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