Ed-Media 95:

Searching for a Lingua Franca at the World Conference
on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

Marsh Soules, PhD.

When cutting-edge software programmers and educators come together at an international conference, everyone is looking for the newest lingua franca. While the barter between technologists and teachers often resembles pidgin, the hypermedia marketplace bristles with energy, enthusiasm, and the promise of exchange.

The big news at this yearís AACE Conference held June 17 to 21 in Graz, Austria, was Hyper-G. Promoted as the "next generation of networked information technology," Hyper-G is a hypermedia client-server application providing "seamless access" to WWW, Gopher and WAIS. Harmony, the UNIX client for Hyper-G, offers hierarchical browsing and a 3D information landscape where "users can Ďflyí over the hyperspace landscape." Search functions, maps of links, location feedback and a history of "past interactive waypoints" address a number of difficulties experienced by navigators of hyperspace. Gopher developer Mark McCahill identified these problems as "lost-in-space" in his presentation at the conference. In many respects, McCahillís proposal for the improvement of Gopher was pre-empted by the announcement of Hyper-G.

Not incidentally, Hyper-G, jointly developed by the Institute for Information Processing and Computer Supported New Media (IICM), and Joanneum Reasearch, was born in Graz. Hyper-Gís promoters were clearly at home, so could guide their slightly disoriented guests through both virtual and actual worlds. Graz is a city as steeped in the sublime music of Mozart as Saltzburg, Vienna and Prague, which may account for the monikers of the Hyper-G clients--Harmony and Amadeus. It's curious that these auditory signifiers name applications which first impress as elaborate visualizations.

Overall, the Ed-Media conference provided a convenient showcase for the developers of Hyper-G who clearly wanted to challenge the pre-eminence of Netscape and Gopher as navigators of cyberspace. Conference chair Dr. Hermann Maurer is also the director of the Hyper-G project, and a number of software developers on his team presented the most lucid and professional sessions at the conference, simultaneously demonstrating both Hyper-G and their own hypermedia authoring software, HM-Card.

The limited exhibition space at the conference was dominated by adjacent Hyper-G and Joanneum exhibits. While multimedia publisher Springer Verlag from Heidelberg promoted some excellent CD-ROMs and electronic journals--look for their CD on the Voxel-Man, for example-- information on new products was otherwise less than impressive compared to the recent Imagination 95 exhibit in Utrecht.

Despite the general enthusiasm generated by Hyper-G, the conference lacked the technological vertigo of Siggraph or Doors of Perception conferences. What might have enlivened this conference somewhat is the presence of the game-players who improvise their solutions, who combine cognitive enhancement with intense motivation. As an academic conference, Ed-Media lost in spontaneity what it gained in providing an important forum for the exchange of information and the networking of disparate sectors of the international ed-media community.

Constructing an Educational Technology

Sustaining a dialogue between technology and education--the express goal of the Association for the Advancement of Computers in Education (AACE)--is often plagued by translation problems. Computer scientists design hardware and applications; educators want to know what for, how do to use them, and can we modify them? One group speaks a digital, the other an analogue, language.

In AACE circles, the philosophy of choice which allows these people to talk to one another is constructivism, but it can result in a stilted dialogue. As articulated by David Jonassen, multiple presenter at the conference and author of an influential text on mind-mapping (Mind Tools for Critical Thinkers) constructivism has phenomenological roots and stresses the subjectivity of the learning experience. Learners construct knowledge from "authentic" and relevant experience rather than accept without question the teaching of experts. Constructivists question the assumption that abstractions constitute knowledge of the world. Knowledge is tied to context, and cannot be transmitted reliably. Learning is "meaning-making" stimulated by questions, problems, curiosity, and motivation. Meaning is, ultimately, socially negotiated.

It is Jonassenís contention that meaningful learning--active, constructive, collaborative, intentional, conversational, contextualized and reflective--can be stimulated by the interactive potentials of well-designed multimedia.

Jonassenís notions of mind mapping provided the theoretical underpinning of many sessions I attended. Very often, however, the paradox of designing multimedia and hypermedia applications for educational purposes became painfully obvious. How does one design navigational tools for those who learn best when forging their own paths? Time and again, presenters quickly laid out constructivist principles before elaborating on schemes designed to lead learners through activities which could be both justified pedagogically as authentic and, hopefully, evaluated for their effectiveness. In the design of educational multimedia and hypermedia, there continues to be an overwhelming need to distinguish real work--i.e. education--from play, the dark Other of educational software development.

This paradox has an analogue in the conference itself. A highly structured series of presentations showcased people calling for innovative ways of looking at knowledge. Despite some excellent--and many malfunctioning or retrograde--multimedia demonstrations, the predominant delivery style consisted of experts addressing an audience from the stage, and speaking in abstractions.

Such a paradox, however, does not prevent a stimulating dialogue between the engineers and educators who are clearly enthusiastic about the potential for integrating computing into education. Many sessions outlined ways in which multimedia and distance delivery techniques could be used to accommodate different learning styles, expectations, and environmental factors. Of particular interest is the DELTA initiative, funded by the European Community to explore how advanced computer-based technologies can be used in education.

Nomadics: Implantable Walkstations and Longer Memories

The conference wasnít all serious scholarly advancement, however. Gerald Maguire from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden challenged the credulity of his audience with his forward-looking presentation, "Technologies for Portable Applications: Toward the Implantable Walkstation." His review of existing technologies which allowed nomadic access to central CPUs or servers took on shades of the fantastic--and possible--when he described surgical implants for audio reception, chording keyboard datagloves, and monitors attached to spectacle frames for the wandering compu-addict. Throughout, he assured us that it was not a question of how--"You will see all of this!"--but of how soon.

Power could be provided, of course, by portable batteries, but Maguire also proposed a detailed breakdown of "bodypower": energy generated by walking, breathing, sweating, and arm bending. It was with particular glee that he described how a hole could be bored through the skull and tiny ICs "blown" into position on the surface of the brain. A slide demonstrated how microscopic pins would interface with the neural network, hold the IC in place, and create a "body net." An implanted antenna would allow this walking commuter to remain in constant contact with a series of fixed-position servers. Another slide listed the technologies this system would render obsolete-- everything from phones, televisions, radios and PCs, to CD players, VCRs and garage door openers. He assured us that in twenty years, these devices would only be found in museums or as references in literature.

Maguire epitomizes the reigning spirit of enthusiasm for the ability of computing technology to extend the human sensorium. One presenter referred to the computer as a "memory prosthesis." The larger the RAM, the less the need to remember.

Noids and Fluffies: Thinking Machines with Heart

Finally, two keynote presentations deserve special notice. They framed the conference chronologically and both insisted on the continuing role of feeling in the development of computer applications.

An early keynote address was delivered by Joseph Henderson of the Dartmouth Medical School. Henderson took exception to the constructivist notion that the user structures knowledge. Following John Dewey, he asserted that constructing data does not equal knowledge; instead, we are drawn into "solidarity" (citing Richard Rorty) when we recognize how other people are like us, drawn in because technological innovation is ruthless in reshaping our experience of the world (McLuhan). Claiming that educators must "drive" the technological evolution of the Global Network, Henderson demonstrated an AIDs education package for both patients and care-givers. This multimedia package combined interactive elements with the unabashed "look and feel" of television. Video clips of testimony from actual AIDs patients, and moving dramatizations by actors, supplemented NASA-like animations of how the virus attached itself to the immune system. Henderson asserted that such programs should "without apologies" teach, and "place what is learned in a rich, real-world, human context." By this last bit, Henderson clearly had in mind that multimedia should seek to move the emotions of its audience in the classical theatrical sense.

With a fervour one might associate with classic American hucksterism, Henderson claimed that educational programs should be of sufficient quality to communicate the "swampy" human feelings of the situation, using storytelling techniques rich with emotion. The intimate and confessional nature of the video segments, the dramatic and otherworldly music accompanying the animation sequences, clearly conveyed the emotional richness Henderson hoped for. Referring to hypermedia pioneer Ted Nelson, Henderson agreed that new media would bring the "noids" and "fluffies" together, hopefully in solidarity.

The concluding keynote presenter, Joao Candido Portinari, described the development of the massive Portinari Project: a tribute to the work, life, and times of his father, the Brazilian artist Candido Portinari (1903-62). Acknowledging Hendersonís heart-felt approach to the development of multimedia, Portinari outlined the efforts of his collaborators to document the creative output and context of the painter, and to develop multimedia tools for their presenation. Of specific interest is their research into a method to determine the authenticity of paintings by analysing the distinctive "fingerprint" of an artistís brushstroke. Their software, Autoclass, was developed by Nasa.

The Portinari Project is gaining an international reputation for its thoroughness, and for the ways it models interdisciplinary research by bringing together art and culture with science and technology. Portinari also made it obvious that the project is inspired by admiration and love for an individual, and a culture.

Portinariís multimedia demonstration using only a Mac Powerbook and a large screen projector was excellent. The quality of the visuals, the pacing and progression of the constructed [;-)] elements were supplemented by the warmth and spontaneity of Portinariís commentary. In a final show of multimedia virtuosity, an extensive-- some in the audience considered it too extensive--selection of paintings was layered up on the screen with impressive colour intensity, and accompanied by a subtlely varied audio track of Brazilian music. It would be difficult to put into words the richness, variety and humanity of Portinari Sr.ís artistic output. A final image hestitated for more than a few seconds on the figure of death.

The life-giving spirit of the Project was not lost on the large audience. Portinari Jr. and his Project was accorded the only standing ovation of the conference.

This final demonstration of, in Portinariís words, the marriage of "love and technique" indicates what was both remarkable about the Ed-Media conference, and what is so often lacking in the development of educational multimedia. Maybe love is asking too much, but surely some play is in order.

The superior examples hypermedia and multimedia design showcased at the conference required the collaboration of many creative individuals, often using the most advanced equipment, to render their dreams into digital reality. While certainly stimulating, such demonstrations of virtuosity are accompanied for educators by the frustrating knowledge that few of them will ever be granted the time or resources to develop similarly inspirational courseware. Perhaps education will shift towards edutainment; perhaps schools will be decommissioned in favour of home-based life-long learning. While Springer, Time-Warner, Voyager, Industrial Light and Magic develop the software for learning, will university classrooms disappear, or be partitioned up as rooms for the homeless, or for administrators who verify and accredit knowledge gained in cyberspace? Is it realistic to believe that, in Portinariís terms, we will be able to construct virtual learning environments based on both love and technique?

For an update on current AACE activities, visit their web-site at http://www.aace.org