AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

24: Learning with technology: Using computers as cognitive tools

24.1 Introduction
24.2 Computers as cognitive tools
24.3 Why cognitive tools?
24.4 Overview of the chapter
24.5 Computer programming languages as cognitive tools
24.6 Hypermedia/ Multimedia authoring systems as cognitive tools
24.7 Semantic networking as cognitive tools
24.8 Expert systems as cognitive tools
24.9 Databases as cognitive tools
24.10 Spreadsheets as cognitive tools
24.11 Conclusions
24.12 A final word
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24.6 Hypermedia/Multimedia authoring systems as cognitive tools

24.6. 1 What Are Hypermedia and Multimedia?

The concept of hypermedia is founded on the earlier notion of hypertext, i.e., the nonsequential, nonlinear method for organizing and displaying text (Jonassen, 1989). It was designed to enable the reader to access information from a text in ways that are more meaningful for the reader, based on the assumption that the organization that the reader imposes on a text is more meaningful (to the reader) than that of the author (Nelson, 1980). Hypermedia is an extension of hypertext that integrates graphics, animation, audio, and video with text.

The most pervasive characteristic of hypermedia is the node that consists of chunks or fragments of text or other media. The most common metaphor for a node is a card, as in HyperCard (Apple Computer, 1984). Nodes are the basic unit of information storage, and may consist of a page of text, a graphic, a sound bite, a video clip, or even an entire document. While studying a hypermedia knowledge base, learners can access any node, depending on their interests or needs. In many hypermedia systems, nodes can be amended or modified by the learner. The learner may add to, delete, or change the information in a node or create his or her own unique nodes of information. In short, a hypertext can be a dynamic knowledge base that continues to grow, representing new and different points of view.

The organization of a hypermedia knowledge base, that is, the interrelationships between the nodes, is defined by the links that interconnect the nodes. Links in hypermedia systems are typically associative; that is, they describe associations between the nodes they connect. While looking at a node, the user's attention may be drawn to a link (usually identified by buttons or hot spots on the screen). If the user activates the link by clicking on a button or hot spot with a mouse or other pointing device or pressing an associated keyboard key, the user will be linked to another node of information. Having arrived at the new node related to the previous link, the user may wish to return to the node from which he or she came or to go to yet another node. The links in hypermedia transport the user through the information space to the nodes that are selected, enabling the user to move through the knowledge base. The node structure and the link structure form a network of ideas in the knowledge base-structures and networks that may be very rich.

Multimedia are just that: multiple media or the integration of more than one medium into some form of communication. Most often, multimedia refers to the integration of media such as text, sound, graphics, animation, video, imaging, and spatial modeling into a computer system (von Wodtke, 1993). Multimedia in other forms, such as slide-tape presentations and interactive video, have been available for a long time. The term has gained popularity recently with the advent of high-resolution monitors, sound and video compression cards, increased random-access memory, and larger storage media for personal computers. Employing relatively inexpensive desktop computers, users are now able to capture sounds and video, manipulate audio and images to achieve special effects, synthesize audio and video, create sophisticated graphics including animation, and integrate them all into a single multimedia presentation.* Individuals with very little experience are becoming their own multimedia artists, producers, and publishers.

Multimedia presentations are engaging because they are multimodal. In other words, multimedia can stimulate more than one sense at a time, and in doing so may be more attention getting and attention holding. Futurists and industry leaders, as well as many educators, often promote the idea that multimodal access is essential when teaching today's video generation (cf. Perelman, 1992). Not surprisingly, others have begun to question the benefits of multimedia and related technologies (cf. Stoll, 1995).

Nielsen (1990) attempts to clarify the difference between multimedia and hypermedia:

... even though many hypertext systems are in fact hypermedia systems and include many multimedia effects, the fact that a system is multimedia based does not make it hypertext. The mixture of text and graphics is not enough in itself. Many multimedia systems are based mostly on displaying various films clips to a passive user who does not get to navigate an information space. Only when users interactively take control of a set of dynamic links among units of information does a system get to be a hypertext (p. 10).

Although hypermedia affords many options to users. some very significant problems have plagued hypermedia users. The most commonly acknowledged problem is navigation. Hypermedia documents often contain thousands of nodes, each with multiple links to other nodes. It is easy for users to get lost in that morass of information. Users become disoriented, unaware of the route they took, or how to find their way out of the hypertext or to another topic of interest.

A related problem is how and where do users access information in the hypertext. Most hypertexts provide an array of options to the user but typically fail to provide suggestion! about where the user should begin. The user's initial access to the hypertext may greatly affect the user's understanding of the information contained in it. Another problem is a lack of orientation as to how much of the hypertext the user ha: accessed and how much remains to be revealed.

Perhaps the greatest concern related to using multimedia and hypermedia to facilitate learning is the problem learners face in integrating the information acquired in a hyper text into their own knowledge structures (Jonassen, Beissner & Yacci, 1993). As learners navigate through the hypertext, how can they best relate new information to what they already know and what they have learned from the hypermedia? How do learners develop their own knowledge structures and use them to accommodate the new . information? One aspect seems clear, i.e., the creation of new knowledge structures must be applied within a personally meaningful context to a relevant problem or task., Learners don't automatically create new knowledge structures simply by browsing hypermedia resources (Jonassen & Wang, 1993).

24.6.2 How Are Hypermedia/Multimedia Authoring Systems Used as Cognitive Tools?

A solution to the problems of navigating and integrating information in hypermedia is not to think of hypermedia as a form of instruction to learn from, but rather to look at hypermedia as a tool for constructing and learning with (Jonassen, Myers & McKillop, 1996). In other words, we advocate the use of hypermedia as a cognitive tool. Learners may create multimedia databases that reflect their own perspectives on, or understanding of, ideas. Or learners may collaborate with other learners to develop a classroom or school hypermedia knowledge base. We contend that students are likely to learn more by constructing hypermedia instructional materials than by studying hypermedia created by others. Of course, hypermedia created by others (such as World Wide Web sites) can provide excellent resources for students in the process of creating their own hypermedia.

Hypermedia and multimedia construction is predicated on the idea of knowledge as design (Perkins, 1986), which refocuses the educational process away from one of knowledge as information and the teacher as transmitter of that knowledge to one of teachers and students as collaborators in the knowledge construction process. One way to promote this design process is to place learners in the role of instructional software designers (Harel, 1991). Rather than reading textbooks and solving workbook problems, students must define and constantly refine the nature of a problem they have identified, reconstruct their knowledge to solve that problem, and represent their solution in hypermedia (Lehrer, 1993).

Designing multimedia presentations is a complex process that engages many skills in learners. Carver, Lehrer, Connell, and Ericksen (1992) suggest some of the major thinking skills that learners need to use as designers:

Project Management Skills

  • Creating a timeline for the completion of the project
  • Allocating resources and time to different parts of the project
  • Assigning roles to team members

Research Skills

  • Determining the nature of the problem and how research should be organized
  • Posing thoughtful questions about structure, models, cases, values, and roles
  • Searching for information using text, electronic, and pictorial information sources
  • Developing new information with interviews, questionnaires, and other survey methods
  • Analyzing and interpreting a the information collected to identify and interpret patterns

Organization and Representation Skills

  • Deciding how to segment and sequence information to make it understandable
  • Deciding how information will be represented (text, pictures, movies, audio, etc.)
  • Deciding how the information will be organized (hierarchy, sequence) and how it will be linked

Presentation Skills

  • Mapping the design onto the presentation and implementing the ideas in multimedia
  • Attracting and maintaining the interests of the intended audiences

Reflection Skills

  • Evaluating the program and the process used to create it
  • Revising the design of the program using feedback

While the engagement of each of these skills has yet to be empirically validated in a series of studies, there is no doubt that constructing hypermedia and multimedia programs represents a complex combination of skills. Verifying these skills and their effects on thinking should become a major research agenda in the years to come.

24.6.3 What Research Supports the Use of Hypermedia/Multimedia Authoring Systems as Cognitive Tools?

One of the principles stated above for the implementation of cognitive tools is: "Ideally, tasks or problems for the application of cognitive tools should be situated in realistic contexts with results that are personally meaningful for learners." Beichner (1994) reports on a project where these conditions were met in a unique way. The subjects in this study were seventh- and eight-grade students enrolled in a middle school located on the grounds of a large, metropolitan zoo. The school is a magnet school emphasizing the study of science to which students are admitted based on a lottery. A primarily qualitative, observational investigation was conducted over a 2-year period while the students worked cooperatively to create interactive displays for a touch-sensitive multimedia kiosk for the zoo.

Several categories emerged out of the qualitative analysis of the data, which included extensive videotapes, interviews, observations, and student-created materials. The students' strong appreciation that they were preparing multimedia materials for a real audience emerged as the core category in the analysis. Additional positive findings were:

(1) Students demonstrated great concern for accuracy in their displays; (2) students quickly assumed the major responsibility for content and editing decisions, despite the fact that the original task of designing the displays had been structured for them by the teacher; (3) students accessed wide ranges of science materials and sources to find the content they desired; and (4) their commitment to and enthusiasm for the project remained very high. On the negative side, the project failed to integrate its activities into the larger curriculum in the school or to attract the participation of teachers other than the computer coordinator. The bottom line was that by establishing an environment where creative thinking about content is combined with real-world assignments, students learned the content, enjoyed the learning process, and recognized that they have created something worthwhile.

Lehrer (1993) describes the development, use, and results of a hypermedia construction tool called HyperAuthor that was used by eighth-graders to design their own lessons about the American Civil War. This study exemplifies the principle that: "Cognitive tools empower learners to design their own representations of knowledge rather than absorbing knowledge representations preconceived by others." As Perkins (1986) maintains, knowledge is a process of design and not something to be transmitted from teacher to student. Thus, students should be engaged in "HyperComposition" by designing their own hypermedia (Lehrer, 1993). The process requires learners to transform information into dimensional representations, determine what is important and what is not, segment information into nodes, link the information segments by semantic relationships, and decide how to represent ideas. This is a highly motivating process because authorship results in ownership of the ideas in the presentation.

Students in the Lehrer (1993) study were high- and low-ability eighth-graders who worked at the hypermedia construction tasks for one class period of 45 minutes each day over a period of several months. The students worked in a media center of the school's library where they had access to a color Macintosh computer, scanner, sound digitizer, HyperAuthor software, and numerous print and nonprint resources about the Civil War. An instructor was also available to coach students in the conceptualization, design, and production of the hypermedia programs. Students created Programs reflecting their unique interests and individual differences. For example, they created hypermedia about the role of women in the Civil War, the perspectives of slaves toward the war, and "not-so-famous people" from that period.

According to Lehrer (1993): "The most striking finding was the degree of student involvement and engagement" (p. 209). Both high- and low-ability students became very task oriented, increasingly so as they gained more autonomy and confidence with the cognitive tools. At the end of the study, students in the hypermedia group and a control group of students who had studied the Civil War via traditional classroom methods during the same period of time were given an identical teacher-constructed test of knowledge. No significant test differences were found. Lehrer conjectured that "these measures were not valid indicators of the extent of learning in the hypermedia design groups, perhaps because much of what students developed in the design context was not anticipated by the classroom teacher" (p. 218). However, a year later, when students in the design and control groups were interviewed by an independent interviewer unconnected with the previous year's work, important differences were found. Students in the control group could recall almost nothing about the historical content, whereas students in the design group displayed elaborate concepts and ideas that they had extended to other areas of history- Most importantly, although students in the control group defined history as the record of the facts of the past, students in the design class defined history as a process of interpreting the past from different perspectives. In short, the hypermedia "design approach lead to knowledge that was richer, better connected, and more applicable to subsequent learning and events" (p. 22 1).

Lehrer, Erickson, Love, and Connell (1994) conducted another study with ninth-grade students who were using HyperAuthor to develop hypermedia about World War 1, lifestyles between 1870 and 1920, immigration, and imperialism. They found similar results to the aforementioned Civil War project: (1) Students' on-task behavior increased over time; (2) students perceived the benefits of planning and transforming stages of development; and (3) they developed generalizable skills such as taking notes, finding information, coordinating their work with other team members, writing interpretations, and designing presentations.

The Highly Interactive Computing Environments (HlCE) Group at the University of Michigan has developed a multimedia composition tool called MediaText (Hays, Weingard, Guzdial, Jackson, Boyle & Soloway, 1993). They believe that rather than using media to deliver instruction to learners, learners should use the media to generate their own instruction and, in so doing, learn more about the content. The HI-CE group has studied high school students creating MediaText stories, biographies, or instructional aids, as well as multimedia essays. Students have learned to use techniques such as mentioning, directives, titling, and juxtaposition to integrate their documents. They have found that as students' experiences with MediaText increase, their documents become more integrated rather than merely annotated text. Students have been very enthusiastic about being constructionists (Papert, 1993), believing that they are learning more because they understand the ideas better.

The ACCESS (American Culture in Context: Enrichment for Secondary Schools) Project (Spoehr, 1994; Spoehr & Shapiro, 1991) focuses on the subject matter commonly taught in high school, such as United States history, American literature, and American studies. The project began with teachers assembling a collection of textual, pictorial, audio, and video materials to supplement their courses. Initially, students simply used the materials for information retrieval. Students who made more extensive use of the conceptual organization built into the system benefited more than the students who used the system like a linear electronic book. The researchers found that hypermedia's effectiveness depends on the extent to which students can internalize the important conceptual structures in a subject matter as they browse.

Eventually, the ACCESS project orientation shifted from teacher-created hypermedia materials to student-generated hypermedia documents. To make it easier for students to create hypermedia projects, the ACCESS user interface was improved. Students generally produce several small hypermedia documents of increasing size and complexity early in the school year to become familiar with the authoring process. Later, they generally take on one or more major research projects, the results of which are presented as hypermedia.

According to Spoehr (1994), the structures that students impose on their hypermedia knowledge vary. A few students (5% to 10%) typically underutilize the power of the hypermedia and use a linear format (i.e., one overview card followed by a linear series of screens). Most students produce more interesting organizational types, including the "star," in which the entry point is an overview containing buttons to two or more subtopics, each of which appears as a linear sequence, and the "tree," in which one or more main branches off the initial overview in the program are subdivided into further subtopics that are then organized as linear sequences or divided into sub-subtopics. Students utilizing the "tree" organization (about 25% of the students) generally show more sophisticated understanding of the topic than students using the "star" structure.

There are many ways that the ACCESS Project students appear to benefit from their experiences as hypermedia authors, most of which fall into the category of superior knowledge representation and higher-order thinking skills. Spoehr (1993) reports that students who build and use hypermedia apparently develop a proficiency in organizing knowledge about a subject in a more expert-like fashion. For example, they are able to represent multiple linkages between ideas and organize concepts into meaningful clusters. In turn, these superior knowledge representations support more complex arguments in written essays. Most importantly, the conceptual organization skills acquired through building hypermedia are robust enough to allow students to generalize these skills to content that they acquire from other sources.

The studies described above, especially the research of Lehrer (1993) and Spoehr (1994), illustrate the need to investigate the effects of using hypermedia and multimedia as cognitive tools on the development of the higher-order thinking skills of students. In turn, focusing on higher-order outcomes requires an emphasis on alternative approaches to assessment (Mitchell, 1992; Reeves & Okey, 1996). Higher-order learning outcomes such as the ability to frame and resolve ill-defined problems or the tendency to exhibit intellectual curiosity are rarely directly observable. These types of outcomes can only be inferred from students' performance on a range of alternative assessments (Neimeyer, 1993). Alternative cognitive assessments will most likely be quite different from traditional testing procedures that assess lower-level knowledge and skills. Research focused on the higher-order outcomes of cognitive tools such as hypermedia/multimedia construction software must precede hand in hand with the development of reliable, valid, and feasible cognitive assessments (Worthen, 1993).

Updated August 3, 2001
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