IIMS 92 contents
[ IIMS 92 contents ]

Research foundations for interactive multimedia

Thomas C. Reeves, PhD
Associate Professor of Instructional Technology
The University of Georgia, USA
Purposes: The first purpose of this paper is to dispel the notion that interactive multimedia (IMM) automatically guarantees learning. A second purpose is to describe the existing research foundations upon which IMM should be based to support learning. A third and final purpose is to recommend directions for new research to guide future development of IMM.

Does IMM guarantee learning?

Although the roots of interactive multimedia (IMM) can be traced back to the 1940s when Vannevar Bush gave the world a glimpse of the memex, a hypothetical system for organising information via associations rather than traditional alphabetical or numerical indexes (Bush, 1945), the current enthusiasm for IMM as a learning environment began in the late 1980s and continues to swell (cf., Ambrom & Hooper, 1988, 1990). Thus, it is hardly surprising to find an "International Interactive Multimedia Symposium" being held in Perth, Western Australia in January 1992. What is surprising is that the symposium organisers are actually interested in the "research foundations" for this technological development.

A more common approach is to assume that interactive multimedia (defined in the Symposium brochure as "a merging of the computer, music, voice, still pictures, text, animation and full motion video") guarantees learning. Many business interests and even a few academics are promoting the development of IMM in the belief that it can provide students and trainees with learning environments of unparalleled richness. Typical of the enthusiastic support for multimedia in education is the following quotation from John Sculley, Chief Executive Officer of Apple Computer Inc:

Teachers and students will command a rich learning [multimedia) environment that, had you described it to me when I was in school, would have seemed entirely magical. Imagine a classroom with a window on all the world's knowledge. Imagine a teacher with the capability to bring to life any image, any sound, any event. imagine a student with the power to visit any place on earth at any time in history. Imagine a screen that can display in vivid color the inner workings of a cell, the births and deaths of stars, the clashes of armies, and the triumphs of art. And then imagine that you have access to all of this and more by exerting little more effort than simply asking that it appear. It seems like magic even today. Yet the ability to provide this kind of learning environment is within our grasp. (Sculley, 1988, p. viii)
James E. Dezell, Jr., Vice-President for Educational Systems at the IBM Corporation, is no less of an enthusiastic promoter of IMM:
Multimedia brings to bear dynamic visual information in the form of full motion video that gives you a direct pipeline into the brain. We, as human beings, process that data very efficiently. The power of full motion video combined with interactivity allows every person to discover knowledge in the pattern that fits their paradigm for learning the way they learn best, individualized. (Taylor, 1990, p.27)
Similar promises are being made in the training world. Steve Roden, President of Comsell, Inc., a training development firm in Atlanta, Georgia, sums it up this way:
With multimedia, the policeman is exposed to crisis situations in a less threatening way, the teller understands complicated bank procedures more rapidly, and the PC user can begin to work with a software program faster. There is an enormous validation to this technology's effectiveness in a training environment. Multimedia provides a higher level of mastery over the subject matter. It gives students "hands on" learning, better retention, specific feedback and increased levels of understanding. We can't consistently make these statements about videotape, text, text with graphics, traditional classroom learning, or even computer based training. (Roden, 1991, pp. 80-81)
The question of whether interactive multimedia "automatically" supports learning must be examined carefully. Some of the promotional literature for technologies such as interactive video, compact disc read only memory (CD-ROM), compact disc-interactive (CD-I), digital video interactive (DVI), and the like, seems to indicate that if course content is served up to students in a multimedia format, their motivation will rocket and their achievement will soar. This is misleading. Multimedia cannot guarantee learning any more than the presence of a library on a university campus guarantees learning.

Fischer and Mandl (1990), in attempting to develop what they call "a psychophysics of hypermedia", clarify the issue. They maintain that multimedia programs only come into existence when learners perceive and interpret them. The quality of interaction is determined by the skills and experience students have with the medium and degree to which the medium has been designed to support the interaction. Just as an academic library void of intelligent faculty and students capable of utilising its resources is merely a warehouse, multimedia without the interpretative acts of learners is only a collection of textual, graphical, and audio elements.

Locatis, Letourneau, and Banvard (1989) also provide a perspective on the issue of whether multimedia guarantees learning. They compare the design of multimedia with many reference books, both of which often use a "somewhat arbitrary alphabetical arrangement" (p. 69) for organising content. Such arrangement schemes may work well with users who have the skills, motivation, and experience to access information through free associative thinking. However, they point out that these arrangements of information may not be sufficient for novice learners who are unable to provide the missing links. Locatis et al. conclude that "Linking information is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for learning" (p. 72).

Does the inability of multimedia to guarantee learning mean that multimedia without pedagogy should not exist? No! Many people learn from texts without explicit instructional assistance existing in the books themselves or being imposed by teachers or other structuring resources. Similarly, people can learn from multimedia without internal or external pedagogy. This type of learning can be incidental or intentional, depending upon the motives of the student, the accessibility of the information in the program, and the intellectual abilities and experiences of the student.

On the other hand, when multimedia programs are intentionally designed to support learning, some level of pedagogy is required. Fischer and Mandl (1990) maintain that "instructional hypermedia should contain a tutorial and/or pedagogical component... " (p. xxiv). Kinzie and Berdel (1990) describe instructional design features that can facilitate learning through IMM, including such features as orientations, maps, help, hints, and questions. Jonassen and Grabinger (1990) describe some of the problems involved in designing the learning interface (the features of multimedia that support learning) as opposed to the user interface (the features of multimedia that support exploration). The primary problem in designing IMM for learning is, as described by Rezabek and Ragan (1989), finding the balance between pedagogical support and exploration support.

What do we know about IMM and learning?

The brochure for this Symposium proclaims that "The successful application of IMM depends on the integrated development of technology and pedagogy with a supportive culture and infrastructure." Unfortunately, pedagogy seems to have a very poor reputation among some creators of interactive multimedia who much prefer to emphasise the technical aspects of multimedia. Consider, for instance, the words of Morgan Newman, one of the three primary authors of IBM's Illuminated Manuscripts Series, including the much publicised Ulysses program:
We are convinced that things have to damn slick to engage people. As brilliant as a one-bit HyperCard stack might be academically, the production values are incredibly disparate. It is our sole intention to grab people by the gut and turn them upside down. (Holsinger, 1991, p.25)
The disdain for pedagogy may result from the disappointing outcomes of a long line of instructional technologies such as programmed instruction and computer based training that contained very explicit pedagogical models, usually based on behavioural learning theory (Hannafin & Rieber, 1989). Although there is some evidence that these programs are effective for learning concepts and procedural knowledge, their efficacy in the development of the higher order learning desired in most education and many training contexts has been limited (Clark, 1983; Kulik & Kulik, 1986).

Many of these earlier technologies and the processes by which they were developed were based upon what Duffy and Jonassen (1991) call the "objectivist tradition," ie., the view that knowledge exists in its perfect form in the world outside the learner and that each learner possesses a more or less perfect understanding of that perfect form. Further, many of these earlier technologies incorporated a "behaviourist" pedagogy whereby learning was viewed as primarily dependent upon the arrangement of stimuli and the reinforcement provided for various responses (Skinner, 1968). Nix (1990) maintains that interactive instructional programs designed from this perspective ignore, or even repress, human potential.

If knowledge can be pre-packaged into concepts and rules that students must learn and follow, then perhaps traditional computer based instruction is sufficient. But if learning how to learn and the development of problem solving skills are the primary goals of education and/or training, then new approaches to interactive learning, especially IMM, should be considered. I firmly believe that the design of IMM for learning can and should be based upon sound pedagogical foundations that reflect contemporary cognitive psychology.

What is the basis of an effective pedagogy for IMM? Certainly, the leading candidate today is the pedagogical philosophy known as "constructivism" that has grown out of advances in cognitive science (Duffy & Jonassen, 1991; Papert, 1990). Constructivism is far too complex a subject to be covered adequately in a paper of this length, but a few of its primary principles will be used below to illustrate its potential for guiding the design of IMM.

According to Resnick (1989b), there are three primary principles of contemporary cognitive theory, and I believe that each of these is required to unlock the learning potential of interactive multimedia. First, IMM should be designed to follow the principle that learning is a process of "knowledge construction" as opposed to knowledge absorption. Second, IMM should be structured to support the principle that learning is "knowledge dependent," ie., that people inevitably use existing knowledge upon which to build new knowledge. And third, IMM should be designed to take advantage of the principle that learning is highly tuned to the "situation" in which it takes place.

Knowledge construction

In traditional academic classroom instruction, knowledge is often taught as an end in itself as opposed to a means to more important ends such as solving problems or understanding current events. In mathematics, students struggle to "learn" logarithms, geometric forms, and statistics without perceiving their utility in fields as diverse as astronomy, architecture, and agriculture. In science, these same students memorise definitions, tables, and formulas without perceiving their enormous impact as tools in medicine, archaeology, and criminology. In the humanities, students "read" great works of literature without grasping their relevance to such contemporary issues as war, civil rights, and the environment. In all these cases, new information is treated as isolated facts and discrete skills to be "learned" rather than as knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be "used."

In many contexts, IMM can be designed to present a focal event or problem situation that will serve as an "anchor" or focus for collaborative efforts among instructors and students to retrieve and construct knowledge. The knowledge construction process will in turn enable the instructors and students to understand the event or resolve the problem. Cognitive psychologists call this type of instruction "situated learning" (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) or "anchored instruction" (Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, & Williams, 1990) because the process of constructing new knowledge is situated or anchored in meaningful and relevant contexts. The events and problems presented in multimedia programs should be purposively designed to be intrinsically interesting, problem oriented, and challenging. In response to these types of events and problems, students will develop (ie., construct) useful as opposed to inert knowledge.

Knowledge dependent learning

According to Glaser (1984) and other cognitive psychologists, knowledge begets knowledge. In other words, the ability to construct new knowledge is a function of both the amount and quality of existing knowledge one has as well as one's reasoning and other intellectual abilities. Educators at all levels have long wrestled with the question of whether instruction ought to concentrate on teaching content or on developing the general intellectual abilities of students. In K-12 education, the pedagogical pendulum has swung back and forth between an emphasis on teaching basic facts and skills to a concentration on "learning to learn." "Back to the basics" has been a recurrent theme in the educational history of the United States. At other times, some content (eg., Latin) was taught not because of the intrinsic value of the content, but because it was thought to develop generalisable "powers of the mind."

Education authorities continue to struggle with determining the relative balance between content and thinking skills. In the United States, there has been a recent surge in support for content, witnessed by the calls for a return to "cultural literacy" made by Hirsch (1987), Bloom (1987), and others. On the other hand, some authorities continue to promote the development of critical thinking skills and creativity (cf., Schank, 1988; Tuerck, 1987).

A reasonable approach to solving this dilemma is based upon the recognition that it is as futile to teach thinking skills without knowledge as it is to teach knowledge without thinking skills. IMM can be designed to integrate both these goals. These programs would recognise that learning depends heavily on what students already know, and therefore provide "cognitive bootstrapping" for the construction of knowledge and the development of intellectual skills (Resnick, 1989b).

One way of "bootstrapping" the development of new knowledge is to enable students to confront misconceptions they have about various ideas. For example, research in science education indicates that the construction of new knowledge in a field such as physics may be constrained by everyday conceptions of natural phenomenon that conflict with accepted scientific theories (Johsua & Dupin, 1987). When students are exposed to discrepant events such as seemingly identical tops that spin in wildly different ways, they are forced to confront their everyday conceptions of the phenomena. Then, the students can be encouraged to resolve the discrepancies in collaboration with their peers and teachers, and ultimately construct new knowledge on the foundations of what they previously "knew".

Situated learning

A major concern for educators and trainers alike is the degree to which classroom learning transfers to external situations in which the application of knowledge, skills, and attitudes is appropriate. A major benefit of IMM is that knowledge constructed through interaction with multimedia programs can become connected or conditionalised to goals and the appropriate actions required to attain goals. The cognitive theories of Newell and Simon (1972), Anderson (1983), Brown (1985), and others support the fundamental principle that the way in which knowledge, skills, and attitudes are initially learned plays an important role in the degree to which these abilities can be used in other contexts. To put it simply, if knowledge is learned in a context of use, it will be used in that and similar contexts. This is especially important in training for the work place, whether it be a construction site, hospital, bank, or airplane.

In traditional instruction, information is presented in encapsulated formats, often via lectures and texts, and it is largely left up to the student to generate any possible connections between conditions (such as a problem) and actions (such as the use of knowledge as a tool to solve the problem). There is ample evidence that students who are quite adept at "regurgitating" memorised information rarely retrieve that same information when confronted with novel conditions that warrant its application (Bransford et al., 1990).

Medical educators have complained about this phenomenon for decades. Because of the highly selective admissions procedures used by medical schools, medical students are quite capable of memorising great quantities of the facts, concepts, and rules they are "taught" during the first two years of medical school. Regrettably, these same students are often unable to use these facts to make effective decisions in the process of patient examination, testing, diagnosis, and treatment during the clinical phase of their medical education. Ironically, only a few medical schools have switched to a case based approach wherein the students are first presented with realistic cases rich with problems to be solved, and then conceptual knowledge, skills, and even attitudes are introduced as required by the individual cases. IMM should be designed to introduce problems first with knowledge, skills, and attitudes being formulated in response to these problems. This approach will enable instructors and students to link newly acquired knowledge in the form of active responses to simulated problems.

An important perspective on how the multimedia can transform the conditions for teaching and learning through "situated learning" is provided by the research of John Seely Brown and his colleagues at Xerox PARC. Collins et al. (1989) propose a "cognitive apprenticeship,' model of instruction as an effective alternative to traditional instruction The researchers maintain that traditional instruction abstracts knowledge and skills from their uses in the world. In apprenticeship learning, on the other hand, knowledge and skills are seen as instrumental to the accomplishment of meaningful tasks. The apprenticeship model is based on modelling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection, and exploration as opposed to didactic teaching strategies such as telling and correcting. A critical characteristic of the cognitive apprenticeship is "situated learning" described by the researchers as follows:

A critical element in fostering learning is to have students carry out tasks and solve problems in an environment that reflects the multiple uses to which their knowledge will be put in the future. Situated learning serves several different purposes. First, students come to understand the purposes or uses of the knowledge they are learning. Second, they learn by actively using knowledge rather than passively receiving it. Third, they learn the different conditions under which their knowledge can be applied. Fourth, learning in multiple contexts induces the abstraction of knowledge, so that students acquire knowledge in a dual form, both tied to the contexts of its uses and independent of any particular context. This unbinding of knowledge from a specific context fosters its transfer to new problems and new domains. (p.487)
The three primary principles of cognitive learning theory described above in no way exhaust the pedagogical foundations for instructional IMM. Important research is occurring at a number of research and development institutions around the globe (Kearsley, 1991), including my own institution, The University of Georgia. Research already completed has been summarised in a number of journal articles and books (cf., Hannafin & Rieber, 1989; Jonassen & Mandl, 1990; Nix & Spiro, 1990; Resnick, 1989a; Schank & Jona, 1990). At the same time, not every authority is convinced that multimedia and constructivist theory represent major breakthroughs that go very far beyond existing approaches to computer based instruction and learning theory (cf., Dick, 1991; Merrill, 1991). The next few years should provide a better basis for consideration of the theoretical and practical issues described in this paper, especially as large scale multimedia implementation efforts occur in education and training contexts. Of course, large scale implementation of IMM must be accompanied by more and better research.

How should IMM research be done?

One common way of conducting research in the field of instructional technology is to compare the effectiveness of an innovation such as IMM with other instructional approaches (sometimes a different form of media such as linear video, or other times, the ubiquitous "traditional classroom instruction"). Research studies investigating the effectiveness of multimedia programs in comparison with more traditionally structured computer based instruction programs are beginning to be reported (cf., Lanza & Roselli, 1991), and as often is the case with this type of comparative research, the findings have shown no significant differences.

Another increasingly popular approach to research in this field is known as "media replication" or "attribute isolation" research (Ross and Morrison, 1989). Media replication studies attempt to isolate an attribute or dimension of CBI (eg., learner control) and estimate its effectiveness in a variety of implementations (eg., learner control with advisement versus learner control without advisement.) Media replication studies have enjoyed only a little more success than the aforementioned media comparison studies. For example, Ross and Morrison (1989) concluded that "research findings regarding the effects of learner control as an adaptive strategy have been inconsistent, but more frequently negative than positive."

Both these approaches to research (media comparison and media replication) are inadequate as a foundation for a science of instructional technology and advancement of the design of IMM. It is not the purpose of this paper to critique these research methods because they are criticised in detail in other publications (Clark, 1983; Hoban, 1958; Phillips, 1980; Reeves, 1986, 1989, 1990; in press; Sanders, 1981). The purpose of this paper is more constructive.

Instead of applying traditional experimental methods to compare the outcomes of IMM with other instructional treatments or isolating the effects of one or the other dimension of IMM, I recommend a multifaceted approach to research including the conduct of intensive case studies (Stake, 1978) and the application of computer modelling (Pagels, 1988). Further, the aim of these studies should be the construction of prescriptive theory (Clark, 1989). Prescriptive theory has been ignored too long in this field, and far greater skill in building and testing instructional prescriptions is demanded if our research is ever to have meaningful impact on the design and use of IMM.

The proposed investigations of IMM would include both observational and regression methods. These methods are recommended because of the exploratory nature of the research that must be done. observational studies are needed to identify the salient variables in learning via IMM. Once these variables have been identified, multiple regression and computer modelling methods can be used to explore relationships among specified variables and to determine the extent to which criterion variables such as performance can be predicted.

Three preliminary examples of these research directions have been carried out by faculty and doctoral students at The University of Georgia in collaboration with Apple Computer, Inc. First, Gustafson, Reeves, and Laffey (1990) investigated trainee performance in an elaborate and extensive training course, "Macintosh Fundamentals." Student paths through course modules and module sub-components, their selections among optional activities, time spent in various learning tasks, responses to practice exercises and test questions, and a host of other aspects of their use of the course were collected via computer tracking. Subsequent analyses of this data yielded unexpected insights into the structure of course menus, student understanding of instructional options, and fluctuations in their interests and motivation levels over time. For example, the course includes sophisticated student services options such as the ability to take "snapshots" of any screen in the program and "bookmark" their path through the IMM, but the vast majority of trainees ignored these options.

Second, Harmon (1991) conducted an observational study of students using IMM. He observed twenty-four students interacting with an ABC News Interactive Program called In the Holy Land. His research design required the students to talk aloud as they went through the programs, explaining what motivated their selections and paths. He found that students generally did not look for new knowledge, but instead sought to confirm their existing knowledge, whether it was accurate or not. For the most part, students actively searched the IMM for information that would confirm what they already thought they knew. In fact, in several cases, students continued to search for confirmatory information for many minutes despite coming face to face with a wealth of data that conflicted with their beliefs.

Third, Jih (1991) conducted a multiple regression study of the relationships among individual differences among learners, their mental models of an IMM program, their navigational pathways through the IMM course, and performance. Although methodological weaknesses in her study limited the generalisability of her findings, she found that learners construct very different mental models of the user interface of an IMM program such as Apple's "Macintosh Fundamentals" training course. She also found that the accuracy of their mental model is related to their previous computer experience and preference for a Macintosh style interface.

There are several methodological conditions that must be met for research with IMM. First, the learners should be involved in purposeful learning, driven by either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Volunteer subjects learning materials not directly related to their education or training needs are inappropriate. Second, the learners should spend many hours rather than a few minutes interacting with IMM. Clark (1989) estimated that most treatments used in research involving instructional technologies lasted no more than an hour; Reeves (in press) found that treatments in learner control research averaged around 30 minutes at best. How can one expect important findings from studies wherein students are exposed to trivial treatments for short periods of time? Third, ideally, the population of learners should be diverse in age, education, and prior experiences with computers to reveal any possible interactions among individual differences and features of the IMM. Fourth, if multiple regression and/or computer modelling studies are to be done, sample sizes of learners must be large, ideally running into the hundreds, to meet the requirements of the analytical techniques.

The need for research of this kind has never been more important. The power and complexity of IMM for education and training are increasing dramatically. During the Fall of 1991, when this paper was written, many innovative systems and programs were released that represent themselves as variants of IMM. For example, Philips Consumer Electronics, Inc. made the long awaited compact disc-interactive (CD-I) system available on the commercial market, accompanied by scores of interactive titles. The IBM Corporation rolled out new computer systems especially designed for what they have labelled "Ultimedia". IBM also released the two largest multimedia titles ever created, the Illuminated Manuscripts and Columbus at the CD-ROM conference in Washington, DC in October, 1991. Apple Computer, Inc. announced its most powerful Macintosh yet, the Quadra, as a workstation for the creation of multimedia at the COMDEX conference in Las Vegas. Apple also released beta versions of its multimedia support software called QuickTime.

If IMM programs are going to live up to the great promises that are being made for them, our knowledge of IMM design factors must be strengthened. At the present time, what we know about IMM design, especially in the area of user interface, is much more of an art than a science (Laurel, 1990). At present, few studies of the kind recommended above are being done with programs expressly designed for education and training. This paper calls for programmatic research in this area and provides initial guidelines for the conduct of such research.


What can we conclude about IMM designed for learning? Although the multimedia approach is sharply different from traditional instructional methods that require students to absorb messages pre-packaged by others, multimedia does not automatically guarantee higher order learning. In addition, while it is true that students can construct and appreciate the structure of a field of knowledge by actively exploring it, this does not automatically happen just because information is presented via IMM. Multimedia for learning must be consciously designed to take full advantage of advances in cognitive learning theory that have been made over past two decades. Finally, the need for alternative approaches to research with IMM has been supported. Preliminary directions would include intensive case studies and large scale applications of multiple regression and computer modelling techniques.

This work is just beginning. Locatis et al. (1989) point out, "The problems associated with developing [multimedia] for general or expert use are not well understood, much less those arising when the programs are used for learning" (p. 74). Much research will be needed to develop IMM programs that realise their instructional potential. At the same time, we cannot afford to wait until the research base has been completed. We must envision new ways for instructors and students to interact with the support of multimedia, bring them into being, and risk the difficulties that inevitably accompany such experiments.

The difficulty of researching how people learn via IMM can be compared to the difficulty involved in measuring the development of black holes in space (Hawking, 1988). In both contexts, direct measurement is elusive. Astronomers use computer models to predict where black holes (which are invisible) are and what effect they have on surrounding celestial bodies. They enter what data can be collected into computer models and gradually improve their understanding of these mysterious phenomena. Similarly, instructional technologists are advised to construct models of the effective dimensions of IMM, collect relevant data, analyse the data with computer modelling methods, and thus improve understanding of effective instructional dimensions "bit by bit." The uniquely powerful data collection capabilities of IMM lend themselves particularly well to the conduct of this type of research. Instead of sending probes into intergalactic space, we have the advantage of being able to program accurate and tireless data collectors into the very phenomena we wish to investigate.

At this time, the process of theory construction and distillation into testable models is clearly more a creative art than a hardened science. Each of us is advised to adopt the motto of Michelangelo as we undertake to improve our understanding of the research foundations of IMM, viz., "Ancora imparo" ("I am still learning.").


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Please cite as: Reeves, T. C. (1992). Research foundations for interactive multimedia. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 177-190. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/reeves.html

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