Landscape, Culture and Interpretation:
Challenges in Interface Design.

M.D. Riddle, M.W. Nott, K.M. Gray,
M. Nelson and P. Hennessey

Science Multimedia Teaching Unit

University of Melbourne

Parkville VIC 3052


This paper discusses the design of the interface and the conceptualisation of the educational process behind the development of a CD-ROM, with the working title of ëMungoí. The CD-ROM has been produced by the Science Multimedia Teaching Unit and the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne and is based on nearly 30 years of research data. In describing the project we reiterate the conference theme of ëmaking new connectionsí.

1 Lake Mungo

Over nearly 3 decades, Professor Bowler from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues have accumulated data on the archaeology, climate, and environment of the Murray Darling Basin region of South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. In 1969 Professor Bowler discovered the remains of Mungo Lady, and later Mungo Manófinds which allowed accurate estimates of some of the earliest human occupation of Australia (the remains are believed to be around 26,000 years old). The discoveries were made in the Willandra Lakes Region, an area with exceptional natural and cultural values that was given World Heritage listing in 1981.

1.1 Themes

From the numerous expeditions into this area, an invaluable database on the region has been developed, containing data in many different forms, such as climatological, salinity, stratigraphic, lake- and sea-level data, geophysical maps and photographs, floral and faunal remains, and archaeological artefacts.

Data from these excursions give rise to many themes, or stories, of great significance to our understanding of the Australian landscape and culture. Among the broad themes are: caring for the land, human impacts on environment, mysteries of the ice age, climate change, human antiquity, and faunal extinctions. The challenge for the design team has been to do justice to the great depth of the information, while allowing broad themes to be borne out.

1.2 Audience influence on interface

The primary audience for the CD-ROM is secondary school students, particularly Years 10 to 12 Biology, Environmental Science and Geography students; additional audiences include tertiary students, secondary school and public libraries, museums and national park services. Thus, the educational design, as well as the interface design, needs to be flexible but simple, and to appeal to a youthful audience. In the secondary school setting, while we anticipate that the CD-ROM can be used as part of whole-class activities, we recognise that many schools do not have large computer laboratories. Clearly, the interface has to be one which encourages students to explore the content freely, but allows teachers to set directed study assignments that meet specific curriculum requirementsóif necessary, for students working alone or in small groups outside the classroom.

2 Interface metaphors

The interface we have designed makes use of a geographic metaphor combined with an oral history one, allowing for a range of learning to occur during virtual field trips. To pursue an interest in the ice age story, for example, the traveller can move around a map that links sites from place to place and through time, and also follow a loose narrative, to build up a sense of how the ice age affected sea- and lake-levels, and transformed the now dry and windy landscape.

2.1 Head Up Display

In linking the interface and the conceptualisation of the educational process we borrowed ideas from highly immersive interactive games to provide the feeling of detailed investigation of the place. The
main navigational aid takes the form of a Head Up Display (HUD, Figure 1) much like those used in modern aircraft, which doubles as the means of displaying all interpreted data on each site, such as sea-level maps, and aerial or cross-section diagrams. The HUD can also display text and pre-recorded video and audio clips or animations which aid in the explanation of certain topics.

2.2 Multiple modes of interpretation

The Mungo virtual field trip has a unique advantage for the user: at any point the form of explanation on the screen can easily be changed (from topographic map to Aboriginal storyteller, for example), or even turned off completely to allow photographic images of a site to fill the screen. The use of controllable multiple modes of interpretation is intended to let the learner explore various ways of understanding the land and its occupants. It is possible that this type of virtual field trip, through the intensive and recursive opportunities for reflection that it provides, enables the visitor to approach the deep sense of place experienced in an actual field visit.

Figure 1. Head up Display.

3 Connecting students with environment

Mungo makes new connections between students of the Australian environment, taking a very broad view of this group, and a part of this environment which has great significance but is little known. This section explains how Mungo has been influenced by current ideas about the so-called ëvirtual field tripí, and describes the approach to designing Mungo as such.

3.1 Why a virtual field trip?

As with other computer-based designs in the same broad classósimulations, scenarios, microworlds, intelligent environments and the likeóthe virtual field trip claims to have many logistical advantages over the real thing, for occupational, educational or recreational purposes: it may allow any number of people, anytime, anywhere, to interact with themes of a specific place, without long queues, extended opening hours or public liability insurance claims; it may provide background informationóabout long time-spans, very large or minute physical features, non-material culture or the availability of drinking wateróin a way that maximises the effectiveness of a real-time visit; it may assemble a complex representation of a remote or inaccessible place for people who donít have the technical means or range of movement to do this for themselves; it may offer people the chance to appreciate a hazardous or vulnerable place without adverse impacts on themselves or on the place. All of these kinds of advantages have been factors in the decision to produce Mungo.

Mungo has been designed in the context of a proliferation of interest in the concept of the virtual field trip. It is now possible to ëtravelí to Antarctica, to the Himalayas, to Hawaii, or into the kelp forests off the coast of California, by popping a CD-ROM into your PC, or opening a World Wide Web locationófurther details of many examples of field trips with an ecological emphasis can be found at the Ecosim Web site [3], A number of commentators have raised social and educational concerns about the concept; for example, one educator takes the view that the migration of human interaction into cyberspace represents an assault on identity, place, community and reality:

This, it seems to the authors, is the threat we face: that soon, lost among electronic representations ëjust as goodí as the real thing, weíll collectively lose sight of the fact that approximations and reenactments are a kind of lie, and that lies, even small ones, tend to create a climate increasingly hostile or indifferent to the truth (Slouka [6], p.148).

In developing Mungo, we have been challenged by the variety of existing approaches to designing virtual field trips, as well as by such critical perspectives on the concept itself. In what follows, we describe how we have tried to use the metaphor of the field trip thoughtfully, to design a multimedia program that offers sophisticated educational outcomes across a range of learning about ëplaceí.

4 Connecting academic research with teaching and learning

Mungo, with its databases of research findings and supports an enquiry-based learning interface, allows for novel links to be made between academic research and student learningówhich is entirely appropriate for upper secondary and tertiary education experience. In practice, while using Mungo, students will learn syllabus-prescribed material for earth science and related subjects while engaging in research.

4.1 ëDoing researchí and ëdoing teachingí

For university academic staff, ëdoing researchí and ëdoing teachingí have often been at odds. Staff are promoted on the basis of research activity primarily (although the importance of teaching excellence is rapidly gaining ground in all institutions). In ëdoing researchí one chooses, or is encouraged, to focus on a narrow research topic, but is typically called upon to teach over a wide curriculum base.

Mungo presages ideal learning situations where an academic provides the basis of a learning package in the relatively narrow area of their research expertise which is then made widely available to multiple institutions and independent students either through CD-ROM or, increasingly, the Web. An analogy exists in tertiary level science text books which now are typically multi-authored, each chapter being the contribution of an expert researcher in the field.

4.2 Learning environments based on actual data

Mungo is built on banks of real research data and, as such, differs from simulations which generate output according to embedded mathematical formulae. Two other Australian products, designed by Harper, Hedberg and colleagues at the University of Wollongong (see ref 3), also focus on lake and river systems. The first, Investigating Lake Iluka, is based on simulations, whereas the second, Exploring the Nardoo, employs actual data though the river system is unidentified. One may argue about the relative merits of each system but a strong case can be made for keeping university students, as much as possible, in touch with real data; hence in a research mode. The Head Up Display and the use of QuickTime Guides should allow the user a satisfactory degree of immersion in the virtual field trip experience while keeping them aware that they are drawing upon hard-won actual research findings.

4.3 Design consistent with different ëways of knowingí

In Mungo we have tried to address the many different ways in which people may ëknowí a place, even when they are physically present in it. These ëways of knowingí may be thought about in terms of various kinds of abilities, such as the ëmultiple intelligencesíólinguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and personalóformulated by Gardner, and used by McLellan [4], to give an overview of the educational potential of virtual reality to cater for, and also integrate, these kinds of abilities in learning via new media technologies. In Mungo, we have tried to apply such ëways of knowingí to the design of a program through which users may virtually experience a unique Australian landscape: through textual description, the sounds of the place, numerical earth science data, maps and images of scenes and conditions, the impression of ëmovementí through space and time, and first-person oral histories, respectively.

Further, the design of Mungo is consistent with the view that peopleís different ways of ëknowingí a landscape may be influenced by prior knowledge and cultural conditioning. A recent influential book about landscape describes the idea of landscape itself as a cultural artefactóëIt entered the English language, along with herring and bleached linen, as a Dutch import at the end of the sixteenth centuryí(Schama, [5], p.10)ówhich attempts to carry out ëan excavation below our conventional sight-level to recover the veins of myth and memory that lie beneath the surfaceí(Schama, [5], p.14). In the case of the Australian landscape, through Mungo, we have tried to create a learning environment which offers insights into geophysical, biological and archaeological, and Aboriginal and European ëways of knowingí, because, as a major new report on the state of environment has put it, ëOur responses need to embrace a systems approach that reflect the complexity of the natural world and the cultural values associated with ití (Australia, [1], p.ES-7).

5 A community of views on landscape

Australians now have unparalleled opportunities to experience their country virtuallyówhether by reading an Australian Geographic Society magazine article, by watching an Ernie Dingo travel program on television, or even by assimilating the works of Ken Done and John Williams. We are conscious of the fact that Mungo will be used by many people who are accustomed to having their knowledge of the landscape mediatedóby the way someone else ëknowsí the landscape, represents this knowledge, and uses it to communicate a messageóthrough armchair exploration that is often uncritical.

In designing the Mungo virtual field trip we have tried to take account of the various conventions that have been used to mediate the landscape, in the case of Australia, for example, from the ringing tones of Robert Flanneryís early documentary film ëAustralia: Island Continentí, through the idiosyncratic ABC television presentation of Les Hiddens, ëThe Bush Tucker Maní, to the syrupy style of the souvenir videos in airport shopping arcades. To suit the expectations of program users but, even further, to extend them, Mungo has been designed as a collage of conventions: it not only offers optional modes of ëvisitor informationí (such as travelogue, field guide and expeditionary record), but also encourages self-guided as well as professionally-guided ëtoursí through the programís content.

Thus, the design of Mungo has acknowledged that a virtual field trip to a particular place is not about an immutable reality: there isnít a single subject of knowledge, or a single right way to state what you know, or a single reason for knowing it, in this place. Instead, Mungo aims to apply the idea of Barlex and Carre [2] of ësharing ideas through shared imagesí. In other words, it is intended to enable the creation of a community of people who have synthesised an understanding of this unique place from a range of mediated experiences, and, as well, have become aware of the ways in which their own personal understanding of Australia as a place are continually being mediated.


[1] Australia: State of the Environment 1996 Collingwood, Vic., CSIRO Publishing c500pp.

[2] Barlex, David & Carre, Clive, Visual Communication in Science: Learning through Shared Images, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985.

[3] Gray, K.M. Ecosim Web site, URL: 1996.

[4] McLellan, Hilary, 'Virtual reality and multiple intelligences: potentials for higher education', Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Volume 5, no. 2, pages 33-66, 1994.

[5] Schama, Simon, Landscape and Memory London, Harper Collins 652pp, 1995

[6] Slouka, Mark War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality New York, BasicBooks 185pp, 1995

Copyright (c) M.D. Riddle, M.W. Nott, K.M. Gray, M. Nelson and P. Hennessey 1996. The authors assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 96 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.