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"Click and drag the test tube": A role for interactive multimedia in human biology

Sue D Fyfe and Georgina M Fyfe
Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia
Poor educational outcomes and logistical problems of a benchtop laboratory class in Human Biology at Curtin University prompted the development of The Osmosis Program, interactive courseware built using Supercard. The program incorporates a self paced background tutorial and a laboratory simulation. Students master background chemical principles then generate data in the laboratory simulation. A team of specialists developed the courseware and linkages of individual team members contributions coordinated. The Osmosis Program was trialled with students before full implementation into Human Biology 133. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected during the trial and used to subsequently modify the Osmosis Program.


Science units taught in tertiary institutions generally contain both lectures and a practical component based around observation, data collection, hypothesis testing and synthesis of results. There are many advantages to using a practical component in the teaching of science courses at all educational levels. Practical classes may range in design from field work to benchtop experiments and are, by their nature, interactive and will usually require data collection, analysis and decision making. Well constructed practical classes can do much more than merely reinforce material presented in a more didactic form. They can be designed to allow the student to make mistakes in their observations or measurement, recognise them and deal with the consequences. Such experience can contribute to learning outcomes and a real appreciation of scientific procedure.

Many of the advantages of a practical class can be recreated on a computer screen using interactive multimedia. The possibility of replacing practicals with interactive multimedia has increasing significance to tertiary education in Australia, where funding cutbacks often mean that the relatively expensive practical component is the first to be sacrificed.

There are other reasons to consider replacing practical classes with interactive multimedia. Current and relevant laboratory equipment may be too expensive to purchase and maintain for student practicals. An increase in student numbers may prohibit supplying enough equipment to allow hands on experience to all class members. Funding may not allow the provision of the extra academic and technical staff required to adequately supervise practical classes. Tertiary institutions must also accommodate more variable study patterns, including distance education, part time study and scheduling of some classes outside the traditional hours.

In addition to funding considerations, there are also some ethical reasons for finding alternatives to traditional benchtop practicals. The use of animals in classroom experiments in the life sciences was, until relatively recently, an acceptable practice. Administration, students and staff now question their use and seek justification in compelling educational terms.

These considerations produce significant challenges to maintaining quality educational experiences in science based tertiary courses. They will affect the provision of practical classes and result in the need to choose teaching priorities. The options for tertiary education appear to be :

Our involvement with the teaching of a large intake first year human biology unit at Curtin University forced us to face these choices.

Human biology at Curtin University

All students who study health sciences must undertake at least 2 semesters of human biology covering anatomy, histology and physiology. In the first semester of their first year, students enrol in Human Biology 133. It is offered in both semesters each year and is also taught by country centres in Albany, Karratha, Port Hedland, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie. In addition, students may study the unit through distance education. Over one thousand students per year enrol in the unit, which involves two hours of lectures and a two hour practical laboratory class per week.

The students are from a broad range of courses, including nursing, the therapies, pharmacy, environmental health, medical laboratory science, health promotion and nutrition. These students enter with widely diverse backgrounds, bringing with them differing knowledge bases and confidence levels. Some of the students are mature aged entry, and often do not have strong mathematics and chemistry skills and baulk at concepts based upon these principles. Students entering some clinical courses, especially nursing, have omitted these subjects in their school based science courses.

Over the last two years, we have significantly restructured Human Biology 133 to increase the use of independent learning and to emphasise mastery rather than merely coverage of basic but essential concepts. We were especially concerned that many students were not adequately mastering the chemistry needed to understand osmosis: the movement of fluids in and out of body cells. Within the unit we used print based materials, a videotape and a laboratory practical to show the effects of these processes at a cellular level. However, it was evident that many students were not achieving well on this section of the examinations despite performing well in other human biology topics. Anecdotal evidence also supported the view that many students found the concept of osmosis difficult. It was not viable to provide the extra tutor support to those students who were experiencing difficulties with osmosis due to financial and timetabling considerations. As there were also students for whom the section presented no difficulties, providing designated class time was considered an inefficient use of limited resources.

The area in need of a new approach was a benchtop practical class which uses red blood cells to illustrate osmosis. Red blood cells either swell and burst or shrink under different osmotic conditions and cell bursting can be quantified using colorimetry. As cells burst, their red pigment, haemoglobin is released and dissolves into the solution. If cell debris is then removed, the solution is a clear red and the depth of colour reflects the proportion of cells which have burst or haemolysed. In the class, students generate their own data which provides information about the degree of haemolysis expected from solutions of different salinity. Done carefully, this laboratory practical provides good results from which to explain the concepts involved. Students are then expected to predict the outcome of other experimental situations from an understanding of the results generated.

For students with a background in chemistry, this practical did indeed achieve the aims, but many students unfortunately failed to grasp the concepts and their application. Many of these students were achieving well in the anatomy areas of the course and thus the issue appeared to be one of inadequate background knowledge rather than ability. Some students appeared to be distracted by the complex and time consuming laboratory procedures and were unable to link the results to the effects across the cell membrane. Tutors in their turn, were being frustrated by the time constraints imposed by the laboratory procedures which did not allow them the time needed to explain basic chemical principles. Although a self paced prelab had been designed to go through the basic materials, students had often not completed the section or realised the need to understand the principles involved.

The role of interactive multimedia in human biology

It became clear that interactive multimedia may provide a mechanism for increasing learning opportunities for those students who, for various reasons, did not gain maximum benefit from the benchtop practical. As well as concern for the educational outcomes of the laboratory class, running the class had a number of logistic problems which influenced our decision to replace it with interactive multimedia courseware. The class ran over two weeks for 46 classes of 15 to 20 students each, requiring a massive input of technical time. The use of human blood and laboratory equipment required supervision by technical as well as academic staff. This laboratory was the only chemically based practical in the unit and many students do not all have well developed lab skills at this early point in their tertiary studies. The increasingly stringent safeguards for using human blood also meant that obtaining ready supplies of fresh blood had become time consuming although necessary, as old blood has increased cell fragility which affects the results collected in the laboratory.

Thus, the need for constant technical support, large amounts of consumables such as solutions and glassware and the occupational health and safety provisions which limited access to fresh blood were significant factors in our decision to utilise interactive multimedia.

On the positive side the opportunity for interactivity provided by multimedia was a major influence in our decision to redesign the osmosis practical and associated prerequisite content into interactive multimedia courseware. We were encouraged by the development of multimedia in science education and by research which indicated that in laboratory classes, interactive experimental simulations could be used successfully (Smith, Jones & Waugh, 1986)

In developing the courseware which we called the Osmosis Program we wanted to retain the advantages of the benchtop practical but eliminate the negatives aspects. We therefore focussed our attention on :

The Osmosis program


The opportunity to build this interactive multimedia courseware was presented by the DEET National Priority Reserve Fund. In 1991-92, Curtin University was successful in attracting grants to develop interactive multimedia courseware. The grants were used to provide computing centre expertise in design and programming in conjunction with time release for academic staff. The team approach was essential for us to allow our ideas full rein without being hampered by a lack of programming skill. We also benefited immensely from the graphic design input which focussed us on the importance of presentation as well as content. The early work carried out on this project resulted in a successful grant from the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) in 1993 to complete and test the courseware.

The early stages of the development process were dominated by the need to survey available software for suitability. In contrast to other developers, the content and educational objectives of the material were already largely prescribed for us. We wished to simulate the practical component of an existing class and to develop self paced tutorial material which would enhance understanding for all students, regardless of background and " confidence in prerequisite knowledge and skills. Our need for software which would allow the incorporation of animated and colour graphics, such as in the subtle differences in colour of blood cell solutions influenced our choice of Supercard.

The project was boosted by participation in a residential weekend workshop run by the Curtin Computing Centre. Thus provided us as content specialists access to specialist programmers and designers, allowing some foundation components of the practical module to be built. This was useful in a motivational sense, and provided a reference point from which to work.

Determining the freedom with which students could navigate through the courseware was our first decision and a major influence on the structure we have developed. The essentially linear path of the laboratory class provided the courseware structure. We wanted to produce a sequence which would motivate the students to complete prerequisite sections before attending the laboratory and would guide them through a series of graded steps to understanding these concepts. However, whilst we wanted to guide the students we also wanted to give them the opportunity to side step from the pathway for self testing or remedial help. We were also aware of the evidence that indicates that poorer students may have more difficulty in selecting sequences and reviewing material unless there is some structured guidance (Steinberg, 1977) This emphasised the need for sufficient external control to effectively guide students through the program whilst allowing them flexibility in the way they consolidate prerequisite concepts and test their understanding.

Planning of the content and sequencing of die material was largely done on paper. Whilst this was mainly due to lack of hardware available to the content specialists, it proved useful for keeping track of feedback loops, glossary and other items which sidestep out of the main pathway. From this we devised a useful method of "screen drawings" on paper, which could easily be shuffled, re-ordered, or added to, and clearly indicated to the team programmer and designer our intentions for each card. Later we utilised Inspiration software to help us keep track, and as a record of developmental progress.

It was decided to aim towards completing a working version of the Osmosis Program to trial with a group of students, and to use their feedback to complete the courseware. This proved to be invaluable, as was the peer review which we sought from computing experts, educationalists and human biologists. The completion time for the working version was approximately 10 months, allocating an average of four hours per week for assembly of content


The Osmosis Program was constructed in three modules.

Background to Osmosis

This module is divided into segments covering the required prerequisite knowledge and skills in chemistry and cell membrane transport to gain most from the practical. It is highly interactive, requiring students to participate in some constructive way on most of the cards. Students may bypass sections and opt to test themselves from a bank of questions or go back through any of the material as many times as they need. Students complete this background tutorial in their own time prior to their practical session.

Laboratory Practical

Students work through this module in their practical class groups with a tutor in attendance. It is divided into two segments. In the first, entitled "Observing Osmosis" students place blood into test tubes containing solutions of varying salinities and observe the resulting mixture for degrees of cloudiness. This closely mimics the benchtop situation, but students have access to explanatory information. Interactive cues prompt them to correlate their observations with their understanding of information from the Background Tutorial. In the second segment, "Measuring Osmosis", students set up a series of test tubes containing solutions of different salinities, add blood, centrifuge the solutions and measure the light absorbance of each resulting haemoglobin solution in a colorimeter. In this section, a decision to reduce the complexity of the real situation and streamline the process some reality has been sacrificed to keep students directed onto the concepts themselves. Even so, students must make decisions, collect and graph data, manipulate on screen test tubes and interact with laboratory equipment.


After graphing their results, students can check their answers and discuss their implications in this postlab module. Students are prompted to describe their graph then given feedback and, if incorrect are allowed to try again. Finally, a small bank of questions consolidates their learning and focuses the aims of the practical module.


A working version of the background tutorial and the Practical module was trialled in semester 1 , 1993. A 20 station lab of Macintosh IIvx computers had been set up in the School of Biomedical Sciences to support the increasing role for interactive multimedia in human biology. One hundred and nineteen students were selected from the 850 enrolment of Human Biology 133. These students were chosen as a stratified sample representative of the course enrolments in the unit. Thus 9 time slots were chosen with physiotherapy, speech and hearing, nursing, health information management, pharmacy, human biology and medical technology students involved in the trial. Students were introduced to the Macintosh computers in the first practical session and undertook the MacBasics program to learn the skills needed to access the Osmosis Program. Students then had two weeks to work through the Background Tutorial before attending the practical class. Some students moved through the Background very quickly as they were strong in chemistry whereas others for whom the content was new, spent up to six or seven hours. Students were asked to evaluate the program each time they used the Background Tutorial and after the Practical session.


The semester 1 trial aimed to evaluate the program to allow modifications before incorporation into the unit Human Biology 133. Our main aims in program evaluation were to : To investigate these questions both quantitative and qualitative methods were used.

Osmosis program questionnaire

The Osmosis Program was evaluated by students using an instrument developed from areas identified by Bitter and Wighton (1987). Areas appropriate from their instrument were included in a thirty item questionnaire. These areas were Questions were developed using a 5 point Likert scale for each of the areas measured within the instrument, with items phrased both positively and negatively in order to give the instrument an unbiased appearance. In order to explore areas which might be important to students but not included in the questionnaire three open ended questions were presented at the end of the instrument. Students were asked to indicate the things they liked most and least about using the Osmosis Program and were given the opportunity to make any general comments.

The responses to questionnaire instruments were analysed using the computer package Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) (Nie, Hull, Jenkins, Steinbrenner & Brent, 1975). Eighty percent of the student group was female and over 50% had done no computing before. Forty seven percent of the group evaluating the Osmosis Program described themselves as having 'below average" or "very poor" skills in computing.

The following items were identified as positive aspects of the program by more than 50% of the students. The table shows the items, the percentage who responded with a definite agreement to the statement (4 or 5 on the Likert scale). The following graph shows the most positive aspects as indicated by student responses in the evaluation questionnaire.

From the open ended questions 'what did you like most about the program" students commented that "the program was easy to learn and understand" (23.4%), "you could move at your own pace" (14.9%), "the pictures and noises were good" (11.7%) and that they liked the novelty of using a computer (16.0%). The least liked features from the open ended questions were that the program was too slow (23.2%), there was too much material to cover (11.0%), they weren't given enough time for the project (9.8%), and that the program was unclear in places (8.5%).

Students were given the opportunity to make any overall comments on the program. Whilst the numbers were small the comments indicated that some students felt that their computing background knowledge was an issue in using the program (n=5), that there was a lack of human contact (n=3) and more programs should be developed (n=7).

Student comment sheets

Students were asked to complete a comments sheet at the conclusion of each session using the Osmosis Program. They were asked to state their age, sex and course of study, and the session number using the Osmosis Program. Space was allocated asking for comments and these unprompted comments were collected and analysed.

One hundred and thirty nine students completed a comment sheet for the background tutorial. Of these, the majority (61%) were aged 20 years of younger. The comment volunteered by 26.7% was that they found the Background Tutorial useful or helpful in understanding osmosis, whilst 18.5% stated they enjoyed the session or found it fun. Negative comments were dominated by complaints about the slow reaction of the program after clicking the mouse (15%), that they didn't have sufficient time to finish (4.4%) or that they were irritated by mistakes or glitches in the Background Tutorial (12.6%).

Positive aspects of Osmosis Program from student evaluation

Number of respondentsBackground tut.Prac. module
% aged 20 yrs or less61%71%
Total number of unsolicited comments266303
% volunteered comments re:
1. program was useful or helped their understanding
2. session was fun, enjoyable, OK, easy to do
3. Too slow to respond to mouse click
4. Mistakes, examples of glitches in program
5. Provided good feedback
6. Poor or insufficient feedback
7. Would rather work on computer than benchtop
8. Would rather have benchtop experience

Not applicable
Not applicable


After working through the practical module, 148 students completed a comment sheet. The extra respondents were all from the age group of twenty years or younger. Many (58.5%) stated they found the practical module fun, easy to do, fine or OK, and 22 % volunteered the information that the module had helped them to understand osmosis. Six point five percent expressed the opinion that they would rather work on the screen than on the benchtop whilst 2.5% stated a preference for benchtop practical activity. The screens interchanged too slowly for 12 % and 4.2% had specific complaints about segments of the practical they found unclear. Data gathered from the comments sheets are summarised in the table above.

Classroom interaction observations

In order to investigate the way in which students interacted with each other and their tutor during the practical class these interactions were sampled over 10 minute periods whilst the students were collecting data. This may have been less accurate than videotaping the class and analysing the results but technical limitations affected our decision and we considered that with twenty or less students in the class we would collect reasonable representation of the class interactions.

The interaction analysis sampled and categorised interaction between students and tutors and between students themselves into six major categories: questions related to content of the Osmosis program, general questions about osmosis, requests for explanation of a screen, questions related to progressing through the program and both "on task" and "off task" student-student comments.

Thirty six percent of all interactions were between students and other students, generally their neighbours at the next computer. The majority of these interactions were related to the practical and the Osmosis Program with only three percent of all interactions coded as "off task' comments or interactions. Questions asked of tutors were mainly related to progressing through the program ("what do I do next?") and questions concerning the content of the Osmosis Program itself.

Classroom interaction observations


Student response to the osmosis was generally positive with one exception. The program ran too slowly and the response time after clicking the mouse was too great. Students kept clicking the mouse thinking it wasn't responding, resulting in a number of cards rapidly presented a short time later. This problem arose mainly because of the high graphic and animation load, especially in the laboratory practical module. so that even though the button visually depressed this graphic response also took too long. To overcome this problem the program was segmented to allow faster access to any of the three modules. We have also added a 'click' audio which sounds immediately after clicking the mouse. This has certainly improved matters and should be reflected in our next evaluation. It does highlight however, the importance of hardware for running programs and the need to match memory capabilities with program development.

With the exception of response time, the comments about the program content and interaction were generally positive. Most students found the Osmosis Program easy to use and understand with the material presented seen as clear and concise. Our efforts in producing good graphics and animation appear to have been worthwhile and were a major positive feature of the program for students. Questions asked of tutors about navigation did show that some were unsure of how to progress through screens and this feedback has been valuable in modifying navigational instructions.

In our evaluation, we were encouraged that despite some initial apprehension students appeared to have Increased their confidence in using screen based technology. Our change in the introductory session in second semester which reduced the amount of MacBasics done (omitting document producing and file saving etc) allowed students to access and begin to use the Osmosis Program in their first class. Students will have more hands on experience whilst their tutor is available to help and we believe this will increase students confidence in using the program by themselves.

The interaction observations showed some interesting contrasts to anecdotal evidence from tutors about students in the traditional benchtop laboratory. We found that the Osmosis program students showed more "on task" behaviour with students discussing their results and progress with their neighbours. The traditional lab produces blocks of time when students are either waiting for equipment or for a procedure to be completed. These times lead to a much more social "off task" interaction than we observed in the computer lab. The variations added to the results students generated in the computer lab both simulated reality and also led to interaction between students as they compared their results with others. Tutors indicated that with the Osmosis Program there was more time to concentrate on helping individual students with conceptual difficulties rather than supervising practical procedures.

Development of the Osmosis Program has also highlighted some issues we consider essential for the successful incorporation and role of interactive multimedia courseware in tertiary science courses with a practical component. Available hardware must meet courseware demands, especially where the the speed of response is compromised by graphics load. In the development process we have also found that the value of feedback from a working version for the further refinement of the program outweighs any concerns about trialling incomplete courseware.

Courseware such as the Osmosis Program may enhance learning for more students in increasingly heterogeneous student populations. It is a marvellous platform to support good teaching practice but does not come with its own built in educational advantages. Developed courseware can only be as good as the educational input with regards to content, presentation and sequencing. A project requires planning to ensure adequate funding for time release, so that content, navigation, programming and design are the best and most appropriate available. It is essential that projects consider implementation details to maximise usage of developed courseware and that evaluation is carried out.

Our objective is to ensure that our students are in no way disadvantaged, and may perhaps be significantly better off due to the incorporation of interactive multimedia courseware in human biology.


Bitter, G. G. & Wighton, D. (1987). The most important criteria used by the educational software evaluation consortium. The Computing Teacher, 14(6) March.

Nie, Hull, Jenkins, Steinbrenner & Brent (1975). Statistical Package for the Social Sciences. Chicago. SPSS Inc.

Smith, Jones & Waugh (1986). Production and evaluation of interactive videodisc lessons in laboratory instruction. Journal of Computer-based Instruction, 13, 117-121.

Steinberg. (1977). Review of student control in computer-assisted instruction. Journal of Computer-based Instruction, 3, 48-90.

Authors: Sue Fyfe and Georgina Fyfe, Dept Human Biology, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6001. Tel: 09 351 7364

Please cite as: Fyfe, S. D. and Fyfe, G. M. (1994). "Click and drag the test tube": A role for interactive multimedia in human biology. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 152-158. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/dg/fyfe.html

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