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Can We Escape the Trough of Disillusionment?

By Gerald Friedland, Wolfgang Hürst, Lars Knipping, Max Muhlhäuser / February 2009

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Progress in multimedia capture, analysis, and delivery, combined with the rapid adoption of broadband communication, have resulted in educational multimedia systems that have advanced traditional forms of teaching and learning. New trends in technology, such as mobile multimedia or advanced approaches for the automatic analysis of multimodal signals, offer novel and exciting opportunities for teaching and learning. However, many scientists have stopped working on the topic because they were disappointed with mediocre results that seemed to have no impact. In this article, we investigate the reasons for this and argue that the question of how multimedia can really make education more exploratory and enjoyable is as yet unanswered, and we are just beginning to understand the real contribution of multimedia to education. Based on a brief overview of the history of educational multimedia systems and a rough analysis of the current situation, we venture a glimpse into the future and argue that educational multimedia is (still) a vivid and relevant area for research.

The Past
It all started in the mid-1960s, when interactive computing came about, with the illusion of what was called programmed instruction. What came out was computer based training (CBT), and thereby a rather "behaviorist" approach to teaching. In the mid-1970s, AI came about, leading to the illusion of perfect intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) capable of mastering all possible human misconceptions. When hypertext was ready in the mid-1980s, many preceding approaches had just caused frustration about "computers as teachers'" since ITS had exposed its limitations. This accelerated the next illusion: now, many believed that properly (hyper-) structured information was the silver bullet and that learners could be left alone, without any guidance, if only the learning material was perfectly prepared. Explorative learning was a common term for this trend. Multimedia and the Web "prolonged" it into the '90s, and all three technological advancements (hypertext, multimedia, and the Web) were melded in the new term "E-Learning." The previous failing of hypertext was attributed to insufficient spread and insufficient appeal, and both were claimed to be conquered by the Web and by multimedia. When time was ripe to admit that no solution was perfect, blended learning was invented as a neat way of saying "we cannot abolish face-to-face teaching." For each wave, in-vitro experiments showed that all approaches mentioned above have great value and can indeed improve teaching and learning. However, from in-vitro experiments to wide spread use, the path is long and painful. About four decades after the advent of programmed instruction, we see CBTs and WBTs well established in the marketplace, with increasing sales figures.

The Present
When mentioning the subject of e-learning or educational multimedia these days, one can usually expect one of two typical reactions from the scientific community. Either people regard it as an outdated topic from the 1990s, or they think of E-Learning 2.0 as a long considered really hot field. The first reaction can be explained by ample disappointments experienced from the first e-learning wave. Not surprisingly, many approaches that have been pursued as part of the e-learning hype have not been able to withstand the high expectations, have turned out not to be feasible in an everyday teaching scenario, or might just have been bad ideas in the first place. This e-learning wave actually paralleled an even bigger hype also boosted by the advent of the Web at the end of the 1990s: The e-commerce hype, later to be called the dot-com boom. Often rather questionable business models were preferred with the sole purpose of attracting lots of users, get famous, go public, and then get rich.

Following the typical "hype" development, there was a big depression about the greatly exaggerated expectation in both cases. People stayed away for a while, and it took some time before the lasting results became visible. However, despite the burst of the dot-com bubble, not everything produced in that time turned out to be just hot air. In fact there are few companies that not only survived the crash but also flourished and became new industry leaders, such as Google, Amazon, and eBay. Similarly, there are lasting results from the e-learning hype. If we look at the situation in today's educational institutions, we can observe that distance education and technology-augmented classroom teaching indeed have become established parts of everyday teaching and learning.

Research and development performed in the last couple of years did not only create tools and systems but also studied, evaluated, and established useful usage scenarios. Obviously, usage of computer technology for teaching varies from subject to subject and from teacher to teacher. However, in general, three approaches have reached a prominent position in the field of computer-supported university education today: Extensive use of digital slide-show presentations, the utilization of educational mini-applications (for example, specialized software, dynamic Web pages, or Java Applets), and recording (for example, via traditional videotaping or automatic screen capturing) and/or transmission of classroom lectures. Recently these have also begun to be published as podcasts, enabling learners to use the materials even on their mobile audio devices.

Early online materials were mere "webified" text books, providing only Internet access to long texts with an occasional static image embedded. Now, educational mini-applications like dynamic Web pages, Flash animations, or Java Applets are used for presentation as well as for individual training for students at home where immense amounts of such educational online materials can be accessed. Pedagogical software like this is particularly common in K-12 education with a wide range of commercially available programs.

Research universities usually prefer to develop their own solutions, often targeted to the audience of a single course. Recording a video of the entire lecture showing the board, the lecturer, and featuring an audio track enables students to follow a lecture remotely and to recall previous sessions. In order to transmit classes, it has become common to use standard Internet video broadcasting systems taking advantage of their availability and straightforward handling. Existing solutions either focus on recording and transmitting a session or using videoconferencing tools to establish a bidirectional connection (such as, a feedback channel). Such approaches combine technology augmented classroom teaching with distance education.

ACM's Workshop on Educational Multimedia and Multimedia Education
Striving to get some insights into the recent developments of multimedia research on e-earning, we organized the first ACM Workshop on Educational Multimedia and Multimedia Education (EMME) at the ACM Multimedia Conference in 2007 The workshop aimed at gathering current trends in educational multimedia and at identifying sustainable results. The event showed that there are quite a number of fresh new approaches due to a new generation of technology existing which opens a range of new opportunities. For example, computer usage in the classroom is no longer restricted to the lecturer, but many students have notebook computers which can be included in the learning process. Smaller mobile devices such as PDAs or cell phones are becoming more and more powerful and ubiquitous.

Better pen-based interfaces and screens are becoming available. Trends such as semantic computing offer promising perspectives for automatic analysis and renew the efforts on the many still-open questions on how educational content should be presented, deployed, navigated, searched, retrieved, edited, combined, exchanged, and reused in a proper way.

The workshop attracted a great variety of contributions centering on different aspects. For example, some authors focused more on innovative applications and promising new approaches for e-learning. Sharda et al. [1] represented multimedia education, discussing the use of digital storytelling to enhance creativity and innovation with e-learning pedagogy and to teach learners to combine knowledge from different areas. Percival et al. [2] focused on educational multimedia, describing the use of computer edutainment to motivate and assist musicians in routine exercises and to provide automatic feedback on their performance.

In addition to these application-oriented papers, other authors focused more on technological trends and engineering aspects of new approaches for e-learning. Some of these outstanding technical contributions have been selected for publication in a special section of IEEE MultiMedia. Wang and Zhang [3] present the technological implementation of the above described system for training musicians. And Anthony et al. [4] describes a project exploring handwriting recognition for applications in intelligent tutoring systems for learning algebra. Finally, Lampi et al. [5] illustrates the design of an automatic cameraman for lecture recording, handling zoom and scene selection to provide enjoyable and lively recordings.

The workshop also featured a panel in which experienced multimedia teachers and researchers discussed the current status and future of multimedia education. It was mainly targeted at the multimedia community. However, questions such as how can new media be used to improve teaching in the best possible way and can multimedia help keeping learning material more up to date, have a high relevance for the general e-learning community as well. A summary of the main panel results was recently published in the Media Impact column of IEEE MultiMedia [6].

The Future
The workshop demonstrated that there is considerable potential for valuable outcomes from an active research community. Most researchers agree that the benefits of multimedia education comprise: higher "bandwidth" of computer-to-machine interaction due to the use of multiple channels, including video and audio that have higher raw data rates than written text; adaptiveness with respect to the "right choice" of media according to the subject to be conveyed and/or the recipient (this latter point is only true if multiple alternative media are offered for the same subject); better motivation due to more fun with multimedia based material; and improved engagement, especially in case of interactive and/or immersive media, in particular games and simulations. While all of these advantages can be debated about on the general level, they surely exist for appropriate subjects and learning settings. The common agreement was that despite the commonplace impression of many projects that produced rather mediocre results, we believe that interesting and important contributions have been made and the next step is to learn from the mistakes in order to end hype and disillusion and to reach a stable state of productivity.

As seen in the previous background discussions, each time computer science brought about new major advancements, extremely high expectations were raised as to the effect on computer-supported teaching and learning. Not surprisingly, frustration followed each time, resulting in a typical hype cycle (see Figure 1) with an extraordinarily sharp peak and down slope.


Figure 1. Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle 2006 (selected data points displayed only) according to Gartner, Inc.[7].

In general, the following conclusion can be drawn: Major computer-based teaching/learning approaches, proven in-vitro to be successful, can make their way to the market, but with very considerable delay; if their penetration is left to the forces of a free market, a delay of several decades is not unusual. On this way to success, these approaches incorporate technological advancements much faster than more sophisticated pedagogical/didactical approaches. The fact that the addition of multimedia contributed much to the success of CBT may be viewed as a general sign that multimedia can considerably improve the learning experience, and that it can be commercially successful despite high cost.

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr is credited for noting, "it is hard to predict (anything), especially the future." Despite this uncertainty, there are a few very strong lines of research advancements and of spreading technologies which will almost inevitably influence e-learning. Among these are Semantic Technologies for text (natural language processing) and media (multimedia content analysis); the upcoming post-PC era where computers become ubiquitous, networked and worn or embedded in the environment (ubiquitous computing, aka ambient intelligence); and social uses of the Web like forums, blogs, wikis, media sharing, and interaction spaces, commonly referred to as Web 2.0. All three can greatly improve e-learning by providing improved computer-based access to text and multimedia on the Web (semantic learning), by connecting learning to the actual real-world experience (ambient learning), and by connecting institutional teaching with global informal learning (E-Learning 2.0).

1. Sharda, N. "Digital storytelling: The creative and innovative ingredient for elearning." ACM eLearn (to appear 2009).
2. Percival, G., Wang, Y., and Tzanetakis, G. "Can computers help us become better musicians? An introduction to computer-assisted musical instrument tutoring." ACM eLearn (to appear 2009).
3. Wang, Y. and Zhang, B. "Application-specific music transcription for instrument tutoring." IEEE MultiMedia 15, 3 (2008).
4. Anthony, L., Yang, J., and Koedinger, K.R. "Toward next-generation intelligent tutors." IEEE MultiMedia 15, 3. (2008).
5. Lampi, F., Kopf, S., Benz, M., and Effelsberg, W. "A virtual camera team for lecture recording." IEEE MultiMedia 15, 3. (2008).
6. Friedland, G., Hürst, W., and Knipping, L. "Multimedia education in computer science-a little bit of everything is not enough!" IEEE MultiMedia 15, 2 (April 2008).
7. Gartner Inc. The Gartner emerging technologies hype cycle 2006.

About the Authors
Dr. Gerald Friedland is a research scientist at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley, CA. Prior to this position, he was a member of the multimedia group of the computer science department of Freie Universität Berlin. His work concentrates on intelligent multimedia technology with a focus on methods that help people to easily create, edit, and navigate content, aiming at creating solutions that "do what the user means".

Dr. Wolfgang Hürst is an assistant professor at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. His main research interests include multimedia systems and technologies, human-computer interaction, mobile computing, information retrieval, and computer supported teaching and learning. At Utrecht University, he is also a lecturer in the Master Program Game and Media Technology. For information visit

Dr. Lars Knipping is a researcher at the mathematics department at Technische Universitä Berlin. He belongs to the board of editors of ITSE (International Journal of Interactive Technology and Smart Education) and the editorial team of iJET (International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning). He is a member of the DIN-NI 36 expert group that cooperates with ISO SC-36 in creating e-learning standards (among them ISO/IEC 19796).

Prof. Max Mühlhäuser is head of the Telecooperation Division and of the network services group at Technische Universitä Darmstadt (TUD), Computer Science Dept., and speaker of the TUD Center of Research Excellence in E-Learning and of the federally funded Research Training Group in E-Learning. Max has over 25 years of experience in research and teaching in the following areas related to his main topic, ubiquitous computing: distributed systems and networks, e-Learning, mobile computing and commerce, distributed multimedia and continuous media, multimodal user interaction, hypertext and the Web, semantic computing, and security for and with ubiquitous computing.

©2009 ACM

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2009 ACM, Inc.


  • Mon, 22 Nov 2010
    Post by barker

    multipling the quantity of the ports wich makes it able to use both a euro connector and a mpeg4 in order to recieve various tv channels by using a room antenna in 90's has been a new wave in recieving and choosing different waves. freindly reguards.

  • Sun, 17 Dec 2006
    Post by Virginie Clayssen

    hi Mr Feldstein, I did translate your post in french and publish it on my blog for french readers. If there is any problem with this translation, thanks to send me an e-mail.

  • Mon, 22 May 2006
    Post by Michael Feldstein

    The missing word in my second sentence should be "cognition".

  • Mon, 22 May 2006
    Post by Michael Feldstein

    Rory, I''m afraid you''ve missed my point entirely. My point is that learning only happens through, and that cognition is not the same thing as data transmission. Having a digital object with metadata *might* stimulate cognition, but it won''t do so just because we call it a learning object. My point is that, without explicit thought about how the digital object in question will provoke a particular cognitive process in a learner, we''re shooting blind. As for the expert you want me to produce, let me return the challenge with another challenge. Show me where in MERLOT people who submit learning objects must describe the cognitive process the object is supposed to provoke or the method by which it will provoke that process. Where is *that* metadata? I''m talking about practice, not just theory. I''m not opposed to teaching through self-paced digital content; in fact, I was writing about learning object design in this very publication way back in 2002: Judging from the vehemence of your response (as well as your bio page at Athebasca), it appears that you have staked a bit of your own personal identity on the value of learning objects as well. I agree that there is a dog in this fight, but I don''t think it''s a straw one.

  • Sat, 20 May 2006
    Post by Rory McGreal

    Michael, of course we learn by doing. This is not a revelation, but to state as you do that “We don''t learn from things.” is unsupportable if not nonsensical. We learn about everything from things. Yes, by doing, but doing with “things”. Things can be physical or conceptual. I have no problem with the term “instructional objects”, but many would claim that their lessons are NOT instructional. So, if you encapsulated them in some form, they would be available for use for learning NOT instruction. And yes, you are correct, such objects have been around under other names for some time. The point as I see it of “learning objects” is NOT to challenge any specific view of learning but rather, much more simplistically to facilitate the exchange and reuse of ANY type of digital learning content/application in ANY application on ANY computer. Why is this a problem? Metadata too has been around for a long time e. g. library cards. They help us find content for learning. What is the problem with digital library cards (metadata)? You state: “many types of learning require more than just the transmission of content.” I believe that ALL learning requires more than content transmission. But there is NO learning without some content either physical or conceptual. You feel that this is “why teachers have never been replaced by books on tape and why they never will be replaced by podcasts.” I think you should wake up and smell the coffee. Teachers are still around but in many ways they have been “displaced” rather than replaced. They must now more than ever be facilitators of learning rather than transmitters of content as in older models. Also, more people are learning more skills and attaining more knowledge WITHOUT teachers than ever before in history. You state: “Learning is an activity. Teaching is an activity designed to stimulate learning. Put these two activities together in a feedback loop and you have "interactivity." “ AND if you put a child with a toy with no teacher there is interactive learning without the teacher. Put me with your article and I am learning interactively without a teacher. You state: “I believe the term "learning object" has become harmful. It hides the same old, bad lecture model behind a sexy buzz phrase. If we''re really serious about stimulating learning, then we should think in terms of something like a cognitive catalyst.” I WORRY about you if you think 1. that “learning object” is a “sexy buzz phrase”. It has been around for some time now and sexy is is NOT and never has been. Also I really worry for you if you think “cognitive catalyst” is sexy! (? And reading your description of a “cognitive catalyst” , to me it is a LO under another name. It would not be the only type of LO but it could be rendered interoperable as one. Would you not want your cc’s to be interoperable among different applications and system??? You state: “Content is important…… Taken by itself without the learner and the cognitive process, a "learning object" is the pedagogical equivalent of a sentence fragment. It is only occasionally appropriate and often fails to communicate.” Of course, but if you can use your cognitive catalyst on any device using any system isn’t that better than one that is only usable in one environment?? Michael thx for your stimulating provocation. Perhaps you could help me. I have been searching for the person or persons who is claiming that LOs work on their own without interactions as we see them above. Do you have a reference? I feel people are creating straw dogs to attack, but maybe there is someone out there

  • Thu, 18 May 2006
    Post by Mark Oehlert

    I feel your pain. My background is in history and it has always bothered me that everyone and their brother thinks because they heard someone talking head say something about the Founders - that they know about the history of the US. Kind of invalidates all the years of grad school and research and writing you know? I''m not the biggest fan of arguing over semantics but I really think that the choices that marketing departments probably have made in this industry have really hurt. This gets to why its so hard to determine the ROI of e-learning - simply because that''s the wrong thing to try to measure. You''re either trying to measure the effectiveness of an instructional model of the change in performance of a student. Hmmm...

  • Thu, 18 May 2006
    Post by Michael Feldstein

    John, the excellent point you make merits further consideration by the industry. The formula giving students learning objects and assessing them on simplistic behavior learning objectives is nothing more than long-disproved Skinnerian behaviorism. We need something better. Mark, you''ve put your finger on the crux of the problem with the way we think about teaching and learning--whether or not that learning happens to be "e". The reason that "e-Teaching" is a less salable term than "e-Learning" is because people fundamentally don''t believe there''s such a thing as pedagogy (or androgogy, or whatever). And the reason they don''t believe there''s any such thing as pedagogy is because they don''t believe (or don''t think about) the cognitive process inside the student''s head that intermediates between the transmission of information and the acquisition of knowledge (i.e., learning). Lacking a concept of pedagogy, a teacher is simply someone who tells facts with enthusiasm. But if we recognize that there are these intermediating cognitive processes, and that there is a craft to constructing experiences such that these cognitive processes are more likely to be engaged by the student, then "teaching" becomes a word with substance again.

  • Thu, 18 May 2006
    Post by Mark Oehlert

    Right on Michael. I also hope people don''t skip past that first paragraph - powerful stuff - people learn. E-learning isn''t something that can be sold, more accurately, its actually when people use something electronic in the process of learning. All learning is "mobile" unless someone is bed-ridden. The more accurate (but less saleable) terms would actually be something like e-teaching, e-instruction or EPSS. No learning management systems exist outside learners'' heads. Take away that foundational "object" and the whole semiotic house of cards tumbles!

  • Wed, 17 May 2006
    Post by John Jenkins

    Could not agree with you more. That is why the U.S. Navy has recently stressed Performance, Performance, Performance. Alas we still kept the old Learning and Terminal objectives. Nothing like beating a dead horse - again.

  • Wed, 17 May 2006
    Post by Jim Beeler

    Mr. Feldstein you are correct in that it appears we need to personalize learning, the act of learning, as opposed to the learned object. Mr. Nichols, I disagree. What failed in the 60s and 70s was an assumption that all will learn equally given the chance. Aside from a small percentage, everyone learns...the issue becomes in what time frame? Self-pace has worked for as long as print. An enormous amount of people learn from reading books. Some from watching video. The self-paced you refer to is, for the most part, a failure to learn within requisite time. Learning occurred, just not within the time allowed for the schoolhouse.

  • Wed, 17 May 2006
    Post by Mike Nichols

    Thank you seems that technology is the master, and we chase it where ever it goes...while at the same time we abondon stable products that have worked well for decades. Technology is our "master" seems like...BUT we (people & the mission) should be the master and technology should be the "slave" to the mission... We tried all this self-pace stuff in the late 60 and 70s...didn''t work then, and won''t now...we don''t do our research, and are expecting different results, but we are doing the same stuff....the definition of what?