Issue 11 / July - September 1995
New Horizons In Education Multimedia And Interactive Computing
The time an individual can devote to catching up with the expanding information-base of humanity is limited. But he or she has to do it: information is the essential raw material of decisions and choices. The expansion in available information is in part being matched by expansion in techniques of getting hold of it. Traditional teaching methods are slow, expensive and old. The aim of the new on-line, high-speed interactive methods is to make education more cost-effective, more sensitive to individual needs and tastes, more collaborative, more enjoyable, and also, of course, new.
The personal computer industry has created an enthusiastic, ever-growing market for multimedia technology for use in homes and businesses, the high profile of Internet ('the data superhighway') and continuing pressure to work and learn more efficiently have added to the demand for new concepts in education and training. The characteristics in demand are flexibility, user- friendliness and lower costs.
Ten years ago computers were command-driven and mostly used for simple tasks such as word-processing. These days graphical interfaces and user-friendly programming have revolutionized the old 'cold face' of computer working. Applications such as Windows, OS/2, and Mac Systems are now mouse-driven, capable of multi-tasking, and less intimidating for the novice. Computers are now used for CAD (Computer Aided Design), CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing), graphics, communication, automation, simulation, animation, and much more. Complex tasks are easier then ever before and have replaced human labour in many areas.
Development of new and better computers, local area networks (LANs). remote access software (especially ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) and ISDN (Integrated System Digital Network)), using the latest in leased and digital telephone lines, have opened up new horizons in working, teaching and learning practices. These developments in remote communication systems have greatly reduced the need to travel. Wide availability of this technology has changed the working practices of some companies fundamentally. Teleworking is recognized as a practical alternative to conventional office working. Video-conferencing facilities enable direct visual and audio contact between emote offices, and almost instantaneous information/document transfer. Working from home means not having to be in the office, more control over daily schedules, the freedom to live further from the workplace, and relief from the stresses (and costs) of commuting. The company benefits from reduced office rental and personnel costs: expertise and skills can he dialled up as needed,
Reduced hardware and software costs and increased computing power have extended and popularized teleworking applications. Medical specialists can now examine patients on a screen and give advice down a phone line: just such a link-up exists between some hospitals as far apart as the USA and Saudi Arabia. It is possible to attend a lecture without leaving one's favourite chair, while still having the opportunity to ask questions and have them answered. 'Distance learning' technology has especially important implications for the disabled who can access education without the stress of getting to a class or (unless they want to) facing class-mates. New York University's School of Continuing Education is building its own Virtual College. Other institutions, such as California Polytechnic and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, are exploring similar projects.
Interactive distance learning is not just a future project. In many isolated places in the USA school children already enjoy such facilities via dial-tip modems: they do not have to travel through rain and snow any more. And getting on to the school communications network does not cost the user any more than an ordinary telephone call.
In the past, computers in schools ate into school budgets without providing any appreciable return. In companies, investments in information technology were used mostly to automate old learning processes instead of to enable new ones. All that is starting to change. Enormous growth in CD-ROM drives, LANs and Internet connections, multimedia, and collaborative software environments, is fuelling a wave of new, better teaching tools. Networking enables virtual workgroups to be set up almost instantly. There are dial-in services that permit anytime/anyplace access to course materials and fellow students.
The technology promises more than just an improvement in educational productivity: it may deliver a qualitative change in the nature of learning itself. Because computers have no feelings, they make very patient teachers, incapable of exasperation or anger: and they can work 24 hours a day. Also, because they have enormous memory capacity and don't make choices about what to remember, they can be responsive to questioning in many disciplines. The information they can offer can therefore be multi-disciplinary, multilevelled. Multimedia interactive packages exploit this to the benefit of system users. The consequence is a dramatic change in educational methods. Instead of a one-way information flow to the learner - typified by TV broadcast, video cassette or a teacher addressing a class of students passively taking notes - the new teaching techniques are two-way, collaborative, interactive, and interdisciplinary. Multimedia enables teaching material to change from a flat, one-dimensional text to something that moves, speaks, sings, has innumerable examples and references and lines of inquiry on hand if the individual user feels inclined to follow them up. Cut- and-paste features, now more or less standard, mean the user can compose notes, essays and reports which are just as lively and varied as the source he or she is accessing.
Studies on multimedia argue in favour of its effectiveness as a learning tool. The Software Publishers Association's 1994 report on technology effectiveness cites accounts of measurable improvements from the use of animation, video, laser discs, CD-ROM books, and hypermedia. Cognitive studies show thaw people get 80 percent of their information visually but retain only 11 percent of that. They acquire significantly less through hearing but then remember a much higher proportion of it. A combination of the two methods is, unsurprisingly, the most effective of all boosting retention rates by as much as 50 percent. Therefore, the new system of 'Education on demand', in homes and on-the-job, is likely to become part of everyday learning activities.
Producing educational systems and materials has long been very big business in the world. The US spends $300 billion yearly on education from nursery through high school. More than half the schools in the country now use computers in almost every discipline, and 99 percent of schools have at least one computer. According to a report from IBM Academic Consulting, American institutions of higher education have spent an estimated $70 billion on computer-related goods and services over the past 15 years; of that amount, as much as $20 billion was for teaching and learning technology. Training magazine, in its annual industry survey, estimates that US corporations with more than 100 employees budgeted $51 billion for training in 1994. Some estimates put the total spending per year by all companies and their employees at $90 to $100 billion.
The Software Publishers Association's Report on the Effectiveness of Technology in Schools, 1990-1994, a summary of 133 studies, found that educational technology clearly boosted student achievement, improved student attitudes and self-concept, and enhanced the quality of student-teacher relationships. In this area of learning, the most promising technologies are interactive video networking and collaboration tools. Computers are amazingly diligent teachers, they can stimulate creative thinking, promote enterprise, and sharpen curiosity. Of course, availability of hardware and software is not by itself the solution to current educational problems. Reaping the benefits of available technology first requires extensive teacher training, adapted or new curricula, and, most important, changes to educational models. Modern educational concepts emphasize individualized, hands-on learning: teamwork; and guided discovery of information. All of these require technological assistance, and they are almost impossible to achieve without the help of computers. It is right to note that for teacher training and for the preparation of individually designed course materials, the latest software packages, even with relatively little preparatory training, provide the appropriate tools.
The interactive technology has made education more accessible and more enjoyable. With the help of computers educators can tailor tutoring to the individuals own needs. There is more information about any topic these days than anybody can handle. Therefore, storing and retrieving readily available study materials on computers mean teachers can focus on explaining in form at ion instead ol conveying information. The implications of this transformation affect both students and teachers. Teachers become more like coaches, while students are free to discover knowledge on their own - they can browse, pick and choose what and how, and how fast, they want to learn.
Multimedia applications include analogue and digital video, 2-D and 3- D animation, audio, and even hyperlinks and digital links: CD-ROM discs and drives, graphics display hardware and sound cards. Digital signal processors for speech recognition and signal processing are starting to appear in desktop systems and will play an increasing role in learning systems. Given the enormous growth of CDROM-equipped PCs in homes, multimedia could soon become the key 'crossover' application linking the home and school markets.
Instead of the conventional broadcast model of distance learning, which requires participating students to watch a live video transmission via cable or satellite links or wait for days to receive a videotape in the mail, new schemes allow students to dial in at their convenience and participate in a class asynchronously. While it isn't in real time, the opportunity for feedback and participation is enhanced by rich two-way communications channels.
The new employee-training concept of training on demand, learning while working. promises to bring information to employees at their workstations. Training as a separate centralized department in a company may soon be a thing of the past. The changing nature and growing diversity of the work force require new kinds of training in cultural sensitivity, communications skills, and problem solving. Employees are more geographically dispersed than in the past, and staff turnover is higher because companies and employees are less loyal to each other. Hardly anyone holds a job for life. Technology is evolving so quickly that skills require frequent refreshing. Taking workers to traditional classrooms means losing man-hours, heavier training costs and less hands-on training. Also, employee-training is a risky investment, given that the employee is free, after training, to go elsewhere. Companies are therefore trying to link learning to the job itself. This can take the form of expert systems integrated into the work area or even hand-held computers connected via wireless communications to a constantly updated information base. This kind of distant' and 'on-the-job' learning is significantly less expensive than transporting employees to a central location, putting them up in hotels, and forfeiting their lost productivity. If the training material is distributed throughout the Local Area Network, trainees can pick it up for themselves. This increases retention of information and decreases learning time.
The single recent advance that is making the biggest difference in training and education is the Internet. It gives everybody easy access to information they cannot find locally or even, sometimes, nationally. Via Internet anybody can access almost any library resources in the world, talk to any interest groups or obtain any information from more than 30 million users in the Internet 'community'. Thousands of Gopher, WWW, FTP, WAIS, ARCHIE servers offer terabytes of information on every subject imaginable. One can visit virtual galleries, virtual museums, virtual schools, virtual libraries, virtual communities, shop at virtual malls - and play games.
Clearly the new technology facilitates access to information and in doing so makes many tasks easier, more agreeable, often more exciting. However, as we are all social beings, the importance of direct contact between people in the creation of the more subtle human skills should not be forgotten. Being paid for the efficient performance of tasks is not the only reason people work; they may also need to be out at work, away from their home-base, for purposes other than recreation, and to he physically part of a team. The sharing and exchange of experience between people. both in the context of the family and the work-place, is certainly instrumental in the creation of sound, responsible human character. That in turn is relevant to the capacity people have for making good' decisions relating to their own and other people's lives.
Information is not quite the same thing as knowledge, still less is knowledge to be confused with wisdom. Few parents can equal the capacity of television programmes, for example, to convey information to their children. Nevertheless, the role of parents in conveying (however indirectly and inexpertly) their experience of life to their children is the more decisive influence in moulding their children's characters. It is certainly true that, in some families, children have more contact with the 'present, immediate' world of TV images than with the 'past' of their parents' experience of life, but in these cases the TV is being abused, which is not the fault of the technology. Similarly, the new interactive multimedia information technologies should not be rejected because they might be abused. Rather, the dangers, the possible abuses, should be pondered and understood and proper regimes introduced to avoid the dangers. These new technologies are there and make available a vastly increased potential to get at and handle information. They cannot be a substitute for human relations, nor can they replace the learning and understanding that come through the experience of human relations.