Multimedia in Engineering and Engineering Education

by Dr.S.F.Stiemer,
Department of Civil Engineering
University of British Columbia., Vancouver B.C., Canada

The hype is going on. Multimedia CD-ROM titles fill the shelves in both computer shops and private residences. Already the word multimedia promises fun, and colourful advertisements by the computer and software industry reinforce this image. Multimedia technology helps you to learn faster - 30 to 50 % on average - and you retain more, research has shown. This brief article tries to shed some light on facts and fictions with special consideration of applied sciences.


Most commonly, multimedia projects are packed on CD-ROMs (Compact Disk - Read Only Memory), which are small plastic disks used to store information digitally by optical means. It can contain computer programs and digitised text, sound, photographs, and video. The information is encoded in binary forms as a series of microscopic pits on the reflective surface of a aluminium disk. The disk is covered with a transparent plastic coating and is played on machines that use an infrared LASER to read the pattern of pitted and unpitted areas on the diskås surface. Since nothing touches the encoded portion, the CD is not worn out by the playing process.

The CD-ROM has potential to change fundamentally the way we do business and education. For the first time a mass storage system has been developed, which is cheaper than paper, but as flexible and accessible as electronic data. It seems ideal for manuals, programmes, data, training, promotion materials, demos, tutorials, upgrades, revisions, parts lists, catalogue of products, customer service reports, help manuals, service technician manuals, shop floor manuals, accounting inventory records., database data, and drawings. The shipping as well as material costs can be reduced by up two orders of magnitudes. It makes sense economically as well as technically.

The real reason for the current rapid development of the CD-ROM market can be attributed to one fact : The establishment of a common standard. ISO, the International Standard Organisation, defined in 1986 a CD-ROM standard in a draft and later implemented it as the official version ISO 9660.

Multi-layered CD-ROMs with up to ten times the current capacities (can hold 30 movies, storage capacity of 30 GigaBytes and more) are available as prototypes. Multi-layered discs are technically ready to be marketed, whenever the industry decides. The red laser is about to be replaced by a better focusing 2/3-dot laser. The blue laser, which has half the wavelength of the current infrared laser, would again increase the dot-density by factor of two.

Multimedia Projects

How can we keep business decision-makerså attention on a product or service amidst the flurry and stimulation of everyone elseås message? How can one keep students and educators interested in a time of over-stressing the curriculum with a multimedia demands? The answer might be simple : appeal and involvement.

Multimedia attracts attention, keeps the viewer/user interested and involved and contributes to higher retention of information. As usual, the games were there first. CD-ROMs with dream topics (warriors, dungeons and dragons) or dangerous times (wars, fight simulators, car races) show impressively, how any human mind can be attracted by the right amount of stimulation, aesthetics, and involvement.

Multimedia projects on CD-ROMs allow for interaction between CD content (programmes, video, audio) and the user. This unique response requirement has propelled multimedia projects and CD-ROMs into a rather effective and affordable tool position for education, entertainment and public relations. In engineering applications an appropriate mixture of

can achieve a more efficient and durable effects than formal seminars, sale pitches, or classroom education.

Learning faster, comprehending more - can multimedia deliver ? Everybody learns differently : somebody prefers reading, somebody tutoring, somebody visual aids, somebody auditive, etc. However, one instructor usually caters only one type of student, multimedia technology can cater to several or all learning styles by presenting the information in different ways.

Certain educational tricks can be employed, i.e. it is known, that if one is addressed very personally on a one-to-one basis one retains the material better, than being addresses as a member of a crowd. Most students learn better when learning means more than just listening or reading. When they have to respond, when the information flow is not only a one-way street, learning is accelerated. Multimedia can allow for plenty of interaction, and at studentås speed. This is another important factor of learning, almost an incentive, when the student is in control of the progress. When a student can determine the speed, then times of idling can be shortened, and periods of information overflow can be stretched to allow for sufficient time to understand. Once the information is processed properly, the student can allow the next topic to be introduced.

Multimedia has arrived in form of encyclopaedias, games, CBT (computer-based training), illustrated programmes, etc., however, it was not invented to replace conventional means such a book. We can be sceptical towards this new way of knowledge transfer, but the facts is, that it is here to stay, and it is only just beginning!

Education and Economics

The sentence education is expensive is more than true, if one wants to get a formal education or if one has made a costly mistake because of lack of the former. This will continue to escalate because of two reasons : increase of volume of knowledge and decrease of accessibility of knowledge. Every day the body of knowledge is growing. An engineer who has just completed a professional degree will find this knowledge being reduced not only by fading memory but by developing of new knowledge, thus making about half of the graduation knowledge obsolete in currently eight years.

Another burning and un-aswered question is, how can one distinguish between important and relevant information and mere ballast type information. No tools and no skills have been developed in order to cope with this very new problem in the knowledge based fields.

Knowledge and information are available in a multitude of locations, media, and levels of sophistication. Duplication of information clutters the scene even more. Historically professors and instructors were able to pre-digest the knowledge and make it palatable to the students. This was transferred in formal lectures and textbooks, which is possible as long as the amount of knowledge is manageable. For a while, it seemed that specialisation was trying to improve the situation, at least to deal with the amount of knowledge, however, this approach pushed the educational costs per student even higher.

Two other factors in education are the timetable of knowledge transfer and the distance between student/teacher residence and the lecture localities, the latter being particularly important for large countries such as Canada. In many cases full time students have to support themselves financially, requiring time on the job. The ongoing reduction in knowledge due to obsolescence requires continuing education, which ought to be done parallel to a full time job. Therefore, a flexible timetable for the educational efforts seems desirable, learning in time-chunks, whenever the student is available and not when the lecture has been scheduled.

One can find even more reasons why education and economics are presently not always compatible, but here it shall suffice.

A Final Solution?

Multimedia could, if not to solve, then at least to attempt to tackle some the problems noted above. Volume and accessibility, timeframe and distance issues could be approached. However, one needs to be careful, not to be overpowered by the media, but to assemble a real message and get it across. We have seen it happen with the beginning of computer based training (CBT), how easily one can become submerged in technology and gimmicks. At that time very little research and development existed in regard to using machine based teaching methods. In the meantime we have come a long way. In particular, one should have a very close look at the newest computer games from companies like Nintendo or Sega. In their case economic competition forced them into developing brilliant and intelligent games. CD-ROMs with dream topics (warriors, dungeons and dragons) or dangerous times (wars, fight simulators, car races) show rather impressively, how any human mind can be attracted by the right amount of stimulation, aesthetics, and involvement. If this can be supplemented with usefulness, relevance, and reality, one is on the right track to create modern educational tools for the applied sciences.

Multimedia developers need to be aware of the complexity of this new field. You are not writing a book! You need to be not only a subject expert, but to have a team on board consisting of an instructional designer, interface designer, multimedia and graphic designer, programmer, and project manager, and possibly more. One needs to test the project, get feed-back, re-design and adjust. And last, but not least, it is expensive to develop a multimedia project. Multimedia might be a timely solution to some or many of the problems currently facing the educational field. It definitely will be a step into the direction of searching for a better solution. We all have to learn.

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