Thursday, 2 February 1995

Normal children, normal lives and real change.

In 1995, more than a decade ago in fact, I was asked by Jean Underwood to write a chapter for a useful academic book she was preparing about ICT and learning. Jean has a great track record of producing precisely the books that are needed and has been a huge influence in helping teacher education get to grips with the impact of technology on learning. Like myself she was an early pioneer of the Information Technology in Teacher Education group (ITTE) that still thrives today, with a good and often readable Journal.

Looking back, the chapter I wrote had some interesting bits - a short analysis of project "X" (promounce it "times") where we worked with children-as-designers to produce a "game like" software application to help them get to grips with multiplication tables. We discovered heaps about methodology of working with children-as-designers (and are still using it today in the learner voice component of designing learning spaces for example) but, blow me down, the thing worked too and they all learned their tables in very short order. No surprises really.

Also I'd been using an analogy for a decade or more about assessment - you turn up for your driving test and there is a horse waiting by the kerbside... it's good to see in in print too. ("Don't you start, we've always used a horse...").

Here's the chapter:

In the mid 1990s there are few more contentious words than either Multimedia or Learning. Learning has a long history of impassioned debate and currently learning productivity, flexible learning, distance and autonomous learning and learning with many other qualifiers is at the heart of much current educational controversy. Multimedia has a much shorter history but as we attempt to seperate the hype from the hope, the rrality from the rhetoric, it is no less controversial. Multimedia, of course, describes the possibility that a computer might at last be able to deliver all the elements that we take for granted in the rest of our everyday lives: speech, text, graphics, video, music, sounds, data.

Around the world is it not surprising that we find education itself at the heart of much impassioned debate, when, as is currently the case in almost every education system in the world, we speak of making change happen in schools, colleges and universities. A chapter title that encompasses multimedia, learning and change might expect to offer, or at least confront, contention. However, as we have focussed our gaze on obvious technological and pedagogical change the real revolution has been in our children and their everyday lives. This chapter is centrally concerned with that change and with the need for education to recognise, and offer strategies to progress, the emergent capabilities of our young children of the information age.

Multimedia of course is a strange word; media is already a plural and adding multi to it didnt help much. Integrated media might have been better but the word has a very brief life and has already burned brightly in its supernova stage before being consigned to the same bin as many of the other techie words that once seemed so important in our computer lives. Multimedia only seemed imortant as a word when few computers offered the capability that the word seemed to describe. When every computer offers multimedia capability (as will rapidly become the norm) the word will die for ever. 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 (in 1994 at least) the multimedia computer, with most of those multiple media components in place, is seen as the exception, worthy of special terminology.

Because of the concept that multimedia is somehow exceptional, 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. What extra contribution might video make? How might auditory icons offers the signification of cues and clues that characterise good interface design? Logically it would be more sensible to assume that, as is the case in our everyday lives, 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 for example), to good effect. If life is generally a multimedia experience, our normal, computer based, learning environment should be too.

As an illustration, in the Playground Physics section of the early and pioneering Visual Almanac computer driven interactive videodisc, learners watch a sequence showing a merry-go-round changing speed as children move in and out from the centre. Initially the video sequence of a merry-go-round moving is played with a soundtrack where pitch, but not tempo, offers clear clues for the initial observer. Later in the same module the music is abandoned in exchange for a real time graphical representation of the merry-go-round plotting speed against time. Careful design decisions had been made to exclude some of the rich variety of multimedia channels available to focus children in their learning. The discipline for the designer was what to leave out rather than what to include. Curiously, although we have had multimedia around our learning environments for something like a decade it seems often that, with a few honourable exceptions, the debate about multimedia design and application has been characterised by discussions about what is technically possible rather than by what is pedagogically desirable and in what context.

Learning and its analysis, of course, has a far longer history of debate. We can be reasonably clear from a vast weight of research that elements like need, intention, creative participation and delight may be key components in successful learning for many children whilst self esteem, clear goals, autonomy and supportive critical friendship may be key motivators. However, looking at much multimedia courseware as a learning resource it is too often impossible to derive any intended learning outcomes and still more difficult to see how users may participate creatively, with delight, by these new learning environments. Worse still, the needs and intentions addressed by the software are often, sadly, those of the designers rather than the intended users. In short: over a millenium or so we have developed a variety of fairly clear ideas about some of the components of successful learning but there is little evidence that many these have been absorbed by other than a few commercial multimedia designers.

How children learn? is complex enough, but computers have added a new urgency to debates about: what do they learn?, how do we know that theyve learned it? and what do we assess?. At present some national education systems 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 nations 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, mutable 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 frustrating for 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 and thesauruses 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.

Whilst much of our focus on multimedia has been essentially a technical one, we have at least noticed the rate of change of technological platform that is supporting our young learners. ULTRALAB houses the National Archive of Educational Computing and browsing the archive it is impossible not to marvel at the progress from teletype to 24 bit screen, from punch tape to optical media or from solitary beep to 44khz stereo sound. There has been real technological progress in two short decades and power per price has dramatically improved at the same time. This progress has become a topic of interest in its own right; throughout Europe TV programmes offer weekly presentations of technological progress and we regard ourselves are technologically literate if we can simply keep up with the key milestones of progress. But, as we marvel at the rate of change of the hardware and software we bump up against surprises that we fail to understand or interpret: children seem unable to focus continually on a TV screen for an educational broadcast, seem less willing to be absorbed by literature, find no place in their lives for narrative radio. Typically we interpret this with a deficiency model of the child - they have become information grazers, their concentration threshold has collapsed, they have accelerating levels of illiteracy, parents send them to school unexposed to textual culture, and so on.

Similarly, whilst we are absorbed in the debate about what children learn and how we measure it, we focus too often on deficiency - nations publish endless reports contrasting (unfavourably) the arithmetic skills of young learners with previous eras, or with other cultures, but in doing so we again fail to notice, or log, changes that are occurring in ordinary children. Might it be possible that children are developing new emergent capabilities as information handlers? Might we be seeing not a decline in their capability but a change in the skill set that represents that capability? If so, we might hypothesize that it is not in hardware and software but in normal lives and in normal children that we will find the real revolution that is changing our learning and multimedia futures.

What might some of those changes in normal lives and in normal children be? In the 1950s, 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. Interestingly, market research and evaluation seem to suggest that for the adolescent viewer problems occur not with the complexity of this programming style but only when the content delivered across these complex information dimensions is too bland and unchallenging!

In schools this manifests itself as 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. This is not a collapse in concentration thresholds as the deficiency model of the learner would have us believe, it is the result of childrens hunger for information autonomy, for their right to focus information attention where they choose. Of course, teachers and parents ahve changed too; it is equally uncomfortable for their teachers now to sit around a radio, doing nothing else, and listen to a single aural source, although for any born before 1950 this was once a normal part of family entertainment. We have all changed our media habits and our capabilities as media consumers. A group of children were asked for suggestions about ways of makng prison less attractive and more deterring (a common focus of interest in the politics of 1990s Britai8n!). Amongst many ideas was one from a young girl who suggested that to: give them black and white TV and no way of changing channels, would be as close to hell as she could imagine; there is no shortage of similar powerful anecdotal evidence of the extent to which the climate of expectation that we bring to our media lives has changed in some 25 years.

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, as the age profile of buyers clearly indicates.

And what of other changes in ordinary childrens entertainment lives? Computer games are of real cultural importance to this information generation and games have now developed the same short fashion lives that pop music once had. From parents and the print media today computer games get the same sort of critical press that 60s pop stars and the rock generation once got: children cant read because they play too many computer games or watch too much TV. The games allegedly immerse them in violence and 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 by the same deficiency model of children that is applied to their learning lives.

Ironically, many of these wild and improbable claims are made by the same generation that was, in its own youth, supposedly corrupted and debauched by Mick Jaggers 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 emergent capabilities, and new expectations, in the children playing them.

Games can provide a challenging problem solving environment where 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 childrens computing experiences. Children expect delight, mental challenge and a role that is evolving from interactive to participativel. 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.

What might we conclude from all this?

Firstly, as we look to engender real change by harnessing multimedia technology in our learning environments we might be more aware of the cultural change that has already occured and might seek to move forward not from a deficiency model of the changing learner but from a position that seeks to recognise and value emergent capabilities.

Secondly, acknowledging, identifying and progressing emergent capabilities of learners might lead us to look through fresh eyes for new learning outcomes. Again, real change is likely to occur not by trying exclusively to deliver old learning outcomes with new technology but by looking for new learning outcomes that can only be delivered by that new technology.

Finally there is much that we already know about good learning and it is incumbent on good software designers to reflect more of that understanding than has so far been the case. It does appear that our young learners can actually serve as critical friends in the design process and part of our ackowledgement of their capability might include involving them, the users, better in the design process as well as the user testing (see case study below).

Case study

In 1993, at ULTRALAB, we were interested in the fusion of ideas that might result from asking children, teachers, parents and our own software team to design a piece of software. What would the children look for? What good experience might teachers bring? What did parents want? What could learning theory contribute to make it all work better?

As a test we took a very simple learning outcome - remembering the multiplication tables. This was a "know that" rather than "know about" learning outcome; it was very discrete as a target but it was easily tested too and children, teachers and parents are motivated by any solution which delivers a faster learning of the tables. Multiplication tables offer the key combination of need with intention.

What happened, and how did "X" develop?

Firstly, the childrens input. They already had (as is typical) good experience of computer games and other 'home computing' activities. This had developed a 'climate of expectation' amongst them. They knew what motivated them, what delighted them and what held their attention. They were very aware as software critics and full of good ideas.

Children wanted:

• a high score record - they were particular astute Nabout the need for the score to allow their peers to compete when multiplication capability varied between individuals.
• colour, sound and great graphics.
• an interface that it was obvious how to use - they suggested that opening screens of what to do text would be uneccesary if the screen was designed well.
• pressure to keep them on task but also because 'racing' against a pressure environment was exciting for them.
• good rewards - something that said "well done" and had a bit of variety in it. They wanted "well done" but they didn't want it to get in the way of their 'playing' and slow everything down.

The children did not want:

•delays - anything that got in the way of performance was unwelcome.
• loads of 'how to use it text. They could see from their own prior experience how a game worked and wanted "X" to be equally obvious to use. This was very important to them.

Parents were less ambitious in their requests, but they did want:

• the software to work and actually help children to learn their multiplication tables. Parents were very goal focussed in this respect.
• some way of allowing children of different ages to compete against each other even if one was on the 4 times and another on the 9 times multiplication tables.

Teachers had long experience of teaching tables. They wanted:

• the software to achieve its learning outcomes (!) and actually help children to learn their tables.
• some clear indicator of which numbers were being multiplied on the "table grid" for reinforcement.
• the random asking of the tables so that children could not step through by adding for each subsequent answer.
• an opportunity to explore the grid first before being tested on it.
• some easy way to stop and give up if things were going badly

Teachers did not want:

• better sounds for "wrong" than for "well done" (too many programs that they had seen rewarded failure with the best sounds and animations!!).

Of course, ULTRALAB is concerned with learning and learning theory suggested that:

• children needed visual and aural cues and clues to help reinforce the memory task.
• if the clues and cues are created by the children, 'ownership' will help them learn.
• intention and need are both important. Children have a need to learn their tables. They need this learning to deflect the pressure that they suffer from not knowing them. Almost universally they are tested at school on their multiplication tables retention. If we could combine this need with personal intention then the siImple learning target might be achieved very quickly. Personal motivation can be developed from the delight that a 'games' environment can offer.

Taking into account this good advice from children, parents and teachers, we developed "X" as a Hypercard stack using QuickTime for its music and animation.

The software does MOST of what was asked of it by the teachers, parents and children; it offers visual cues which can be painted by individuals as they work their way through the software, but it doesn't yet offer aural cues and clues because we wanted to find out how well th0e visual ones worked first. It doesn't offer printouts because we decided that the learning outcome was table capability and that was what children took home or into school. We did not want to focus on the pictures as an end in themselves, they were only a means to an end.

Initial testing suggest that X seems to work rather well. The combination of children, teachers and parents as designers showed that they all had something to offer 'learning'. As a case study it throws interesting light on the process of software design and the role of children in the developmental process.

An interesting by product of this small project was to discover that the traditional rote way of learning multiplication tables masks how few sums actually need to be remembered - after the easy 1 to 5 and 10 times tables have been removed and allowing for commutativity (2x4 and 4x2, etc.) there are really only 10 'hard' sums to remember and four of those are square numbers that children seem to find easier to recall.

Parents (and teachers) found it useful to help children realise from the outset that commutativity exists and that the whole task of remembering multiplication tables is manageable with only 55 sums in total to be completed. Because of the way that children traditionally learn their tables, for many there is simply no understanding that 3x7 is the same as 7x3. Ask a child who has learned their three times tables what three sevens are and they will usually say "I don't know". "X" makes commutativity explicit and for many children simplZy realising this seems to halve the task they have in front of them. It's a great morale booster!

X has been made available on ULTRALABs Insights for Teachers and Parents CD ROM for Apple Macintosh computers.

© Stephen Heppell 1995