Published by The Voyager Company. 1993
Multimedia: what is it? Quite simply, itís information expressed through more than one medium. We commonly associate it with CD-ROMs, and the way they allow text, pictures, sound and video to be combined. What lies below is a laymanís analysis of the multimedia structure found in the CD-ROM Who Built America, and how this multimedia allows for a novel and information-rich experience.
Who Built America is a historical journey through the adolescence of our country, spanning from the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914. It is composed primarily of linear text, with so called "excursions" into pictures, film, sound clips, and other related documentary passages. Much like the physical edition (the CD-ROM has a corresponding text book), the screen is presented as two numbered pages of a book, moreover, the information is broken down into chapters, each having a defined theme. I could have, and I felt that I should have, ploughed through Who Built America just like I was reading a normal book except for the occasional excursion into a primary source work or some other parenthetic multimedia trip. However, in the few hours that I played with this CD I probably didnít spend more than thirty minutes reading actual text. This is what aggravated me about the book/CD-ROM. I wanted fun. I wanted computer entertainment. I either wanted to sit back and watch a multimedia movie or be able to play with it like a computer game. I got neither--what I got was repackaged and flashy book.
After sitting back and thinking about it, however, this repackaged flashy book was great. In my twenty or so years of reading educational materials I have come to think of most books as hard work, linear, rarely entertaining, and certainly not something I do for fun. In my ten or so years of using computers I have come to see them as a tool for me to play, explore, and occasionally create--computer fiddling is something I like doing. Who Built America mixed these two things--play and labor--initially leaving me with the impression that is was a boring failure at entertainment. After some re-evaluation, however, I appreciate how Who Built America is not a dull game, but rather a novel, powerful and perhaps appealing instrument of education. Iíve heard the word "edu-tainment", and I guess that is what I expected from Who Built America , although I was far to biased on the "-tainment" side of the phrase. I went to Who Built America looking for entertainment--I didnít find it. If, however, I had been searching for educational material, I would indeed have gotten what I wanted.
With the advent of this new media that can present seemingly conventional texts along with primary source evidence, sound, film and other non-printable information, the definitions of entertainment and education have become blurred. I went to the sound and film looking to satiate my appetite for fun, but really I should have seen this sound and film as a sugar coating for the sometimes tasteless pill of education. For those who are not looking for the fun-factor, the multimedia allows a powerful dimension that adds excellent depth to the academic information. The utility of the multimedia is therefore twofold: for those of us wanting fun we might be drawn to involve ourselves with a not so appetizing educational experience; for those looking to learn, the further dimensions realized in Who Built America give a flavor and nourishment to this work not attainable in most, or perhaps any other medium.
To round off my analysis I will explore some of these "further dimensions"--what are they, how do they help the user--and then move on to some technical issues. What multimedia and the CD-ROM bring to the experience, aside from the added content I have discussed already, are a powerful set of management tools, and interactivity.
When watching a movie we are totally non-interactive. We sit and soak up what weíre given. When playing computer games, or surfing the Internet we are highly interactive--our input produces the output--and this interactivity is perhaps the fundamental value in these media (who would want to just watch a video game without being able to play it?) In these realms, with interactivity comes fun and power. Moreover, as many teachers will tell you, interaction is one of the most important keys to successful learning, and this is where Who Built America gets full credit. The way in which Who Built America allows--indeed requires--you to give input before you get any output makes sure that the user is paying attention and, one would hope, exploring something that they have selected out of interest. Interactive delivery of information is a sure way to tailor the message to the user, maintain interest, and improve educational value.
With interactivity comes the need to control what you are getting. How well information delivery is controlled is vital to a quality and useful experience. Let us examine the World Wide Web for example. If we had no search engines for the WWW, or if, whenever we followed hypertext link we were taken randomly to any page, or if we had no way of saving our location so we later return (i.e. bookmarks) then how useful would the Web be? Good control of interactive environments is vital, and Iím happy to report, the tools that Who Built America gives the user to attain these ends are indeed good.
These tools include everything from an index and page numbering to a nice search engine that aside from allowing a basic search for specific text, can also hunt through all of the various multimedia items on the disk. Movement through the work is simple, you have the ability to randomly move to any page, return to one of your pervious pages or simply mark a page for later reference. Additionally, In the main body of the work you are given hypertext links of certain words, allowing you to go to any previous or future occurrence of the linked item--very useful for following the life of a particular character for example. Finally, there are several ways of making notes as you move through the work. There is a notebook that allows to have one central repository of commentary, but you can also write notes into the margins of each page (and you are not limited by writing space as you are in traditional books); a nice way to keep your thoughts connected to the material.
In conclusion, such an application as Who Built America has a lot to offer: high educational value, interactivity, large and diverse amounts of media, and powerful tools to manage it all. With this utility, however, comes the need for high powered computing. We are only now starting to see the required hardware spreading through communities, albeit slowly. In the Moffitt Library Media Center at the University of California at Berkeley, where I viewed this CD-ROM, there is only one machine that has the hardware needed. So, I am left asking, ëwhat good is such a tool if nobody can use it?í These kind of applications need to be brought to the population on a large scale--especially necessary is an early introduction of this new media to our children--otherwise tools like Who Built America will stay a novelty and be viewed by people like me--university students--as nothing more than "a boring failure at entertainment".
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