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EONQUEST: An interactive multimedia learning environment for elementary mathematical problem solving

Stuart White and John Lenarcic
Monash University, Victoria
The hypothesis is advanced that multimedia learning environments have the potential to empower student users with control over their own learning processes. This is thought to be possible by exploiting computer based interactivity in an entertaining manner without diluting subject matter content. The evolution of EONQUEST, a prototype interactive multimedia learning environment for arithmetical problem solving at primary school level, is outlined. GRASP, a software tool used to construct this system, is also critically examined.


Anecdotal evidence would suggest that "mathophobia" - an aversion to mathematics - is a prevalent condition amongst school age children. One pedagogic strategy to combat this phenomenon has been the classroom use of computer assisted instruction (CAI) software packages that deal with problems in arithmetic. However, the success of such software based approaches at motivating students for extended durations appears to be no greater than traditional teaching methods. (The latter is a qualitative assumption as there is a dearth of empirical corroboration to support critical evaluations of CAI systems in general.) The majority of CAI systems used in scholastic environments have been the result of commercial enterprises rather than academic research groups. Some of these systems have simply automated the repetitive process of rote learning with the rapidly diminishing novelty of standard text based computer technology. Other more creatively adventurous CAI packages, though, have been designed to function as coaches helping the student to achieve problem solving mastery.

It is the contention of this paper that CAI developers should draw their inspiration from contemporary arcade games where children are handed control of their own destiny. Active exposure to multimedia based simulations, creatively designed to convey conceptual knowledge in a subtle manner, has the potential to allow students to acquire knowledge almost by mental osmosis.

The advent of multimedia systems has yet to he fully exploited in the CAI arena, especially in environments that stress learner control, an observation briefly noted in (Reeves, 1993). This technology is thought to encompass the necessary interactive features of computer games, while also providing high quality audio visual displays that rival the standards offered by television. Wide scale deployment of multimedia technology in education is a non-trivial task as most schools possess only primitive computing facilities, if any. Thus a research project was initiated to create a plebeian example of user oriented, multimedia CAL This paper will focus on one particular application of interactive multimedia designed to run on an economical hardware platform: an experiential learning environment for arithmetical problem solving dubbed EONQUEST.

Multimedia and education

Multimedia is generally considered to be a family of integrated hardware/software technologies that allow users to interactively manipulate combinations of text, rendered graphics, still images, sound and full motion video in computer controlled applications. (Incidentally, the "sound" component can be broken down even further: voice, music and auditory effects.) However, a plethora of definitions exist for the term "multimedia". The word itself is a tautology as "media" implies multiplicity anyway. Alty (1991) provides an example of the most common definition, in which multimedia is simply an integration of two or more media. Grimes and Potel (1991) believe that this basic association of two or more media results in something best identified as "multiple media" that are physically collocated but not necessarily integrated. Within this framework the chosen media may be juxtaposed to create a new presentation form for information. (Clark, 1991) offers an alternative name for such a concept: interactive electronic presentation. Yager (1991) notes that multimedia is essentially die end product of information synthesis and beautification.

What role can multimedia play in education? Soloway (1991) believes that different teaching styles must be adopted to improve the performance of schools. He sees current educational techniques as being a legacy of the "Industrial Age" and not being particularly well suited for the "Information Age". Students should be self motivated in learning how to learn. It is thought that multimedia can aid the learning process in this way and overcome inappropriate reliance on rote learning (Pea, 1991).

Levin (1985) puts forward the notion that children exposed to the milieu of video games from an early age develop enhanced domain specific perceptual and cognitive skills that aid in the parallel processing of multimedia information. Such an ability may also produce the unwanted side effect of becoming disinterested with the standard linear approach to acquiring new knowledge in classroom situations. Once again, it is conjectured that multimedia CAI with a games like flavour has the potential to be a partial panacea.

The anatomy of EONQUEST

EONQUEST ("Expansion Of personal kNowledge bases through multimedia oriented QUESTs") is a prototype of a multimedia CAI system in which students can interact with a virtual world and gain elementary mathematical problem solving skills via experiential learning. Within the context of this paper, personal knowledge bases are a student's own collection of facts, rules and experiences used to shape world views.

EONQUEST is directed towards the mid to late primary school audience and will run on any DOS based personal computer with rudimentary sound capability and approximately 500 kilobytes of free base memory. It was designed to run on 80286 machines with MONO 8 bit sound cards, anticipated to be the minimum configuration currently available in schools. The EONQUEST software is equipped with its own system check and will gracefully exit (with an appropriate graphical flourish) if suitable hardware conditions are not met.

EONQUEST's virtual world consists of text, graphics, sound and limited 2-D animations , all working in combination to create a feeling of direct engagement. Familiar real world problems involving arithmetic are presented in a fantasy setting, namely a fictitious medieval village based on Maths Manor (Hamilton & Fenelon, 1982). The latter text contains creative story based problems involving the citizens of Yoretown. EONQUEST attempts to take advantage of design strategies from popular computer based adventure games (Malone, 1981). In doing so it is anticipated that the system's aesthetically gratifying multimedia environment will let students be in control of the learning process. It is predicted that the probable addictive nature of EONQUEST's games like learning environment will spur on the sense of penetrating curiosity naturally inherent within young children.

The EONQUEST version of Yoretown is dominated by the figure of a mischievous wizard named Juliff who casts spells on people and their possessions in order to temporally freeze them in the midst of daily activities. For the user to free the entranced citizen, certain arithmetical puzzles concocted by the wizard have to be solved. Answers to these have to be entered via a calculator like component of the interface that is paradoxically both anachronistic and archaic in appearance. The type of problem the student user has to solve is dependant on the section of Yoretown that is visited upon initial entry. The village is divided into four problem specific section: whole numbers, proper fractions, improper fractions and decimal numbers. Each section has on avenge five different creative story topics associated with it, each of which contain about five questions themselves. This allows a total of at least twenty separate stories and over one hundred individual questions that a user can select according to personal convenience and preference. As a measure of progress a tally of correct answers is presented upon task completion.

EONQUEST is an example of a low resolution multimedia application employing only 16 colours, at any one time in a standard VGA 640 by 480 grid. To reduce the system demand on resources and enable ease of construction, the graphical display attempts to imitate the style of two dimensional cartoons or comic books. The story conveyed in EONQUEST is primarily constructed of static pictures within full screen windows that are paged, interspersed with animations and sound effects that act as rewards for correct responses. Sampled sound used in the system conforms to the Sound Blaster 8 bit SND format.

Interaction with the EONQUEST environment is via a mouse input device with audible feedback. Metaphorics are used to access help and permit single step backtracking in the system at all stages. Commands to perform these actions (in both pictorial and abbreviated verbal fashion) are consistently placed within red boxes that function in a menu/toolbar manner.

The construction of EONQUEST

Ideally, multimedia development tools should have the capacity to manage dissimilar hardware ad software elements in a complex system in order to make sure that seamless presentations are created. Useful characteristics in such tools would include an overview design function to storyboard or flowchart programs; a relational database for the organisation of the various multimedia data components; a synchronisation facility for use in audio/video editing; a full screen preview function; and assorted custom programming modules for user specific needs (Holcomb, 1992). In the case of the EONQUEST project, the dominant constraints of a shoestring budget coupled with the target software being geared for lowest common denominator hardware platforms meant that creative work had to be accomplished with less grandiose tools. After some deliberation, as outlined in Lenarcic and White (1993), the prototype version of EONQUEST was implemented in GRASP.

Published by Paul Mace Software Inc, GRASP ("GRAphical System for Presentation") Version 4.0 is a graphics programming pseudo language and is not an integrated multimedia development environment. GRASP can be used to create and run PC based animated graphics demonstrations, tutorials and presentations, all of which can incorporate sound (Shaddock, 1992). The language is designed strictly for DOS environments, however a version that runs under Microsoft Windows is apparently available, ie, WINGRASP. The restriction to a DOS environment for EONQUEST meant that the large array of Microsoft Windows character fonts could not be used. On the other hand, the benefit of this handicap is that EONQUEST is a more self contained application that is economical in memory use. GRASP provides over 140 commands and built in functions which are extendible. From a programming perspective, it can be likened to C or Pascal and calls can be made to other application program written in these classic imperative languages. GRASP also pays more than a passing resemblance to BASIC in overall form, as program scripts are executed one line at a time via a run time interpreter.

Using GRASP, digitised sound can be synchronised and CD-ROMs and audio CDs can be controlled for music and sound effects. Files created by Autodesk Animator can be handled, as well as Paintbrush PCX files. GRASP is bundled with the following primitive but effective utility programs: a paint program called PICTOR for creating presentation images, either original graphics or enhancements to existing images produced by other graphics packages; and a set of software tools called ARTOOLS used for special animation effects.

One criticism of GRASP derived from the EONQUEST project is that it appears to be optimally suited to lower standard personal computers. GRASP has difficulties working on 80486 hardware and does not at this stage support 16 bit sound cards. On the positive side, two powerful features of GRASP that are utilised in EONQUEST are its use of internal memory buffers and dynamic manipulation of variables.

A frame buffer is an area in RAM memory used to store any object which can then be managed on or off screen. These buffers are primarily used to store graphic images, but may also hold font information or other GRASP program scripts. A buffer will automatically conform to the attributes of the chosen picture to be displayed. Pictures can therefore be loaded before they are required, resulting in near seamless presentations and efficient memory management. Buffers also facilitate the production of animations via "page flipping". This can be a memory intensive endeavour but GRASP solves this problem by saving the changed pixels between successive pictures being flipped in a special Differential File Format. This can then be recalculated and displayed in a smaller time period while occupying less memory. A standard feature of GRASP is the 25 artistic "fades" or screen mergers available for changing between pictures in two buffers. Buffering pictures also allows two pictures of different resolutions to be displayed by switching colour palettes off screen to reduce the usual visual "snap" that accompanies such transitions.

GRASP's unique handling of program variables enables EONQUEST to be modified by simple changes to files without necessarily affecting the driver code. Minimal programming knowledge is required for such amendments and can be performed using any text editor.

GRASP has been tagged as being "difficult" in some circles due to its reliance on the formation of multimedia presentations through the coding of imperative pseudo programs, rather than using some form of visually oriented method during construction. To those fluent in a conventional imperative programming language, though, GRASP should present few hurdles due to cognitive complexity. A more valid objection to system development using GRASP would be that it does not lend itself to modem software engineering techniques such as object oriented design.


Popular opinion is that educational multimedia can revive interest and motivation in learning processes. The potential for normally dull subject matter to excite students if it is redefined in such a new computer based form is indeed a tantalising proposition that is yet to be conclusively proven through rigorous empirical research and evaluation. The prototype version of EONQUEST is merely one software based evocation of the aforementioned hypothesis. EONQUEST is itself in need of evaluation and requires technical embellishments.

The GRASP language offers creative freedom in the development of interactive multimedia presentations, especially to seasoned programmers with an artistic inclination. The design of EONQUEST is such that new content material can be added without extensive programming knowledge. However, few DOS based authoring environments appear intuitive to an inexperienced developer, implying that future incarnations of EONQUEST should be geared to Microsoft Windows or its equivalent. Other improvements to the system would be the addition of save and restore capabilities, the refinement of animations and musical soundtracks and the injection of a greater randomness in the execution of the story based problems.


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Authors: Mr Stuart White, Honours student
Mr John Lenarcic, Lecturer
Department of Software Development
Monash University
PO Box 197, Caulfield East, Victoria 3145, Australia
Tel. 03 573 2121 Fax. 03 573 2745
Email. john.lenarcic@fcit.monash.edu.au

Please cite as: White, S. and Lenarcic, J. (1994). EONQUEST: An interactive multimedia learning environment for elementary mathematical problem solving. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 572-575. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/qz/white.html

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