Challenge to courseware culture club

March 10, 1995

Academics should leave multimedia production to the professionals, Peter Fowler argues. The arguments had been so intense during the development of our multimedia package for cytology screeners that we forgot, as all developers do, that the results of our arguments were locating our work way out on left field. It was only when we started picking up awards that we began to wonder what we were doing; and, as a corollary, to look at what was going on elsewhere.

It was then that we began to see the differences that have made our work distinctive. This does not, of course, mean that we are right and others are wrong; but it does mean that there are different points of view, and that the present hegemony of what I call the IT Courseware Culture really ought to be challenged.

Others, of course, have criticised the all-pervading development of courseware: in particular, Stephen Ehrmann has written a salutary tale on the impact of American initiatives that bore a resemblance to current United Kingdom programmes (Looking Backward, in Higher Education 1998 Transformed by Learning Technology, CTISS 1994). In this, he questions the American 1970s assumption "that the essence of what technology could do to revolutionise education was represented by courseware developed for instructional use and distributed nationally". They were a generation ahead, I am afraid.

Our cytology work, targeted on the technicians involved in screening cervical smears in hospital cytopathology labs, was funded by a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry. The project began conventionally enough, with a course designer of national repute contracted to conduct a training needs analysis with the laboratory technicians and their trainers in the Women's Hospital in Liverpool, with whom we were in partnership. But the idiosyncratic nature of our work was always likely to come from the inputs of our other partner, Roy Stringer of Interactive Designs Ltd.

We have worked with Stringer now for nearly four years and he personifies the new breed of the multimedia producer: these scream blue murder at any author or academic who dares to suggest that their skill is merely technical; or that they are merely supportive, providing the technical solutions that provide a platform for the domain expert.

Stringer took himself off to the hospital, sat in the laboratory with the trainees, their trainer and a couple of consultants who were around; and he proceeded to ask the trainer the direct questions: What is difficult to teach? What do the students find hardest to learn? Is there anything you can think of that always floors them? Having established such problem areas, he then launched into questions that reflect what he is now calling his "aggressive learning" model, in order that he, as a potential producer of training materials, fully understands the concepts involved. In our present work, all of these sessions are videotaped for examination back in the unit.

The process that immediately interested him was the staining procedure that hospitals use on the cervical smears. This process is named after its inventor, Papanicolaou. The slide is dipped into a series of tanks containing different liquids. This results, eventually, in a clearer image which is easier to examine under a microscope. The procedure is entirely automated, so that the technician examining the prepared slide is only aware that it has been "processed". This means that unless there is a real understanding of the various stages of the staining procedure, and the actual way the slide will have looked at any given point in the proceedings, mistakes in the analysis of the smear - and mistakes in diagnosis - can take place if something amiss has happened when the slide was out of sight.

Stringer's animation of the Papanicolaou staining procedure, in which the learner is able to "walk" through the entire process, examining the slide image at different moments, and even having the ability to see what the slide would look like if a mistake had taken place in the staining, blew our cytology multimedia project wide open. After two years this piece of work, which took Stringer one manic weekend, still remains a formidable achievement. Its effects on our project were threefold: first, the two consultant cytopathologists, who were on the project's steering group but not on its work team, immediately saw the possibilities of multimedia and began to talk of constructing the new standard reference work on cytology. They wanted an active involvement way beyond their steering group membership. Second, they both recognised the undeniable talents of Stringer and the way in which they could not possibly match the design skill of the multimedia producer; and third, the tensions between the academic course designer and the multimedia producer flared into barely-concealed warfare.

As the person responsible for the grant we had received from the DTI's Training Agency, I had an interesting decision to take, and I took it by letting the medical consultants and Roy Stringer take control. This had the effect of taking the project down the routes suggested by the staining animation, which emphasised visual and interactive design solutions to problems in conceptual understanding.

In certain respects the final product - though I say it myself - works brilliantly. Stringer's pi ce de resistance turned out to be his simulation of the use of the microscope in analysing the images on the slides: when the consultants were teaching him the processes they went through they never thought to mention what he immediately pointed out as central - that their fingers were always focusing. In order for a microscopic analysis to be comprehensive, it is necessary not only to look up and down and across the slide systematically; it is also essential to go through the various depths of field which, as any photographer knows, bring certain things into focus as others become blurred. Stringer's design, in which the user can mimic precisely this ability to move through depths of field, represents the key to the success of what is now called (and sold as) CytoFocus.

At the same time, we know full well that the work is flawed. Its formal training element (not far away, structurally, from the course analysis done in the first stages of the project) is in my view unsatisfactory; and it sometimes looks to me more like a brilliant piece of work for the consultants and their peers than a training package for elementary cyto-screeners.

On the other hand, when we look at other developments in this field, we become extremely vociferous in defending how we worked on CytoFocus. Of course, the various balances which were disturbed by the decision to run with the multimedia producer should have been tipped less severely; but unwittingly, through the arguments we had, we have begun to develop a very distinctive point of view.

First, we take it as read that multimedia developments in education should focus on using the power of a form (and we believe it to be a new form) which is de facto visual.

Second, we see no reason at all to put books on screen. Books should be put into books. We all rather like them.

Third, and this is the major point: there is a need to recognise the range of skill sets that are required in the development and production of multimedia.

Let me make this clearer. There appears to be a consensus in certain quarters that power and control of this new form should be in the hands of the teachers or academics: this philosophy appears particularly deeply rooted in universities. The apparent democratic underpinning of this argument is a complete sham. In wanting the "freedom" to exercise their "control" over the means of production, academics can delude themselves into thinking that the toolsets presently available make it possible for them to dispense with a whole range of professional expertise. This "control" is, ultimately, a mere pretence in that more often than not, they have no idea whatsoever of the nature of a predominantly visual form; they simply know, mechanistically, how to make an authoring package do something. The end result is too often an insult both to the design and to the aesthetic intelligence; the academic do-it-all can produce crude and ugly work (if there are 32 fonts, let's use them all . . .) which is then presented to groups of students who are, by now, well used to incredibly sophisticated visual experiences in forms like TV advertising and pop videos.

What I have found interesting at Liverpool over the past few months, since we completed CytoFocus and moved on to a new range of products (most of which are commercially funded), is the recognition that the skill set we have used thus far has not been comprehensive enough. We now believe that we should also have worked with someone with a real expertise in broadcast media. In beginning a partnership recently with a TV documentary maker now working in a university, it has become abundantly apparent to me that his grasp of the narrative form in TV is one of the key elements missing from our work. Which takes us even further from the "All power to the classroom teacher" cry coming from our ideological opposition.

We should not forget that the word multimedia implies multi-disciplinary approaches; a one-dimensional approach, whether by a techie (and we all share, I would have thought, the perception that no developments should be technologically-led), or an academic or, for that matter, what our engineers here call an arty-farty, is bound to result in a one-dimensional product.

As the century draws to a close any such products - and I have seen an awful lot of them lately - will soon be seen as nothing more than curios, strange reminders of those halcyon days when so much money was poured into funding developers who began to think that they could replace the book and the lecture by using what will be seen, even within a couple of years, as extremely crude authoring languages.

Peter Fowler is head of the learning methods unit at Liverpool John Moores University. CytoFocus won gold awards in the European Multimedia Awards in 1993 and at COMDEX/Spring in Atlanta in 1994.

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