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Electronic Delivery of Interactive Multimedia Courses for Distance Education

Geoff Ring, Ameeta Jadav, Jeremy Pagram,,

Edith Cowan University



The authors are currently involved in trialling the electronic delivery of selected distance education units in Interactive Multimedia (IMM). The resources for these units are being delivered in multiple formats: Internet/Web, CD-ROM and paper. Like many other educational researchers and practitioners around the world, the authors are searching for ways to increase the educational gains possible from using the Internet while continuing to seek to optimise the integration of other learning media and resources, whether mediated by technology (eg CD-ROM), or otherwise (eg paper-based materials). This paper includes feedback from the early stages of a pilot study intended to evaluate the effectiveness of the electronic delivery of two IMM units and includes feedback from developers, tutors and students. In particular, it examines the unique issues involved when the content of such units is itself, Interactive Multimedia. Specific approaches, methods, issues and problems in the areas of unit materials development, delivery infrastructure, hardware and software, and student tutoring are discussed.


Increasingly, university teaching and learning experiences are being replicated independently of time and place via appropriate combinations of technology-based resources (the Internet, the Web, CD-ROM, etc) and conventional teaching and learning resources. As part of this world wide trend, the authors are currently involved in trialling the delivery of selected distance education units in Interactive Multimedia. The resources for these units are being delivered in multiple formats: Internet/Web, CD-ROM and paper. Like many other educational researchers and practitioners around the world, the authors are searching for ways to increase the educational gains possible from using the Internet while continuing to seek to optimise the integration of other learning media and resources.

Some research has been done concerning the application of learning theories to technology-mediated learning. Jonassen's constructivist model of learning with technology , for example, highlights such factors as articulation, negotiation and exploration which can be relatively easily supported by Web-based learning environments. The hypertextual nature of the Web leads to a consideration of Cognitive Flexibility Theory as being particularly applicable to Web-based instruction. In such a scenario, multiple unsimplified and interconnected representations of content that make up external Internet links generate the cognitive conflict that can promote the accommodation and assimilation of new knowledge. In terms of learning models, however, little has been done specifically for the Web although Reeves and Reeves (1997) have identified "learning dimensions" that should be considered when developing Web-based instruction.

Many claims are being made about the Web that go beyond its obvious ability to facilitate learning independently of time and space constraints and to provide up-to-date information. The ability of personal electronic communications to encourage more thoughtful and considered interactions between students and lecturers is seen as a virtue. Also, since the hypertextual nature of the Web is non-linear and operates through association rather than indexing, it is agreed by some that this is analogous to the way we think and therefore facilitative of human learning. However, the ad hoc nature and variable quality of much of the available Web learning material leads one to question the validity and efficacy of many of the claims made for it as a high quality learning resource and/or instructional medium. While there are some indications that the Web has potential for facilitating quality learning experiences , there is a great deal of low quality curriculum material which tends to use the Web only as a means of presenting information.

Despite such criticisms of some of the existing electronically delivered courses, particularly those using the Web, ECU decided to offer some of its Interactive Multimedia (IMM) units to off-campus students via electronic delivery. The authors perceived a need to evaluate the experience of delivering IMM content to off-campus students electronically and did so in a qualitative manner through the eyes of the developers, tutors and students. The evaluation was by no means a formal research project but was considered a pilot study for more formal evaluation studies to come.

Description of the Pilot Project

The project looked at the process of development and implementation of two multimedia units, IMM 4102 Digital Resources and IMM 4103 Interface Design, for delivery to off-campus students. IMM 4102 was developed initially as a Web site supported by conventional paper-based resources (a CD-ROM was later produced when students were having problems downloading large files). IMM 4103 was initially developed as a "Web site on CD" with most of its software running "locally" under a Netscape browser, although software demonstrations, examples and utilities were also included on the CD-ROM (an actual Web-site was subsequently established).

The URL for IMM 4102 is:

and the URL for IMM 4103 is:

The implementation of the units was examined from the perspective of the tutor and the students. Questionnaires and follow-up interviews were used to gather data from the developers and tutors while phone interviews were used to get the inputs from students. Four developers, two tutors and six students have shared their initial observations and experiences as part of the first stage of the project.

Developers' Perspective

The developers commented on the use of on-campus material for off-campus delivery, design strategy, media use, legal issues, project management and composition of the development team. They responded to the questionnaire in the beginning of the semester. While the observations of the four developers were varied, they came from specific perspectives of their roles. For example, in one unit the developer did all the production herself, while in the other unit production was handled by a team which consisted of three persons with specific responsibilities: technical and graphics; overall design and project management; and writing and collation of materials. To a large extent, this variety in perspective has provided a comprehensive view of the development process and the issues encountered.

Tutors' Perspective

The tutors responded to a questionnaire eight weeks into the semester. They shared their observations about the use of Internet resources by the students, the difference in the quality of learning between on-campus and off-campus students, the materials used for simultaneous on-campus and off-campus units, the practical issues they faced, modifications they would like to make based on their experiences, and suggestions they would give to other tutors of similar off-campus units. Again, the two tutors had varying experiences. While students in both units failed to make significant use of electronic communications facilities, the unit which was primarily designed for Web based delivery had more active exchanges (primarily email) with the tutor. In both the units, several technical, practical and administrative issues seemed to take precedence over pedagogical issues.

Students' Perspective

Students were interviewed ten weeks into the semester. They commented on access to the information with the available resources, communication with other students and the tutor, comparison of on-campus and off-campus learning, format of information access (Internet, CD, print etc), need for additional support and issues of socialisation. The almost universal issue appeared to be access to a stable and reliable Internet connection and specialist multimedia software applications.

Preliminary Observations from the Pilot Project

Comments applicable to distance education courses with Interactive Multimedia content

  1. A range of practical problems became evident early in the study. The major problems were: difficulties in submitting large Interactive Multimedia (IMM) assignment files as email attachments; lack of access to full versions of IMM applications software (trial versions were too limiting); learning problems with students who had no manuals or tutorials for IMM applications software (presumably, they lacked a legal copy!); problems in submitting assignments because files couldn't be saved in trial versions; and computing infrastructure hassles of various kinds. The existence of all these problems was clearly impeding the capacity of course designers to focus more on pedagogical issues. Nevertheless, the developers did remark on the need for social interaction, the provision of concrete experiences, improved content interactivity and relevant and contextual assessment - all aspects in keeping with cognitive and/or constructivist views of learning.
  2. Course developers and tutors clearly need to be aware of the computing facilities available to the students and the nature of their Internet connection. This is more difficult for off-campus students because tutors can't see their students' systems. This problem was further exacerbated for the IMM students in the pilot study because they required computing systems with greater capabilities than students in "non-computing" fields. IMM courses require students to have access to relatively powerful personal computer environments and relatively fast Internet connectivity. Even if these requirements are met, however, current bandwidth limitations of the Internet also mean that CD-ROM based resources are usually necessary (as well as conventional distance education resources).
  3. The students in the pilot study appeared unwilling to embrace the electronic forum opportunities provided. This problem appeared to be far greater than that previously experienced with electronically delivered units for "non-computing" students. This issue warrants further investigation.
  4. Copyright problems were heightened by the nature of the subject matter. One tutor wanted to illustrate the content with examples of work done by others (2D and 3D graphics, video, sound, sections of multimedia applications) and yet could not do so unless the copyright was cleared - a time consuming process. Projects could resolve this issue by having a media developer who can create original media. There is also a case to be made for a well structured process for obtaining clearances from the copyright holders.
  5. Units which require the learning of specific multimedia software packages, face the issue of students not having access to these packages. To some extent this can be alleviated by providing the students with "demo" versions which are usually available on the Internet at no charge, but the restricted capabilities of many of these are often too limiting. Attempts to negotiate "site licence" rights for ECU students for study purposes have been largely unsuccessful. Unfortunately, it may be necessary to require students to purchase this expensive IMM software as a course requirement.
  6. Student feedback for one of the units indicated a desire to see a range of examples of typical assignment work (multimedia software files) on the unit Web-site, a deficiency that is being addressed. The CD-ROM for the other unit did contain a wide range of examples of past student work.

Comments Applicable to Distance Education Courses in General

  1. The increasing sophistication of material being developed for Web and CD-ROM delivery, and the wide range of authoring and applications software being used, points to the need for academics to have technical, programming and media support. A typical production team consisting of one programmer/technical person, one media/graphics developer and one designer/writer would be appropriate for many projects (one of the units in the pilot study used a team of this type).
  2. Lack of time was a major issue for developers, something that can be partially addressed by the adoption of improved project management principles.
  3. For one of the units, the previous semester's on-campus students were active and willing participants in the process of determining the nature of extra resources likely to be needed by their off-campus peers in the following semester. Subsequently, the development of materials for on-campus students in this unit, during the period of the pilot project, occurred on the basis that they would also be used by off-campus students. A move towards simultaneous development of unit materials for on-campus and off-campus use makes good sense in terms of efficiency and keeping materials up-to-date.
  4. Electronic delivery brings with it new constraints and can create different types of barriers for students such as problems with computer hardware (lacks capability, malfunctions, etc), difficulties in installing software for Internet access, hassles with network infrastructure (can't connect because of too much traffic on telephone lines or unreliable lines and exchanges), and high communication costs (dialling from outside local call areas, Internet service provider charges). Universities which offer technology-based courses clearly have a responsibility to ensure that they provide adequate technology infrastructure (number of access lines, capacity of servers, bandwidth of internal networks, etc). However, initial student feedback in the pilot project has highlighted difficulties in connecting to ECU's network (and hence the unit Web sites and the Internet). It would appear that the improvements made to the University's computing infrastructure in recent years have been insufficient to cope with the extremely rapid increase in student demand for dialup access via modem pools and that further improvements are required in this area.
  5. There is a concern about students' readiness to take advantage of the electronic communication features of the Internet. This may be their first such exposure and it may be a matter of further experience and time. But this is an issue which needs to be carefully examined from the perspective of the students. Is it an issue of skill? Is it a matter of experience? Is it caused by an attitude? Or is it that the unit material does not require or encourage exchanges? It appears that both students and tutors need guidance and training in making effective use of Internet-based learning environments, particularly in cases where the environments are significantly different than those they will have previously encountered (such as electronic forums and hypertext environments).
  6. The standard "point-form" electronic presentations commonly used with on-campus students require significant elaboration for off-campus students. This can be done by including supporting text and other material, and by conducting regular on-line chat sessions and postings on the listserv in lieu of the class discussions which provide such elaboration to on-campus students.
  7. Electronic forums should be used to establish a "sense of community" among off-campus and on-campus students in the same unit, course or programme. Student feedback indicated that, in general, they failed to see the value of such forums and it appears that it may be necessary to mandate their use in order for their benefits to be appreciated by the students. That is, build the use of forums such as listservs and chat facilities into course requirements so that students develop confidence in using these forms of communication thereby facilitating optimal use of such tools. This could be achieved by requiring students to make regular postings on a given topic and/or requiring the posting of assignment material. A separate Listserv for an entire course or programme (ie several units) may be beneficial because of the increased likelihood of achieving a "critical mass" of active users and because of the peer support (social and technical) that can occur in such an environment.
  8. The need to provide greater support to off-campus students (through extensive notes, communication, etc) than on-campus students is generally accepted. In the case of electronically delivered courses, tutors' comments in the pilot project indicated that the difference is even greater than for conventionally delivered courses. This needs to be taken into consideration by university administrators when defining workload profiles for tutors.


There are many issues which need to be explored in relation to learning without a physical classroom, ranging from technical to social matters. The age old concerns that technology will be used "because it is available" rather than because it can enhance pedagogical goals are as real as they have been in the past with television, video and earlier computer-based learning software. On the other hand, while it is important that university educators debate the educational merits of Web learning environments from a theoretical standpoint, practical issues such as accessibility and flexibility of learning experiences cannot be ignored since they have the potential to significantly impact on the effectiveness of student learning.

The face-to-face interaction experienced by the majority of today's on-campus students plays a key role in sharing ideas and experiences and generally adding a social dimension to the learning environment. While it has been argued that most students prefer face-to-face interaction (Simonsen, 1995), for many of them, the convenience of "on-demand" access from any location will often outweigh the limitations placed on personal interactions. It should not be forgotten that for the isolated student, the addition of an on-line component to a distance education course may not be the same as an on-campus class but it is likely to be substantially better than conventional distance education approaches alone.

It seems likely that a variety of approaches to personal interactions within learning environments will emerge over the next decade and that many will provide the best of both worlds as they attempt to balance virtual and direct interaction. In the long term all learning environments will have some of the attributes of technology-mediated learning and it will always be important to strike an appropriate balance between virtual interaction and face-to-face interaction.

In the prevailing climate of economic rationalism within which many of the world's educational institutions must survive, economic reasons are frequently given for using technology-mediated learning approaches, particularly the Web, for the delivery of instructional materials. It is important for educators to ensure Web delivery occurs in order to achieve sound educational goals, not simply because it may offer practical and economic advantages. While the authors believe that for this to be achieved we need to base design for the electronic delivery of curriculum on a sound theoretical base, searching for such a theoretical base is the subject of other papers (eg Ring and McMahon, 1997). Nevertheless, it is hoped that the documenting and reporting of qualitative data as is done in this paper will be of assistance to educational researchers in their pursuit of such a theoretical base, whether it be for the Web as a sole learning medium or whether it be for the use of the wide mix of technologies likely to be necessary for the provision of optimal learning experiences in the 21st Century.


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(c) Geoff Ring, Ameeta Jadav, Jeremy Pagram


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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