In our post Guess what is better than Prozac we had stressed how reading can be a deep experience sometimes providing a full antidepressant trip, while, when in a bad mood we switch on our TV, “at each zap of our remote control the consciousness of our unhappiness increases exponentially.”
This reflection had stirred some discussion with readers on the differences among books, movies and multimedia: Ashish, Poonam and Falcon from India; plus AutumnSnow from China. In our blog and in Poonam’s we also had debated about movies and books. Poonam is also presenting a nice list of the top movies of 2007 (part 1 and 2), in case you are interested in knowing India’s cinema better, plus an extensive list of books as well.
Regarding multimedia and its educational effectiveness, I had said that I am not automatically in favour of books, since in some cases multimedia education can provide better results. The problem is to understand when and why multimedia is more effective than traditional media. By multimedia we mean a type of communication that combines text, audio, still images, animation, video, and interactivity, at various degrees.
I will thus refer to some research I did in 2000 when I was requested to deliver some courses on Web education basics to some eastern-European teachers who were skilled in book-based education only. On that occasion I wrote a little booklet in order to provide them with some information about e-learning systems basics. The intent was also that of convincing them (and myself) that multimedia was an excellent tool if inserted here and there judiciously.
KS and CS.
When Learning is Smoothed Away
How can we effectively communicate our ideas to students? – I argued. Which are the best models for linking web pages to one another and how can multimedia help? We here need some concepts from the instructional communication theory such as cognitive psychologists conceive it.
According to the cognitive theory, there is a relationship between what you have to say (content) and the mode of your communication; i.e. between the knowledge structure (KS) of content and the communication structure (CS) you choose to (re)present this content to others (Antinucci F., 1993, Summa Hypermedialis – Per una teoria dell’ipermedia, in SISTEMI INTELLIGENTI / anno V, n. 2).
I. KNOWLEDGE STRUCTURE
Examples of KSs can be the teacher’s mental representation of:
- a biological organism
- a story or facts in a sequence
- a computer operating system
- the functioning of a car engine.
KS is a structure of concepts and information, which are interrelated. Micro KSs are encapsulated into larger KSs, so as to shape a person’s world view, or general KS (similar to the Weltanschaung conceived by the German philosophers). Thus, the main goal of teaching is not that of having students memorize data. It is that of modifying and enriching students’ knowledge structures or KSs, which is the way they represent the world – or sections of it – to themselves.
II. COMMUNICATION STRUCTURE
Examples of CSs can be:
- a book
- a movie
- a multimedia CD-ROM
- a speech
- a video game
- a hyper textual and/or hyper medial Web site.
CS is a medium, like voice or a book, or a combination of media, like text + hyper-text + sound + images + animations + videos. CSs allow communication between the teachers’ and the learners’ Kss.
Scientists are studying ways of connecting human brains to computers and translate the information they contain into bits; after which, from computers, in a reversed process, they are trying ways of transferring everything back into other people’s brains. However weird (or horrifying) this perspective may seem, it can signify that in the future learning could be effortless. At present, we cannot but communicate via a CS, in a process similar to this:
The more encoding and decoding it takes 1) to translate a KS into a CS by the teacher and 2) to re-translate this CS back into a KS by the learners, the harder is the process of instruction (for both the teacher and the learners).
This means that:
- If KSs and CSs are similar (isomorphic) the teaching/learning process is smoother, more natural and intuitive
- If KSs and CSs on the contrary are dissimilar (allomorphic), the teaching/learning process is more difficult (Antinucci F, 1993)
Facts in temporal sequence (history, a narration etc.) are naturally linear and time lined. In this case a book or the human speech, which are also by nature linear and time lined, are very apt CSs, being here KS and CS isomorphic.
On the other hand, writing a book on the functioning of the human organism is a more complex task. A medium like a book (CS) is in fact allomorphic vis-à-vis a biological organism. A biological organism is a system, non-linear and non-temporal (not considering its development). Hence it requires a lot of work for translating its relative KS into a linear temporal CS.
Everyone who has written a manual or a book knows this. We too, writing this paper – we argued – are experiencing the difficulty of sequencing in linear form a knowledge structure (KS) that is non linear by itself – being made of the several non-temporal interrelated elements that make up the distant learning system we are trying to explain. Therefore, since KS (a DL system) and CS (this linear paper) are allomorphic, the process of conversion is not without effort.
KS and CS are Tighter with Multimedia
This relationship between KS and CS, usually very loose, since the preferred instructional medium has always been the book (except for the special case of narration), can become tighter with hyper textual and hyper media web sites, with Multimedia CD-ROMs or with educational video-games, since these new media are totally free from a predefined communication structure (CS). This is usually not the case of a book or a lecture delivered by the human speech (or via e-mails in a virtual classroom context), which are forcefully linear.
Note 1. The linear approach comes from speech and writing, which are linear by nature and follow a progression in time. The linear approach in teaching and learning saw its triumph with the revolution of printing, which allowed an enormous diffusion of books at a low cost. It was the birth of the school we have today, based on books. Before this great innovation, a book cost the equivalent of today 15,000 US $, which totally impeded a learning model based on books on a large scale. Learning and skills were hence handed down from masters to apprentices, in shops, generation after generation, using experience and live example more than logical linear thought (Antinucci, F., 1993; Derry T.K. – Williams T.I., 1960, A Short History of Technology, Clarendon Press, Oxford ; Parisi, D., 2000, Scuol@.it, Mondadori, Milano).
New media instead are not naturally forced into a linear type of communication, which goes from A to Z, in a logical progression. New media can be non-linear. They can manipulate links and ideas, images, symbolic 3D models and can produce interactive simulations so as to express, in intuitive ways, what books and speech can express using hundreds of words.
Note 2. See classic computer games like SimCity, The Sims, Microsoft Flight Simulator etc. They allow new types of non-linear interactive learning based not any more on logical speech or logical writing, but based on interactive experience, similar again to the experience the apprentice had in the medieval shop (Antinucci, F., 1999; Parisi, D., 2000).
As a conclusion, teachers who have to translate a book into an on-line course and/or into a multimedia product must consider this cognitive perspective. In the process of adapting a book into an e-learning product many choices are possible. Therefore a deeper understanding of the mechanisms implied in the learning process can be of help when we plan for example an educational Web site, the structure of its links and pages, the animations and multimedia presentations in it.
This will influence the final educational product and will determine its success with the learners.