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Accessing contents of multimedia: What degree of freedom to permit the user

Don Cameron
Curtin University of Technology
The degree of access and navigation control to permit users in an interactive learning environment is an issue which is unresolved. Does the designer allow learners to enter a program and control operation, pace, and direction at will or should all or some of this freedom be removed by providing guidance? Recent studies on learner control highlights some areas where special attention should be given. A flexible control function is recommended which may go some way to making interactive multimedia compatible with most user's needs.


Recently formed associations of technology giants such as IBM with Apple, and Bell Atlantic Telephone Company with Tele-Communications Inc. (the biggest cable television company in the US) can only accelerate consumers exposure to information through digitised "highways". Putting the user in the driving scat enabling him or her to interact with multimedia information and entertainment poses many exciting opportunities, but there are also uncertainties. Being able to interact with a TV/computer from the comfort of home will allow us access to videos on demand, home shopping, video conferencing, virtual reality video games, databases and educational programs. The availability of this potentially vast amount of information raises privacy, ethical, social and psychological issues. One concern which is already apparent, with the increasing availability of multimedia learning materials, is the ability of all users to handle the complexities of meandering at will through a mass of data compiled in a range of media formats.

From an educational /psychological perspective this technological driven information "explosion" should permit learners to operate independently at their own rate. This should free instruction from the constraints of more traditional teaching/learning situations occurring in a classroom setting. In particular where teachers are compelled, for practical reasons, to lean towards the capability level of the less competent learners thus frustrating the more able. Perhaps the most significant educational opportunities of these new technologies is that learners can be placed in a more active role. This, it is argued, will motivate students as they are in control of their own learning.

Learner control

Learner control is an important design issue for today's developers of interactive technologies, as the degree of user freedom to access materials can be varied. It is possible to design instructional materials which can permit users freedom to access all materials, at any time, in any order that they choose. In this situation, the user can be simultaneously faced with a variety of media formats (text, video, animation, etc.), a large volume of stored information, and control of the interactive nature of the learning process. This may be perceived by the user as a challenging experience or alternatively one that is overpowering. The design, in this learner control mode, may be formatted to allow the user to set the difficulty level or content density. An alternative strategy which may be adopted by the instructional designer, is to lock the material into a linear format, whereby the instructional route taken is identical for all learners. In this programmed format, the special interests and needs of individuals are not addressed.

Between these two parameters lies a range of options whereby the designer can permit learners some freedom of control, but with the inclusion of a degree of adaptation and/or advisement to assist. This more flexible control mode can take many forms and includes informing students of their performance relative to a set standard and suggesting the amount of instruction needed. Students can then make their own decisions about the amount and sequence of instruction needed. Another variation of this is to assess performance and advise students as above, but then automatically adapt the amount and sequence of materials to the learner's needs (Hooper, Temiyakan & Williams, 1993; Reeves, 1993; Arnone, 1992).

Several educationalists have investigated and summarised the research on the effectiveness of learner control (Balajthy, 1988; Ross & Morrison, 1989; Steinberg, 1989). Their findings have shown inconsistency in results and suggest caution to designer/ developers striving to determine the degree of control to permit learners in an interactive environment.

On first impression, the provision of learner control should allow students to tailor their instructional experiences to suit personal needs and interests, thus increasing instructional relevance and continuing motivation and assisting in development of instructional strategies, promoting perceptions of personal control (Kinzie, 1990, p10). Exercising control can be an important learning activity where instructional decisions are made, outcomes experienced, and in the process the best tactics for different situations may be discovered (Merrill in Steinberg, 1989). Learner control, it is argued, can alleviate boredom, frustration, and anxiety because it enables students to bypass elements of the contents. These may be materials which the student views as irrelevant and uninteresting, or previously learned topics. Learner control and its influence of stimulating curiosity and hence motivation can enhance learning (Arnone, 1992).

Although the concept of learner control in interactive multimedia is widely accepted as having positive learning attributes, there are dangers if designers allow all learners "free scope" to all materials in this environment. Marchionni (1988) advised that freedom can be confusing because it increases the decision making load. Another warning has been that the less the student's prior knowledge the less effective learner control tends to be (Ross, Morrison, & O'Dell, 1988, p. 678).

In a review of learner control in computer based learning, Steinberg (in Balajthy, 1988) showed increased motivation was evident, but that this control does not necessarily result in improved learning. Balajthy investigated learner control in a range of teaching areas and concluded that there are serious questions about its effectiveness in instructional materials. Rubincan and Oliver (in Balajthy) surveyed eleven studies and found that only two indicated superior performance by groups under learner control whereas five studies indicated superior performance by groups who were not under learner control.

Chen (1989) warned that low ability students perform poorly when allowed freedom of control. He cited other researchers who feared that this "free learning" format might interfere with achievement of less competent, less confident students. Learners may opt to skip important material or quit too soon. Chen believed that learner control may only be effective with high ability learners, or with those who have some prior knowledge of the content. Kinzie (1990) also expressed concern with the use of some interactive learning systems where inexperienced users can find learner control to be confusing. She emphasised that instruction should include information about learner control options and permit practice in exercising them (p. 12).

Cohen (1984) suggested three important techniques for enhancing quality of interactivity when designing interactive materials. Firstly, the provision of non-linear pathways allowing user to choose direction depending on needs. Secondly, feedback which ensures remediation. This can include locating errors and informing learners why it is wrong and how it can be corrected. Lastly, Cohen suggested that learners be permitted options which allow the content, pace, and instructional strategies to be controlled.

Hannafin and Colamaio (1987) argued that providing learners with some guidance is superior to giving them total control and results in enhanced performance. Learner control studies in general support the view that the amount of additional assistance provided could be adjusted according to learner sophistication. This can be implemented by giving some control and self determination and thereby act as motivating activities that are "neither too difficult nor too easy" (Lepper & Malone, 1988, p.4). For high ability learners such modifications may be minimal. The designer of interactive multimedia could then permit degrees of user control to be varied, thus maximising an individual's motivation to the learning materials.

Optimising learner control

The potential of interactive multimedia as a powerful learning tool is almost universally accepted. However, the question of maximising the educational effectiveness of this new technology by creating control features which meet the needs of all learners is unresolved. As multimedia technology has been developing, so also has our knowledge of human learning through research carried out by educational psychologists and others. Organisation and meaningfulness of learning materials can be enhanced by awareness of potential and limitations of human learning and structures designed to meet individual needs. Attempts to gain further insight into making learning materials more meaningful for individuals are not easy, if you consider the diversity of individual differences. These can be summarised into three elements: cognitive factors such as knowledge and experience; affective components such M motivation and attitudes; and physiological factors such as eye-hand coordination and visual acuity (Jih & Reeves, 1993). Our increasing knowledge of cognitive psychology gives us some insight into the first two of these elements. One area of cognition where considerable research has been conducted is human memory potential.

Limitation of human memory

Jonassen (1988) noted that a shortcoming of most existing computer courseware, has been the emphasis on practice of associations in working memory. He advised that designers must make more use of deeper, semantic processing which requires the learner to access prior knowledge in order to interpret new material. This interaction with past experiences in long term memory, can influence individual motivation, reasons for learning, and metacognitive knowledge of when and how to use procedures and information (Kozma, 1991). Instructional developers of interactive multimedia need to include strategies which call on the user to employ this deeper processing when undertaking new learning experiences. They also need to consider the limitations of short term memory. The restrictions of this part of our memory system has particular importance with interactive materials on a computer, where the user is in control of the direction and pace of learning. Too much control may overtax short term memory capabilities.

Overviews for users unfamiliar with multimedia

The major problem for first time users of any complex computer system is lack of guidance, especially if they are entering new knowledge domains. Large homogeneous databases that are intended for browsing are a special problem for novices (Gygi, 1990, p. 284)

Kearsley (1988) identified an essential component when designing interactive multimedia as structuring knowledge in a way that an overview can be presented. This can help to establish a mental image of topics covered in order to facilitate traversal and reduce disorientation. Not all writers are convinced of the value of overview strategies. Seal-Wanner (1988) believed that students gain knowledge through trial and error experimentation that eventually leads to understanding of the system. Phillips & Hannafin (1988) agreed with this and claimed that recent research has suggested that the effects of orienting activities and elaborations are often subsumed by more powerful instructional variables such as en-route practice. Phillips and Hannafin added that orienting activities may provide processing support where little or no inherent lesson organisation exists, but that they may be of little value in well organised lessons.

Quality of graphical displays

The visual display quality of educational materials can be assessed by measuring the degree to which the processing of information by the user is facilitated and its allowance for the user's physiological and psychological needs (Spenkelink, Besuijen & Brok, 1993). Learners today are frequently presented with high quality computer generated graphics when watching television and playing video games. Designing interactive learning materials, which fall short of this standard can suppress the motivation of learners.

Today's hardware and software provides the tools to produce quality visual displays. Allen (1975) reviewed research on intellectual abilities and visual treatment of learning materials. He suggested that animated visuals, close ups, large pictures, visual pointers, and use of colour can be employed as attention directing devices which instructional designers can utilise with lower ability learners. According to Allen, visual devices suitable for high mental ability learners can include multi-screen, multi-image, high speed of presentation of pictorial stimuli, and a combination of pictorial and narration.

Another graphical element which can enhance learning in multimedia is the use of imagery. This can call upon the learner's ability to mentally visualise situations to assist with operation and understanding. The designer using imagery must be aware of the individual differences in learners' abilities to manipulate mental images. Langham-Johnson (1984) and Herrman (1989) found that some individuals can modify mental images at will, whereas others apparently cannot.

Human interface

Many learners perform best through human contact. Moir and Jessel (1989) pointed out that women generally, have a greater ability than men to integrate and cross relate verbal and visual information such as facial expressions and gestures. Men on the other hand perform better as abstract learners. Th limitations of computers in the past can perhaps partially explain why female students at senior high school level have had a greater negative attitude to computers than males (Kirk, 1992; Hattie & Fitzgerald, 1987). With speech and visual capabilities of today's computers this situation can be corrected to a degree. This can be achieved by allowing users to call up on the computer screen, video sequences of a "human" instructor relaying specific instructions by speech and demonstration (Oren, Salomon, Krietman & Don, 1990).

Navigation aids

With the availability of interactivity through learner control, designers of interactive multimedia can cream materials which give the user more personal responsibility and allow for individual differences. However, Hannafin (1985) expressed concern that the development of interactive multimedia systems to support teaching and learning has been a very uncharted area of education. There is a danger of the user being overwhelmed by the structure of the material and unable to navigate successfully. On opening the first screen, the new user may, or may not be given some guidance on the nature and volume of the contents. This may largely depend on the foresight and skill of the designer. Orienting strategies available at the beginning of the multimedia package are only one of several help features which can be employed. To the inexperienced user initial familiarisation can be critical. Other guidance issues should also be addressed to alleviate the risk of disorientation during navigation. These may include help functions and guides to let the user see their previous "path" through the data (Khan, 1988; Bard, 1988). Nicol (1987) believed that users of interactive multimedia should have available an ever present map which creates the illusion that the user is in a familiar geographical location such as a book.

User involvement in design and development

Students today can create their own learning materials. Armed with cameras, camcorders, video players, and scanners they can "capture bits and pieces of the real world so they can later analyse, organise, and re-create their journey" (D'Ignazio, 1990, p.23). This inquiry based learning approach can not only be of significant benefit to the students directly involved in production, but the end product can be utilised by others.

Enlisting potential users to assist with user control elements of multimedia can be a significant factor to successful utilisation. This involvement can occur throughout design, development and implementation stages. User involvement has been a strategy attempted by the author with two multimedia productions being developed at the School of Occupational Therapy at Curtin University. The first package is a recreational activities and facilities database for occupational therapists (Cameron, 1992) and the other is a self paced teaching resource on vocational rehabilitation equipment and procedures.

Undergraduate students have been involved in the design and development throughout the life of the recreation project. To date, over 260 students have been involved in researching recreational data, in a range of media formats. The results of their efforts have not only become part of this information resource, but have contributed also to the student's assessment for the unit. Over 100 occupational therapy students have formed the population in tests on prototype versions and have been encouraged to contribute to the user control elements.

Individuals and small groups of students have worked on several design elements including: exploring alternative designs, conducting questionnaires and pilot studies with practicing therapists; designing a version of the database for clients of therapists with special needs.

Cooperative learning

Computers provide the means to allow students the opportunity to work independently and at their own pace. This individualised learning approach has obvious advantages, but may not always be achievable for economic reasons. The availability of one computer per student is still not a reality in many instances and therefore learners am frequently compelled to work in snail groups around one computer. Additionally, designing and developing individualised versions of software to meet numerous different users is currently unrealistic.

Hooper, Temiyakarn, & Williams (1993) pointed out that groups working around one computer not Only assist administratively and financially, "but appears to have important cognitive and affective benefits" (p.5). They referred to research indicating that cooperative learning can reduce hardware and software problem that hinder the achievement of less able students working alone. For instance, it can foster important cognitive activities such as active learning and modelling a partner's behaviour. Active processing of information is promoted as individuals explain to colleagues, utilising elaborations between new and existing knowledge. In a comparative study of group versus individual learning on computers, Hooper, et al, found that groups covered instruction faster and established a learning environment in which cognitive and navigation difficulties were overcome. Additionally, groups had more positive attitudes towards the computer lesson than did individuals working alone. Female users in particular prefer working on computers in groups according to Hanson (1987) as it helps to meet their social, interaction needs.


As Reeves (1993) indicated, typical learner control research in the past has compared effectiveness of giving learners the freedom to choose "the path, rate, and content" with program control, where design features determine these factors (p.40). This has failed to address the range of options available using advisement and adaptation to meet individual user needs. Improvements to effective usage of multimedia can be achieved by allowing the user a choice of operating and navigation pathways. The areas addressed above (human interface, overviews, etc) are not inclusive, but they each demonstrate their worthiness of further research to maximise the effectiveness of learner control for all users of interactive multimedia. A strategy of incorporating all, or some, of these features should be evaluated in an attempt to reach a standard design of user control. Learners can then operate at a level they feel comfortable within, bypassing the help/guide features as they become more confident.


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Author: Mr Don Cameron, Lecturer, School of Occupational Therapy, Curtin University of Technology, Selby Street, Shenton Park, Perth, WA 6008. Tel: 381 0600 Fax: 381 1496. Email: don_cameron@qmcc.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Cameron, D. (1994). Accessing contents of multimedia: What degree of freedom to permit the user. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 65-70. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/bc/cameron.html

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