Moving toward the Digital Learning Environment

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, an MIT professor and President Roosevelt's chief science adviser, wrote his seminal article, "As We May Think." In it he described Memex, a "memory extension" machine, complete with images, sound, text, and "associated links" between items of information that users could access interactively. Bush foreshadowed the hypermedia revolution, and some fifty years later, there are forty million people using a global networked system we call the World Wide Web. But the Web, perhaps the quintessential example of multimedia computing, represents only one digital delivery system for this class of computing. Other platforms include video-discs, CD-ROMs, two-way cable television, high-definition, three-dimensional virtual landscapes; and so on.

Multimedia computing is the integration of multiple media--text, graphics, animation, video, and sound. The combination of these media may take such forms as computer-based learning systems, online journals, information kiosks, virtual fieldtrips, and electronic entertainment. Multimedia computing is particularly powerful when it is interactive, allowing the user to control the sequence and pace through self-selected content. At its best, multimedia computing is user centered, serving the personal needs of the user rather than focusing the user's attention on the machine. When it exploits the strengths of the computer for instruction, research, productivity, or entertainment, it is computer imaginative, making possible certain tasks that could not be accomplished in other media.

Despite the promise of multimedia computing, its potential has not been realized within the academy to the extent seen in other settings. The reasons are numerous, each involving financial, technical, social, and political challenges. Of these, I will discuss three: roles and content, structures, and training.

Roles and Content

If we take the new media seriously, multimedia computing will lead to fundamental changes in the way professors teach, students learn, and content is delivered. No longer will the teacher serve as disseminator of information via lectures and textbooks. Rather, the teacher will adopt the role of facilitator, tutor, and learner. Similarly, the student will abandon the role of solitary memorizer of facts and principles for the role of researcher, problem solver, and strategist. Additionally, students will complete many learning activities in groups, which fosters development of interpersonal collaborative skills.

Content will change as well. Traditionally, we have organized content into disciplines--the social sciences, physical sciences, humanities, fine arts, etc. We further divide and subdivide these disciplines into smaller boxes of content, each to be learned by the student. The problem with this strategy is that students fail to gain an understanding of the interconnectedness of the ever-expanding number of boxes. We must engage this glut of information in new ways, emphasizing multidisciplinary organizations of content; encouraging multiple perspectives of knowledge, viewing information as a vehicle to solve real-world problems, teaching specific concepts as variations on larger themes, and valuing insights and connections to what we already know over memorization of disconnected facts. Unlike the end-of-chapter problems students solve in today's textbooks, we need to engage students in problems that are ill-structured, context-dependent, complicated, messy, and stubbornly persistent.


The best teachers have always advocated problem-centered learning, and one can find examples of it throughout the academy, particularly at the higher levels. Yet the university supports and assumes another structure: the textbook and the fifty-minute lecture. If we take seriously the implications of multimedia computing, we need to move beyond the notion of assembling sophisticated machines in our lecture halls; multimedia computing means more than creating dazzling "eye candy" images to enhance our well-honed lecture notes.

We must begin to ask ourselves challenging questions. What does it imply for the design of a residential campus when students can access from their dorm rooms or their homes a set of interactive instructional activities from universities worldwide? In what new ways will faculty interact with students and other faculty? In what new ways will students collaborate with other students located anywhere in the world? Perhaps, more fundamentally, how will we allocate time, space, and resources? How will we preserve or transform traditional values of scholarship and academic independence?


Creating multimedia computing is more difficult than collaborating with a colleague to write a textbook. This new medium requires the collective talents of scholars, instructional designers, information architects, computer scientists, graphic artists, and specialists in audio, video, and animation. Expanded or created support structures will be necessary to provide faculty with the skills and tools required to enter this new arena. Collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines and new media specialists will not come easily for most faculty. The academy has shaped our work life to perform as individuals; indeed, our entire faculty reward system assumes and sustains this perspective. Moreover, once we create the support systems, we will need to help faculty to operate effectively within these new problem-based learning environments. The corporate sector allocates significant resources to the retraining of its employees. Will universities do the same?

While the challenges are many, faculty and staff within the academy are attempting to address these and related issues. The work described in this issue of Research & Creative Activity represents some of the best multimedia computing for teaching and research at Indiana University. Each example implies new roles for the teacher and student, each redefines the role and organization of content, each moves pedagogy along the lecture-based to problem-centered learning continuum, and each requires multidisciplinary development teams.

A New Vision

At Indiana University and elsewhere, we see a new vision of education emerging. We are working to create the "digital learning environment," an open system with an ever-expanding information architecture supporting learner centered, rather than content-centered, education; stimulating problem-centered learning that focuses on the development of authentic, cooperative, problem solving strategies; facilitating big-concept, multidisciplinary learning; and providing an integrated set of instructional, navigational, communication, management, and collaborative "wisdom tools."

Like Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay, the digital learning environment may foreshadow a new academy fifty years hence. When the time soon arrives that it is possible to carry the entire contents of the Library of Congress on a chip no larger than a postage stamp, the challenge we will face will not be knowing how to build the information database we carry, but how to think about the information it contains in imaginative ways. Perhaps this is the principal value and best destiny of multimedia computing.

Martin A. Siegel

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