Maya Mythology & Multimedia: Using Each to Teach the Other

by DR. JAMES A. FOX, Associate Professor Stanford University Palo Alto, Calif. Multimedia software, digital imaging hardware and the Internet are new tools that enhance the learning and enjoyment of ancient Mayan mythology. Last year, I taught a seminar to 13 Stanford undergraduates that combined these subjects in an exciting way. For me, the seminar had lessons beyond the specific subject of the Maya. I began to think of multimedia applications for all my research and teaching interests. The 13 sophomores in the seminar combined digital images, sound files and text to create an interactive graphical introduction to Maya mythology based on my translation-in-progress of the Maya mythological epic Popol Vuh (The Council Book). The project was stored on Stanfords computer network. Anyone in the class could access other students parts of the project from their dorm or library computer. The students also used electronic mail to communicate with each other and me. My hope is that, when completed, the project can be accessed by anyone on the Internets World Wide Web. The class was part of a special program for sophomores to get them involved in research and discussion early in their career at Stanford. Many such sophomore seminars are offered. Mining Multimedias Potential The class could have been done without multimedia. I could have shown students my slides and books, and gotten them to appreciate the connections between Maya art and this particular Maya myth. Ive done courses like that before. But combining the Popol Vuh with multimedia presented a more engrossing curriculum with broader applications. When students enrolled, they understood the class would involve both topics. The number of people in this country that can actually teach a course as specific as this is very small. The Popol Vuh deserves to be much more widely known. With the advent of multimedia, that is now possible. A teacher in any college or even a high school or grade school could introduce this set of materials to their students because it is very entertaining as well as educational. Technology now presents a way to extend this research to any other school. The information could be packaged in such a way that a teacher anywhere in the country could include a module on the Popol Vuh in his or her course materials. Multimedia, originating either from the Internet or a CD-ROM, would provide a valuable teaching aid without requiring teachers to be experts themselves. The technology can also be taken one step further. There are all kinds of people in the U.S. whose expertise might be extended in this same way. Their particular specialties could be taught from material they developed in their research, but presented in a more accessible multimedia format. My students not only learned about ancient Maya mythology, but also gained an understanding of how multimedia can be used to reach others with ideas and concepts they might otherwise never learn. What theyve learned makes them more computer savvy and acquaints them with basic processes of digitizing different kinds of resources as well as how to put those resources together into a multimedia package. Theyre only sophomores. When they graduate, theyll be ready for the modern world in a very big way. I should also point out that my students, in many cases, went far beyond the requirements, often coming up with ideas and methods that enriched my own understanding of both the technology and the mythology. Basic Tools: Mosaic and Photo CD I relied on two popular technologies to make the course a reality: NCSA Mosaic and Kodak Photo CD technology. Mosaic, a graphical Web browser developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, allows users to wind their way through the Internets World Wide Web without using complicated jargon. Instead, users access information (pictures, video, audio and text) by clicking on pictures and highlighted text. The software is available on the Internet and its free. Of course, commercial developers are coming up with even more powerful graphical browsers. We also experimented with an early version of one of these, Netscape. Photo CD technologys low cost, high quality and popularity have made it a de facto standard among photographers, publishers and multimedia developers interested in bringing photographic images into the digital environment. For less than $1 per image scan, a digital negative is created and stored on a Photo CD disc that plays in virtually any CD-ROM drive. Each scanned image comes in five different resolutions with a maximum file size of 18MB; higher resolutions are now available. Because the image is digital, it can be used, reused and transferred again and again without any loss of quality. In my course, every student set up a home page on the Internet using HTML, the hypertext mark-up language read by Mosaic and other browsers. A home page serves as a personal display wall in cyberspace. My students were divided into small groups and began organizing their own sub-projects. Groups met both physically and through the Internet. The objective was to come up with an interactive multimedia program that allowed users to learn about the Popol Vuh and view related Maya art at relevant points in the story. I chose HTML and Mosaic because they allow us to produce something that can be accessed over the Internet. Also, Mosaic and other browsers are available for Mac, IBM-compatible and UNIX machines, so whatever is produced can be viewed on all three platforms. Students would not be locking themselves into any one computer. Also, Mosaic was expanding by leaps and bounds in terms of who was using it and what was being done. It was clearly a wave of the future that students could join now to get both immediate benefits as well as long-term ones. Many of my slides had already been scanned onto Kodak Photo CD discs. I loaned some of the discs to students so they could get the images they needed. I also loaded the images onto the Stanford network and allowed students to browse for those they needed. Sounds were obtained from tapes and digitized at one of several computers available at the undergraduate library. Because of the depth of the subject and the limited time students had to learn both the Popol Vuh and producing multimedia, the project is still not completed. Over the next year or two, I plan to teach the course again and actually put a preliminary version on the Web. Specific Benefits of Photo CD I have about 7,000 slides of Maya culture, at least half of which I want to digitize. I considered buying a slide scanner, but the low cost, high quality and standardization of Photo CD scans sold me. What makes the technology so useful and inexpensive is the storage medium. If I scan images myself, I still need to buy large storage devices, plus the images would be in only one resolution. Another consideration was standards. Multimedia has a number of different standards, leading to difficulty in converting from one format to another. Photo CD, however, is a standard everybody would support. And its different resolutions would be very useful in different applications. I organize my digital images with the Kodak Sh'ebox software package. Thumbnail images are stored on the hard disk, along with a database that describes each one. I can find a particular image either by browsing thumbnails or by the words linked to the image when I first put them in Sh'ebox. This is particularly handy when Im organizing a module of the multimedia program or preparing a specific lecture. I can then download selected images from the CDs to a portable hard drive to take with me. Having digital images also offers security. Traveling with trays of slides is burdensome and losing or damaging slides is a constant worry. Photo CD discs let me use images freely while knowing that the originals are safe at home. I also duplicate Photo CD discs in case one gets lost or damaged. And if the originals are destroyed, the images on the CD are at a high enough resolution for me to continue my work. Keys to Future Possibilities Such digital imaging tools are the key to multimedia. My objective, in the course, is to show students the potential of the Internet and multimedia in delivering and presenting information. Some of my students have already been offered part-time jobs at Stanford doing similar work; maybe some will pursue this as a career. The industry needs experts in specific topics as well as the technology to present it. A lot of multimedia educational programs seem trivial to me. When somebody is really computer savvy but d'esnt know anything about Maya mythology&emdash;or whatever the subject may be&emdash;then what they produce is often naive and trivial. What is needed is for people who have a lot of knowledge about something to also be interested in creating a multimedia version of it. Then they can develop the depth and richness of a topic in such a way that a wider audience is able to be exposed to, and excited about, it. James Fox is a professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. E-mail: [email protected] Products mentioned: Photo CD discs, Sh'ebox software; Eastman Kodak Co., Rochester, NY, (800) CD-KODAK Netscape Navigator; Netscape Communications Corp., Mountain View, CA, (800) 469-0397

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.