This article first appeared in the European journal INTERAct in 1994. INTERAct's editorial offices are at the Amsterdam Science Park, Kruislaan 419, 1098 VA Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
At that time I was having a lot of fun popping over to the Netherlands for empassioned debates in steamy smoke filled brown cafés at night, with audiences packed by students, journalists, politicians.. everyone! Very Dutch. Very, very enjoyable.
It is interesting to reflect on how mature so much of the multimedia debate was.. it got a bit lost of course when the WWW came along, so that it is only now that we are returning to these issues.
"This paper develops the simple view that, whilst we have have focussed on technology's ability to deliver multiple media, those media have themselves been changing and whilst we have focussed on children's learning, the children too have been changing." - Sounds familiar? Exactly...
There are few more contentious words than either Multimedia or Learning. Learning has a long history of debate, but Multimedia is a special word, invented comparatively recently, to describe the possibility that a computer might finally deliver all the elements that we take for granted in the rest of our everyday lives: speech, text, graphics, video, music, sounds, data.
No one seriously describes life as a multimedia experience, although it is, but we do have special words to describe our lives where key information elements are missing - sensory deprivation, blindness, deafness, dyslexia. In the same way, a text based, command driven computer might well be described as visually impaired and mute. In our everyday lives, missing any of the multiple media components that comprise our normal information channels will be characterised as exceptional. In our computing lives the multimedia computer, with most of those multiple media components in place, is seen as the exception, worthy of special terminology.
Because of this, when we come to consider the computer and learning, the debate focuses on the occasions when adding video, sound and other elements might be useful. Logically it would be more sensible to assume that all these elements would always be present. We might then ask in what circumstances might it be appropriate to leave something out, when should we exclude text, or when might video be abandoned, to good effect. If life is generally a multimedia experience, our normal, computer based, learning environment should be too.
Learning and its analysis has a long history of debate. 'How children learn?' is controversial enough, but computers have added a new urgency to debates about: 'what do they learn?', 'how do we know that they've learned it?' and 'what do we assess?'. At present some countries are struggling with the dimensions of these problems, while rather more countries are struggling to be aware that they are issues; none yet have solutions.
A simple analogy is illustrative. Imagine a nation of horse riders with a clearly defined set of riding capabilities. In one short decade the motor car is invented and within that same decade many children become highly competent drivers extending the boundaries of their travel as well as developing entirely new leisure pursuits (like stock car racing or hot rodding). At the end of the decade government ministers want to assess the true impact of automobiles on the nation's capability. They do it by putting everyone back on the horses and checking their dressage, jumping and trotting as before. Of course, we can all see that it is ridiculous, yet in schools all round Europe we are arming children with spreadsheets and assessing the same old mathematics capabilities, we are arming them with collaborative, editable writing tools, like word processors or desk top publishers, and then assessing them individually as writers through a typically linear writing form that is increasingly alien to them. In the UK we have even gone as far as to ban some of the powerful tools from the assessment process - having supported writing, appropriately, with spelling checkers we then remove them at the point of assessment. In terms of our analogy we take away the car and put them back on the horse, in time for the test. Patently foolish. Allowing children to author multimedia essays and assessing their performance with a handwritten summative test is equally foolish.
Multimedia and learning enjoy a further similarity, in addition to their shared controversy: Our focus on multimedia is essentially a technical one. The debate is largely in terms of the quality of full screen video, of sound sample rates, of CD drive speeds or multiple session support. In our hunger for technological solutions and debate, we fail to notice changes in the normal world of everyday life. Similarly, throughout the debate on what children learn and how we measure it, we focus on the learning but in doing so we again fail to notice changes that are occurring in ordinary children. Multimedia and learning share the surprise that it is in normal lives and in normal children that we will find the real revolution that is changing our learning and multimedia futures.
What are those changes in everyday life? In the 1950's, in Europe, television was unusual. It was the Radio Age. The generations that currently dominate our teaching professions were the children of this radio age. They retained the habit of reading too, as an important information and entertainment source. Cinema was not an everyday experience and was most significant socially, as a night out. This 'radio generation' were fed linear narrative information in a largely passive form. Families would gather round the radio and listen to favourite programmes together. TV, when it finally became available for mass consumption, needed darkened rooms, offered a tiny grey and white picture and was again a primary narrative source. As TV developed, many houses evolved their social rooms to give the television a central focus. TVs were often built into a massive piece of furniture with all chairs facing towards it. Advertisements and programmes were dominantly narrative in form.
However, TV in the 1990s provides an information window in a much greater information context. Children watching TV in 1993 might have a Nintendo 'Game Boy' in hand, a photo-magazine on their lap and even, inexplicably to parents, be watching whilst listening to their 'Walkman' headphones. Of course all this will be with the channel controller nearby and often with a vast number of channels on offer which are 'stepped through' at frequent intervals. Children seem to 'graze' information and TV production companies, hoping to retain the interest of the youth viewer, seek to build programmes with little narrative structure, but with complex information dimensions - text, voice over, video edited with great rapidity, separate background projection, music and graphics. Watch advertisements aimed at children for any number of convincing examples.
In schools there is a crisis in educational broadcasting as children find it increasingly difficult to sit for 50 minutes and offer their undivided attention to a single information source with no other choices and no video controller. Of course, it is equally uncomfortable for their teachers to sit around a radio, doing nothing else, and listen to a single aural source. We have all changed our media habits.
There is considerable irony in this for multimedia. We have struggled technically to be able to deliver the full screen narrative form that TV so clearly represents - one hour of full screen full motion video has been a multimedia 'holy grail' for so long! - and yet just as we appear to be able to deliver it, we find that what learners seek is something else anyway. They need a browsing, grazing environment where learner autonomy is fundamental, where the model of information represented is crucial to that browsing function, where metaphor and interface design are of primary importance and where sound bites, video snatches, auditory icons and text labels offer a complex and participatory environment that challenges the learner and recognises their increasing sophistication as information handlers and creators. Our normal information lives have changed without us noticing and the implications for multimedia and learning are complex and significant. The many publishers seeking to provide electronic books and narrative CDs are seeking to generate product that is a generation too late.
And what of the changes in ordinary children? Just as our normal information lives have changed, so have the children who are the young learners of this information age. Many observers see only negative changes. Computer games are of real cultural importance to this 'information generation' and games have developed the same short fashion lives that pop music once had. From parents and the media today computer games get the same sort of critical press that 60's pop stars and the 'rock generation' once got: children can't read because they play too many computer games and watch too much TV. The games allegedly make them violent and show gender stereotypes as virtual heroines queue up for actual rescue. Children become hopelessly addicted, social misfits trapped in an electronic never-never land. Children have fits, are exposed to pornography and truant from school. Or so we are led to believe.
Ironically, many of these wild and improbable claims are made by the same generation that was supposedly corrupted and debauched by Mick Jagger's antics in the sixties. They ought to know better and, just as our focus on technology neglected crucial changes occurring with information consumption, so our focus on what is wrong with the games has led us to neglect important and valuable changes in the children playing them.
Games can provide a challenging problem solving environment where the players observe, question, hypothesise and test. Games can offer a vehicle for collaborative endeavour and, crucially, they have changed the climate of expectation that surrounds children's computing experiences. Children expect delight, mental challenge and a role that is evolving from interactive to participative. Everyone acknowledges anecdotally that children are competent and astute computer users. Few designers of 'educational software' for young learners begin from this premise. If multimedia learning environments are to offer challenge, provide delight and deliver real learning outcomes they must first recognise the emergent capability of learners and respond to the climate of expectation that those learners bring to their computer screens.
This paper develops the simple view that, whilst we have have focussed on technology's ability to deliver multiple media, those media have themselves been changing and whilst we have focussed on children's learning, the children too have been changing. In both cases we have been watching the wrong changes and the implications for multimedia and for learning are considerable. This constitutes a real and urgent challenge for the designers of multimedia, of learning environments and of the home and school curriculum.
© Prof Stephen Heppell 1994