Ian Carter is enthralled by a professor's notes that have been turned into a CD-Rom
Imagine what it would be like to have a crack team of multimedia developers convert your dog-eared teaching notes into an interactive CD-Rom.
This unlikely opportunity was presented to Professor McNeill Alexander by Maris Multimedia in producing the excellent How Animals Move. Many biologists will be familiar with Professor Alexander's volumes on invertebrates and chordates, probably struggling with the biomechanics and avoiding the maths.
We have all been saying multimedia should help clarify difficult concepts and motivate learning, but too often we get multi-mediocrity. There are two extremes of whizzy media with spectacular effects and little content and worthy media with good content but dull delivery; neither exploits the potential of this technology.
How Animals Move, with its garish packaging and slick introduction, would seem to place it in the former category. But dig a little deeper and you are drawn into a living textbook which enthrals as it informs. Each topic is introduced by a guided tour with commentary, animation and video. The quality of the graphics and video are outstanding; you are never left wondering why a clip was included, each illustrates a specific point. Where video is inappropriate, superb animations are used to explain difficult concepts. Hotspots in the adjoining text provide links to related topics or dynamically highlight important features within an animation or video.
It is difficult to see what is going on when a kestrel hovers in the air without stalling. As the video clip plays, pressing a button highlights the alula or bastard-wing which prevents the hawk from falling out of the sky at slow speeds.
There are 16 interactive "games" which develop and explore the ideas described in the topics.
They are not trivia quizzes but interactive masterpieces ranging from a working model of a physiological experiment on muscle to learning how a gazelle avoids being caught by a cheetah. Interactive graphs let you compare the sprinting speeds or the running and walking energy costs of different animals. The text is exemplary: for the first time I really understand the theory of flight and gliding.
Aimed at university undergraduate students, some of the material is undoubtedly well beyond schools. However, the delivery is so compelling that the complexities of laminar and turbulent flow are readily revealed to inquisitive minds.
Professor Alexander, a self-confessed computer Luddite, was stunned to find students volunteering extra essays if they could work on the CDs rather than go to the lectures. He is delighted with the way the programmers have turned his text and ideas into a powerful learning tool.
There are some small criticisms to be made. There are no teacher materials or worksheets and the method of saving pages as bookmarks is awkward.
Some means of calling up pictures and video clips on to the screen (a computer whiteboard) for comparison would be useful for teacher presentations in the classroom along with a more intuitive page or slide sorter.
This should be a compulsory purchase for every science department and anyone who wants to see a state-of-the-art multimedia learning package.
* Maris Multimedia - stand 272