Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Some ideas and issues related to using multimedia technologies to teach tertiary students to perform complex tasks

Martyn Wild
Computer Education

Denise Kirkpatrick
Teaching & Curriculum Studies
Edith Cowan University


Cognitive tools are computer-based applications that are normally used as productivity software. However these applications may also function as knowledge representation formalisms that require learners to think critically using them to represent content being studied or what they already know about a subject. (Jonassen, 1995, 40).

In an extensive discussion of the value of cognitive tools, Jonassen describes how conventional applications, such as spreadsheets, databases, expert systems, etc., might become intellectual partners and serve to expand and amplify the thinking of learners, engaging students as knowledge constructors rather than information processors (Jonassen, 1995). The learning theories underpinning the development and our understanding of the value of such cognitive tools are reasonably robust, cognitivist based and are in a general sense, covered by the umbrella of constructionism. More particularly, the use and value of cognitive tools, has, of late, been shown to owe much to mental models theories, particularly to that of Johnson-Laird (Johnson-Laird, 1983; Wild, 1995).

This paper provides examples of how multimedia as user performance support systems(UPSSs) can be used by student teachers as cognitive tools to express and extend their thinking in a complex domain. The paper is also, in part, a report of a research project to develop and evaluate a UPSS to facilitate enhanced lesson planning skills in student teachers. The basic premise to the development of this UPSS is that it provides a structured environment within which student teachers are able to design lesson plans for immediate implementation and also receive instructional support in the design process. By engaging novices in the process of designing materials that impact directly on their teaching, it is intended to provide for deeper processing of a complex task, resulting in a more complete understanding of the domain. This is essentially the role and purpose of all cognitive tools (Jonassen, 1994; Jonassen, 1995).

User performance support systems

A UPSS is interactive software that is intended to both train and support the novice user in the performance of complex tasks. Raybould describes an UPSS as a 'computer-based system that improves worker productivity by providing on-the-job access to integrated information, advice and learning experiences' (Raybould, 1990). Also, as Gery suggests, UPSSs can also serve as amplifiers of experience and knowledge - that is, in addition to their role in instructing and supporting novices, they can by used by more experienced specialists to increase efficiency and quality of output (Gery, 1991). Such software are being used successfully in training situations in medicine (e.g. medical diagnostic systems), engineering (e.g. computer assisted design systems) and management (e.g. decision support systems). It would seem that there is value in using similar software in educational situations (Gustafson & Reeves, 1990; Reeves, 1993b).

A UPSS has been developed by the authors for use by student teachers. This UPSS is intended to facilitate the development of skills and knowledge in the are of lesson planning. The Lesson Planning UPSS (LPS) provides : (i) instructional software that teaches the skills and knowledge involved in lesson planning; and, (ii) support in the concurrent and subsequent performance of the lesson planning task. To date, instructional materials based on interactive technologies, have tended to focus on only the instructional aspect of task performance (Brown, 1991; Jih & Reeves, 1992). It is also contended that use of the LPS by student teachers in school and university settings will facilitate the transfer of cognitive strategies and minimise the distinction between 'learning and doing'.

The design of the LPS

The LPS incorporates the model of lesson planning required by Edith Cowan University, Western Australia, and wider afield. It includes essential components of lesson planning such as writing learning objectives, developing learning experiences and planning evaluation. Each component is supported by activities that instructs the user about the task (e.g. provision of information relating to reasons why objectives are necessary, criteria for quality objectives), and which also assist the user in performing the task (e.g. provision of a database of verbs to assist in writing quality learning objectives). A set of software tools are available to support each activity. One of these, for example, is a knowledge base system, to provide student teachers with the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of their completed lesson plan. This works by prompting users to analyse and reflect upon the appropriateness of evaluation processes set in relation to lesson objectives.

The lesson planning process can be viewed as an exercise in problem solving. An important factor in solving problems is domain specific comprehension. Glaser has suggested that one of the features distinguishing a novice from an expert is the incompleteness of the novice's knowledge base, rather than limitations in their processing capabilities (Glaser, 1984). It has been suggested that the transition from novice to expert performance is largely provided for by the acquisition of a suitable knowledge base (Glaser, 1982). A knowledge base consists of both descriptive and heuristic components - descriptive knowledge is the shared knowledge of experts and practitioners that is usually found in text books, while the heuristic component includes the knowledge of good practice and judgement constructed over years of experience. It is suggested that the description of expert performance should include two related aspects: the information structures and declarative knowledge that are required for performance and the cognitive strategies and procedural knowledge that are required by the task.

Lesson planning is an essential cognitive skill for teachers. Effective lesson planners possess declarative knowledge about themselves as planners, about the task of lesson planning and about ways of going about the task. They also possess domain specific knowledge, such as the criteria for creating instructional objectives, the most appropriate strategies to achieve particular objectives and the range and relevance of evaluation techniques. They know how to plan lessons in the appropriate way, what is required of them in planning a lesson and they know when and why to perform particular aspects of lesson planning. In addition to this knowledge they have the skills to regulate their own performance, checking and monitoring to ensure they are meeting certain criteria. They also possess the skills and knowledge to allow themselves to correct errors. These characteristics of the lesson planner, the task and the interaction of both, are all addressed in the design of the LPS.

Multimedia developments

As Oliver suggests, the term multimedia is not a new one and has only received currency of late with the advent of computer based technological advancements and in particular, interactive technologies (Oliver, 1994). Perhaps the most notable if not the most distinguishing feature of interactive multimedia software in terms of its educational significance, is its facility to allow non-hierarchical representation of information - that is, it allows declarative representation of information with semantic and other links made between items to create a knowledge base. Interestingly, the educational application of knowledge representation tools was first highlighted by those working with the computer language Prolog who suggested that computer based semantic representation of knowledge perhaps best mirrored the behaviour of certain higher order cognitive activities (Nichol, 1988; Nichol, Briggs & Dean, 1988). This notion finds some theoretical basis in Minsky's theory of cognitive frame representation (Minsky, 1975) and, more recently, in mental models theories (Gentner & Stevens, 1983; Glaser, 1984; Johnson-Laird, 1983; Johnson-Laird, 1993; Wild, 1995).

To date, much of the software developed as interactive multimedia can be characterised as presentation, instruction or information systems. For education, the most widely applied multimedia software are of the latter types - instructional and information systems (Oliver, 1994). The LPS provides a new departure for multimedia development by providing software that encourages problem solving through cognitive modelling, that is the building and exploring of qualitative models. In this sense, users of the LPS are encouraged to create models of lesson plans and to explore, test and refine those models.


Modelling is an essential component of cognitive activity, of thinking, and for Craik, the originator of the concept of mental models, thinking is concerned with the organisational and functioning of mental processes and representations (Craik, 1943; Johnson-Laird, 1993). It follows that cognitive tools must necessarily provide for modelling activity. That is, they must provide the means by which learners can construct, manipulate and evaluate representations of knowledge. The modelling environment needs to be accurate and structural but not necessarily complete, enabling learners to move from their own mental representations of lesson planning to the conceptual model of that process required by an expert. In this process, novices will be able to construct a deeper understanding of a complex domain. It is generally agreed that although a modelling environment should not be complete it is important that it remains functional; that is, it must provide the learner with some expert knowledge and it must facilitate learner predictions (L.M.M.G., 1988; Mellar, et al., 1994; Wild, 1995). It is the incompleteness of the model that provides the opportunity for learners to externalise their own understanding of the lesson planning process, to identify inaccuracies or insufficiencies in their thinking and to reflect on their cognitive models without expressing a commitment to any one in particular.


The LPS is based on the premise that student teachers, by using the LPS to model the lesson plan process will come to understand that process and be able to plan lessons effectively both through their use of the LPS and also by other means (e.g. pen and paper). A significant finding in transfer of learning research is that where there are common factors in the content or procedures in carrying out two tasks, transfer is more likely (Child, 1981). To facilitate transfer of learning here, the metaphor that guides the design of the human-computer interface is provided by traditional lesson planning: the LPS environment in which novice teachers plan their lessons uses similar terms and has similar elements to those encountered in the paper and pen process. Student teachers describe lesson objectives, associated teaching materials, methods of realising the objectives and evaluation processes. At each stage, they can access examples, gain information from an appropriate knowledge base, obtain a critical analysis of their lesson based on an expert knowledge base and be prompted to reflect on their model of the lesson. The amount and type of human-computer interaction expected by use of the LPS is intended to approximate to that between learner and human tutor in a pen and paper context. In all these design aspects of the LPS, it is intended to provide for near transfer of learning. Follow-up research will investigate the effectiveness of the LPS in terms of facilitating such transfer.


The problems usually associated with navigating hypermedia are described by Collis and include disorientation, navigation inefficiency and cognitive overload (Collis, 1991). In particular, these problems can be expected to be encountered more by naive users who are not aware of the design metaphors built into the interface than by more experienced users. Without recognition of the design metaphor, users can be expected to access information inefficiently, for example, by following information browsing techniques (Trumball, Gay, & Mazur, 1992). It is intended that the pen and paper lesson planning metaphor that guides the design of the human-computer interface will support learners in their interactions with the LPS. This interface is intended to facilitate efficient navigation through the use of the tools necessary to build and evaluate lessons and the associated hypermedia environments that provide information in the form of text and graphics.

Cognitive load

The greater the availability and accessibility of information within a given computer environment, the more likely users will flounder as a result of excessive cognitive load or cognitive overload and consequently fail to learn. According to Jih and Reeves, learners using a hypermedia system must cope with and integrate three types of cognitive load: the content of the information, the structure of the program and the response strategies available (Jih & Reeves, 1992). How learners cope with such a load depends largely on the human-computer interface. For example, cognitive load can be reduced by: (i) reducing the number of options at any one point in the program; (ii) by encouraging users to externalise their thinking, by use, for example, of text annotations and place-marking; (iii) by 'hiding' program options not likely to be needed by most users; (iv) by providing strong visual clues to aid navigation; and, (v) by reducing the number of hypermedia links between information nodes (Oren, 1990).

The means by which users deal with the cognitive load imposed by the LPS will largely be a function of their conception of the lesson planning task as well as that of the software interface. Certainly software features such as on-line help (i.e. help, for example, in planning the task) and dynamic structure maps (i.e. maps to show a user's position in the hypermedia environment at any one point), are included in the design of the LPS to encourage learners to build strong conceptualisations, or mental models (Jih & Reeves, 1992).

Learner control

Learner control is a reference to that dimension in computer based education that describes the level of control exercised by the learner when interacting with a given software item. Despite the fact that learner control has been one of the most heavily researched dimensions of computer based education in recent years (Steinberg, 1989), Reeves has pointed out that many of the research studies are flawed both in their theoretical and methodological bases (Reeves, 1993a). It seems to be popularly assumed that the greater the control exercised by the learner (as opposed to that exercised by the software) within a given software environment, the greater the level of learning will be. This assumption is undoubtedly a product of cognitivist learning perspectives, and is closely related to the following, fundamental, premises: (i) learners are active processors of information; and, (ii) knowledge is more likely to be successfully constructed when learners have control over the learning process (Rowe, 1993). However, what evidence we do have about learner control is at best contradictory and at worst negative (Reeves, 1993a; Steinberg, 1989). In particular, Oliver draws attention to research that suggests that unskilled learners fare especially badly in terms of performance outcomes when the degree of learner control is high and external control (e.g. control by the program) is low (Oliver, 1994).

The LPS provides for significant learner control over a range of learning processes, including: task perception, information retrieval and processing, problem-solving, knowledge construction, revision, reflection and cognitive modelling. The research program to investigate the effectiveness of the LPS will, in part, consider whether the high degree of learner control invested in the software system effects performance outcomes.


This paper has sought to describe the design and development of a cognitive tool for student teachers, based on the implementation of multimedia as a user performance support system. It is implied throughout the paper, that UPSSs can provide valuable cognitive tools for both novice and more experienced specialists such as student and beginning teachers, to undertake complex tasks in a range of domains.


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Please cite as: Wild, M. and Kirkpatrick, D. (1995). Some ideas and issues related to using multimedia technologies to teach tertiary students to perform complex tasks. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p281-286. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/wild.html

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