Multimedia enhancement of opportunities and outcomes for learners engaged in open, flexible and distance learning: Theory and

practice Please cite as: Owen, H., & Martin, H. (In press). Multimedia enhancement of opportunities and outcomes for learners engaged in open, flexible and distance learning: Theory and practice. Quality Connections Boundless Possibilities: Through Open, Flexible and Distance Learning DEANZ 2010, Wellington, New Zealand. Hazel Owen eThos Consultancy NZ

Helen Martin eThos Consultancy NZ


The paper explores how multimedia for education enhances outcomes and opportunities for learners and practitioners engaged in open, flexible and distance learning. The 'quality connections' and 'boundless possibilities' which are the theme for this conference are examined through exploration of how embedding multimedia artefacts into meaningful tasks can scaffold learners' understanding of concepts, demonstrate practical skills, and, where learners are creating the multimedia, enable cultural appropriacy and foster creativity. The paper demonstrates how the use of multimodal activities is efficacious, motivating, and assists learner volition. Additional benefits include catering to learning preferences, and enhancing accessibility. All of these factors are key in enabling open learning, especially in flexible or distance programmes. The argument is contextualised through a discussion of the relevant literature and illustrated using research from two very different institutions, Unitec New Zealand and Dubai Men's College, UAE.


It is old news to most educators that “The young person who watches digital TV,

downloads MP3 music onto a personal player, checks e-mail on a personal organiser and sends…messages to a mobile phone of a friend will not be satisfied with a 500-word revision guide” (Bratina & Abbott, 2002, p. 2). But there is still work to do in seeing the value of multimedia for education.

The aim of this paper is to explore ways in which multimedia for education enhances outcomes and opportunities for learners and practitioners engaged in open, flexible and distance learning. The 'quality connections' and 'boundless possibilities' which are the theme for this conference will be examined through exploration of how embedding multimedia artefacts into meaningful tasks can scaffold learners' understanding of concepts, demonstrate practical skills, and, where learners are creating the multimedia, enable cultural appropriacy and foster creativity. All of these factors are key in enabling open learning (i.e. learning that is self-determined, independent and interest-guided), especially in flexible or distance programmes1.

The argument will be contextualised through a discussion of the relevant literature and illustrated using research from two very different institutions, Unitec New Zealand and Dubai Men's College (DMC), UAE.


While distance learning is a fairly self-explanatory term, flexible learning (also known as hybrid, or blended learning), is defined in this paper as "learning that is facilitated by the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning, and grounded on transparent communications amongst all parties involved with a course” (Heinze & Proctor, 2004, p. 10).


When the term 'multimedia' is employed within an education context, reference is often made to principles underpinning the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. A human brain is capable of processing and encoding simultaneous auditory and visual stimuli, and research has indicated that text and speech are better remembered if accompanied by visuals (Paivio, 1971). Baddeley and Hitch (1974) developed the theory of 'working memory' to explain this phenomenon, which was further developed into dual coding theory (Paivio, 1971), and later used by Mayer (1991) to describe how multimedia impacts learning. Mayer (2001) defined multimedia as a learning environment where more than one media format is used to help create mental models that meaningfully interconnect verbal and pictorial communication, thereby promoting learning. As such, within the context of this paper, multimedia for education purposes is defined as the combination of more than one media format consecutively (including text, images, animations, data, diagrams, audio, and video - see for example

Multimedia can be used for many purposes including for demonstrations (showing how to do something, such as structuring a specific essay genre), insights into abstract ideas or concepts (for example, 'justice'), as well as for storytelling / narrative, research, and

capturing events. In the context of the online environment, multimedia has a range of advantages; for example, learners can collaboratively produce and share their work (either locally or globally), inexpensively, and anywhere, at any time. The possibilities for use of multimedia for education are unquestionably evolving.


With reference to multimedia for education, Mayer's (1991) cognitive theory of learning is underpinned by three main assumptions - dual channel, limited capacity and active processing (see Figure 1). Dual channel assumption is based around the notion that the human brain possesses channels for processing sight and sound inputs. The information in the two channels is processed independently but simultaneously in the working memory, then integrated into existing information networks in the long-term memory. However, the limited capacity assumption identifies that each channel can only process a limited quantity (between five to seven 'chunks') of information at once - a phenomenon known as cognitive load theory. This limitation results in the brain having to allocate processing resources, often in response to affective factors, such as interest. Finally, the active processing assumption refers to the engagement in cognitive processing required to build organised, systematic personalised mental models of inputs. As such, the human brain is constantly occupied with the selection, organisation, and amalgamation of input with existing 'knowledge' (Mayer, 2009).

Figure 1: Cognitive theory of multimedia learning (adapted from Mayer, 2001)

Multimodal learning environments should comprise a range of activities and resources that require collaboration with peers and teachers, as well as interaction with artefacts that use words (spoken and written), images, video, audio, movement and gesture (Walsh, 2005). A report by Cisco (2008) indicates that studies have "shown…significant increases in learning can be accomplished through the informed use of visual and verbal multimodal learning" (p. 12), although they go on to say that mixed, but positive results,

point to a "lack of specificity of the type of multimedia intervention" (Cisco, 2008, p. 12), highlighting the need for effective design and facilitation.


In this section key factors around multimedia for education have been selected, discussed in light of relevant literature, and illustrated with evaluation and research findings from Unitec New Zealand and DMC, UAE.


DMC, one of fourteen colleges in the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) system, offers a selection of career-oriented and vocational programmes, ranging from certificates to Bachelors’ qualifications. To enrol on the HDF programme it is mandatory for students to purchase laptops. The college is equipped with wireless connectivity.

The students at DMC are all Emirati males, and approximately seventy percent are between seventeen and twenty years of age. They enter Foundations with a lowintermediate level of English proficiency and often come from a strongly teacher-centred

learning environment, exacerbated by the challenge of studying in an English language environment, poor research, study, critical, evaluative and analytical skills (Henderleiter & Pringle, 1999).

Unitec NZ, Auckland

Unitec NZ was established as a tertiary education provider in 1976, originally as Carrington Technical Institute, to offer trades-based training and qualifications (Northover, & Donald, 2001). The focus on practical qualifications has remained, although more academic programmes are now offered, ranging from certificate level to PhDs. The student population comprises a variety of ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and levels of ICT literacy.

Designing flexible and distance programmes that meet learners' needs

Academic tertiary programmes, although usually based on sound principles of teaching and learning, often assume "a homogeneous form of motivation that applies to any students, anywhere, anytime" (Dee, 2003, p. 42), irrespective of the multi-cultural nature

of many institutions' students 2, and range of cognitive and learning styles 3 (McLoughlin, 1999). Awareness of learning styles, and the concept they are culturally shaped (Belay, 1992), could be one positive way to improve approaches whereby educators would need to employ a variety of strategies to meet the needs of culturally diverse students (Sutliff & Baldwin, 2001). However, there is a tendency to disagree on basic concepts of learning styles, where a variety of (often non-compatible) terminology and different instruments (see for example Honey & Mumford, 2000) are used. Given the controversial nature of learning styles they fall in and out of favour (Fleming, 2007), but, as Sadler-Smith and Riding (1999) argue, awareness of learning styles has the potential to “improve the effectiveness and efficiency of learning, help in identifying learning difficulties and improve the performance of individuals” (p. 3). For example, in 2002, a study was conducted with four-hundred-and-thirty-eight Foundations students at DMC to identify their learning styles using the VARK online survey (Hatherley-Greene, 2003). Results were compared with data collected by Fleming (2007). The belief that Emirati learners are strongly auditory or visual was challenged because the majority (63%) of participants expressed a preference for multimodal approaches, which had a significant implication for the design of activities and resources. Learners found the results to be useful as it raised their awareness so they could effectively interact within (but not be confined by) the learning environment (Owen & Durham, 2007). The results from this study highlight key factors to consider around the design of open, flexible and

A full discussion of the considerations around designing and facilitating culturally responsive programmes is not within the remit of this paper, especially as the subject area is not unproblematic (McLoughlin, 1999). 3 Learning styles and learning preferences are intimately related and the terms are often used interchangeably.

distance learning programmes, especially the importance of providing a variety of media, activities, and topics, and building in elements of choice (Chan, 2002).

Programme design also needs to encourage process (Beaudoin, 1990) rather than focussing on the production of assessed artefacts, while also embracing the intellectual (te taha hinengaro), the spiritual (te taha wairua), the emotional (whatumanawa), and the physical (te taha tinana) (Irwin, 2005). As such, learning experiences should include fun, feeling safe, involving people, and requiring participation in personally meaningful contexts (Palmer, 1998). A case study (Owen, 2009d) was conducted at Unitec NZ in 2009 with the Governance in Not-for-profit (NFP) Organisations course. Unitec NZ pioneered a programme to meet the needs of managers and front line employees in the Not-For-Profit (NFP) sector. However, many were finding it difficult to attend classroom-based professional development courses. Requests for other flexible study options resulted in the suggestion that the course be offered in online distance mode.

The course was originally designed as an intensive, highly participative one-day face-toface experience, which included, for instance, sharing experiences and stories. It was key, therefore, to attempt to excite learners’ interest, creativity and engagement, while also developing a community of inquiry and learning. A space was created in the Learning Management System, Moodle, based on components identified in the ICTELT design process (Owen, 2009a) including cultural responsiveness, learning styles, students’

access to technology, Internet connectivity, navigability, support that could be provided by Unitec NZ, and interaction with more experienced peers. Multimodal scaffolding resources were devised to assist participants, not only with governance concepts, but also with using the communication and collaboration tools. One example of cultural responsiveness enabled by multimedia was the welcome video (Figure 2), whereby a sense of person, place, and community identity was evoked. In the post-pilot feedback participants commented about feeling "connected and engaged", that it was "fun to interact with the other class members", and in part this was initiated by the "warm welcome".

Figure 2: Example of a welcome (

A further benefit of multimedia is that it can offer a culturally inclusive way to share reflection and celebrate success. Some cultures have preferences or restrictions around how they express themselves and celebrate their achievements. As such, being asked to celebrate one's successes can be at best uncomfortable, and at worst upsetting and incredibly uncomfortable (Owen, 2009a). However, multimedia may provide options for individuals to seek the input of their community to speak on their behalf, or to record

their reflections and performance of skills (Owen, 2009b) (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: An example of choice - audio/video reflection ( v=c8IZSVtaMmM)

Providing accessible, empowering scaffolding

It has been recognised that because thinking, decision-making, and structuring of longterm memories entail processing by the cognitive centre of the brain (which works serially), cognitive overload will occur when excessive demands are made (Cisco, 2008).

Scaffolding can help with this phenomenon by assisting the creation of "schemas of understanding" (Cisco, 2008, p. 11). In this process a learner's current level of skills or previous knowledge are foregrounded into the working memory, and then actively invoked by incremental input. For example, Okolo and Ferretti (1998), studying a wide range of learners, found that student composition that utilised multimedia increased acquisition of understanding complex concepts, as well as resulting in students being "highly motivated by the opportunity to augment their writing with other media" (p. 54). Participation in a learning experience that is also social has the potential to bridge the gap between a learner’s already assimilated knowledge or skills and knowledge or skills yet to be assimilated through collaboration with more advanced peers or a teacher (Wertsch, 1998).

One issue identified by Foundations’ course leaders at DMC was that the curriculum did not “account for software…that students are expected to be able to use…[including] WebCT…, SharePoint, Outlook and Calendar, Portal (and email)” (Godfrey, 2006, p. 2). The Computer, Research Skills and Projects (CRSP) course approach aimed to address this, partly through the use of self-access multimedia resources. A research study was conducted to explore the design, facilitation, assessment and evaluation practices employed in the CRSP course. Data was collected in the 2003-2004 (n=189), 2004-2005 (n= 199), 2005-2006 (n= 201) academic years and semester one of 2006-2007 (n=211). Results from the study are extensive, and only data directly related to the use of multimedia in the CRSP course will be referred to.

Multimedia resources, including downloadable videos that combined visual, audio and short segments of text, were provided to help students who had pre-intermediate English skills. Learners were able to watch the videos meaning that language did not become a barrier, and did not have to rely on teachers to take them step-by-step through the concepts, ideas or skills, or have to worry if they had not understood a key point. Students could revisit videos as many times as needed, and then seek peer or teacher support if they wished. Teachers were thereby freed up to facilitate and maximise the support they could offer. Furthermore, marking rubrics were developed to accept multimedia as well text for some assessments, as long as learning outcomes were achieved, thus recognising the preference of some students to express themselves through multimedia.

Multimedia was furthermore used extensively to provide opportunities for guided discovery, examples and models to scaffold students. Some concepts appeared to be most relevant when captured in longer videos that could be accessed in parts or as a whole. A demonstration video that focussed on specific skills was best split into short segments and indexed, and for large-group work, or break-out groups, a video of between three to six minutes appeared to be optimum. For example, because of the benefits of synchronous communication, MSN chat was chosen to brainstorm ideas as an initial step to writing a collaborative academic essay. Previous experience had illustrated that unless awareness was raised around the reason for the task, as well as providing a model and

guidelines, chat sessions could rapidly disintegrate. As such, a five-minute video was made demonstrating a chat session that began informally and then modelled the type of interchange desired. A whole-class discussion (after watching excerpts of the video) encouraged reflection on the authentic purpose for the upcoming chat-sessions, and resulting benefits.

Findings from the CRSP study indicated that multimedia was used extensively by the majority (85.4%) of students. Specific comments around the use of videos included affective factors such as motivation (comments are as they were written): "I had fun and learnt to focus because im always lost in my imagination"; skill-related comments: "It was very useful and I think it will help me a lot to improve my writing", and comments around collaboration: "When we watch the video its funny when Arguing with a friend about the topic...but stell the new ideas i got from my partner is useful and its new create way to learn".

Fostering literacies

Literacies now required in many countries range far beyond the ability to decipher the written text. Hall in 1996 accentuated how we live in the information age where we require “the wherewithal to think, understand, create, renew, maintain, and adapt within

many different material and cultural contexts” [italics in the original] (p. 27). Literacy skills now include decoding and conceptualising multimedia, multiple cultures, ICT, digital, and information, to name but a few (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001). At Unitec NZ, from July to August 2008 two groups from Kumamoto University, Japan came to study English. Prior to the visit, the group's assigned teacher and an academic advisor designed a course aimed at engaging the students in a creative, fun way. The course was formulated to assist listening skills by using existing videos; writing and communication skills by blog journalling (; and speaking skills by encouraging students to discuss their media shared through Flickr ( - It was known that students would require substantial initial scaffolding, and it was decided to offer a ‘one stop shop’ in the form of a Moodle course to enable students to contact teachers easily, and have access all the resources, instructions, and multimedia. Once the students arrived they were introduced to the context and resources. However, their expectations of the role of themselves as learners, as well as their culturally shaped media literacy, meant that they had to be guided through how to use resources such as the demonstration videos (Owen, 2009c).

While not an unproblematic comparison, these tendencies are interesting when seen alongside those observed in an intervention with Vet Nursing students at Unitec NZ in July 2008, whereby ePortfolios were introduced. The selected platform was PB Wiki (, and an equivalent set of activities and resource bank were

developed, including a demonstration video ( In the initial session, the concept of ePortfolios was introduced and students accessed and followed the video to set up their PBwiki site, offering peer support or asking the facilitator when required. The session appeared successful, with all students engaged and positively motivated, and successfully setting up a wiki site. One student commented that she expected it to be a lot more difficult, and only one respondent to the session evaluation survey said that she neither agreed nor disagreed that she was confident about her wiki skills, compared with other participants who were confident or very confident.

Multimedia for education can also be utilised to foster specific skill areas such as information literacy. At Unitec NZ, a small-scale study was conducted in 2008 to help identify and evaluate the stages of an alternative 'tradeshow' approach towards Professional Development (PD) (Owen & Schwenger, 2009) utilised with Automotive education practitioners. The first two-hour tradeshow 'workshop' was organised into three main segments, the final part of which involved visiting six workstations to complete tasks, watch short demonstrations, and ask questions. Three of the workstations showcased multimedia: 1) using videos (with text/audio and mixed media) (see Figure 4); 2) providing ‘pop ups’ within the text (written, visual, and audio); and 3) using reusable learning object animations ( Workstations were conceptualised, dealing with authentic automotive texts, vocabulary and resources, thereby drawing on discipline practices, expertise, and specialised

vocabulary. Staff feedback was positive, and there was a significant increase in recognition of practical strategies and approaches that would help students acquire literacy and numeracy necessary for vocational success.

Figure 4: Supporting acquisition of information literacy skills (

Empowering learners and academic practitioners

Gross and Wolff (2001) argue that the use of ICTELT, when developed on a base of cognitive and socio-constructivist learning psychology, can encourage learner reflection, awareness of audience, autonomy and creativity. Such benefits can be seen when academic faculty produce multimedia artefacts as part of their own PD, in particular where the artefacts comprise part of a developmental (and later showcase) ePortfolio. At Unitec NZ in 2009, for example, faculty have been encouraged to capture their teaching practice using audio recorders, cameras, and/or camcorders (see Figure 5). The resultant multimedia, alongside evaluations from the session, are hosted in an ePortfolio, shared with peers (where the individual feels comfortable to do so), reflected on, and a plan for changes or innovations made. Later in the same semester, the faculty member repeats the process. With this artefact they may choose to include the result, along with an overview of the 'journey' in their showcase ePortfolio. Opportunities for deep, reflective thinking, trial and practice in a 'safe' environment are increased in a cumulative, sequential, relevant, and accessible form.

Figure 5: Capturing teaching practice (


This paper has explored ways in which multimedia can create quality connections while also opening up boundless possibilities for deep learning, creativity, and self-direction within culturally responsive contexts that acknowledge factors such as learning styles. Furthermore, it has discussed how multimedia for education, when embedded within a

programme, can scaffold learners while also encouraging them to work in groups, express themselves in multiple ways, and construct knowledge.

Research in the field of multimedia, learning, and student engagement is evolving. As discussed and illustrated with practical examples from the UAE and NZ, the use of multimodal activities is efficacious, motivating, and assists learner volition. Furthermore, learners studying in a language that is not their first can be scaffolded through the combination of visuals, audio and short segments of text. Learning through process is facilitated when learners have opportunities to practice in informal contexts with low risk exchanges that may encourage improvements in confidence and participation (Owen, 2009c).

Caveats to bear in mind include practical factors such as relevance and contextualisation. In addition, the design and facilitation of learning activities will have an impact on how effective multimedia is, thereby influencing students' achievement of learning outcomes. Activities that utilise multimedia, therefore, have to be carefully designed around clear learning outcomes, which can be time-consuming and complex. Both the practitioner and the learners need to have (or be willing to develop) a certain level of digital literacy. Nevertheless, when multimedia is used as part of PD and/or within a community of learners who are participating in collaborative activities, multimedia appears to be invaluable.

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