Too much skimmed, too little milked

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Jack Kenny believes more is claimed for multimedia resources than they currently deliver. He suggests ways in which performance can more neatly match promise.

At the moment, the promise of multimedia far outstrips what it actually delivers. Dismiss for a moment the quality of the discs. Just think what multimedia in the classroom could do and then think what it does. Simply using the average multi-media package adds virtually nothing to a child's information technology capability. In many cases it contributes little to learning.

There are increasing fears that the use of multimedia is leading not to increased understanding but to skimming superficially across the glossy learning packages. Watching children using a multimedia encyclopedia one observes very different behaviour from the same child using a book. The mechanisms for moving around the disc, the point and click, make the urge to move away from a page that is not utterly compelling almost irresistible.

There is a relentless search for images, preferably moving images, even though they are still presented at postage-stamp size. The worst that can be seen in some multi-media learning centres is children surrounded by discs aimlessly gliding through them, stopping only to peck at some video sequence, finally printing out some information that they will take away and insert uncritically into a project.

It is easy to see why this has occurred: teachers worried by the complexity of past manifestations of IT seize on CD-Rom packages as a solution. They can have the illusion that they are at last employing the computers they have felt guilty about not using for years.

Look at what often happens. The student has been asked to find information on George Stephenson. He or she goes to the computer, finds the right disc, discovers the information, ensures that it is the right Stephenson, prints it out and then returns, waving the printout in triumph. End of story.

In the past the student might have copied it out from a book and at least read it. Now you can acquire information without ever reading it, without it touching the sides of the mind.

Studying the impact of a new medium like multimedia when our understanding is shaped by the existing media is difficult. It is probably a mistake to think of multimedia packages as a series of books in a more compact form on disc. Could it not be argued that the act of printing out the information on paper is probably a retrograde step that returns us down the centuries to Gutenberg and Caxton? Information in digital form is different in its very essence: it is not better than print, just different, and it is those differences that we have to exploit.

The national curriculum with, in English, its largely print-based view of IT has also contributed to the backward look. Its requirement for pupils to draft on paper and on screen is a minimalist model which takes no account of texts which use sound, still and moving images, and animations. It is looking at past literacy, not preparing for the future.

There are two main ways we can teach children to come to terms with the rich tools that we are putting into so many classrooms. First, we have to ensure that they engage in some form with the information that they discover. Second, there is no better way of creating discriminating and creative users than by encouraging them to work in the medium themselves.

Children's understanding of these new forms of information will not be aided if all we do is encourage them to use them like a book on disc. If students are to make the most of the information to be obtained from a multimedia package they should, whenever possible, keep it in electronic form. Information on a floppy disc is so much more flexible. You can change it, add to it, improve the readability, alter the audience, blend it with another text and incorporate other research. You can crop images, alter the colours, distort them and emphasise a particular area. Sound can be edited as well.

Of course, before the information is processed the students have to learn the skills of searching, skim reading, choosing and retrieving. Ensuring that the children understand the principles of cutting and pasting is a good starting point. Teaching them to review their findings, to synthesise, to review their work and to choose the most appropriate way to present their ideas, is helping them to understand.

Actively creating their own electronic material will deepen their understanding of the medium and show the importance of structure and how the various elements can complement one another. Encouraging the production of multimedia can sound daunting but the entries for the National Educational Multimedia Awards show that very young children can produce multimedia to a high standard. Children are stimulated by a medium that uses text, graphics, images, sound and video.

We now have tools such as Magpie on the Acorn platform and Hyperstudio on all platforms that make productions a real possibility. In education terms the work is essentially collaborative; it calls upon a wide range of skills and is in complete harmony with the learning outcomes we should be seeking. The work that children will carry out will have a dual function. Not only will they learn more about the subject they are authoring, but at an almost subliminal level they will begin to understand some of the strengths and weaknesses of this new medium.

In an information age children need to know how to use information that already exists rather than merely consume information in a passive way. We need to encourage multimedia literacy. This will be the skill necessary to translate existing sources of information into the multimedia form and, more importantly, to begin to think in that form and to come to an understanding of the essence of that form.

Multimedia applications are transforming our understanding of what constitutes a text and how readers read it and writers write it.

The out-of-school information world of our children is dominated by the moving images, graphics, simulations and non-linear narratives of computer games. Should school not be a place where they can be given some help to understand it all and to feel in control rather than be controlled?

* USEFUL PROGRAMSAND BOOKSFinding Out (resource pack) Pounds 9.95National Council for Educational Technology, Milburn Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7JJTel: 01203 416994Hyperstudio (authoring for Macintosh, PC and Acorn) Pounds 99TAG Developments, 25 Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0HU.Tel: 01474 357350Magpie (authoring for Acorn)Longman Logotron Tel: 01223 425558Microsoft Encarta Resource Packwith worksheets. Pounds 62 TAG Developments.


* Is the multimedia in a placewhere both teachers and pupilscan use it?

* Have we as a staff discussedthe impact and the challenges of this medium?

* Is there a whole-school strategyfor information skills?

* Do teachers and pupils havethe technical skills to download from CD?

* Can CD-Rom users incorporate what they find into their word-processed work?

* Do we have the software andthe skills to work with images from CD-Rom?

* Is the use of digital information understood by all teachers?

* Do we have a plan for teaching authoring?

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