Making the Case for Multimedia
Recently, I was surprised to find a well-known computer columnist writing disparagingly about the value of multimedia in education. Comparing it to the failed and forgotten teaching machines of years past, he pointed out its shortcomings as a total education solution. He accused Apple of overselling the concept. He argued that computers and the current interest in multimedia applications would soon fall by the way-side. Computers, after all, cannot teach, and he seemed to think it was time we accepted that fact.
As an educator, I found myself applauding his high regard for teachers. Anyone who thinks that technology alone can maintain discipline in a roomful of sophomores has never taught a high school class. Anyone who imagines that a CPU, a monitor, and a mouse can magically turn apathy into enthusiasm has never attempted to instruct the unmotivated. Anyone who expects a PC, a VCR, a laser disc, and a spider's web of cables to transform mediocrity into excellence doesn't understand the complicated processes of learning. Effective teaching has always required a human touch, and it will continue to do so until technology develops far beyond its current limitations.
Computers, isolated and unassisted, cannot teach. Nor can films or filmstrips, educational TV, or slide shows with synchronized sound and music. Likewise, buildings don't teach, whether they're libraries or museums or universities. Textbooks and overhead projectors don't teach, either. Like multimedia, these tools become effective only when employed by skilled teachers who know what to teach and how to teach it.
However, admitting that tools have limitations doesn't mean discarding them as valueless. Computers haven't turned every child into a genius, but they have permitted schools to prepare teens for work in a modern world. It's safe to say that multimedia applications will not solve all educational problems, either.
Nevertheless, if we expect schools to remain effective, then society must continue to provide educators with the professional tools necessary for doing their job. Increasingly, those professional tools include computers, scanners, laser primers, CD-ROM players, videodisc players, sound digitizers, and the software they require.
Once provided with proper equipment, teachers can begin experimenting with multimedia approaches to see what works and what doesn't. Traditionally, educators have been open to new technologies while maintaining a healthy skepticism. That mix of openness balanced by a "show me" attitude explains why desktop publishing is only now gaining strong support after years of proving itself in business. Considering the large investment required, educators should have ample time to evaluate the technology before schools waste significant tax dollars on unnecessary equipment.
In any case, the multimedia movement has at least two major things going for it. First, today's educators and developers recognize that teaching and learning are complex, interrelated processes that require a multiplicity of approaches to reach children with different backgrounds and interests. Second, investments in hardware provide a double benefit because students and teachers can use the same equipment to run packaged products and to produce their own presentations. Judging from current literature and experience, multimedia may prove most effective in situations where students design, research, write, and produce, rather than ones where they merely work with the products of others.
That brings us back to the relationship between teacher, learner, and learning tools, whether those tools be books, filmstrips, or multimedia worlds. Ultimately, even teachers may not really teach as much as they provide opportunities and environments in which students can and will learn.
Don't misunderstand—I'm not arguing against healthy skepticism about multimedia solutions, or any other untested educational approach, for that matter. We've all seen schools jump on and off too many bandwagons to accept every new trend with open arms. But skepticism should not mean blind rejection.
When computers first started trickling into schools, I was very skeptical. No one knows better than teachers the depressing lows that inevitably follow each unwarranted high engendered by those who promise too much and know too little. It took time, but teachers found a proper role for computers. Keyboarding classes replaced typing courses as educators and policy makers discovered the benefits of word processing. Elementary teachers found that students who couldn't sit still to do math work sheets could spend an entire period practicing those same skills while playing computer bowling. English teachers realized that spelling checkers could provide extra help for poor spellers.
So what about multimedia? Can it find a place in tomorrow's class-rooms? Maybe so. Maybe not. But anything that offers hope for helping teachers teach and learners learn deserves a fair chance.