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Re-examining "Interactive Multimedia" in Tertiary Science Teaching

Matthew D. Riddle

Multimedia Education Unit


Jon M. Pearce, Michael W. Nott,

Science Multimedia Teaching Unit

University of Melbourne




The advantages of computer-based teaching and learning fall into the broad categories of increasing student access, improving the quality of the educational outcomes and increasing cost effectiveness. A review of proceedings of ASCILITE meetings over the last five years demonstrates that the approach to computer-based teaching and learning is in rapid transition.

Over this period there has been a significant move away from stand-alone multimedia modules characterised by self-paced, interactive tutorials or simulations which typically support components of the curriculum. While network-based strategies had often previously been used in distance education and computer managed learning situations, there is now a more mainstream adoption of approaches which are capable of supporting whole subjects and courses on-line, as well as a boom in the adoption of on-line support (such as email and conferencing systems) for existing tutorial systems and traditional teaching strategies.

Deliberate changes in activities within the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne illustrate three key aspects of the transition described above: the increasing use of Computer- Mediated Conferencing (CMC) systems, the development of on-line tutorial simulations, and the emergence of on-line courses in flexible delivery mode. The authors argue that taking these activities into account forces a re-examination of the concept of interactive multimedia and its role in tertiary science education.

Computer-Mediated Conferencing Systems

Computer-Mediated Conferencing (CMC) has been around since at least 1970, but has only begun to gain widespread use in tertiary education since the rapid rise in public awareness of the Internet through the popularity of the World Wide Web since 1993.

The shift away from CD-ROM based tutorial programs and simulations to network-based strategies has often been touted as the next big step for multimedia, and many new possibilities for education in particular have been cited. Laurillard (1993) describes CMC as a discursive medium, as opposed to hypermedia (hypertext and multimedia), interactive media (simulations and models) and adaptive media (tutorial programs and intelligent tutoring systems). The argument goes that discursive media are valuable because students have an opportunity to reflect and redescribe educational material, and an on-line forum provides this opportunity through asynchronous communications. Many other advantages of CMC systems have been described elsewhere in a wide range of disciplines and are by now quite well known. They include increased involvement in peer communication, support for collaborative work, and mentorship.

The FungiNet Project

An example of a project to make use of CMC is a pilot project named FungiNet which was undertaken during Semester 2 of 1996 by the School of Botany and the Science Multimedia Teaching Unit at The University of Melbourne. FungiNet supports existing teaching practices through the use of a Web-based communications forum and access to other on-line educational resources. Students studying a unit named Fungi and Plant Disease were given email accounts and access to the forum using the Alta Vista Forum server software. This provides authenticated access to discussion groups, document sharing, user profiles, calendars, and other tools to support groups working collaboratively on-line. Lecture support material was converted to Adobe Acrobat PDF format and made accessible to students on FungiNet, for easy viewing on screen or to be printed out for review away from the computer. Anecdotal feedback from students who used FungiNet during the pilot period was generally positive, with a number of students commenting that they would have appreciated the opportunity to spend more time on the system.

In 1997 all undergraduate students in the University of Melbourne were provided with access to email facilities. This indicates the university's recognition that on-line communications are an integral part of the undergraduate experience. These forms of public and private asynchronous communication are intended to complement traditional teaching and stand-alone multimedia programs, as well as newly developed on-line tutorial simulations (see below). One reason these systems are only now beginning to be used in the tertiary education setting is because it is becoming possible to juxtapose highly interactive and media-rich content with communications environments through the use of technologies like the World Wide Web. While development of content in this form is often even more time-consuming and expensive, the benefit of providing them in a similar format as communication systems is seen as important, just as access to these systems is seen to add value to existing courses and stand-alone programs.

On-line Simulations

The Internet offers many new potentials for designing interactive, on-line simulations, including access to real and up-to-date scientific data for comparative purposes, game play with others on the web, as well as easy access to discussion forums. Many of these benefits can enhance existing stand alone simulations. For example, compared with fifteen years ago, we now have faster, slicker and more visually appealing simulations. However, the underlying science being presented is often the same, albeit better supported with well designed curriculum materials than might have been offered in the past.

Pragmatic Advantages of the Web

There are fairly obvious pragmatic advantages to setting up simulations to run across the Web. The cross-platform nature of Web-based resources promises to free us from the restriction of software that runs under only one of the two dominant microcomputer platform families in educational settings: Windows and Macintosh. This advantage is primarily to the student and the institution setting up the software, but it is also assists the software producer who might be encouraged to produce quality software for a wider audience.

A second advantage of using the Web is that it obviates the need to install software on the particular machines that students will use (other than a Web browser, of course). This considerably reduces the planning and preparation required before an exercise can be used with students, but is also has a great impact on trialing new software during the development phase, where bug fixes and modifications might be required before each class.

Finally, the "anywhere, anytime" promise of Web-based activities frees up scheduling of classes, letting students work in their own time and at their own choice of location.

Having enumerated the above advantages, one should point out that none of them is entirely true at present. Cross-platform compatibility is quite good for HTML documents displayed by the major Web browsers, but there are still differences between browsers in the use of JavaScript and significant differences between platforms in the implementation of the Java Virtual Machine. This is addressed below in references to the Real World Physics Project. Whereas most Web documents require no special installation, many make use of plug-ins that need to be installed once on a machine. Common ones such as QuickTime and Shockwave might be assumed to be present, but instructions need to be made clear to students who may not have them installed on their home machines. "Anywhere, anytime" falls down, for example, when we make full use of the fast internal bandwidth of many tertiary institutions through the use of digital video on-line, but fail to remember the limitations of a student's slow 28.8k modem at home.

Pedagogical Advantages of On-line Simulations

Other advantages of on-line simulations have a more significant impact on student learning. They capitalise on the collaborative nature of the Web and the ease with which we can obtain student feedback from it. They are discussed here in the context of two projects developed at the University of Melbourne: the Population Dynamics Project and the Real World Physics Project.

The Population Dynamics Project

The Population Dynamics (or Pop) Project was initiated towards the end of 1995 by Dr Rob Day from the Department of Zoology and the Science Multimedia Teaching Unit (Nott et al, 1995). It was funded by CAUT in 1996 and is now being used by second year students of Zoology at the University of Melbourne. It presents students with a Web site containing reference material on four major population types, with examples of species which fall into each type. Part of the Web site contains a simulation, written in Java, which enables students to model the population changes of these population types over time. Students set up the simulation by dragging columns in bar charts to set the values for different age groups of initial population, birth rate and death rate (see Figure 1). These data are also displayed in a table. When the simulation is run, a graph is plotted showing how the population varies over a period of time (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - A Screen from the Pop Project

Whereas a traditional, stand-alone simulation would leave one, or maybe two, students alone with the computer, the on-line nature of this package adds more to their learning environment: other students, access to a tutor and even access to their lecturer. Students can use the Web to send queries to their fellow students, or an on-line tutor, while they are actually running the simulation. This encourages discussion on, and some collaborative feedback about, their study. Their final report is sent electronically to the lecturer.

The Real World Physics Project

The Real World Physics Project was also funded by CAUT in 1996, trailed during 1997 and is still progressing (Pearce & Livett, 1997). It comprises a Web site offering first year undergraduate physics students a selection of projects relating primarily to the physics of motion. Students have the context of each project presented to them through text and video-clips. They then progress to the analysis tool MotionWorkshop, written in Java, which lets them analyse the motion of objects in a video-clip (Figure 2). This is done by clicking on an object within the video-clip, frame by frame, resulting in its X-Y coordinates being recorded into a spreadsheet from which graphs can be plotted. This is clearly more an analysis tool than a simulation, although an extension to it will allow students to set up numerical spreadsheet models through which they will be able to simulate a variety of motions.

Figure 2. An analysis screen from MotionWorkshop showing the position-time graph from juggling

This project reaps all the benefits of an on-line package, but also suffers all the current impediments. The significant benefits are the ability to direct students to carry out an assignment using a sophisticated analysis tool without too much concern about where, when, or on what they choose to do it. The impediments are the significant differences between the performance and functionality of Java applets between different platforms and browsers. For the early versions of the software our instructions had to be "you can do your project on any computer, so long as it is a reasonably fast PC running Netscape 3.0!". This situation is improving as Java matures.

This project also benefits from having access to a large database of video-clips, some 100 Mbytes stored on the server, which students access to view motions and carry out analyses. A fast local network makes this vastly more practical than installing such information on individual machines.

Finally, part of the formative and summative evaluation of the project was facilitated by using on-line tests and evaluation forms via the Web. A standard Force Concept Inventory test (Hestenes et al, 1992) was put on the Web for students to attempt before and after completing the projects (Figure 3), as well as a review-style evaluation form to give us data on their reactions to the software and assignments. Data from these forms went straight to an Excel spreadsheet for immediate analysis. Such diagnostic test instruments, when used with the implementation of the project in 1998, will provide rapid feedback to lecturers as to the progress of students and any problem areas that might become apparent.

Flexible Learning

Figure 3. A screen from the Concept Pre-test.

While web-based strategies can clearly change university teaching, even more significant changes are possible from the perspective of learners in the management of their educational experience. Already the promotion of courses on-line has extended the geographic and compositional base from which our students are drawn, and arguably provides students with additional higher education options. Collaboration with other institutions (Australian and overseas) and possible joint accreditation is being sought. Where on-line strategies are used in university courses, students can benefit from a more transparent course structure, easy links to and better choice of learning resources, and the benefits of working with multimedia resources and in teams (even across national boundaries) as detailed above.

Undergraduate Teaching in Multimedia and Mass Communications

In 1998, two new undergraduate units at The University of Melbourne will offer the benefits of on-line and face-to-face strategies which will help staff by allowing on-line enrolments, management of on-line learning resources, posting of notices to students, monitoring strengths and weaknesses of the learning modules and of student performance (with allowance for at least a contribution to final assessment), and more efficient use of valuable tutoring time. This major initiative has been taken in providing undergraduate students in Science (and other students who wish to take the subjects as electives) the opportunity to explore the impact of multimedia and digital communications on student and professional practice. Indicators of the need for this development include: the increasing reliance on the Internet for communications between scientists (with consequent opportunities for and strengthening of on-line teamwork); changes in the medium for scientific publications trending from paper to Web based journals; changes in what is published (animations for example rather than static diagrams); changes in the discourse of the publication (from stable refereed articles to unstable, dynamic publications able to be updated according to later findings and comments from colleagues); and the inevitable changes in science brought about by the ease of linking digital data capture and dissemination (witness, for example, the interest of many research groups in common data from the Hubble Telescope).

Two subjects are offered: one each at first and second year levels. [HREF 1] In each subject there are three major concerns, though the emphases differ. The subjects provide students with: 1) the multimedia and Web based skills which we believe will be expected of them in their careers as scientists and technologists and which will generally help as students; 2) ability to work in teams both face to face an on-line; 3) an appreciation of how new digital technologies are changing science practice and science communication. Students are examined in part on the bases of team projects and Web-based individual folios. Given that each subject is described and mediated on-line, opportunities are being sought to share the subjects with other institutions.


None of the three scenarios presented in this paper, CMC, on-line simulations and on-line course work, accurately reflects the image of interactive multimedia we had five years ago. The emphasis has changed from the improvement of the human-computer experience through the use of slick images, sound and animations to a more outward vision of inter-connectivity based on principles of communication between and among learners and teachers, and of wider access to resources. This change may reflect a maturing on the part of the designers, or may be a consequence of perceived limitations of the medium. Whatever the cause, student learning and involvement is being enriched by these new directions.


Hestenes, D., Wells, M. & Swackhamer, G. (1992), 'Force Concept inventory', The Physics Teacher, 30 (3), 141-151.

Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology, London, Routledge.

Nott, M.W., Riddle, M.D., and Day, R. (1995) 'Multimedia and Collaborative Learning through the Web', Proceedings of the 12th Annual ASCILITE Conference, Melbourne.

Pearce, J. M. & Livett, M. K. (1997), 'Real-World Physics: a Java-based Web Environment for the Study of Physics', Proceedings of AusWeb97, Brisbane.

[HREF 1] Details of these courses are available at .


(c) Matthew D. Riddle, Jon M. Pearce, Michael W. Nott


The author(s) 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 author(s) 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 97 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.


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