Flickering brilliance

September 8, 1995

A conference can make excellent raw material for a multimedia production - but do not let the cameras kill a living event, Peter Fowler warns.

The idea of producing a CD-Rom floated to the surface at a planning meeting for our MediaActive 1994 conference, an event that focused on the theme of "harnessing multimedia for higher education".

Barbara Stewart, the organiser and co-ordinator of the event, was discussing the eventual publication of the conference proceedings and began to see a lack of symmetry between a conference dedicated to the new technologies and learning, and a conventional print record of the event.

The only real decision we took that day was to video everything so that we could, if the mood caught us, make an attempt at a CD-Rom MediaActive product. Now, a year or so afterwards, this is available, through the Association for Learning Technology.

I seem to remember, in the last session at the conference, promising delivery of this product at some time last autumn. But - and I can already hear the choruses of "I-told-you-so" - the development path of a new electronic product is always strewn with technical surprises and, in the manner that we now all take so horribly for granted, results in people working all day and night on a whole series of apparently intractable problems.

Now that it is available and being used, it is worth stressing that we never intended this being anything other than an R&D exercise, a learning experience for the Learning Methods Unit. It was not seen as a commercial venture: we funded it through the profits of the conference itself and have given away a copy to each of the 200 or so delegates.

But, as with any such exercise, it has resulted in some tantalisingly interesting glimpses of what could be done next; and it is these I wish to address.

We could, at the simplest level, repeat the whole exercise with any future conferences we run. If we were to do this we would, of course, dramatically improve the technical aspects of the present product. Our extensive use of video sequences, for example - all the keynote speeches are in this form - was based on a video approach quite inappropriate to need. Basically, we used techniques geared to the capture and storage of reference material: we wanted a simple record of the event. We paid no heed to lighting, to subtle camera angles; and made no effort to capture digitally the slides and screens used by the speakers. Our approach was the same as that we use when we run brainstorm sessions for working out the specification of a multimedia product: just get the session on tape to remind ourselves afterwards what was said, discussed and decided.

A different approach to video, coupled with the more efficient compression techniques now available, would transform the grainy black-and-white and often indistinct quality of the movie material on MediaActive.

Second, in any repeat we would make much more effort with cross-referencing. On MediaActive, screens have been created that bring together some of the theme clusters that emerged during the presentations and workshop sessions. These are simple text-on-screen quotations linked to pictures of particular speakers: no attempt was made to bring together the actual sections of the keynotes in which the themes were emerging.

In our view, these theme clusters represented the heart of the conference in that they were by no means pre-determined by the conference organisers: they arose, as issues, during the event itself. The section on such clusters would, in a repeat performance, be central. The electronic form should be able to capture the pulse of a conference, the feel of emerging discussions, debates and arguments in a manner quite inaccessible in the conventional proceedings format.

At the same time, we would have to make sure that any such improvements in these technical areas did not compromise the quality of the live conference itself. We may have missed the target in the way we used video for the making of MediaActive, but at least we did not hinder the natural flow of a conference. I have always cautioned against such intrusion, using as an analogy the way in which the video or the photographic recording of weddings can so often destroy the wedding itself.

A conference is a live social event built on constant unscheduled interactions. It brings people together so that they can talk, listen, add their contribution to an emerging debate, and feel part of a community and less of the stranger in the strange land of the universities of the 1990s. Being organic, the conference can be killed by any number of dead hands, whether these belong to an overbearing bureaucrat, an over-enthusiastic caretaker, a Killer Chair, or a user-hostile technician. The last thing we should do, in developing a CD-Rom record of an event, is to add to this list.

The experience of making a multimedia record of a conference suggested avenues of possible exploration that may be more interesting in educational settings.

When I use the MediaActive product, I find one aspect especially useful: I am able to work through a keynote speech in a manner qualitatively different from that offered by any other medium.

Take as an example the opening keynote by Alistair MacFarlane. The accident of being forced, by present technological constraints, to have the video sequence only filling a portion of the screen resulted in our project team having to come up with a design solution that encompassed the whole screen. Two ideas resulted. First, we used an area for text; this text provided markers for points in the MacFarlane speech. Second, we used the scroll bar mechanism we had used in CytoFocus, our product for training technicians to screen cervical smears; this lets the user play, pause and stop the video sequence or step through the whole section at any speed whatsoever.

Adding the text necessitated an intense editing job. This absorbed Barbara Stewart for many weeks last autumn, and resulted in slots of around 20 minutes for each presenter. The slots were chunked into sections, identified by bullet points appearing in the text area.

Charlotte Corke added a user interface which allows the user either to move straight to the section of the speech identified by a bullet point or, using the scroll bar, to move through the entire speech by flicking through the individual frames. (Anyone who has worked through our recent Pathology title - a commercial CD-Rom developed for Mosby with the authors Alan Stephens and James Lowe - will have seen how Roy Stringer has taken this metaphor of the "flickbook" to dizzy heights).

As a user, I find this combination of facilities extremely useful. When I was preparing a talk a few weeks ago, I was able to use the CD-Rom as a real resource, finding the exact points that I needed in MacFarlane's talk (on his Intensely Supportive Learning Environment model) either by clicking the relevant bullet point (one of half a dozen such markers to help the user); or, perhaps more interestingly, by flicking through his movie sequence using his overhead projector slides as a guide through the lecture. I highlight this deliberately since it was typical of those accidents that occur when developing multimedia materials: this feature, which I increasingly feel to be full of possibilities in all kinds of scenarios, was never planned.

But what we have here, in embryo, is a very real alternative means of delivering the lecture. The twofold means of searching and retrieving - either by instant access through bullet points or through a highly controllable flickbook search mechanism - presents the user with a dramatic improvement on the video fast forward button.

Extensions to this basic model suggest themselves with ease. How far are we from voice-to-text facilities working in this format? And then sub-titling? And could we make a feature of the OHP slides, working with the author in a proper preparation phase (which we did not do at all in MediaActive), and maybe creating them as navigable objects?

This presents us with another means of broadening the repertoire of course delivery mechanisms, and we should be exploring its feasibility. Of course, this will be seen by some as threatening. Merely suggesting this as an idea will probably get me into trouble on the grounds that it can be interpreted as "replacing the teacher" and that the only possible reason for taking this sort of idea forward would be on the politically dubious grounds of a peculiar model of cost efficiency.

I disagree. Like Alistair MacFarlane in his talk at MediaActive, I believe that these new means of delivery could, with a modicum of creative thinking, act as a liberating force for the lecturer. In his phrase (which I have just looked up on the CD!), we should be using the power of the new technologies to release the scarce human resource to do what humans do best - talking to other human beings, one-on-one, face-to-face interaction.

This is exactly what would be made possible if we were to take the ideas of MediaActive forward, which is why I remain grateful that the idea that surfaced in that planning meeting was taken on board and developed.

And why the unit wishes to take the developing ideas forward.

Especially with lectures.

Any takers?

Peter Fowler is director of the learning methods unit at Liverpool John Moores University.

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