Thursday, 9 January 1992

The Concepts and Components of Interactive Media: Metaphors and Models, Assessment and Analogues.

I know that these days everyone weebles on about digital natives and UGC and the like, and the so called Web 2.0 is supposed to be a revelation about social networking... but really none of this is new is it? Indeed, it is very old hat indeed.

Anyway... i unearthed this paper, ommisioned in 1992 by Les Mapp (thankyou Les) , of the National Council of Educational Technology, as part of a collection of multimedia papers intended to inform the national debate about technology and learning. It stands up pretty well considering it was pre-web.

Children live in a multi sensory, complex world of aural, graphical, textual, visual cues and communications. Within that world they are more often social participants than isolates. The learning environments that face many of them in their future working lives are also collaborative, multi disciplinary and complex. Educational computing has just begun to explore how it may better reflect this complexity through interactive media. The concepts and components of interactive media in the information age pose some exciting challenges for education.

Interactive media bring audio, (both sampled and from original sources such as CD and videotape), video (again from multiple sources including tape and videoDisc), animation and text into the computer resourced learning environment. Many of these sources are a normal part of the everyday life of our learners. There are for example more video shops than bookshops in the UK at the moment.

There are three issues to be addressed in this paper: the design of delivery interfaces and the search for simple analogues of these complex information types (how do you find your way round multimedia?), the issues of assessment (how do you mark it?) and the symmetry / asymmetry of the delivery systems (who versions the software?). These key questions lie at the heart of successful use of interactive media in the learning environment. None of these questions has been particularly well dealt with in educational computing thus far. With the onset of mass interactive media they become simply harder to solve. In the history of education cheap, mass produced books have only been with us for a very short time. Interactive media, multimedia, are likely to be around a lot longer.

Consider that mainstay of education for the last century, the book. As a primary information source it has a number of apparent advantages because its shape and form offer an analogue of the information contained within it: a glance at the open book reveals how far through the text a reader has progressed, navigation is facilitated by a clear contents section at the front (and perhaps an index at the back), by page numbers and chapter headings on each page and, as we become familiar with the text, by a series of visual pattern cues - the layout of particular pages - that serve as milestones to our mental model of the information contained in the book. The principal difficulty is that such navigation tools are best suited either to narrative and linear forms of information, or to strictly two dimensional information that can be simply referenced by the one to one relationship between data and location that an index implies. Children quickly discover, as they struggle to locate appropriate information in a multi-volume encyclopedia, that there are upper limits of size and practicality to books as primary information sources.

Pages of printed text have served us well as metaphors in educational computing. GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) commonly offer icons to suggest page turning "forwards' or "backwards" through such information as help screens. Icons to represent saved files are often, by default, shown as miniature paper pages. The model of information that we build for ourselves often begins with the linear organisation of a book as its starting point. We are familiar with printed text and feel comfortable with it. However, once we inject audio, video, animation and graphics into the information mix we immediately begin to struggle for good metaphors. Auditory cues are a natural part of our everyday life - if we hear a car tyres screeching, or a child scream it has a clear meaning in our lives and, in those two examples at least, our response is rapid and conditioned; we turn to the sound source. Sound has been with us in educational computing for a good many years and it has now become, with high quality digital sampling, unexceptional. Aural icons however are exceptional. At best they occur as either confirmatory or warning sounds. Clearly the sensory world in which we exist is more real and more complex than the constrained and finite textual world of an individual book. Quiz shows around the world take advantage of the coldness of simple text to perplex contestants by asking them to guess the name of a particular pop song from its printed lyric. Yet, typically after failing, the poor puzzled contestant always knows, before barely a couple of notes of the tune are revealed, what the right answer was. We take our cues from aural and visual information, albeit that those cues, and the constructs we place on them, are socially derived. Such aural and visual cues have a place in the navigation structures of interactive media.

All this should be of considerable importance to educational computing, if we are to avoid developing micro worlds on our young learners' screens which deny continuity and progression, and which have a relevance only to the moment of their use. We are all anxious to develop autonomous, problem solving, risk taking, collaborative, investigative learners; there is at least consensus about much of that, but the environment within which our young learners work must bear the stamp of relevance.

There is much that needs to be tackled urgently before we can really progress. It is unlikely that we will find neat analogues of the current complex information world that are as useful to us as the book was to textual information; perhaps we shouldn't look for them. What we should be seeking instead is some better, clearer vision of the way that we can guide learners through that complexity.

Even at the fundamental level of vocabulary, with current computing technology, little progress has been made. Vocabulary ought to help us, in practice it more typically obfuscates. We use words which serve us by providing a snapshot of technological development but which offer little in the way of support to a user.

Consider the term Word Processing: in the last 20 years we have passed from text editors, through word processors to the present day where many of the features that we once took as axiomatic definitions of word processors (edit, word wrap, copy and paste, justification and format etc.) are now found in painting and drawing programs, in Pascal and Basic program editors and, of course, as a tiny subset of the much more extensive functionality of present day desktop publishing packages. The term word processor is probably redundant already and, if not, certainly will be soon. Yet generic terms such as "Word Processor", or "Spreadsheet " or "Database " can increasingly be found in the national curriculum statements of many Western education systems. Regrettably, whilst this language of the technical expert comes readily to hand, the language relied on to describe the processes expected to accompany the use of these common software applications in the classroom is seriously lacking.

For example: the teacher, observing childrens' computer resourced creative writing, finds language which is appropriate only to pen technology (finished, original, pre-planning) yet no satisfactory alternatives exist. Staying with the example of computer resourced creative writing, it is instructive to consider the layers of assessment that visit the learner's work and to examine the complex problems that computer resourced work has already brought to the learning environment.

If we are serious about the concepts and components of the new interactive media, and their impact, then it is surely not too much to hope that the relatively straightforward challenge of using a computer for writing text has been addressed and tackled; there is however, still much to do: with electronic copying from document to document and encyclopaedia on CDs at family prices, the thin line between plagiarism and research is under threat. It is very hard to make reliable statements about the originality of electronic copy, yet this is still centrally rewarded in our assessment system. Similarly, the formative assessment offered to the student should reflect the chosen delivery medium - electronic text can be rapidly redrafted and reversioned and formative judgements should reflect this, yet typically we find that written work, whether pen or processor generated, is treated the same in terms of assessment. A final example of an issue that has not been well tackled is the status of the electronic text finally submitted - does it re-enter the media pool, stored perhaps on a network server, to be read and absorbed by next year's students, or is it destroyed, erased from the magnetic media that stores it? If it does remain for later students, in subsequent years, then is it indexed with some qualitative judgements, or is it left for the reader to arrive at a summative view? Either way, the problems of indexing and the status of the stored material are complex. Typically, today, we are simply grateful that students have been able to submit work via a computer and leave it at that.

If we are serious about investigating the concepts and components of interactive media then those concepts and components need to include strategies for assessing and evaluating work that utilises those interactive media. We have not done this well for previous outcomes of educational computing but perhaps this has been a learning experience for us all. Most important of all we need to allow our learners space to explore and to present the products of their exploration. We need to be able to offer formative assessment of the processes of exploration and summative assessment of the outcomes. This is not a trivial task!

If the metaphors and assessment issues of interactive media are important, the delivery platform is all important too. The key issue is of symmetry. In a symmetrical delivery system the hardware base that allows both versioning and authoring of interactive media is the same base that delivers that interactive media to users. The users are potentially authors and versioners too. The alternative is an asymmetric system where the authoring and versioning is done on a highly expensive platform which is out of the reach of users. In educational computing this asymmetry is simply not acceptable; the autonomy of the user depends on them being able to exercise ownership at the point of delivery. If we are serious about the Information Age being a participatory, relevant age for learners then we need to bring democracy to information. We must learn to step back from the temptation to impose "frozen in the pack" solutions on our learners. They need the relevance of authoring for their own needs, for their institutions needs and for their local cultural needs. All this requires symmetry in the multimedia platform. It is essential. Of course, issues of equity cannot be ignored. Computer hardware is far cheaper than at any time in our history, but adequate computers are not yet available at prices that most families would regard as trivial, especially if a printer is part of the shopping list too. However, the concept of symmetry is more likely to resolve some of the equity problem because the opportunity for local groups, for classrooms rather than schools and even for families to be participants in the daily deluge of information, rather than passive cyphers, is real. Not every home will buy a multimedia system but with the political will nationally and locally few learners will be denied hands-on opportunities to author and present with such a system.

What then of the concepts and components of interactive media and their relevance within our education system? There are a number of needs to be addressed: we need better metaphors to allow us to model complex information webs, we need new and appropriate assessment strategies and we need symmetrical platforms for delivery and authoring. There is also a technological imperative to be addressed: the interactive media and multimedia systems developing today will be visually seductive, and attractively priced enough to constitute a major part of the home entertainment and education market (the EduTainment market). If education is to bring additionality to these exciting learning technologies then the learning objectives for that additionality need to be clarified here and now. If education either has nothing additional to offer, or is unable, coherently, to make its objectives explicit, then the future of education is bleak and short, perhaps deservedly.

Multimedia offers an unrivalled vehicle for collaborative learning, for invoking varied and relevant modes of assessment, for curriculum continuity and progression, for distant and remote learning, for risk taking, for active, participatory learning and for enjoyment. Regrettably, it could also offer a way of bringing drill and practice to Standardised Attainment Tests, of bringing individualised programme learning and evening Cram Schools to everyday family life, of bringing almost monitorial staff student ratios to educational establishments and, with asymmetrical delivery systems, of disenfranchising the future citizens of this Information Age. This choices represent a critical crossroads for education and for our young learners. The learning objectives we select for multimedia will determine which path the future takes.

At the heart of it all, we are trying to prepare young learners for a life in an Information Age that is multi sensory, complex and uncharted. They need strategies to allow them to participate fully as citizens in that new age. They need knowledge counsellors, guides and co-explorers; some of their teachers already are beginning to take these roles and those teachers should be needed more than ever before.

It is a very exciting challenge for all of us.

© 1992 Prof Stephen Heppell