IIMS 94 contents
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Maximising the effectiveness of students' learning experiences using multimedia projects

Gregory D Preston
University of Newcastle, New South Wales
This paper outlines some of the issues involved in the use of multimedia authoring packages as a learning fool in the classroom. Its emphasis is on interactive multimedia construction as a process. Students' development of "project ownership" and problem solving skills are addressed. The paper suggests that "multimedia engines" such as HyperCard and Linkway can be effectively used to enhance the problem solving skills, and involvement, of students across a wide range of curriculum areas. The first section of the paper provides a brief theoretical orientation for student multimedia project development. The second section of this paper presents a project development cycle, based on a review of learning theory, and current pedagogical techniques. Finally practical problems relating to the implementation of this development cycle are addressed.

Using multimedia products

There has been a push in recent years toward multimedia in computing. The push, driven at least in part by the promotion of multimedia hardware, and the release of numerous "multimedia" software titles, has entered most areas of the industrial and education market. Indeed the missionary zeal with which some educational groups have embraced multimedia is reminiscent of the early enthusiasm for drill and practice CAI software. Interestingly, the similarities don't end there.

The first uses of computers in educational situations were typified by drill and practice software. The "interactive" programs of the 1970s were typified by "computer control" of the learning material with students responding to the information or choices presented by the computer. A brief consideration of the usage of multimedia products in education demonstrates that, in many cases, little has changed since the early days of the computer in the classroom. Much of the multimedia software available today confirms to similar pedagogical principles.

Many of these products are based on behavioural learning theory (Hannafin & Rieber, 1989). They have at their core assumptions inherent in the "objectivist tradition" (Duffy & Jonassen, 1991). The product typically presents a section of the "knowledge" the authors believe to be "true" in relation to a given content area, and the student must interact with this knowledge in some way. The interaction with the knowledge presented takes many forms, but rarely is it acceptable for the learner to reject the "knowledge". In many cases the learner's progression through the material presented is determined by the extent to which they accept and assimilate the knowledge presented by the author of the package.

In another variation on the theme, some products appear to merely present knowledge, with the only learner interaction being the selection of which piece of knowledge is to be presented next. Again it is rare to find that the knowledge itself is open to any interpretation.

The technology available to the current crop of software designers has allowed highly professional implementations of this form of software to develop. The increases in storage capacity, computing speed, and the variety of data which can be displayed, have allowed for some exceptionally interesting products to be produced. Likewise, this form of software is not without its merits. There is evidence to suggest that this type of instruction is effective in aiding learners in their acquisition of procedural knowledge and certain conceptual frameworks (Reeves, 1992).

However, there has been a reaction against this type of implementation of multimedia usage. Suggestions that this form of software, multimedia or otherwise, has little positive impact in the area of higher order learning skills emerged in the 1980s (Liao, 1992). By the late 1980s it had been suggested that products designed from the behaviourist perspective at best ignored, or at worst repressed, human potential (Nix, 1988).

The practical response to this criticism took two main forms. The first response took place at the software development level. Some software producers modified their development process to implement a more cognitive approach in their product. To a certain extent this brought multimedia software more into line with the theoretical foundations of other software available. Indeed, we began to see "multimedia' implementations of popular education software titles.

It had become obvious that the new multimedia needed to utilise modem pedagogical methods to maximise student's learning (Sherwood, 1990). A range of titles successfully implemented features which were specifically designed to enhance problem solving skills and other higher order thinking skills.

Making multimedia products

The second response took place at the classroom level. Many teachers began looking for alternative ways to use "multimedia" that were more in line with contemporary pedagogical practice. Some opted to use the multimedia packages as resources to which they applied a cognitive framework, devising suitable activities based on the packages. To others still greater involvement was sought for their students. It seemed logical that teachers with an interest in learning as a cognitive process would see the utility in involving their students in the process of multimedia product production. In the same way as Logo had been seen as a way of empowering students in the 1980s, multimedia was to become the new tutee of the 1990s [1]. Thus, the historical trend which was evident in development of educational computer use in general was repeated with educational multimedia use.

Computer usage in educationMultimedia usage in education
Tutor ModeTool ModeTutee ModeTutor ModeTool ModeTutee Mode
Drill and practice softwareWord processing softwareLogoDrill and practice softwareEncyclopedia style softwareLinkway
Highly structured with computer directing learningUse of computer to enhance existing skillsStudent instruction of computing deviceHighly structured with computer directing learningInformation retrieval from "infinite" database style programStudent instruction of computing device

Table 1: A comparison of general computing and multimedia use in education

Whist it is beyond the scope of this paper to present a detailed theoretical basis to the process approach this empowerment lead to, some orientation of the approach in terms of current learning theory is necessary. The theory of constructivism lies at the heart of the process approach. The concept that the construction of knowledge and not the absorption of knowledge is essential for effective learning to take place drives this form of multimedia usage [2].

Cognitive theorists have long maintained that the outcomes of learning are essentially content independent. The abilities of students to process information in a meaningful way, to construct their own knowledge, and to situate their learning in their own contexts, are of paramount importance (Resnick, 1989). Likewise, the importance of problem solving and the concept of metacognition are inherent in this form of multimedia usage. A great deal of research has suggested that the development of computer programs by students will enhance their metacognitive skills (Papert, 1980; Black, Swan & Schwartz, 1988; Au, 1992). Similarly, it is argued that the utilisation of appropriate strategies of development will enhance the problem solving abilities of the student engaged in the process. Development of socialisation skills present a further opportunity (Turkle, 1984; Durell, 1990).

It can be successfully argued that these concepts have formed the basis of computer usage in education for many years, yet in relation to multimedia they have, by and large, been seen only in relation to the way a given product works. The process approach takes these concepts to a different conclusion. This is not to suggest that the act of "using" a multimedia product cannot address these issues. Indeed, as noted above a number of multimedia products have been specifically designed with higher order thinking skills in mind. However, the process of constructing a multimedia product, as opposed to using one, would appear to add a number of different dimensions.

The first of these additional dimensions comes in the form of "project ownership". There is considerable evidence to suggest that student learning is at its most effective when the learners perceive an ownership of their work (McMahon, Carr, & Fishman, 1993; Finger & Grimmett, 1993). This ownership is clearly enhanced by students production of a multimedia product. The product is owned by the student. Whilst research on this issue is not prevalent, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the students also have a perceived ownership of the information itself. The quantification and internal processing of the information required to integrate it into the multimedia presentation, which is owned by the student, seems to extend the student's "locus of control".

The second additional dimension is the enhancement of student control. One of the major influences on the development of modem educational software has been the issue of student control. The multimedia field itself has often claimed that the interactive nature of multimedia program leads to greater control. The benefits of this strategy have long been acknowledged and research support is drawn from many sources including, in the computer field, Papert (1980), Taylor (1980) and Spoehr (1993).

During the production of the product the student is clearly controlling the computer. This is in contrast to the usage of many multimedia products. In multimedia usage, the computer controls the students actions to a much greater degree. This control can take the form of directing the students path through information, imposing a structure on information which is not congruous with the student's internalisation of that information, limiting the links between sections of information, or simply limiting the scope of the information presented. With student production of multimedia products they are liberated from these constraints to a large degree. They are free to include information in almost any form they desire. The information can be structured in such a way as to closely represent their internalisation of ' the information. Similarly, they are able to construct any links between sections of information they feel are appropriate. The flexibility of the medium is as attractive to students as it is to teachers.

Finally, the product itself also acts as an externalisation of the students' knowledge structures. The teacher can identify logical inconsistencies in the structure of the external information. These issues can be raised with the student as a learning process.

A more detailed examination of the process approach will help to highlight the advantages of the dimensions mentioned above. Additionally, the details of the development cycle presented will highlight some of the specific opportunities for implementing the problem solving, meta-cognitive, and knowledge structuring identified previously.

The product development cycle

This section of the paper suggests a sequence to be followed with multimedia projects in the classroom. Whilst necessarily flexible, it is argued that the development cycle has the following general features: conceptualisation, content/subject matter research, implementation, testing and refinement, and evaluation.


The first task in the cycle is for the students to adequately understand the nature of the task. Indeed the students are often involved in a directed exploration of the cycle itself, discussing the purpose of each phase, and the importance of the order implied by the cycle. Specifically the areas addressed here are Audience for the project, Subject delineation, Importance of a structural outline, and Task delineation and Project scheduling. The means of assessment and any resource limitations are also addressed in this phase. Students are often required to keep a notebook of their experiences in the project.

This phase is important in the development of student ownership of the project, Ideally, students should have some input into both the subject selected for presentation, and the audience to which the project will be presented. The latter of the two seems to be less important in the development of "locus of control". Student reflection on the overall process of the project allows the development of advance organisers as well as the opportunity for students to begin to structure and contextualise their upcoming experiences.

Content/subject matter research and preparation

This phase includes the location and evaluation of the knowledge content of the final product. Students are encouraged to use both traditional and computer based resources in this phase of the process. Students are also encouraged to assess the information in some way, as the basis for selection or rejection, and to develop protocols to justify the choices they make. The final activity in this phase is to prepare the information for input into the computer.

The focus of this section is the students' reflection on their choices and the protocols they develop to justify their choices. An additional activity for more advanced learners includes evaluation of existing resources in an attempt to "reverse engineer" a selection protocol from the resources "others" have selected.


The first activity in this phase is a re-evaluation of the initial concept and an attempt to impose structure on the content selected. Also included in this phase is evaluation of interface metaphors and link designs and programming.

This phase has problem solving at its heart. Them has been much research on the effectiveness of procedural computer programming in the development of higher order thinking skills. This phase attempts to develop student skills in this area through the use of the multimedia engines construction process. The "Scripts" and procedures inherent in structured languages such as HyperTalk are useful tools in this task. Likewise, the cognitive style "map" generated by Asymmetric ToolBook provides a structure for students to compare to their own visualisation of the information. Similarly, the need to externalise the information into a structure of some description would appear to conform to the tasks recommended by Funkhouser and Dennis (1992) as necessary to develop cognitive skills. The students impose a structure on the information they have collected. They also develop links between sections of the information.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A student illustration of the links developed

Testing and refinement

This stage includes evaluation and testing by the student, refinement of the program's interface. Documentation preparation also forms an integral part of this phase. As a stimulus to refinement of the students product students often compare their products at this stage.

Whilst exchange of ideas is encouraged at all stages of the process, it is at this stage that students are most willing to engage in truly collaborative exchanges.

Many research studies have indicated the beneficial effect of collaborative learning and social exchange in this or similar contexts (Turkle, 1984; Watson, 1993).

This stage also provides the students an opportunity to develop a "Map" of their information. Learners also have the opportunity to reflect on problems which may face users of their product. The development of a formal "Help" section in itself involves a focus on higher order thinking skills.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Students' help for other users


This phase includes self evaluation and external evaluation. The self evaluation includes not only an evaluation of the product but of the process itself. Student are encouraged to reflect on the stages of the cycle, in addition to the specific problem solving strategies they employed in completing the product. A peer review of the product is also conducted. Finally a teacher review of the project is conducted. Importantly the product itself forms only a minor part of the evaluation of the student's participation in the project.

It is important to adopt an assessment procedure which is suitable for the objectives of the project [3].

A final important consideration is that the cycle itself is necessarily flexible, and phases must interact with each other. This is especially true of the testing and refinement phase which is repeatedly "visited" by the students. Diagrammatically, the process approach described above is represented in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3: A process approach to multimedia development

Some problems

Whilst this paper has advocated the usage of a process approach for multimedia in classroom situation, it is recognised that this approach is not without its problems. The main problems however are logistical rather than educational. The time and expertise needed to implement a cycle such as the one described above are not yet common in schools. Also missing are the primarily "high end" input devices and the storage capacity to hold the product during development and once completed. This problem is however not insurmountable. Programs such as HyperCard for the Macintosh and Linkway or Asymmetric Toolbook for IBM compatible machines allow the gradual introduction of the high technology components of multimedia. The programs allow students to prepare highly professional products with only a basic knowledge of the program.

Of greater concern, is the lack of reliable evidence to support the transference of the higher order skills the students develop during these projects to other tasks. However, whilst some researchers have suggested that such transference does take place (See Kay, 1993, for a discussion of this issue), no research sighted to date has suggested that the utilisation of these strategies is detrimental to the students' learning.

Finally, the flexible nature of this process approach, and indeed the medium itself, provides a opportunity for educators to concentrate on both content and process within a single project. In an educational world which seems to swing periodically from a "back to basics" content style, to a process oriented cognitive style, an approach which has the potential to bridge both styles in any curriculum area deserves attention.


  1. The term "tutee" used here, and in Table 1, is used in the context of Taylor's 1980 division of computer use into the functions of "tutor", "tool" and "tutee", with "tutee" referring to the function of the user instructing the computer.

  2. For detailed discussion of the relationship of constructivism and this form of multimedia usage, see Spoehr, 1993; Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson & Coulson, 1992; or Lehrer, Erickson & Connell, 1993.

  3. Royer, Cisero & Carlo, (1993) have suggested a range of suitable assessment strategies for cognitive objectives.


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Author: Gregory D Preston, Lecturer in Education
Box 5 Hunter Building, Newcastle University, NSW 2308
Tel. (049) 215 891 Fax. (049) 216 896 Email: edgdp@cc.newcastle.edu.au

Please cite as: Preston, G. D. (1994). Maximising the effectiveness of students' learning experiences using multimedia projects. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 448-454. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/np/preston.html

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