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Cost Effective Multimedia Production for Frequently Updated Courseware
Edith Cowan University
This paper describes a cost effective approach to producing multimedia courseware which makes major use of Lotus ScreenCam, a dynamic screen capturing tool which captures all screen activity, including mouse movements, plus a voice-over narrative. The courseware also uses Windows Help files to include textual and graphical information which is then presented in "manageable chunks", such files also providing Hypertext facilities There is a specially developed user front end which: allows for easy navigation through the courseware via an hierarchical "Explorer" type tree structure; includes an indexing and bookmarking facility; and permits students to make their own notes. The system also includes a multiple choice testing facility which has the ability to give student feedback via ScreenCam "movies".
Details of all the course content (movies, Windows Help screens, etc) are all held within a conventional relational database and the courseware developer interacts with the database via a developer's front end. This enables the developer to quickly update the courseware which is especially important when it includes the teaching of a software product which is subject to frequent updates.
The system has been used to produce courseware which teaches event driven computer programming concepts using Visual BASIC.
The university of the 1990s caters for a wide variety of students including full-time, part-time, and distance-learning students. Many students, including those who are full-time, participate in the work force in addition to studying. Also, universities have large numbers of International students and many universities have off-shore twinning arrangements with a variety of colleges. This has led to the need for the more flexible delivery of courses so students can work at their own pace and review material when necessary.
An attractive option is to make use of electronic multimedia courseware as it is believed that such materials will enhance student learning. However it is well known that multimedia materials are expensive to produce with figures of one hundred hours of development time being required for one hour of multimedia product (Pilgrim and Creek, 1995). In an academic environment, developing a multimedia program can be daunting if academics are not supported by a team of specialists like a programmer, an instructional designer or a graphic designer (Khoo and Lou, 1995). Zelmer(1995) suggests that the commercialisation of multimedia by the "infotainment" industry has raised user expectations and that it may condemn to oblivion the desktop-based author approach.
The above effectively means that the vast majority of lecturers do not participate in the production of multimedia materials to enhance the learning of students who take their courses. This is particularly true for courses which include the use of specific software which is the subject of frequent updates (sometimes referred to as consumable software). For example, Visual BASIC was introduced in 1991 and is now up to version 5. It is therefore not usually cost effective to produce multimedia materials to teach courses which utilise such consumable software.
Lotus ScreenCam and its Use within Multimedia
One way of reducing multimedia development time and simplifying its production is to utilise a product called ScreenCam which is produced by Lotus. This is a dynamic screen capturing tool which captures all screen activity, including mouse movements, plus a voice-over narrative. Lotus introduced the acronym: WYSIWYD, "What you see is what you do", to describe this. The material captured forms a "movie" which can be "played back" using a freely distributable ScreenCam player. The resultant files are relatively small and are approximately 1MB in length for 1 minute of movie if the sound is recorded at the lowest quality.
Various training companies, including Operation ABLE, Allen Communications and Usability Sciences, are using ScreenCam to supplement instructor driven and self-paced training (HREF 1). Also, ScreenCam has been used in the production of several commercial CD ROM ìtutorî type products including Visual BASIC (Hicks, 1995), Delphi 2 (McKelvy, 1996), and Access í95 (Perry, 1996).
In an academic context, Pilgrim and Creek (1995) used ScreenCam to produce some multimedia material to deliver one module within a computer programming course. They took some existing slides which had been produced in PowerPoint and "played them" using the PowerPoint player whilst simultaneously dynamically recording the activity with ScreenCam. They also recorded movies of the construction of a program within its actual programming environment together with the debugging process and the execution of the program produced.
Such movies are useful for student learning for various reasons. Firstly they deliver materials using dual modality with students hearing explanatory text while viewing related information on the screen. Mayer and Anderson (1991) have shown this to improve student learning in several experiments which they carried out. Chandler (1995) also suggests that " learners hearing explanatory text while viewing related diagrammatic screen may be preferable to equivalent visual only instruction". A second reason is that movies can be made of the display of a series of slides produced using presentation graphics. Such slides might normally be shown in a traditional lecture situation and this in itself is useful as Roberts (1995) has shown that students value the opportunity to listen to lectures they have missed or to review complex material. Thirdly, the simple animations which take place in movies, such as the highlighting of an area on the screen with the mouse, are useful as they reduce the search process for learners (Chandler, 1995). For example, if a spreadsheet package was being taught and the voice-over narrative described the summing of a column of cells then it is much clearer to the user if that column is highlighted within the movie.
An Electronic Flexible Learning System
Presenting materials using ScreenCam movies to students can provide benefits in student learning and understanding. However the use of such movies should be seen as just one type of resource to support learning, other resources also being used to provide a richer learning environment. To this end, an electronic flexible learning delivery system has been built to try and provide such an environment. The aims of the system include: that the user and author interfaces be extremely straight forward to use; that it should utilise low-cost tools; that subsequent maintenance of the courseware should be straight forward; and that the system should be capable of being run on older hardware, such as 486 machines, the only requirements being that such a machine has a CD ROM player and a basic sound card.
The user's interface has been designed to be intuitive and it allows easy navigation through the courseware via an hierarchical "Explorer" type tree structure. It permits users to launch any external programs specified by the courseware developer, such programs including the ScreenCam movie player and others such as the software product to be taught (for example Visual BASIC). The launched programs can seamlessly load specific files such as a ScreenCam movie to be played or a solution to a problem written in the software product (for example a solution to a Visual BASIC problem being loaded into Visual BASIC itself).
In addition to the hierarchical tree structure of the interface, an index and bookmarking facility have been provided to allow users to easily "look up" topics whilst keeping a bookmark of their current position. This enables students who are, for example, tackling a problem to go and easily review other material in the courseware and return to their original position.
Static text and graphics are presented using Windows Help screens from within Windows Help files. This mechanism is supported by Rees (1995) who suggests that extensive presentation of text does not work well on screen and is not popular with users and that such text sections can be placed in context sensitive help files which are able to be accessed from any part of an interactive program. Help files have the added benefit of providing a hypertext facility and a facility for users to annotate such Help screens with their own notes. In addition to the Help screen annotation, a specific note taking function has been provided, Fardon and Anderson (1995) having indicated that a commonly requested feature of multimedia courseware is for users to be able to make their own notes.
The system also has an optional multiple choice testing facility which a courseware developer may wish to take advantage of. Its aim is to provide users with self tests so that they can determine how successfully they have learnt the materials. Solutions to the tests and solution explanations can also be provided, the latter being via ScreenCam movies or Windows Help screens.
The user interface is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 - User's Interface
All the information concerning the various applications to be launched, files to be loaded, and multiple choice tests are held within three tables in a relational database. The interface comprises a tabbed notebook, one page of which is shown in the figure. This main page has several "speed buttons", some of which are created dynamically from information in the database table of external applications to launch. These buttons provide quick access to these applications directly from the interface. Each entry in the hierarchical tree on the left hand side corresponds to one record in the main database table and as can be seen, information from the record is displayed on the right hand side. The icon near the bottom right changes according to the external application to be launched.
The courseware developer has to record all movies, create the text and graphics that make up the Windows Help screens, and produce the examples and solutions to be used with the software product being taught. The hierarchical structure of the courseware navigation is produced using a special developer's interface which also allows for the easy filling-in of the database tables. No programming is required by the developer and the interface is shown in figure 2. Nodes in the tree structure can easily be adjusted using conventional "drag and drop" techniques, and such changes are automatically reflected in the underlying database tables.
Figure 2 - Developer's Interface
Cost Effectiveness of the System
The costs involved in producing multimedia courseware include those for the purchase of the software tools and those for the time of the people involved. As stated earlier, this system is aimed at individual lecturers and tutors producing all of the courseware themselves without the need for instructional designers, programmers or graphic designers. Such multimedia courseware does not have all the "bells and whistles" of "conventional" multimedia, however it should improve the quality of learning for the student as the alternative might be to use "traditional" techniques.
The most obvious tool required is Lotus ScreenCam itself. This is included within Lotus SmartSuite but it can also be purchased separately for approximately $200. Further information is available from Lotus's web site (HREF 1).
Some form of Windows Help authoring tool is required for the creation of the Windows Help screens. There are several low cost shareware ones available which are mainly plug-ins to Microsoft Word, however one Help authoring tool which stands out above the rest is ForeHelp (HREF 2). It is much more expensive than the shareware versions, costing around $400, but it is an excellent product and makes the production of Help screens very straight forward. A tool is also needed for capturing screen images for subsequent use in Help screens and the package PaintShop Pro, which costs approximately $110, is ideal for this.
Lecturer Time in the Production of the Courseware
The production time for the ScreenCam movies can be relatively short and it depends upon the length of time it takes to produce the materials to be recorded. Some materials might already have been produced for use in a traditional teaching situation. For example, as mentioned earlier, Pilgrim and Creek (1995) took the teaching materials which existed already in the form of Powerpoint slides, divided them into eight logical subsections and made movies with voice over narrative for each subsection. They also made a movie of the actual construction and debugging of a program using the programming language being taught. A front end was built using Authorware Professional and the system was then placed onto a CD ROM and put in the library for student use. Pilgrim and Creek claim that the total development time was ten hours and that it produced approximately one hour of instruction.
The movies which I have produced are about evenly split in number between those which show sequences of slides made with presentation software (Lotus Freelance Graphics) and those which demonstrate the use of the software product being taught. Each movie is approximately one minute in length as it is believed that shorter movies are more appropriate (HREF 1) allowing students to quickly review a certain point which has an appropriate movie associated with it. Having, for example, 60 one-minute movies as opposed to 10 six-minute movies allows better indexing and user information to be given in the electronic learning system described earlier.
Although I did have existing materials in the form of Powerpoint slides for the courseware I have produced, I decided to produce new, more appropriate materials for the CD ROM. I found that a set of Freelance Graphics slides for a one minute movie took on average thirty minutes to produce and record under ScreenCam. The recording of an existing example in the software being taught took on average ten minutes to produce. These times will obviously vary depending on the quality which is required and to produce materials quickly requires you to put up with the odd cough or mispronunciation of a word in the movie. Hence I have found that the overall ratio of twenty hours of development time for one hour of multimedia product in the form of ScreenCam movies is a realistic estimate. The software product being taught takes the shortest time to record and these movies are the ones which will usually need to be re-recorded when future releases of the software product occur.
The production of the static text and graphics which go into the Help files take no longer than the production of their equivalent in a paper-based course. I found in practice that the largest time spent was taken in the production of good exercises and their solutions and again, this is no different to the time that this would take in a traditional course.
Conclusions and Future Work
This paper has described an approach to the production of multimedia in a cost effective manner which is particularly suitable for courses which include the teaching of software which is subject to frequent updates. Such multimedia makes use of Lotus ScreenCam plus other low-cost tools including a purpose built front-end and the delivered courseware will run on low-end hardware. The system has been used to create a multimedia course in software development using Visual BASIC and this has been used for the first time with Information Systems students in the second semester, 1997 at Edith Cowan University. Future work will include detailed research into its use with students to determine its suitability as a flexible learning system and also investigating its use with the world wide web. The latter will employ Lotus's new "StreamCam" technology (HREF 1) which allows movies to be played smoothly over the Web.
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(c) Stuart Garner
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