The World as Multimedia Village

Schools Need To Catch Up With Their Students' Grasp of New Learning Tools

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Schools need to catch up with their students' grasp of new learning tools.

Have you noticed that the Internet is changing the world into a multimedia village? Information--the raw material of knowledge--is roaring in over the Internet--all in virtual time, virtual color, virtual sound, virtual animation, and virtual video. It pours in from California, Australia, Russia. From everywhere.

The world will soon become a multimedia village when students routinely use the Internet to arrange and download a real-time interview with an Australian who knows firsthand the lives of kangaroos. Or to download a tour of a California habitat of sea otters or take a guided real-time walk through a Russian school.

Today's students have an easier time understanding the world-as-multimedia-village than most of their parents and teachers do. After all, they have lived with multimedia from toddler time, observing it on TV while sitting in their highchairs munching on tuna fish sandwiches and bananas. Glimmering images and resonant sounds are as much the stuff of their basic source of knowledge as text was to most of us. They are already using these when they research the rich multimedia resources of CD-roms.

Teachers, however, know that any information can be useless, no matter how dazzling its form. Information is useful only when learners incorporate it, reshape it, and make it satisfy a passionate need to know and to display knowledge to others.

So what do we do with all those colorful graphics, rich sounds, and appealing motion soon to be flooding in, as schools spend millions to scramble onto the Internet? That prospect is both overwhelming and scary, especially when many teachers may be skeptical about whether multimedia contains much of substance.

Computers, of course, created the Internet's world-as-multimedia-village. And those are the same machines kids so quickly learn to use with grace and style. Their quickness with computers has been noted so often that it has become a rather tiresome mantra of the '90s, one chanted by amazed and envious adults everywhere. As a computer-technology teacher, I, too, often chant the mantra, especially when I am amazed by a 10-year-old who has discovered a new way to use software. I am also sometimes envious when I realize that I would never have thought of it. But that is no threat to me. It just means that I've gained the helping hand of another teacher. I ask the little whiz to show the rest of the class the new twist she has discovered.

We can resist computers and continue to use the "chalk and talk" modes of teaching that still dominate American education. Or we can take up computers--which our kids love to use--and plunge into the multimedia village--which our kids already know. We can lead them into taking it apart, putting it back together, and by doing so, make it our own.

To accomplish that, though, multimedia software must become a basic teaching tool. The closer the reality of the Internet gets, the more likely will be the rush to use multimedia software. Certainly, it will become more common than it currently is.

When students create a multimedia stack, they are at once thrust onto that elusive 'higher-learning level' we all covet.

Multimedia is "read" on a computer and a "report" consists of cards in a stack--cards being analogous to pages, as stack is to book. The "reader" moves from one card to another by clicking on a button. Good multimedia stacks pleasingly integrate text with graphics, animation, sound, video, and even film clips. The very best multimedia stacks are complex, inviting the "reader" to become interactive.

At my school, we've used stacks to research reports in American history and let students studying Greek mythology create their own "myths." Students have fashioned multimedia stacks that portray the most dramatic scene in a book. They've made stacks that use digital photos and taped interviews from field trips. They've employed animation to tell a "story without words" as a way to emphasize plot (one of our most popular projects). They've also used animation in math to make geometric concepts come alive as lines fly together to form colorful, twirling cubes, triangles, and trapezoids.

Virtually any part of the curriculum can be explored by creating a stack. The only limit is imagination and time.

And there is no doubt that creating a multimedia stack takes time, even given the fact that kids learn how to use multimedia software easily. We've wrestled at my school with the time issue, but have concluded that time on these projects is well spent. When students create a multimedia stack, they are at once thrust onto that elusive "higher-learning level" we all covet. Design problems arise at once, problems easily solved by using intelligent software. We use a powerful program that invites remarkable leaps of intuition, an attribute that sadly has been long neglected by educators. Students learn sophisticated computer skills quickly (sometimes almost incidentally) as they use a word processor to create text and then move it into multimedia software; as they scan and import artwork, deftly use computer art tools, create animations and make them run, engineer sound recordings, make electronic buttons that connect their stacks to laserdisc players, import photographs, and set up movies.

As for more traditional skill development, it's there in abundance, too. Especially while creating a stack, for example, students use a different kind of "reading," one yet to be formally tested. And just as a good writer must think about the audience for his writing, students must think of their stack "reader" as they create. Making judgments on how text is best integrated with graphics, motion, and sound may in fact be an even bigger challenge than the one a writer faces using text only. This challenging intellectual exercise remains largely untested. It is not easy to do, but our kids work at it with a concentration and openness to teacher coaching that make working in a computer lab a pleasure.

When students do multimedia, there are obviously complex thought processes at work, but, so far as I know, there's been little research and even less evaluation.

I have worried, though, that good writing can be overwhelmed by all the dazzling graphics, sounds, and motion of a multimedia stack. But the solution is obvious: Make good writing a major value. I insist that kids use word processing to learn to write even better than they would with pen and paper. I tell them, "Your text must now compete with graphics, motion, and sound."

The kids don't argue: Most of them like writing with a computer so much that the process is no longer the chore it once was. The text they write actually improves, I have found, because it is written keeping in mind where it will fit into the various components and how it will enhance the stack.

After several rigorous revisions, the graphics, sound, and motion are added to complement the writing. (That is the usual sequence, but not a hard and fast rule; some students are better at doing graphics, sound, and motion first and then writing.) The writing becomes a major feature of the stack when text is made to scroll dramatically up the computer screen, or appear suddenly to startle, or is set up to be read at a leisurely pace. We've also included at my school an analysis of effective writing as one of the major points in computerized checklists that students use to evaluate their work.

But I find I must be vigilant. Today's kids are sometimes so mesmerized by the flashing colors and sounds of the world-as-multimedia-village and so eager to create their own version that they would, if I let them, give writing short shrift. The public's growing fondness for multimedia is, after all, probably one reason why more and more people say they get most of their information from television rather than newspapers.

Students bring a joyful creativity to this multimedia work. They enter the lab, go directly to their computers, log on their stacks, and work on them with deep concentration and palpable pleasure. When students do multimedia, there are obviously complex thought processes at work, but, so far as I know, there's been little research and even less evaluation.

Connecticut, my beloved state of steady habits, hasn't even touched the issue. That may not be surprising since the state has yet even to acknowledge that most of its students use computers to compose a first draft, revise it, and print out a final piece of writing. Connecticut's test of writing competency still requires a handwritten first draft, a handwritten revision, and a handwritten final draft.

And this state, as others, has yet to begin looking at how kids learn from multimedia, even as schools spend millions to hook up to the Internet. As one of my 10-year-olds said when faced with the laborious prospect of handwriting his state writing sample, "Gimme a break!"

This computer-loving lad, along with millions of other eager students, will more than likely push us all into using multimedia software as a new way of doing school.

Vol. 16, Issue 31, Page 45

Published in Print: April 30, 1997, as The World as Multimedia Village
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