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Challenges Using Multimedia Integrated within a Science Curriculum Using a Classroom-Centered Design Approach

Rebecca Deutscher, Ph.D., Research Associate Specialist, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 03, 2009 | Technology

Top image: Teachers may use interactive whiteboards to introduce the Populations and Ecosystems multimedia before students head to the computer lab.

In April of 2009, I presented a poster at the National Association of Research in Science Teaching (NARST) Conference in Garden Grove, California. NARST is a worldwide organization of professionals committed to the improvement of science teaching and learning through research. My poster described aspects of an evaluation study designed to gather information to improve the use of multimedia in the nine FOSS Middle School Courses— Chemical Interactions, Diversity of Life, Earth History, Electronics, Force and Motion, Human Brain and Senses, Planetary Science, Populations and Ecosystems, and Weather and Water.

The evaluation tool used in the study was an online survey that covered logistics of using technology in the middle school classroom as well as the quality of the multimedia in the FOSS courses. Two groups of participants took the online survey: 539 FOSS middle school teachers and 22 FOSS professional developers. The teachers were asked about their backgrounds, the technology at their schools, and their impressions of the FOSS multimedia. The FOSS professional developers answered questions about their backgrounds as PD providers and their experiences with the multimedia when conducting FOSS workshops. As a result of the study, many challenges and issues connected with using the multimedia were identified. These challenges included technical issues, location of computers in the school, ways to present the multimedia in the classroom, training, and quality of the multimedia itself.

Challenge 1: Technical issues surrounding using multimedia

Technical problems are major challenges for classroom teachers in using multimedia. A difficulty with addressing this challenge is that it is not always known whether the technical issues reside at the development end or at the school. Often the curriculum/multimedia developers do not hear or learn about the problems and the variety of hardware configurations and operating systems makes it difficult to provide generic solutions. In the study, teachers were asked to describe their specific technology issues related to individual courses. This information helped the multimedia developers to appropriately address the issues for ongoing upgrades and future revisions.

Students and interactive whiteboard

Students construct a variety of food webs using the multimedia in the Populations and Ecosystems Course for middle school.

The age of the computers used by the teachers can have a large impact on how well the multimedia works. The multimedia will be slower or may not work well on older computer systems, or the graphics software that is needed to run multimedia may not work. As a result, teachers who have older machines may have a less positive view of the multimedia since the programs will not run as well as on newer computers.

Historically, FOSS multimedia was accessed only through CDs. Since 2006, the multimedia has been accessible online through FOSSweb. It is possible that many of the teachers who use only the CDs do so because they don't realize the multimedia is available online. It is also possible that many teachers have limited online access. Making the multimedia available through both CDs and the Internet has allowed more and easier access for both teachers and students.

In schools with better technology support, teachers are more likely to incorporate the multimedia in the FOSS course and can deal more successfully with any problems they encounter. The technology support staff at the school site can help determine what the problem is and how to figure out solutions. They can also help decide if the problem is at the development end and then communicate that information to the FOSS developers. Easily accessible technical support from FOSS is also important. With good information from the field, the FOSS team can determine the source of a problem and suggest modifications that would increase the likelihood that the multimedia will work in that school's environment. Learning more about teacher' access to different kinds of technology allows the FOSS team to find new, creative ways to design the multimedia so it is accessible by a wider variety of school technology.

Challenge 2: Location of the computers

Based on the data, schools have different situations with regard to their computer access. Understanding the physical settings where students and teachers use computers with FOSS will make it easier to design the multimedia to accommodate the various settings. In many schools teachers take their classes into computer labs or only have access to limited computers in their classrooms. Many teachers described how difficult it was to use the lab because they were required to sign up ahead of time. There is also the difficulty of transitioning the whole class to another location.

Another important issue is how many teachers or classrooms share the same computer resources. Often computer labs, libraries, media centers, and laptop carts are shared by the whole school. Teachers said it was difficult to have access to the lab because it is in high demand.

Another issue is the student-to-teacher ratio in various settings. It seems that many students have the opportunity to work individually or in pairs with computers, but generally not in the classroom. An out-of-classroom setting is where students get more individual opportunity to work with computers. Because there are fewer computers in many classrooms, teachers and the multimedia designers need to think of creative ways to provide opportunities for students to use the multimedia in the classroom.

Challenge 3: Teaching practices

Teachers described a wide range of ways they used each of the resources in the FOSS multimedia. After examining the range of resources, it seems that some of the multimedia animations and simulations work better as demonstrations while others work better as hands-on experiences for the students. For some of the multimedia, students do not gain much benefit by viewing a demonstration. Students need the direct experience provided in a small group. This technique needs to be clearly described in the multimedia guide.

Teachers also need alternative ways of using the multimedia if they do not have access to enough computers. Having students access the multimedia online outside of class (at home or from a library) is one possible solution. A few years ago, some experimental programs allowed students to check out computers so that a multimedia activity could be assigned as homework. However, these systems had problems and have not been widely adopted. Presently, some schools and states are purchasing a laptop computer for every student to use both at home and at school. Teachers need to be aware of their students' computer situations at home before assigning a piece of the multimedia as homework.

Student and computer

This student has the opportunity to work on his own in the school computer lab.

Challenge 4: Professional development

Many teachers' first exposure to a FOSS Middle School Course is during professional development. Teachers' exposure to the multimedia during a workshop may have an influence on how they incorporate the multimedia in the course and whether they use it at all. During professional development, teachers are introduced to the teacher guide and student print materials, experience several investigations, and learn how to conduct the investigations with students. Many of the trainers provided an overview of the multimedia during PD workshops but didn't model how to use the resources with students. During professional development, if teachers experience the multimedia in the way it would be best implemented in the classroom (i.e., small groups, individual use, etc.), teachers will be more likely to present it to their students in that engaging format.

Challenge 5: Quality of the multimedia

When designing multimedia resources for the FOSS investigations, it is important to get feedback about the quality from teachers and students using it in the field. In this evaluation, a large group of teachers was surveyed about all the multimedia in the FOSS courses. All these data were written up and discussed with the FOSS staff. This feedback from the teachers is being used to help redesign the multimedia. As a result of these changes, the quality of the multimedia will improve, and more schools will likely utilize the multimedia in their classrooms.

By examining the challenges, developers can improve professional development, teacher guides, and multimedia associated with science curricula to make them more useful for teachers, administrators, and other educators. In future studies, the FOSS team can then examine the impact that a richer multimedia can have on enhancing students' learning experiences in science.

Contact Information:

  • Rebecca Deutscher, Ph.D.
    Research Associate Specialist
    Lawrence Hall of Science Center for
    Research, Evaluation, and Assessment