In-Terra-Active: Where Students Can Move Mountains

by Heather Shupp

"I tend to be a little leery of technology," says Jeremy Dunning, an associate professor of geology and an adjunct professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. These seem strange words coming from a man who has recently published the first truly interactive college-level CD-ROM textbook in any discipline and is in demand as a lecturer throughout the country to advise others on how to use technology in education. What Dunning, who is also an associate dean of research, director of the Indiana University Research Park, and director of institutional research, is leery of, in fact, is technology for technology's sake. "Unless it allows you to do something you can't do in another way or see something that you can't otherwise see, there is no point in using technology," Dunning explains. "I think there is a lot of multimedia out there that is worse than a traditional textbook," he says, referring to what he calls "click and flick" multimedia where users merely serially access pictures and text. "This is actually less effective than a traditional textbook because it is harder to read things on a computer screen. While you may get some prettier pictures and videos than you get in a book, I think it is harder to follow. Students turn off to that kind of multimedia rapidly."

When it's used right, however, technology, and the multimedia teaching and learning tools that can be created using it, can make students more active and more interested learners. Since he began using the CD-ROM physical geology textbook In-Terra-Active, which he co-authored with Philip E. Brown of the University of Wisconsin, in his classes, Dunning has noticed that his students seem to grasp the material better and that class attendance has improved markedly. "It's not just some guy with an overhead up there scribbling anymore," Dunning laughs.

Released in August 1995 by West Publishing, In-Terra-Active has already won several awards. Last year, the CD-ROM textbook was honored in three categories by the New Media Invision Award program, and a correspondence course based on In Terra-Active received the National University Continuing Education Association Distinguished Course Award.

What really sets In-Terra-Active apart from other CD-ROM textbooks, as well as from traditional textbooks, is the control that students have over their learning. Rather than a passive read and remember type of experience, students working with In-Terra-Active get to affect whether a volcano erupts or an earthquake occurs based on the information they insert into an exercise. For example, in the section on earthquake mechanics, students can enter information about the three critical factors that determine whether a fault will fail--orientation of applied stress, fault roughness, and water pressure--and then by clicking the "do it" button, watch to see if an earthquake occurs.

The ability to present students with such exercises is what Dunning values about the power of the multimedia textbook. "I think the best way to learn a science, especially one as multivaried as geology, is by actually working a virtual earth. It is almost like a video game, perish the thought, in the sense that you have control over the parameters in the earth so you can see by experimentation what happens," Dunning says. This emphasis on student experimentation means that "students really learn a lot more. . . . In fact, they learn as much by making mistakes as they do by getting the right answer," according to Dunning. Such an approach is particularly valuable in science, where disproving a hypothesis is just as important as proving one, something students who have largely been trained to memorize and regurgitate information in their precollege experience often have difficulty grasping.

After Dunning's students have worked on a particular section of In-Terra-Active in the laboratory, at home, or at a campus computer cluster, they are asked to go out on campus and observe and measure some of the actual geologic phenomenon that they have learned about on the disc. The philosophy behind this combination of tasks, both of which require active student engagement, "is basically, learn science by doing science, not by memorizing all the terms," Dunning says. "I don't think memorization is a particularly suitable way to learn science . . . because you don't understand how things work in a system," he continues. "Most of the facts we required students to memorize in the old days are things that professors don't remember; we look them up."

While Dunning's CD-ROM textbook contains fewer words than a typical traditional textbook does, it contains much more information in the form of interactive exercises and videos. If the amount of information stored on the 600 plus megabyte disc were translated into a traditional textbook, the book would be about 1,200 pages long, a daunting size for even the most dedicated student. Dunning notes that because students can see geologic processes in motion, not as many words are necessary. "In a traditional textbook, if you wanted to, for example, look at all the ways in which different parameters in the earth can affect whether a volcano erupts or not, you could go through just taking three types of volcanoes and the five or six variables that affect whether a volcano erupts or not, and if you tried to go through the effect of each of those variables on each of those volcanoes, you would eat up 65 pages, and it would be stultifying because the student wouldn't have any control," Dunning says. In In-Terra-Active, students can choose to check the effect of any one parameter, or all parameters, on volcanic eruption "in any order or any particular way they want. You just can't do that in a traditional textbook," he states. In addition, being able to actually see a volcano erupt in a video clip or in animated computer graphics "lets students know exactly what's happening, and it gives them an idea of the magnitude and the scale of what's happening" in a way that a series of still photos cannot do.

As advanced as In-Terra-Active seems, there is already new technology available that would make it more effective, Dunning says. In future editions, he would like to use Apple's QuickTime VR (virtual reality) program, which would give students the visual experience of navigating a geologic terrain in three dimensions, measuring things and picking up rock samples as they went along. Because such a program was not available when he and Brown developed In-Terra Active, Dunning says it "couldn't be as case-study oriented as we would have liked." Dunning is already poised to begin work with Larry Onesti, another geology professor at IUB, on a new CD-ROM textbook on environmental geology. Dunning and Onesti plan to use Apple's QuickTime VR in the new CD-ROM. "I think the best way to learn about environmental geology and natural hazards is to look at an example of some geologic occurrence or environmental problem, to try to determine what caused the occurrence or problem, and then to go back and do things over to see if you can change the outcome," Dunning explains. He is also at work, with many other professors from IU and other universities, on a virtual reality field trip on the life cycle of a landfill. The program is intended to be used at both the high school and college levels. Another of Dunning's multimedia projects is an educational game, which he will call Save Our Planet, for elementary, middle school, and high school students. The game, which will take place in a hypothetical universe, will ask players to navigate to a planet where an unknown geologic or environmental problem is slowly killing off the inhabitants, identify the problem by gathering information about the environment and inhabitants, and then solve the problem before all the inhabitants die. What is novel about the program, Dunning says, is that instead of having just one scenario with one solution, each planet in the universe will have three or four different scenarios that shuffle.

Discussing the pros and cons of new multimedia teaching tools versus traditional methods, Dunning notes that while developing In-Terra-Active was more fun than writing a conventional textbook, it was "a lot more stressful." Because his was the first interactive college textbook on the market, he didn't have a model to follow. Unconsciously echoing his sentiments about science education, Dunning says, "the best way to learn how to develop a multimedia product is to do it; you kind of learn by trial and error. The only thing that really helps is learning something about instructional design, which unfortunately until I did this I really knew nothing about. I certainly learned the hard way." Although the production costs for a CD-ROM are much lower than the printing costs for a traditional textbook, Dunning notes that the development costs can be high--between $100,000 and $750,000. The cost to students of In-Terra-Active is relatively low, however, ranging from $15 to $35 depending on whether it is sold with a traditional textbook or not. As with any technology-dependent product, In-Terra-Active can be useless if your computer is misbehaving, and students' access to the program is limited by their access to a computer with a CD-ROM drive, a luxury some students can afford to have in their rooms or apartments but others cannot. Finally, Dunning notes, "You can't curl up next to a fire with a CD," but adds with a wry smile, "most people don't curl up next to a fire with a geology textbook anyway."

When taken together, the advantages of multimedia teaching and learning tools such as In-Terra-Active seem to far outweigh the disadvantages for disciplines in which moving visuals greatly enhance student understanding. Dunning predicts that a faster media with greater storage capacity will replace CD-ROMs over the coming years and that there will be much more World Wide Web involvement than there is now. True to his reputation of being ahead of his time, Dunning is planning to involve the Web in the CD-ROM he is about to begin developing with Onesti. He expects adding a Web element to be challenging, however, because "the Web can be unbelievably slow, and there is so much garbage on it that you almost have to have your own browser to help you." While the form of the multimedia products of the future is hazy, Dunning is sure that they are here to stay: "I think electronic media, like CD-ROMs, the World Wide Web, and whatever succeeds them is the wave of the future in terms of education."

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