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Claire Neesham (1990)

Apple is funding a project to show how multimedia technology can aid education


BY THE playing fields at the Anglia Teacher Training College in Essex stands a prefab building of the type that seems to accompany almost every school in the UK. But it contains more computer kit Apple Macintoshes, CD ROM drives, video disc players than most British schools dream of. The machines belong to Stephen Heppell, a professor of information technology in the Department of Education. Since October his office has been one of the centres for the Renaissance Project, a research programme looking at multimedia in education, funded by Apple. Heppell explains that the project is looking at the new challenges computers can bring to education. The project members have explored this potential by writing software products for Apple's HyperCard using media such as sound, voice and video. Sue Clacher, the higher education marketing manager for Apple UK, originally came up with the idea of the Renaissance Project. She says, ``I felt that if you look back at the history of computing, lots of people have had great ideas about what computers should do, but in most cases it just didn't happen.'' Clacher created a team to show how multimedia technology could be used in education. It included Heppell and groups led by David Riley and David Riddle at King's College, London, Graham Howard at Coventry Polytechnic, Robert Harding at the University of Cambridge, and Douglas Quinney at the University of Keele. By last October Apple had agreed to provide £500,000 and the first year of the Renaissance Project got under way. Heppell says Renaissance was chosen as the title because it reflected their vision of the re-birth of learning. Also the Renaissance period was a time of participation, and the project team wanted to get users as well as developers involved with the software. One of the targets for the first year was to use HyperCard script to design four CD ROM-based hypermedia products covering art, maths, teacher training and dynamic systems. Howard explored Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, while Harding and Quinney focused on calculus. The King's College group investigated the dynamics of the Amazonian rain forest, and Anglia produced thought-provoking material for trainee teachers. The groups collected together the hypertext routines they found most useful, and these ``tools'' are being sold for £10. Clacher stresses that it was important for the work to promote discussion as well as products. Anglia's contribution a CD ROM aimed at trainee teachers illustrates this. The software includes examples such as the broken calculator designed to make kids think about how calculators work. It uses a calculator design on screen with all the normal function keys and a few inspirational sounds. But you can ``break'' keys so that a child can be asked to do the sum 4 + 9, but with the + and 9 keys disabled. Other examples use video to promote an interactive question and answer session. The product is also intended to prompt teachers to consider the issues of using this type of material. For example, if a group of children has spent a morning enjoying a multimedia experience, how do you assess what they have got out of it? The Anglia CD ROM will be given away free to all 113 UK teacher training colleges in November. But most of the other work from the Renaissance Project is to be sold through a professional software publishing company for around £50 a package. Although some of the material, such as the Amazonian rain forest project, relies on video to model complex environments, the developers have tried to keep the price down. All the packages will run on any Apple Macintosh, including the Mac Plus and Classic, which can be bought with a CD ROM drive for under £1,000. Where possible the material offers alternatives for those who can't afford Video 8 tape or videodisc equipment. Harding and Quinney are incorporating a CD ROM-based static image option as well as video in their calculus program. This brings calculus to life using real examples. Simple harmonic motion is not only an equation: it is illustrated by video clips of cyclic changes such as the seasons of the year. There is an animated pendulum on screen proving Galileo's observation that the time taken to complete each cycle does not alter with the amplitude of each swing. Students are encouraged to find out why Galileo came to this conclusion by referring to his biography. This approach to teaching maths has great potential, but Harding and Quinney are the first to admit that producing this type of material is not easy. It not only needs someone who understands the subject, but also a hypertext expert, someone with a practical knowledge of user interface design, and a producer. The Renaissance team members have recognised this and in the second year of the project will develop tools so all the products can have a common user interface. They will also be looking to experts such as Peter Bratt ex-BBC producer and now a multimedia consultant for production advice. Apple is only providing part of the money for the second year; the rest is coming from a variety of European sources. But the Renaissance team already knows what it wants to do. The focus will be on different European cultures and all products will support five different European languages. As before, the project will be split into separate areas, but each team will also contribute to a resource disc. This will include general information on European art, culture, history and scientific celebrities that can be accessed from the individual subject products. Other ideas include Heppell's plan to get schoolchildren from small coastal villages across Europe to describe one day in the life of their village using hypermedia. These will be collected on one CD ROM and distributed to schools. There will also be a spare slot on the disc so that schools can compile their own projects.

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