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Developing multimedia – a real life case study

by Roger Frost – education software consultant, Cambridge, UK. Originally printed in 'Education Technology Review - Middle East' or ETR. Dubai October 2008. Slight edits

When a definitive guide to developing eLearning technology has been written, its usefulness may be measured by its stories of successful projects. And if tomorrow’s technology builds on today’s technology then the word that the guide should use often will probably be ‘experience’. The idea that success comes from learning from others is incredibly useful.

Here is a story that comes from Malaysia. It is a personal experience of what may have been the largest content-making project of its time.

Define what you're trying to do and why

Malaysia is a country with an impetus towards becoming a knowledge economy. As a user and a developer of elearning technology, it is a land alive with good case studies.

Electronic learning or eLearning often uses multimedia, digital libraries and collaborative tools. eLearning allows teacher and student to be far away from each other. It also allows students to learn outside a formal timetable.

Elearning may deliver an entire course or it may enrich a traditional course and here it’s called ‘blended learning’. Many institutions do this. For example, the Open University of Malaysia use ‘distance’ and ‘open’ learning to cater for students who are widely dispersed, or who already have full-time jobs. eLearning is part of a learning strategy.

In the early 2000’s a very different example of eLearning arose from a bold government decision. Its objective was to ensure that Malaysia’s future scientists engage with a world that used the English language. Malaysia chose to switch the teaching of science and mathematics from Bahasa Melayu into English.

At the time, Malaysia’s teachers could be divided into a mature group who had been schooled in English and a younger group who worked in Bahasa. The imperative was to enable the teaching force to deliver a curriculum in English. The system would need to move sharply to support the younger part of the profession.

The solution was to develop an elearning platform to empower thousands of teachers to teach outside of their native tongue. They planned to use multimedia, visuals, text and voice-over. It would be ‘blended learning’ where the multimedia should not ‘take over’ all teaching. Teachers could continue to use their own techniques.

IT experts, curriculum authorities and other stakeholders were brought together to develop a plan. One of the first courses to be developed was for the school years from age 16 to 18 (Form 6). The multimedia would follow industry standards and use Adobe based content. It would work in various browsers and be able to run on Apple, Windows or Linux. The planners recognised a need to unify numerous other projects and they devised a specification for a common content player for these projects. The content player, as it happens, turned out to be an exceptional model of clarity. In synchrony with the development, teachers would be provided with a laptop, projector and training.

The scale of what lay ahead was daunting. They needed to develop multimedia that would fill lessons that lasted about an hour. The lesson would have printable worksheets, several activities, maybe twenty learning objects, clear learning objectives, text with voice-over, and a clickable word glossary to show a translation in Bahasa. The task ahead was to make 50 lessons for each of two years for biology, chemistry and physics.
Adding that up, what was needed was 300 lesson hours and thousands of learning objects. They would be delivered to every school in the country as 60 CD-ROMs – the material was perfectly suited to online delivery, but these were early days.
Aside from the planning, it would take two years to complete the three subject courses.

Get the right expertise for the right outcome

The specification required that the multimedia embraced the best ways to visualise science concepts. This is often understood as meaning that everyone ‘tries their best’ – however the actual need is rather different as we’ll see.

The real challenge is to find teaching and instructional design talent that has done a similar job before. Too often do we find only people doing a job for the first time. How does one find these people? The requirement to work in English led to a visit to the London BETT show. This annual education technology trade event finds makers of elearning, proof of their talent and gurus of the trade.

The project contractor employed London-based company ‘New Media Projects’. They were already making multimedia with an understanding of what the medium ought to do. Although the company no longer exists today, back then New Media Projects were contracted to handle the entire project including lesson writing, instructional design, coding and voice-over. The work was done in the UK and sent to Malaysia where subject panels of teachers and lecturers would judge, advise and approve. These panels or ‘quality control’ panels were exemplary. Their scrutiny ensured the materials were to standard. An impressive number of people took part in them. Full-time assistants were needed just to make the panel meetings happen.

Pointers to a successful elearning project

What then are the pointers to a successful elearning project? The answer is easy but this kind of advice is a challenge to absorb. One pointer is that making the best multimedia for the classroom and making best use of the medium are two different objectives. The best multimedia for the classroom requires inside knowledge of how a lesson works. The best use of the medium means that we make resources that have to be shoe-horned into a lesson. For example, it’s rare to find a multimedia resource that matches what must be learned or understands the pace of the lesson. Experience from inside a Malaysian classroom was needed to make what was wanted.
The second pointer to success is having the unusual skill to be able to define the multimedia that is wanted. Customers are good at telling their multimedia supplier what needs changing after they see it. When the customer is not one or two people, but a huge panel of experts, finding a consensus can take time. This costs money.

By the time the third project CD was due for delivery, the vision for the product was only still evolving. After repeated revisions of the multimedia, the customer and ‘New Media’ parted ways and a new multimedia partner was sought.

Finding a new multimedia partner

The new partner was Chennai-based White House eLearning. With an IT staff of 300 people, White House eLearning had similar projects in their experience and the stamina to see the major part of the project through to completion, as indeed they did. They set to work with the customer to improve the production process. The result, I think, is a model that many will want to replicate.

The first improvement was to give teachers the role of lesson writers. Subject-specialist instructional designers, myself and colleague Ged McBreen, were recruited from the UK to advise on the use of multimedia. For example, before writing began, we could brief the teachers on how multimedia could enhance the topic. The teachers would then write the lesson, and give it to us to turn it into a storyboard and improve the interactivity. White House eLearning would then make the storyboards into multimedia and add voice-over commentary.
In the new regime, a quality control panel would adjust and approve storyboards before they were ever sent to production. Such a ‘QC’ panel consisted of 5, 10 and even 20 people. In the early days the panel that approved storyboards was often a different set of experts to those that reviewed the multimedia. A crucial, simple improvement suggested by White House, was to ask that the same group of people take lessons right through to completion.

From here on the system worked admirably. New ideas could be introduced at the storyboard stage, and exceptionally after the multimedia was made. Suffice to say the project continued at a smooth pace. Month after month, a cycle of lesson and storyboard making, panel review, multimedia review and sign-off took it to a happy conclusion.

Looking back we see how the process of specifying and making multimedia evolved. With the multimedia being produced months ahead of classroom use, we had time to let end-users influence the content and evolve it further.

Roger Frost ...was a writer and speaker on technology in science education. He created the BETT Award Finalist called ‘Organic Chemistry'. Frost advised publishers on elearning resources and was a subject specialist on Malaysia’s Form 6 project. Those involved in multimedia are welcome to make contact.

White House eLearning was the multimedia supplier to Malaysia producing thousands of multimedia learning objects over ten years.

Answer these questions to get the result you need

Who is able to judge what is good eLearning?
Who has made an excellent eLearning product?
What does good eLearning look like?
Can multimedia change everyday practice? it? Does it have to?
Where can we find elearning that works?
Who has stamina to handle our project?
How much multimedia has our typical end-user experienced?
Where can we find an end-user who can create our content?
What features can we omit from the software?
How can we put end-user feedback to good use?
What production stages will be needed to achieve our objective?
How desirable are the following ideas to our product: fun to use; immersive; tele-presence; 3D; virtual classroom; paperless? And if these features are vital, can we check the spec?

Credits: Based on Roger Frost's feature in ETR Magazine - Dubai

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