All You Need Is.....?  Assumptions and Realities in Building Multi-Media Learning Environments and Resources.

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Faculty of Education, Monash University


J. Strain

Faculty of Science and Technology, Deakin University




Behind the burgeoning interest within the educational community in multimedia learning, there are some discrepancies between the assumptions currently forming the impetus for development and implementation and the realities in building multimedia learning environments and resources.  These assumptions and realities are concerned with a number of facets of the multimedia learning environment, but in this paper we are concentrating on some related to the human factors involved.

The paper looks briefly at the framework of flexible learning and the nature of the multimedia learning environment within that framework.  More specifically the paper deals with multimedia potential for education from the small project to the large university wide integration and implementation projects currently occurring in Australian universities.  Within this context we explore the role of instructional design and suggest three major considerations which universities undertaking such development must consider if they are to achieve success. 


It could be said that Australia is at the forefront in developing multimedia resources and materials. Further, as the nature and culture of education changes, business and industry are now turning to education to provide the various sources of expertise in the development of technology based programs, resources, materials and systems which address their needs. Education’s response in developing flexible learning, internationalisation, lifelong learning, modularistion of courses, undergraduate specialist multimedia diplomas and degrees across the country (e.g Edith Cowan, RMIT, Deakin, UTS) and the advertising campaigns of universities which emphasise their technological edge (e.g. RMIT) are indicators of the burgeoning interest within the educational community.  

As the dimensions of such enterprises expand however there is a considerable risk that traditional models of design and development are inadequate to cope with the complexities of the multimedia environment.  Furthermore as our understanding of the human factors involved in the development and implementation of multimedia and technology based systems unfolds, contemporary thinking in the field of instructional design is suggesting that several of the traditional assumptions relating to roles and functions of the designer are no longer appropriate.  The remainder of this paper presents a discussion of some of these assumptions and the realities which should be considered by institutional management in formulating present and future planning and development.

In tertiary education institutions today there is an increasing trend towards ‘flexible learning’. Within the context of flexible learning, multimedia and technology bases learning systems are seen as central to the development.  We therefore commence our discussion with a brief exploration of this framework. 

Flexible Learning and the Multimedia Environment

Flexible learning means different things to different people but in general is seen to encompass some diversity of educational thinking and practice aimed at fundamentally making university course offerings more accessible in a broader range of educational settings.

Flexibility is recognised in the level of access to courses; the points of entry to, and exit from courses; the place, time and pace of study; the form and pattern of interactions among learners, teachers and resources; the type and variety of resources to support study and communication; the goals or outcomes of the educating processes and the methods used to measure achievements and success.    (DCAD, 1997)   

The term multimedia has also been interpreted differently by many people but essentially the term describes the presentation of information using a combination of communicative elements such as text, sound, graphics, animation and video. The use of multimedia in education is not a recent development; flipcharts, film, reel to reel tape decks, closed circuit television, even the overhead projector, all technology mediated forms of education, have facilitated greater flexibility in the time and /or place of teaching and learning and in the provision of resource based forms of teaching suitable for different contexts and student groups for many years.

More recently, however, the essence of the process of creating multimedia has been the ability for a number of types of information (including text, sound, graphics, animation, and video) to be able to be combined through the use of a computer.

The potential to include complex graphics and video images in interactive computerised multimedia programs is a great strength of today’s multimedia technology.

Multimedia software has allowed educational developers to orchestrate and direct the combination of text, graphics, animation, audio and video images into highly interactive programs. Considerable synergy is obtained by combining these technologies.  The ability to apply the best communication tools for each component of a communications problem, and to do so in a cohesive and interactive manner is really the essential strength of any educational multimedia presentation.

For maximum impact, educational multimedia relies on a non-linear presentation of information, allowing learners to access data on any topic, in any order they choose.  Instead of viewing a topic from beginning to end, learners can go to any part of the data by using their computer as a ‘browser’.  Hypermedia, a primarily non-sequential database, has the capacity to go any part of the data by allowing the learner to skip between different destinations within the database.  Multimedia authoring is essentially the general process of creating linked databases of hypermedia materials.  Hypermedia provides the means to navigate or browse through a hypermedia file in an explicit and perceptive way.  A hypermedia ‘author’ (a term that is difficult to equate with its more conventional use) is able to assist the learner/reader by providing conceptual links between topics.

A well constructed ‘web page’ is a good example of an effectively ‘linked’ document and although it is relatively simple to create a web page, it is not so simple to create an effective ‘teaching and learning’ web page. What goes ‘behind the page or site’ - from a teaching and learning perspective, should be the major concern of those encouraging such developments.

The assumption then of the simplicity of building a multimedia learning environment would seem to be questionable.  The reality of a complex process dealing with complex cognitive manipulations is more appropriate and calls for varied expertise in fully utilising the facilities offered by the technology.  In exploring the notion of expertise, we’ll turn now to some of the the human considerations.

Instructional Design and the Small Project

The role of the designer in determining interface and aesthetics is widely acknowledged as a critical element in the development of any educational multimedia project.  An educational multimedia project may have great content, but without clearly organised access to information and a clear, useable and attractive interface, it may fail to motivate the learner.  Good information and interface design span all educational multimedia projects. However less widely acknowledged, but arguably, just as essential in any educational multimedia is good instructional design.

The roles of those working in multimedia are many and varied and defining the roles itself is largely dependent on the size of the project and amount of specialisation available.  A project might have Information designer (specialist in organising information), interface designers (skilled in visual presentation and interaction skills in the electronic domain) and programmers (who typically script for an authoring system, some create their own tools or engines).

(Apple, 1994.)

 (Despite Apple’s considerable investment in the education market there is a notable absence of any reference to an instructional designer.)

It is our contention that any educational multimedia project must engage an instructional designer/educational developer from the initial conceptualisation of the project, through its development, formative evaluation and in meaningful summative evaluation after the product is launched.

In small educational software projects, the instructional designer, interface designer and graphic designer may often be the same person and this crossover may prove useful in creating a cohesive product.  In the educational multimedia development process, instructional designers, interface designers, and programmers take the primary responsibility for developing the educational software prototype.  Typically the instructional designer looks at the content base and organises its presentation in ways that meet the educational goals and purposes of the project.  Instructional and interface designers may finish most of their work when a prototype is developed.  Programmers invariably then go on to implement the design.  Programmers may also help optimise user access, media loading and technical performance on each delivery system but programmers are not able to optimise the development of new skills, knowledge and attitudes on the learner’s part. This must be seen as an ongoing role for the instructional designer/educational developer.

The systematic, reliable, research based methods of the related fields of educational technology, instructional design and human performance improvement have all shown that the vital first step of identifying a performance problem, and determining a clear need for an educational/instructional solution must be firmly established before the type of product is contemplated. Unfortunately many educational multimedia software products remain as solutions awaiting a perceived performance problem.

Instructional Design and the Large Project

The second human factor we suggest needs reconsidering is that of the dimensions

of the role of the instructional designer.  Definitions such as those put forward by the Australian Society for Educational Technology (ASET) and the International Society for Performance and Instruction (ISPI) are perhaps indicative of the continuum from the immediate learning episode at one end to the more holistic organisational change at the other end which characterise the work if instructional design today.

Many designers involved in the field of educational or instructional technology, work also in the area of performance improvement and vice versa.  These roles, once discrete are now, like the technologies with which they work, fluid, dynamic and converging, and whilst traditional tasks undertaken by the designers remain particularly in the smaller project, larger projects are witnessing the need for a more holistic consideration of the designer’s potential contribution.

Organisations such as Deakin University define instructional design as

‘a complex process, [which] can essentially be described as a systematic approach to the design and development of educational materials which assist individuals to learn.  Instructional design in the context of flexible learning focuses on increasing the accessibility of learning programs through multi-modal forms of study supported by information and communications technologies (DCAD  p53).

In the context of such a definition, instructional design must be viewed from a systems perspective.  Deakin University, like many others has adopted the principles of strategic quality management to integrate and codify the diverse processes of strategic, quality and academic planning, evaluation and performance review at both the faculty and institutional level.

The multimedia learning environment in an SQM context is not only concerned with the development of the small project or the immediate learning episode, it must also be framed in considerations such as student management systems, administrative and academic standards and profiles and the various levels of department, faculty and university wide developments. 

Contemporary thinking and practice in instructional design and performance technology advocates a system that approaches design problems in a global manner that focuses on both internal and external imperatives Rojas, (1997).  For example, Layng(1997) argues that project management plays an important role in any instructional design.  Similarly, Jonassen, Grabinger and Harris  (1997) assert that instructional systems development should be seen as an iterative, rather than a linear process.  Jonassen et al (1997) identify what they call four phases:

·                divergence - which generates a range of alternative methods for solving problems,

·                transformation - which results in the limiting of possible solutions

·                convergence - which implements in detailed design and

·                use - which completes the general integration of the system.

They maintain that the four phases interelate each of the subprocesses back to the essential front end analysis. The iterative model  suggests that (a) developers of multimedia learning environments should question the assumptions and applications of linear models, given the nature of multimedia and (b) be cautious about assumption that similar procedures and processes hold true for small projects as those for large enterprises.


One further consideration related to the adoption of a more holistic model of design is that of the contributory skills and professional expertise.  Current advertisements for positions within the university sector in multimedia development reflect the possible lack of understanding of this need as we see advertisements for computer science graduates, programmers, project managers and such specialisations endeavouring to fill the need for instructional designers and the broader multimedia performance technology specialists.  Undoubtedly these specialisations are a necessity, however we would suggest that there is a need for a much broader skills base in building the multimedia team at an organisationl level. (McNamara, 1996, McNamara et al, 1995). 

The Multimedia Learning Environment Professional

Whilst the valuable roles of current teams in tertiary education is acknowledged here, we would also argue that very often the role of the instructional designer and the performance technologist, is often compressed, used inappropriately or considered secondary to other processes and undertakings, resulting in poor quality materials or integration.   As Kaufman (1997) suggests “if we only look at minute problems, and stick our heads in the organisational sands, we mortgage our future to those who think and act with a world view” (p66).  These world view individuals need to be involved in the projects we in education are developing, both large scale integration projects and small scale developments.  Further, Brethower(1997) maintains that it is our responsibility as practitioners to be aware of the required knowledgebase, of our “individual and collective expertise”(p89) and to be clear in our understanding of the processes being used and the products and services we are offering.   Carr (1997) takes the notion of the ‘whole’ in building multimedia learning environments even further in describing the contribution of the area, and its leadership in realising the ‘cultural’ change in the way in which we approach work, and in the environments in which we will work.   Finally, Banathy (1997) relates these to what are termed ‘emerging organisational characteristics’.  It is in images such as these that the profile of the multimedia learning environment developer might be found.   The final characteristics of instructional design, which are just beginning to be realised by Universities and tertiary institutions refer to the social context of design and development.

Whilst the ‘push’ for the adoption of flexible learning and multimedia has emphasised professional development in academic acquisition of skills in technology, and tertiary institutions are advertising senior management positions to hopefully encourage such ‘skill development’, these organisations seem to have overlooked one of the most important social characteristics of learning, which instructional design takes for granted, that of ‘adult learner characteristics and needs’ - nurturing, encouragement, collegiate, acknowledgment and recognition of individual contributions, a fundamental in building teams and in the eventuation of quality multimedia learning environments.  The assumption that psychomotor skills are sufficient for building multimedia learning environments would seem to critically undervalue their potential. The reality is that such buildings require a myriad of ‘human understanding’.

The Future Ahead

Where does the preceding discussion lead us?  In brief it is suggesting that educational institutions in their quest to adopt and entrench new technology based frameworks for teaching and learning, in forms such as the multimedia learning environment, urgently need to address the human factors required.  Firstly, in small projects they need to adopt a new model whereby the designer is involved from the commencement of the project.  Secondly they need to adopt a more holistic view of design, especially at the institutional level and thirdly they need to consider the human side of development rather than the technological offerings as a first step in large scale implementation (Goodman, 1997).

Whilst traditionally tasks and roles have been fairly well defined, current and future problems require new and different viewpoints and approaches.  As to the future, we would suggest that, if educational institutions are to meet the needs of involvement and development beyond their own institutional framework, that is with business and industry then there is also an urgent need for the development of education and training in Australia which will provide professionals with this knowledge and skill, and that institutions in themselves must seek to use such professionals.  


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