The team players with a perfect game plan for complete control

May 9, 1997

Planning a multimedia production? Roy Stringer (below) presents an original approach to nonlinear thinking, and colleague Charlotte Corke offers a guide to working successfully with multimedia professionals

At a recent Apple education conference with an invited audience of 300, I managed to talk my way into a presentation slot after one of the parallel sessions was cancelled at the last minute. There had been much talk about the technical and strategic implementation of information technology in learning environments, but virtually no discussion of the multimedia material which this IT would deliver.

In my role at the Learning Methods Unit, Liverpool John Moores University, my main concern is the nature of multimedia materials. I have an evangelical urge to discuss our work at every opportunity and so grabbed this one, even though the hard disc I had brought with me had rather old examples.

Not for the first time, people said they had never seen anything like it before. But why should this be? While the unit is certainly staffed by highly creative and talented individuals, their skills are no longer that unique. I'm assuming that we have moved on from the do-it-yourself model of multimedia production, where the academics themselves used the hardware and software toolsets to produce multimedia versions of their course materials.

While the idea of transferring the means of production to the academics appeared attractive, it also denied the validity of a range of professional expertise. The materials were often visually crude and educationally dull, doomed to a painfully short shelf-life, as the unit's head, Peter Fowler has argued (THES, March 10 1995).

Many lessons have been learnt from this initial, technology-driven stage, and it is now more common for academics to work with professional design teams to produce materials of a very high production standard, often beautifully designed and effectively implemented. Yet in many cases the materials still fail to live up to expectations, and true interactivity is still elusive.

Interactivity should mean that the student is in control; not simply by being able to select from a menu, or click on a range of buttons or discover their own mark out of ten. Control over educational multimedia material should mean that it is tactile, intriguing and engaging. The moments of true interactivity in our work have these qualities: there is the tactile experience of the product design studentturning, rotating and investigating a virtual model of a Dyson DC02 vacuum cleaner; there is the intriguing experience of the medical student zooming in and panning round a photographic image of a cirrhotic liver as if it were there in front of them, under the microscope; and there is the engagement experienced by the under-achiever in maths exploring Pythagoras' theorem in a purely visual and playful way.

The individuals involved in these projects, both academics and designers, were obviously pivotal to the interactive nature of the materials produced. But even more important, I believe, was the way these individuals worked together; the key to creating interactive multimedia materials is in the way these two sets of people interact with each other.

These interactions and the uccesses which resulted from them are a product of two factors. The first, unrepeatable factor is the input of Roy Stringer, now creative director at the unit's spin-off commercial company Amaze, who worked closely with the unit during its first five years. His unique style and approach, combined with Peter Fowler's inspired management, was crucial in establishing the working processes of the unit as a whole.

But the other key factor in our success is these working processes themselves: the underlying approach the unit's production team takes to all multimedia projects. There are two crucial components of this approach. The first is the production team itself, which is primarily multi-disciplinary. In the unit, we have people with expertise in areas such as graphic design, video, sound, multimedia authoring, 3-D graphics, web design, network support, illustration, conceptual design and project management; several of these skills are present in several people; no one person has all these skills and so all projects are team-based.

The second component is the way in which we work with the teachers/academics (we call them "content experts"). The relationship is one of collaboration and partnership, where multimedia designers are on an equal footing with the content experts in determining the nature of the materials being produced.

Every project begins from first principles: who is the package aimed at; what is its purpose; what are the core concepts which need to be conveyed; what is difficult to teach conventionally? The role of content experts is critical: they define the pedagogic structure of the information to be communicated in the multimedia form, and select those concepts or areas of content which are most appropriate. But they are coaxed through this process by the multimedia designers - often naive to the subject matter - who adopt the role of the learner.

The content expert must first teach the production team, and then together the designers and content expert devise how to communicate the concepts and information in an interactive multimedia form.

It is this process of deconstruction by content experts working with multimedia designers which allows for creative approaches to devising multimedia materials; this is how novel approaches for unblocking the learning process come about.

This initial stage usually takes the form of several "brainstorm" sessions, where as many people from the production team as possible get involved, chip in, question the content expert and make suggestions, all of which helps to define the structure of the final product.

This structure and the elements which are created within it are constantly re-analysed and developed during the production phase, as prototypes are built and tested, critiqued and refined.

The content experts must have respect for the skills and expertise of the production team and be able to work as part of that team. They must also be open to rethinking what they teach and how they teach it, and prepared to keep on re-analysing this as the materials develop.

The multimedia designers, for their part, must be open to actively learning about the subject matter they want to communicate. They may know nothing about it when they start on a project, but they should understand it thoroughly by the end: their engagement with the subject is translated into engaging learning materials.

If the content expert and the multimedia designers can connect in this way, then the interactive multimedia materials they jointly produce really can live up to the hype.

Charlotte Corke is multimedia manager, Learning Methods Unit, Liverpool John Moores University.

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