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Strategies to provide pathways for learners in a computer managed learning environment

Harry B Lee and Don Cameron
Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia
Two distinctive Computer Based Learning (CBL) projects in the Schools of Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy at Curtin University are investigating the needs of individuals during navigation through interactive multimedia learning materials. The first of these projects is a multimedia database of recreational activities and the other the development of a Student Operated Computer Controlled Educational Resource (SOCCER) in a Computer Managed Learning Environment (CMLE). This project was funded by a grant from the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) to improve the effectiveness of user interactions in a multimedia environment. Research has shown that computer managed learning can be most effective when it provides pathways and freedom of choice for to meet the needs of learners. In this study, learners were provided with freedom of access to quality assured software and tests to explore their level of competence in discrete areas of the body of knowledge in the CMLE. The activities of learners and pathways selected by them were audited to provide research data for further consideration. In this way, learners are empowered to become self paced and self directed to control their rate of progress throughout the body of knowledge dispensed within the CMLE. Interactive Computer Assisted Learning Packages (ICALP), Test and Feedback items are also described, which enable learners to determine their readiness for entry to formal test procedures.


The rapid advancements being made in electronic information technology, information processing and communication technology, is changing the way it is stored and accessed for the presentation of learning materials. Students are currently introduced to these developments by an increasing range of digitised information through computer based learning (CBL) packages, as well as network and library based CD-ROM databases. This trend can only increase as compression and networking techniques become more effective, posing problems of how to make students aware of these resources and give direction about where to find and navigate them without becoming disoriented. The latter point is an issue for interactive multimedia developers to be aware of when investigating the most effective ways to present materials to individual learners.

Therefore, these two distinctive CBL projects aim to investigate the needs of learners as they navigate throughout interactive multimedia learning materials. The first of these projects is a database of recreational activities whilst the other outlines the development of pathways to investigate the development of ICALP, Test and Feedback Items, SOCCER and learner reactions to them and the CMLE.

Recreation database

Recreation Perth commenced in 1991 (Cameron, 1992) as a resource in the School of Occupational Therapy to provide its students with ready access to recreational pursuits to meet the special needs of therapists and their clients. Recreation and leisure studies had suffered substantial reductions in teaching time through curriculum changes.

An early observation was that most therapy students to had little previous computer experience which caused anxiety for some when navigating multimedia packages (Plug, 1991). Hooper and Hannafin (1991), and Gaines and Vickers (1988) indicate that some form of overview can assist new users of this technology. With the media options available, imagery (Bower, 1972) and analogy (Sternberg & Nigro, 1983) sequences can be presented to learners in an opening overview to make the presentation of new materials more meaningful.

In a HyperCard prototype of Recreation Perth, two overview sequences were developed and trialled. One was an animated analogy to link the database of a river system and the other a flow chart. Both were produced with narration via Authorware Professional, but, to incorporate colour and animation, they were linked by HyperCard stacks. It was considered that these strategies would provide significant benefits to a user's knowledge of the database's operation and structure and their attitude towards it.

This experiment was applied to 53 new users of the database, one third of whom formed the control group to enter the database without initial exposure to advance organisers, whilst the other two groups opened either onto a river analogy or a flow chart sequence before entering the database. When the results were analysed no significant differences could be found between the control and experimental groups.

Reasons why advanced organisers proved to be of little influence in this study could be related to the effectiveness of the database's design and development. A retrospective study of consultations with students may result in an earlier educational product with little need for advance organisers. The researcher, working on the database design whilst simultaneously developing appropriate advance organisers, could have unwittingly transferred findings from one to the other. Research of the orienting needs of new users of multimedia may have directed attention to minimising potential problems in the database design. This finding is consistent with Mayer (1979), who noted that advance organisers tend to be of least impact when learning materials are well organised and meaningful to the learners.

The above findings support the views of Clark (1983) and Kulik and Kulik (1980) in their review of the comparative effectiveness of various forms of media, including that of computing. These authors believe that there is little comparative difference in learning effectiveness where the same instructor designs all the treatments.

Another possible reason for this pattern of results is that the choice of advance organisers may have conflicted with the semantic processing capabilities of some subjects. The orienting activity may have misled otherwise effective learners by supplying information in conflict with their learning style. These students may have performed better with an alternative advance organiser, or without any orienting activity. For instance, the selection of a flow chart and river network may not have been appropriate for the largely female population. Moir and Jessel (1989) identified a number of research findings which show that females have greater difficulty than mates with nap reading.

The simplicity of the database structure and operations may have allowed the control group to reach the same level of competency as the advance organiser groups within the ten minute time limit. Comparison between groups when given a shorter time limit to explore the database may have exposed these differences. The results of this study indicate that the advance organiser groups accessed more activities, more video sequences, and were more likely to correctly identify and operate buttons. Although none of these results are significant, this may not have been the case if subjects had been given a reduced time to explore the database.

The brief introduction given to all subjects of the basic operations of computers and the purpose of the study may have been sufficient introductory assistance for the study population. The interactive multimedia arrangement of this database, particularly the ability of the user to access attractive colour, stills and moving visuals, may have provided the learner with sufficient incentive for exploration. Whether this interest would be sustained, or lowered, as the novelty effect diminished, could only be assessed by re-tests to detect group differences.

The homogeneous population used in this study poses the question of whether the results would be repeated with other proposed user groups. For instance, when used with people with special needs, advance organisers in a multimedia format may assist some groups to operate the database more successfully. Careful selection of appropriate, meaningful sequences to meet user needs would need to be carefully investigated.

Other strategies being tested

As Recreation Perth developed, it was realised that the information stored could be of value to others, such as practising therapists and their clients, as well as the general public seeking information about outlets and locality of recreational facilities. With an increasing range of potential users it was decided to investigate other strategies to assist new users to navigate through the database, with orienting activities for some of its users. However, instead of the program compelling the user to navigate their way through these sequences, they would remain optional. New users would be advised of this availability and freedom of access to them if required. Additional help and guidance features were planned and are currently undergoing trials. These include a "map" to allow users to access the database, a screen layout showing the database structure and highlighted areas they already "visited" with a QuickTime movie sequence as a "human" guide showing how to operate key buttons.

Student involvement in design and development

One of the more significant outcomes of this project has been the range of student learning experiences created. At the initial stage, a four person group of third year students completed a major elective project, compiling a proposal of alternative design formats with categories of information relevant to therapists. This was followed by an undertaking to research and survey the views of practising therapists and their input into this design (Brookes, 1991). One group developed and trialled a new version of the database in 1993, whilst another group investigated modification of a version for clients with special needs.

To date, over 260 students have been involved in the research of raw data for entry to Recreation Perth. Their efforts are not only contributing towards the project, but have become a significant part of their assessment in an undergraduate unit. So far information on over 100 recreational activities has been researched and collated. Students are encouraged to contribute to the design and are consulted when significant design decisions are being made.

A CMLE for learning anatomy

This project has investigated the presentation and development of Interactive Computer Assisted Learning Packages (ICALP) for the teaching and learning of anatomy by undergraduate and postgraduate physiotherapy students via a CMLE. CAL has been used since Bitzer pioneered for nursing courses in 1963 and 1966. It is also well represented in dental education at the Universities of Kentucky (Mast & Watson 1976) and Manchester (Levine, Jones & Morgan in 1987). Lee & Allison (1993) demonstrated that the retention of ICALP was equal to that of traditional lectures when compared by the presentation of identical information to 41 students in lectures and to 37 students by ICALP. The same test was administered to both groups under controlled conditions. Pre, post and unexpected delayed post-tests at 60 and 120 day intervals, showed no significant difference between the two groups.

Intuitive links

The educational development of modern health care professionals requires the assimilation of detailed information from a wide variety of contrasting sources (Shortliffe & Perreault, 1990). Because this information must be absorbed by individuals at a conceptual level, the aim of medical education is to create 'intuitive' links between disparate pieces of information (Kidd, Hutchings, Hall & Cesnik, 1992). Evidence of the effective use of CBL in medical schools is shown by Holley and Heller (1984) and by Harkin, Dixon, Reid and Bird (1986), who used computers for the presentation of pathology by microfiche and slide transparencies. Wigton, Poses, Collins and Cebul (1990) effectively used CAI to improve the diagnostic skills of experienced physicians.

Information explosion

To reduce the information overload created by the continuing explosion of medical knowledge, CBL has been incorporated into many medical schools (Starkweather, 1986; Hannan, 1991; McCracken and Spurgeon, 1991), with ample evidence to affirm their efficacy in the education of health professionals (Prentice & Kenny, 1986; Fincher, Abdulla & Sridharan, 1988; Lee & Allison, 1992 & 1993). Nevertheless, there is a significant risk that these techniques may be used empirically, without proper research into their development or the mental processes of learners. The precise mechanisms by which learners acquire information from CBL is still poorly understood, which, according to Kidd, Hutchings, Hall & Cesnik (1992), may be similar to the diagnostic procedures used by clinicians.

Learning anatomy by computer

Using computers for the learning of anatomy, Jones, Olafson and Sutin (1978) compared the results of medical students with those in traditional classes to show that they can learn gross anatomy equally well without lectures or dissection. In a comparative investigation, Walsh and Bohn (1990) used CAL to teach gross anatomy, finding no significant differences between the two groups. These authors affirm the comparative studies of Lee & Allison (1992 & 1993), in their assertion that ICALP can be as effective as lectures for the presentation of anatomy to students.

A computer managed environment

Research has shown that a CMLE is most effective when designed to provide pathways and freedom of choice to empower learners to become self paced with access to materials to meet their own needs. Their rate of progress can be accelerated when allowed to monitor their competence by instant feed back prior to tests under controlled conditions. To meet this aim SOCCER was developed for the teaching and learning of anatomy by physiotherapy students in a CMLE. As an educational facility, SOCCER provides data for measurement and research to validate the performance of learners and educators in discrete areas of anatomy.


In a study funded by CAUT, SOCCER empowers learners to become self paced and self directed. SOCCER is used as a universal platform of entry, to register, monitor and track learner activities whilst validating their level of performance. SOCCER is a comprehensive navigational instrument to a network of black and white workstations. To meet the needs of colour operated workstations, it can be converted to a SuperCard, referred to as a Student Operated, Learning and Assessment Resource (ScoLAr). See Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Entry to SOCCER for registration and learning strategies

Registration by unique password

On entry to SOCCER, learners are categorised by their inclusion in a draw down list and presentation of a unique password. Henceforth, the name, date, start and finish time of each learner is registered to be recorded in a hidden personal file.

An abundant supply of passwords is stored in an administration file which is presented at the first time of registration, and noted for use thereafter. Thus, SOCCER provides each learner with permanent registration and opportunities for revision, learning and entry to test and feedback items to verify their status at all levels of entry. Passwords may be retained throughout a whole course of study, or varied daily, according to any need to change.

Pathways of approach to materials

Once registered, the learner is taken to a prescribed level of learning, with appropriate test and feedback items. Thus, at entry, the level of learning is registered, identified and dispensed by SOCCER to contain the learner within prescribed parameters. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2: A second year student view after registration by password

Primary and secondary themes

SOCCER enables learners to navigate freely from the point of entry throughout a prescribed syllabus. A primary theme of learning (Fig 2.) provides access to its secondary subdivisions. As an example, a click on 'upper extremity' give access to its secondary themes, 'shoulder arm', 'arm forearm', 'forearm hand'.

Hot regions

To sustain interest, transition from primary to secondary themes is enhanced by 'hot regions' scripted to transport the learner to designated screens. This strategy gives a subtle illusion of change by the appearance of an area of demarcation. For example, when the browsing tool is moved into a secondary subdivision, the screen changes to one which appears to highlight the selected area. Once entered, the figure changes to one which outlines the selected area, a click on it takes the learner to its ICALP.


To provide interest and innovation, SOCCER screens are linked to give an illusion of animation for a particular purpose. Entry to 'reflexes' is scripted to repetitively change several screens which dissolve into a final screen before entry to the ICALP for reflexes. In this way, an illusion of animation is created to surprise the learner by a combination of elbow, knee, head and neck movements. The penultimate screenshows the subject to have a puzzled facial expression, dissolving into the ICALP for reflexes (Figs 3 and 4).

Figure 3

Figure 3: A click on Peripheral Nervous System (Fig 2) takes the learner to this screen.
A further click on Reflexes gives an animated journey to Fig. 4.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Dissolving view of animation (Fig 3) before entry to the ICALP for reflexes.

Laminated access

In this way, a variety of the devices is used to explore an unlimited number of laminated pathways to ICALP materials within SOCCER to meet differing levels of knowledge within the CMLE.

Results summary

A vital component of SOCCER is the provision of instant information about the rate of progress of individuals working in it. A click on Examination Results Summary (Fig 2.) provides the individual with an instant review of all activities undertaken from the commencement of any learning period. This information is continuously updated in a personal file, which can be opened by the learner at any time. The value of the results summary is that self paced and self directed learners can measure their rate of progress and success throughout the syllabus. The same information is available to the administrators and developers of learning materials to track and rate the success of all learners using the CMLE.

Problem based learning

Results obtained from this study have not only validated the effectiveness of SOCCER as a navigational instrument, but also that ICALP and test items can be presented within it to replace formal lectures in any given topic. On average, the time spent by individuals in SOCCER is equivalent to that normally spent in library and home based study. In this way, lectures in the fourth semester have been converted to seminar discussion sessions in a climate of problem based learning, advancing the rate of progress beyond that which could otherwise be expected.

Problem assignment

In a problem based environment, SOCCER provides randomised groups of problems to challenge its users. By a click in the problem assignment box (Fig 2.) each learner is allocated a particular problem which can be read and printed in the CMLE. Each problem is open ended and constructed to present case studio which require the reinforcement of previous learning, as well as additional research to support an appropriate solution. Resource Persons are available for consultation during laboratory sessions, and solutions are presented within a specified time flame. Learners are encouraged to work as individuals, or in small groups, with an upper limit of four members. Individuals, or small groups, are assessed by their interaction with Resource Persons, with a mark from the subject controller for the final presentation.

Learner feedback

To gain an insight into learner reaction to the strategies used for teaching and learning anatomy, a Feed Back Instrument (FBI) has been developed with an inventory of over forty items. FBI allows the learner to directly type in responses to some questions, or to select and click on radio buttons to register other responses. FBI uses fields, check boxes and radio buttons to collect data, which is then stored in a file invisible to other learners. Using FBI, learners can register a wide variety of recorded responses. To capture the creativity of any group, a final type in field allows learners to describe alternative preferences to those already mentioned. The last screen thanks the learner for working hard, with suitable acknowledgment of the responses gained from the feedback questionnaire. This information is briefly outlined in Figures 5 to 10.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Entry to a Feed Back Instrument (FBI).

Figure 6

Figure 6: Questions to elicit information about the learner to correlate
2-D cognition with its transfer into a 3-D skill.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Information to correlate learner attitudes with subsequent results.

Figure 8

Figure 8: Questions to elicit information about attitudes and styles of learning.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Strategies to gain information about preferred learning situations.

Figure 10

Figure 10: Acknowledgment of the learner which facilitates unexpected inforamtion.

Research and control methods

SOCCER, ICALP, Test and FBIs used within a CMLE can be used to provide a secure source of data for the investigation of any educational research hypotheses. Furthermore, not only does this model empower learners to become either self paced, self directed, or both by its ability to rate levels of progression, but it provides access to formal test procedures under controlled conditions at computer workstations.

Summary and conclusions

This paper has reviewed and compared two distinctly different computer assisted learning styles at the tertiary level. Firstly, by its description of the development of a Recreation Database for the clients of Occupational therapists and student reactions and responses to it whilst learning. Secondly, by its description of the development and implementation of SOCCER as a research designed pathway to record and track the activities of Physiotherapy students whilst learning anatomy in a CMLE.

In addition, techniques to empower learners to become self paced and self directed by instant review of accumulated results are described. These methods can be used to record data from test, practice and feedback items to provide quantifiable information for research and to substantiate the administrative and educational effectiveness of a CMLE. In this way, not only can acquired knowledge be assessed and measured, but also the variation of pathways chosen by its users can be tracked for further analysis. Although the style of these projects may appear to be disparate, it is clear that their principles of operation can be applied with confidence for the development of software which not only empowers learners to become fully self directed, but also provides a continuum of data for research purposes.


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Authors: Harry B Lee, Senior Lecturer in Anatomy, School of Physiotherapy, Curtin University. Tel: 09 351 6643
Don Cameron, Lecturer, School of Occupational Therapy, Curtin University. Tel: 09 351 6621

Please cite as: Lee, H. B. and Cameron, D. (1994). Strategies to provide pathways for learners in a computer managed learning environment. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 273-283. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/km/lee2.html

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