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Blessingsin disguise

Angela McFarlane urges caution when it comes to multimedia. Teachers must establish ground rules for its use if it is to be really effective in the classroom. Technologies, especially computer-based ones, tend to attract a fanatical following. This is true even in education, where devotees fall on every new advance, savouring the technical wizardry and ever faster and more complex hardware and software.

This techno-fever has never been so pronounced as it is over multimedia, especially where its delivery is envisaged over the World Wide Web. Here, via a humble telephone line millions of computers all over the world are linked. Anyone can set up a computer with their choice of material in any medium, and connect it to the Net. Everyone with Net access (a computer, a modem and a service provider) can then access this information and even add to it.

There is no doubt that the combination of high resolution images, digital stereo sound, animation, and video (of sorts) with text is a powerful one, whose potential begins to exceed anything previously known.

Through multimedia on CD-Rom or on-line, children in school can have access to satellite images, the contents of the Berkeley Palaeontology Museum in California, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in full digital stereo, complete with annotated score telling them everything they ever wanted to know about the composer, his music and the instruments it is played on.

All this at the click of the mouse button. Such limitless potential must surely be a good thing for education?

The very nature of multimedia, vast, non-linear and readable only through a computer screen, means that it is difficult to assess the scope and quality of a title or source without spending considerable time on it. There is no equivalent to picking up and flicking through a book which will give an experienced teacher a clear view of its coverage and relevance. There are, however, a number of indicators which can be helpful. Additionally there are strategies which can make the use of multimedia a powerful and effective teaching tool.

Although reference is commonly made to multimedia as though it were homogeneous, this is a dangerous assumption. Books, cinema, television or any other communication medium have features which make them universally recognisable, and this is true to some extent of multimedia although the definitions are far more flexible.

However, the assumptions made about these common features may be very misleading. For example, to say that using multimedia will improve children's education is as seductive as saying that using books will improve children's education. It is easy to gain ready acceptance of both assertions. However, if you then suggest that the books are all comics the statement is quickly shown to be flawed. The value of the books, as with the value of multimedia, is inherent in the selection and arrangement of their content as much, if not more so, as in the fundamental nature of the medium.

The criteria teachers use to decide which books are suitable for the classroom and how they can best be used are based on age-old skills. The evaluation of multimedia is more problematic, not least because of the time and specialised equipment needed to even view the material, and the variety of ways you can access it. It would be helpful, therefore, to devise criteria and strategies for choosing and using multimedia in teaching.

Given the enormous variety in style and content, this goal is only achievable in a limited sense. The criteria for assessing a multimedia simulation of a field study are so different from those valid for a multimedia database of the elements that common desirable features will be few.

It is still costly to create a CD-Rom title, so most multimedia titles are not intended to appeal first and foremost to a school audience. They must appeal to a general market to justify their costs and the most likely perceived market is the home.

To entice these potential home users the title will be well produced, colourful, engaging and entertaining, all desirable features for an educational resource. The trade-off here is that subject content is often simplified for the non-specialist user with a subsequent loss of depth and accuracy. This is particularly so in the area of science. It would be rather like offering an encyclopedia of home medicine to a doctor.

The selection and arrangement of the contents will not have been made with any school curriculum in mind, so that much of it may have little or no relevance to the course being taught. The very nature of multimedia invites users to explore and investigate this extraneous material. Such exploration may, of course, have considerable educational value but it is none the less at odds with the objectives of a teacher restricted by the precise demands of, say, the science curriculum. Students studying content not on the syllabus might be seen to be wasting time.

Teachers who want to use titles designed for the home, even where they carry a "educational" label must be aware that they will need to spend time identifying exactly what material on the disc relates to the topics under study, and make sure that students using it are spending their time appropriately.

There are, by way of contrast, a small number of CD-Roms that have been produced with the classroom in mind, which are more likely to match the degree of depth and accuracy required. However, there is still a problem that children may be drawn away from designated topics. Buttons to link to other parts of the material, colourful icons and navigation aids are part and parcel of the distraction.

With an ever-increasing body of information available in multi-media, its relatively low cost compared to print media may force us to rely on it more and more.

Unless we can find strategies for resolving the tensions between the user-oriented culture of multimedia and the syllabus-oriented culture of the classroom, the use of multimedia is going to remain problematic.

* Angela McFarlane is director of the Information Technology Unit, Homerton College, Cambridge.

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