Book title: Multimedia Interface Design in Education

Springer-Verlag, 1992, ISBN 0-387-550461

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, 1993) A review of A. Edwards and S. Holland - Multimedia Interface Design in Education, Hypermedia, 5(2), 158-160.

Here we go: another issue, another book on interface design. This time though, interface design in the education domain and, in particular, multimedia interfaces. Is the world ready? Does the world even care?

Well, first, the facts. This is not a handbook of design guidelines or even a book on interface design issues as such but the proceedings of a NATO workshop on the subject of the title. It contains 13 chapters by a variety of authors from Europe (the majority) and North America, each with a brief introduction by the authors to orient the reader to the theme of the chapter (a nice idea which is spoiled somewhat in delivery since they read like abstracts rather than context setters or links to the central theme of the book).

According to the editors, the book is about “the theory and practice of the use of multimedia, multimodal interfaces for learning” but while focused on educational applications “a great deal of the material and conclusions are equally applicable to the design and implementation of multimedia interfaces in general” (p. ix). This would appear to be borne out by the subject matter of the systems under discussion in most of the chapters which range interestingly from teaching and appreciating music (a surprisingly large contribution of 4 chapters) through human rights education to electronic book production.

However, appearances can be deceptive. Workshop proceedings might be fine for the participant as a record of presentations and subsequent discussions but the papers need to be written up very clearly if they are to have value for the non-attending reader. In so modifying papers, much of the sparkle and contextual relevance of the original can be lost and authors frequently resort to producing free-standing papers that labour introductory points which knowledgeable readers are unlikely to find useful.

Quite amazingly, three years seem to have passed since this workshop and the present volume’s appearance. And this in the era of rapid publication and supposed revolutionary technological advances! Despite this, the publishers still have not got it right as a free-floating errata sheet is included which contains all the missing figures from one chapter and some omitted sentences from another. Perhaps the editors should have made a virtue of this and claimed the sheet was an example of an innovative user-modifiable paper interface. Unfortunately, it just comes across as shoddy.

This is bad enough but the situation is compounded by the fact that some references have not been updated since 1989 and works cited as in press/submitted to a conference then (is it really worth citing such a paper?) have still not been detailed appropriately. Add to this a worrying tendency for some authors to cite themselves in a more than generous fashion (one (who shall remain nameless) does so an immodest 7 times, 3 of which are papers under submission and 1 is not even referenced properly) and the reader quickly begins to feel a little uneasy with this book.

But production and rogue author quibbles aside, how does the book achieve its stated aims of theoretical analysis and practical import to and beyond the multimedia domain? Frankly, the three year delay in publication renders much of what the book contains out of date. A large proportion of the papers deal with work in progress and thus, one can only assume that the problems, issues and systems they cover have shifted in the interim. Too many of the papers give introductory details that are no longer necessary or of interest. Far too much time is spent on superficial introductions to aspects of HCI such as metaphor design, supposed mental models of designers or users (again), and other standard issues, for anyone to gain much from this book in terms of the theoretical aspects of multimedia use in education.

On its own this would not be fatal, after all the theoretical development of the whole field is hardly in the fast lane, but it is noticeable that more current debates on the nature of learning such as constructivism or situated learning (regardless of what one thinks are their value and merits) are almost entirely absent. Furthermore there is little evidence of real educational application. Certainly we are told of application development but little of the learner’s response to these applications. Is it really only the present reviewer who recoils in horror from developers telling the reader that an application is “easy to use” without any supporting evidence?

There are saving graces however. Mayes’ contribution attempts to define terminology in the field and his examples of the possible direct relationships between some findings from experimental psychology and information presentation in multimedia are worthwhile. Too few have tried this and even fewer have done so successfully, but Mayes shows he is capable of making a genuinely useful contribution to this area. Similarly, several of the chapters discussing the use of multimedia in teaching musical notation and appreciation make fascinating (though slightly repetitive) reading as well as indicating potentially useful mixes of theory and application to resolve genuine learner problems. But the interested reader would surely want to know where the various authors went with this work rather than receive a position statement from the last decade.

So what have we got here? Unfortunately, the answer is too little, too late. The useful is outnumbered and ultimately drowned by the mediocre. It fails to meet its stated aim (in reality, despite the editors’ claims, few meaningful conclusions are drawn that readers will find useful) and in no way can the book be considered a useful contribution to the field. Despite this, it does have an interesting paper or two and it is sad to see them served so poorly here by their fellow contributors and the publishers. In a world awash with information I can genuinely recommend this as one book you can safely skip. Maybe you just had to be there!