Digital Multimedia & Distance Education: Can They Effectively Be Combined?

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Two of the most dynamic instructional technologies available to today's educators are multimedia-based learning and distance education. I worked with a system that not only has attempted to marry these two approaches, but also incorporates the two most popular forms of distance education: online learning and videoconferencing. One software package that has combined all of these different technologies is LearnLinc. LearnLinc's capabilities include desktop videoconferencing, online chat, a digital whiteboard feature, polling software, Web access, screen captures and an ability to transmit any commercial computer application across a network, including multimedia-enhanced lessons developed with an authoring tool (Lister et al. 1999). Kent State University adopted LearnLinc to drive its distributive learning program, an effort to offer coursework synchronously at multiple sites across its seven-campus system.

I was one of the first instructors to use this system, teaching a beginning microcomputer course to 28 undergraduates located at four different sites, three of them at a distance. At the end of the course I developed a survey for students to complete anonymously. Students provided feedback on their experiences, indicating what they felt were the strengths and weaknesses of this dynamic, complex learning system.

Digital Multimedia Lessons

What is the potential of what some have termed "distributive learning"? The system is computer-based, so it can deliver instruction that takes advantage of the computer's considerable capabilities. Instruction can be systematically planned in advance and developed carefully, following principles of good instructional design. The lessons can then be used repeatedly by students in subsequent classes and revised on an ongoing basis. They can also be made highly interactive so students receive feedback as to how they are doing. When they are struggling, the computer can provide remediation. It can also branch to other parts of the unit if the material is either too difficult or too easy for the student, adjusting the material to their level of expertise. Students can move at their own pace through the unit, so instruction can, in this fashion, be highly individualized.

These computerized lessons can include a variety of multimedia resources: pictures, sounds and video materials. The visual material can help clarify key points, video can bring real experiences into the classroom, and animation can help demonstrate how processes work. Audio can also be very helpful, especially for topics such as music and language instruction. The lessons developed for my course with the Toolbook authoring language were well received by the students. Particularly successful were some sequences for teaching Web-based computer skills that made effective use of screen captures from the Web. These screens were then marked with highlighting to indicate critical menu selections, displays, transformations, etc. Procedures could effectively be demonstrated on these simulated Web screens, showing students exactly what menu choices would appear and which commands they needed to select.

However, there were some problems with the system. First, only a small percentage of my particular course curriculum really seemed appropriate for this type of programmed instruction. Much of the class time was devoted to completing exercises using various computer applications or discussions about how to effectively use technology in the classroom. Then there was the considerable time, trouble and expense associated with preparing programmed material for the class (Muldner 1997). The assistance of a programmer was required to help develop these materials using Toolbook, or Authorware, which complicated the course preparation process for me.

Another problem associated with the development of the interactive, multimedia lessons was that copyright was a major concern of those directing this distributive learning project. They strongly insisted that any materials located for use in the authored lessons needed copyright permission, despite the likelihood that "fair use" standards for educational use of materials may well have applied in this case. Permission was time-consuming and problematic to obtain, even with assistance provided by a librarian. Many of the multimedia materials that I was able to locate were ultimately barred from use. Because it was such a struggle, and did not seem necessary for many of the activities associated with the course, only a few multimedia lessons were ultimately produced for my class.

Application Sharing

The application sharing features of the system were more important in this particular course than the delivery of preprogrammed multimedia materials. The system could send the instructor's screen to all the students' screens with any application. This capability was especially helpful in this computer class, because a number of applications were taught and key points about each could be demonstrated with on-screen examples. I used this feature with all the standard computer applications and even the Web, since this system will even send a given Web-page screen to every student's computer. With this synchronized Web browser, the students can then proceed to explore the Web site on their own.

Unfortunately, the system did not show live movement of the cursor on these shared screens. The signals were still frames, so procedures needed to be shown in a succession of transmissions in freeze-frame mode. This was slower and more laborious, but at least the process could be presented step-by-step. The instructor was also able to see student screens. This functionality was critical for me, because I needed to assist these computer novices in working with unfamiliar applications. Again, it was unfortunate that the system only permitted still-frame screen captures that only allowed me to view "snapshots" of what students were doing from my machine. But at least they gave me a sense of what students were working on. In addition, it was not possible to control the students' cursors from my machine and demonstrate what students should do next, so I used the videoconferencing system to assist them.

A digital whiteboard feature was also available, providing a blank space in which I could type notes that would appear on every screen throughout the system. This feature was actually quite helpful for me to emphasize key points in writing as I spoke to the group. It also allowed me to list critical issues raised during a class discussion, just as one might do on a conventional classroom blackboard. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to share written material prepared in advance except to copy and paste the electronic version of it into the whiteboard.

Desktop Videoconferencing

Each distributive learning station includes a small camera on a stand, with a built-in microphone, which is connected to the computer. Videoconferencing capability allows students to see and hear the instructor, or any student who takes control of the system (Sellen 1995). A "talking head" appears on the screen in an adjustable display window that allows face-to-face interaction between participants. The software also gives the instructor control over who appears on screen. A class-roster display indicates which students would like to appear on the system with hand icons, symbolizing the "raised hands" of students who have volunteered to participate. The software can also be reset to allow anyone to take "the floor." Discussions can be held, and participants can get to know one another - significantly enhancing the social dimension of this type of class and providing a more personalized experience than other forms of distance learning. In addition, videotaped material can be conveniently shown to students on this system.

However, there were limitations associated with the videoconferencing system. The signal was compressed, so there was some visual jerkiness and the audio was not in sync with the video. Also, the small cameras could only accommodate a single face, so wide shots were not feasible. Although some videoconferencing systems support multiple video windows on screen simultaneously, this system allowed only one signal to appear at a time, so a visual sense of the class as a group could never really be established. Consequently, there was a kind of invisibility associated with this form of videoconferencing, especially for those students who were reluctant to volunteer comments.

While I could "call on" these shy students by activating their cameras, their sudden appearance on everyone's screen sometimes flustered them, making them even less willing to participate. In addition, there was a two- to three-second delay with each change in speaker on the videoconferencing system as the instructor activated the next camera. This pause made discussions seem a bit lethargic.

The system was also flawed in another way. A delay in signal processing garbled the audio in the classroom when someone was speaking. The comment was heard live, then the same sentence was heard again a few seconds later coming across the system through the headsets. This problem was especially annoying for students in my room who, with the headsets on, heard my voice overlapping itself. But if they removed the headsets, they could not hear other students at the remote sites.

Overall, students generally agreed that videoconferencing was an important, helpful component of the system, especially at the remote sites. But students indicated some degree of self-consciousness about volunteering comments on camera. Class discussions also seemed less spontaneous over this system than in a conventional classroom.

Communications Features

There were some synchronous computer-based communications features available on this system, but they were used only occasionally during the semester. A built-in electronic chat feature interested most students because few seemed to have experienced this form of online telecommunication (Veerman et al. 2000). Several discussions were conducted using this text-based system. But it was not as effective a synchronous communications device as the videoconferencing system, primarily because of the extra time it took to type in comments rather than just saying them. Also, text was less personalized than seeing the person on screen.

On those occasions when chat was tried, there were inevitably many tangential comments, and the discussion tended to veer off in unexpected directions. The delays associated with keyboarding resulted in many contributions appearing on screen after the topic had already changed direction. In addition, with this chat feature, I did not have built-in control over who contributed as I did with the videoconferencing, so my ability to lead the discussions was limited.

A polling feature was also available on this system, allowing the class to vote anonymously for multiple-choice questions. An over-all tally of the percentages of who selected each option was then presented, allowing the group to see the breakdown. This feature could be used for informal quizzes or "Jeopardy"-style contests of computer-related knowledge. It also was occasionally useful to obtain feedback from the class about what they would like to see next,how much they already knew about a topic, whether the pace of the class was appropriate, etc. In a situation with so many invisible students at remote sites, this feature can help instructors get to know their class better.

This distributive learning system is designed for regularly scheduled college courses, wherein students are expected to attend at the assigned times and the primary mode of communication is synchronous. But the asynchronous capabilities of the system can be used effectively in a supplementary fashion as well (Soo and Bonk 1998). Because Web access was available, I provided some class materials on the Web, and e-mail was used extensively during the course.

E-mail was an important communication tool. Not only was it convenient, but it served as a private one-to-one means of communicating that was not possible in any other way, given the "public" nature of all exchanges on the videoconferencing system and chat lines. E-mail also allowed for an efficient submission of assignments and evaluations. Stu-dents indicated on the survey that having course materials like syllabi, assignments and lesson materials posted on the Web was helpful for them. But there was also a printed packet filled with supplementary course materials, as well as two commercial texts.

Students also indicated they still appreciated the convenience of having a hard copy of class materials. And given the greater ease with which directions on a hard copy could be read while working on an application with printed lesson material was particularly helpful for working on computer assignments, as opposed to dealing with the awkwardness of reading two sets of materials in different windows on the screen.

Overall Perspectives

For me, as an instructional technologist, it was exciting to experiment with such a potentially dynamic system. Being able to communicate with so many students at a distance was satisfying. However, I also found the experience challenging. At times, there were four or five windows open on my screen at once, many partially obscuring one another. I also found it difficult to multitask, given so many options and so many stimuli. One potential problem associated with combining all these capabilities in one system is that it can be taxing for the teacher to orchestrate all of these different features. Another problem is the bandwidth one can generate. The compressed video signals and the Toolbook files were especially problematic. When I used several features at once, the system tended to slow down and sometimes even crashed.

On the survey, students at the remote sites rated the class more positively than those in my classroom, which somewhat surprised me. However, I think the students appreciated the fact that they did not have to drive all the way to the main campus to take the course. Also, they truly experienced "distance" learning. Like most experiences with new technologies, there were pros and cons. While students appreciated the uniqueness of such a class and the capability of the technology, the ongoing technical difficulties we encountered were annoying.

For the majority of the class, the levels of computer expertise developed in this course seemed generally comparable to levels attained by students to whom I had previously taught the same skills in self-contained lab classes. However, a few of the students at the remote sites had difficulties that were harder for me to address, given some of the limitations associated with working one-on-one at a distance. These individuals struggled, and they probably would have been better off taking the class in a more traditional way.

Future Potential of Distributive Learning

Simpler applications, such as presentation software or a Web development tool, could have been used to provide much of the material used in this microcomputer course; then the assistance of a programmer would not have been necessary. In fact, since I taught my course, LearnLinc software has now been upgraded to support the transmission of PowerPoint slides. While somewhat less dynamic than Toolbook materials, PowerPoint presentations are far easier for instructors to prepare.

Another limitation of this approach to distance education was its restricted accessibility. The videoconferencing and Toolbook data, in particular, required too much bandwidth to work effectively on the Internet, so those with only modem connections at home could not participate. But now a scaled-down, lower-bandwidth version of LearnLinc is available. It relies on Internet protocol-based audioconferencing rather than videoconferencing for telecommunications, and upon PowerPoint rather than Toolbook for lesson material. In addition, users at home can now download the LearnLinc software and connect to a group session.

If this system can continue to upgrade its capabilities, especially those associated with screen sharing, it will become more widely available and better able to support all kinds of courses, including hands-on laboratory-based courses. Such distributive learning systems will surely improve as the delivery software develops, the capability of the hardware advances and the bandwidth of our telecommunications systems increases. The future looks promising for distance education systems that incorporate digitized multimedia lessons.


References

Lister, B., M. Danchak, K. Scalso, W. Jennings and J. Wilson. 1999. "The Rensselaer 80/20 Model for Interactive Distance Learning." Paper presented at EDUCAUSE, Long Beach, Calif.

Muldner, T. 1997. "Experience From the Design of an Authoring Environment." Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia 6 (1): 115-32.

Sellen, A. 1995. "Remote Conversations: The Effects of Mediating Talk With Technology." Human-Computer Interaction 10 (4): 401-44.

Soo, Keng-Soon and C. Bonk. 1998. "Interaction: What D'es It Mean in Online Distance Education?" Paper presented at the World Conference on Educational Telecommunications, Freiburg, Germany.

Veerman, A., J. Andriessen and G. Kanselaar. 2000. "Learning Through Synchronous Electronic Discussion." Computers & Education 34 (3-4): 269-90.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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