usually leans towards an expert's perspective. 'Me prospect of expert design knowledge combined with a more novice perspective of user requirements in relation to the question of guidance may generate stronger more comprehensive pathways of design.

Secondly there is a need for some consistency across design. One of the strengths of many of the hyper* based systems is the familiarity users develop with the interface. Icons, tools, and languages are gradually becoming more standardised. There is a danger therefore that with the lack of consistency across hyper* based materials design, each new development will require different understanding and skills on the part of the user in navigating the pathways. Again as one of the features of a hyper* approach is the transparency of the interface, the lack of consistency would seem to conflict with the potential of the attributes. Adoption and integration research must address the issue of consistency. The application of an envelope model would seem to provide an appropriate research approach.

Chen (1990) offers a slightly different viewpoint. Chen concentrates the discussion of multimedia on interactive video and maintains that interactive video in itself does not contain an assurance of effective use in education. Chen's warning may be equated with the call for recognition of the importance of incorporating the perspective of the novice user in design processes in conjunction with the expertise of the 'boffin'. In line with Cohen (1984) Chen reiterates the need for design to examine techniques for enhancing the quality of interactivity, namely; non linear content format, information and corrective feedback and the various options for learner control.

As in Jonassen (1991), Chen's discussion highlights the need for research and development to address the issues of learner control and navigation from a non-linear approach. While the technical demands of access may have to adhere to stringent language or protocol structures, the driving concepts of linking and embedding are more and more emphasising human elements in the roles of the traditions of video, audio and 'media' production in realising the potential of multimedia. The concentration on the computer interface has perhaps been at the expense of examination of these components of design in MM. Examination and research into the involvement of 'balances' of expert and novice contributions across the inputs would seem to warrant greater consideration.

Chen (1991) concludes his discussion with the suggestion that unless technological developments are adopted and integrated into 'classroom' practice they are irrelevant. Both Chen(1991) and Fox (1991) illustrate this position by pointing to the current lack of quality and appropriate interactive programs for education and training. In calling for the development of new and imaginative design strategies they deplore the incompatibility across hardware and software and suggest that encyclopedic systems must do more than simply transfer text and illustrations found in a book onto a screen. More imaginative design strategies are seen as critical in the exploration of the potential of the technology.

Following this line of thought it could be suggested that although the current instructional design strategies of the systems approach have served both education and training well in a linear world, future course, materials and systems design in a multimedia world will require much greater flexibility and adaptability than current practices. While Merrill's (1990) writings on the platform of ID2 prompt some valuable considerations and directions, instructional design strategies for multimedia may also benefit from considerations of a broader conceptual framework such as that of Chaos theory.

Chaos: A flexible framework for design, adoption and integration

Although perhaps in its infancy in relation to instructional design, and with still much to be explored, clarified and substantiated. The issue as King (1991) describes it is
to find the degree of order necessary to keep the ability and the flexibility to adapt, while using the variability inherent in a chaotic situation to advance, rather than continuing to use blinders or wringing our hands about the unfairness of it all. (King , 1991, p.11)
As a framework for adoption and integration of MM in education and training and as a research framework, the ideas of Chaos may permit flexibility and adaptivity whilst maintaining a balance between extremes. King (1991) describes chaos as encompassing accelerated social change and undoubtedly the context within which learning now takes place is being effected radically by the speed with which technological developments are occurring and the implications of these developments on information, communication and knowledge structures. The current emphasis on the process of information analysis and synthesis in learning in contrast to the more traditional view of the learner as a receptor of information, bears witness to the dynamic changes which are occurring in educational thinking. "Critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and communication skills should and must be a part of each lesson and course" (King, 1991, p 10). Analysis must encompass local and global views.

In exploring the application of chaos theory Dowding (1991) puts forward a cyclical model which he suggests would facilitate responsiveness to short cycle innovation while continuing to channel the energy of a chaotic environment. Dowding's model offers the conceptions of flexibility and adaptability, but it does not accommodate the ideas of balance between extremes. Yeamans (1990) perhaps deals more appropriately with this in a discussion of the conditions of creativity. Emphasising freedom of expression and the critical feature of an attitude of willingness to consider new ideas even if they conflict with established tradition, Yeamans (1991) introduces a further dimension of negotiation and collaboration as possible considerations within a framework of Chaos. Similar to several of the traditional constructs of the systems approach Yeamans (1991) lists the steps of (a) divergent expansive thinking, (b) convergent or closure thinking and (c) visualisation as processes critical to creative design. Exploration of these in conjunction with the previous suggestions of balances between novice and expert could offer both research and the implementation of MM a comprehensive yet focused, flexible yet practically constrained theoretical framework for future investigations and developments.

Planning and implementation

Kaufman and Stolovitch (1991) offer the final perspective to be dealt with in this paper, that of the management of the multimedia BUT. The simplistic picture of 'technology gathering dust in the cupboard' is unfortunately one which haunts many educational and training institutions. In the hands of the enthusiast and expert the technology shines. In the absence of support and 'a reason to be' it has withered and died.... Its ghostly reminder being seen each time the storeroom cupboard in the basement is opened.

The variations of level and sophistication of multimedia software and hardware would seem in theory, to meet the needs of a variety of users. The success of acceptance though will be largely dependent on the manner and structures in which it is implemented. Kaufman and Stolovitch (1991) highlight several features of planning which suggest the need for a design envelope for MM which is based on collaboration and cooperation. They suggest the use of proactive planning which should take place on several levels; mega, macro and micro. Each level encompasses planning for opportunity in contrast to the more common reactionary approach of planning in response. Dowding (1991) also reflects on the issue of management and suggests the concept of approved prototyping, which permits the factoring in of time and resource constraints as variables for widespread adoption and implementation programs. The ideas of chaos and the design envelope described previously would seem to be applicable here too as the movement from novice to expert; the incorporation of both ends of the continuum and the dynamics of a chaotic environment would seem to parallel that of general education and training constraints for management.


Undoubtedly the composition of a vast array of visual information (both still and motion) and aural information (both real and simulated) in combination with ever increasing speed of access and memory capabilities foreshadow the possibilities of an educational and training revolution. As with any revolution however the proof of its success lies in its acceptance at all levels and across all sectors of the community. It might be suggested that the next step towards the 'tomorrow 'of education and training is the establishment of a general understanding, empathy and attitudes which will allow integration, acceptance and adoption of this dynamic phenomena of interactive multimedia - today.

As can be seen from the above discussion the 'thingummybobs' of MM are far more than the hardware which many people perceive as 'it'. Rather the thingummybobs are perhaps the 'key' to the integration and adoption of MM in education and training. Explaining the superficial 'mystique' of 'mouse control', lights, camera and action in a 'universal language the thingummybobs represent the meeting of experts and novice minds... of boffins and beginners.


Chen, L. C. (1991). Interactive video technology in education: past, present and future. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 19(1), 5-19.

Cohen V. (1984). Interactive features in the design of videodisc materials. Educational Technology, 24(1), 16-20.

Dowding, T. (1991). Managing chaos (or how to survive the instructional development process. Educational Technology, 31(1), 26-31.

Fox, B. (1991). Multimedia in a muddle. New Scientist, September 25-29.

Jonassen (1991). Hypertext for Instructional Design. Educational Technology, 31(2), 25-31.

Jonassen, D. (1990). Thinking Technology: chaos in instructional design. Educational Technology, 30(2), 32-34.

Kaufman, R., & Stolovitch, H. (1991). Planning, Perspectives, Creativity and Control. Educational Technology, 31(2), 51-54.

King, J. (1991). Chaos, Communication and Educational Technology. Paper presented to the AECT Annual Convention, Orlando Florida.

McNamara, S. E. (1990). Human-technology traffic jams (or harnessing human brainpower is more than a matter of logic). Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 6(1), 20-27. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet6/mcnamara.html

Merrill, D., Li, Z., & Jones, M. (1990). Limitations of first generation instructional design. Educational Technology, 30(1), 7-11.

Yeaman, G. (1990). Creativity and Video Production. Tech Trends, 35(2), 28-31.

Please cite as: McNamara, S. E. and Webster, L. (1992). Multimedia BUT... (Boffins using Thingummybobs or Beginners Understanding Technology). In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 613-619. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/mcnamara.html

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