Multimedia Enrichment for Online Courses in Economics and Business Administration

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1 Malaysian Online Journal of Instructional Technology (MOJIT) Vol. 1, No. 2, pp December 2004 ISSN: Multimedia Enrichment for Online Courses in Economics and Business Administration Wolfram Laaser Centre of Distance Study Development FernUniversität Hagen, Germany Abstract The German Fern Universität at Hagen has developed more than 1,600 courses for tertiary education at the graduate and postgraduate levels. The university is a public state university with study centres located all over Germany as well as at neighbouring countries such as Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Historically, teaching was delivered by printed modules and supplemented by some obligatory face-to-face meetings. As the university is now committed to become a virtual university, numerous courses are now being converted to Web-based learning materials. In doing so, the hyperlinks and multimedia enrichments are being added to the existing course materials to take advantage of software facilities such as Macromedia Flash and Java programming. In this paper, such an endeavour is presented illustrating in particular the efficient way of conversion that has resulted in attractive Web-based multimedia course materials. The development of the university electronic portals will also be outlined and the mechanisms of imbedding these Web-courses into such a system is highlighted. INTRODUCTION The German Fern Universität at Hagen is now in its 25 years of existence and has experienced all the stages of media development for the delivery of courses in distance education. Previously, the transition had been relatively smooth and step-wise new media developments, such as video materials and conferences, TV, broadcasts and computer conferencing systems have been installed in course delivery mechanisms. This developed framework, however, changed dramatically when a new policy was formulated to transform the existing distance education system into a full-fledged virtual university system. This policy was formulated at the end of the 1990s (Kaderali et al., 1998; Mittrach, 1999). To avoid misinterpretation, this article will characterise a virtual university as one that delivers all functions of the traditional university without the alteration of any physical objects or persons. This means that services such as enrolment, study material development and distribution of the materials, examinations, counselling and tutorials, library services and other administrative services remain the same but are delivered via electronic networks. In other words, a virtual university in this context is essentially one that delivers all its services to students via the networks. In the conversion from the traditional to the virtual university, all services have to be integrated into a common platform. This platform is based on the WWW that allows for online course enrolment and integrates prior and existing data banks for other administrative purposes (Sternberger et al., 2004). At present, about 25,000 students have an Internet account with the university and are currently using the Web platform that has been developed. Students would still have to attend the face-to-face meetings at the central locations but at a much reduced frequency. However, the final examinations are still conducted using the traditional method. The university is now offering more than 1,600 different courses at the tertiary level; this involves approximately 5,000 modules and a large number of tutorial support services at more than 60 study centres. The conversion from the conventional to the virtual system has entailed tremendous efforts

2 and time. However, past experiences in media development have been extremely valuable to alleviate some of the problems encountered. THE DELIVERY FORMAT During the initial inception of the university, the principal medium for the academic course delivery had been in the print format. In the course of the technological development, video cassettes, audio cassettes and some computer software have been added progressively as a multimedia supplement and their use classified as non-obligatory study materials. However, in 1995, CD-ROMs were introduced and for the first time, all types of media could be integrated effectively and stored on a single medium. Figure 1: The Page of the CD-ROM Entitled Intelligent Strategies in Theory and Practice An example of the course content delivery in the CD-ROM format is the Intelligente Strategien in Theorie und Praxis (Intelligent Strategies in Theory and Practice. See Figure 1). This CD-ROM is for the Operations Research course, a postgraduate course offered in the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration. The CD was programmed using the authoring system ToolBook, a tool that is used by many programmers today and which is quite well known for its multimedia products such as algorithmic simulations, audio comments of graphics, interactive exercises, programming of games and availability of video clips. Most of the multimedia pages in the CD are supported by audio comments explaining step-wise displays of the screen elements. A recommended learning path is also made available. Foreign versions in the Portuguese and Russian languages have also been developed. A study showed that students found the CD very useful and they were very enthusiastic about the new learning possibilities (Laaser & Gerke, 2001). However, the constraint faced by the production teams is the time needed for such development. Frequently, it takes years to prepare such elaborated teaching materials. 50

3 The new Web-based delivery formats focus more on the online presentation of courses, which is practically impossible to achieve with large segments of video clips and even small sound files. These limitations have not been that relevant with the CD-ROMs. In addition, further demand was put on the development team that an increasing number of Web-based materials must be made available in a very short time. As a consequence, existing Word documents of the printed courses were directly converted using the Acrobat to PDF format and then offered online or off-line via the official Web pages of universities. However, the simple conversion to HTML or PDF is not very attractive or effective as far as learning for the students is concerned. As a compromise, the development team looked for various methodologies that enabled them to minimise time and resources while undertaking the production of online study materials that were attractive and incorporated various multimedia attributes. An example of this development is the Web version of the course Mathematics for Economists (Figure 2). The Online Course Mathematics for Economists The main task in developing the online course was to convert a printed course of about 600 A4 pages into an attractive Web course. The existing document was a Word file. So, the first task was to develop a special design that consisted of five fixed frames that would not confuse the learners jumping from one window to another. For the development, special frames, namely, the title frame, a frame for the text to scroll, a frame to present special elements of the course materials such as definitions, examples, graphs, a navigation frame and a frame to scroll through the items presented on the right side of the screen were created. Figure 2 Sample of the Online Course - Mathematics for Economists 51

4 To provide the link within the Web pages of the course, about 300 text marks were initially inserted into the Word file. These text marks acted as anchor points that generated the respective hyperlinks of the HTML document later on during the conversion processes. The rest of the links was set directly into the HTML document. The Web design was also intended to preserve the existing layout structure. This was achieved by using cascading style sheets. However, the major problems faced were with the numerous mathematical formulas originally written by the Word formula editor. During the conversion, the text lines that incorporated such formula layouts were distorted. This problem could have been circumvented by writing and adjusting the macro commands in FrontPage, which the editor had used regularly for HTML. In addition to the provision of the course Web page with an attractive layout, coloured graphics and an adequate linking structure, the inclusion of some multimedia elements in the Web page had also been targeted. This was achieved with the addition of introductory audio comments, audio supported graphical presentations and interactive exercises using the Macromedia Flash as a tool. Macromedia Flash offers a relatively simple script language as well as easy possibilities to generate twinning effects and to import audio and video files. The files can be embedded easily into HTML pages and the file size can be minimised using efficient compression standards especially for audio files. Figure 3 illustrates the Web page with the imbedded Flash file. Figure 3: Mathematics for Economists An Online Course With the Embedded Flash File Finally, the addition of some simulation environments with Java Applets was also made. Students often have difficulties interpreting three-dimensional representations of functional relationships. To improve the students understanding of such representations, a three-dimensional function plotter was programmed, permitting graphs to be moved and turned around through mouse movements. Furthermore, students can study the influence of some core parameters on the behaviour of the 52

5 function. To view the applications without problems, Java Runtime Environment has to be downloaded. Figure 4 illustrates the Web page with the embedded Java Applet. In doing all these, the need of re-writing the entire course in a multimedia format was eliminated; the conversion process, in fact, preserved the original design as much as possible, and the existing text structure and the lay-out remained. Furthermore, the conversion resulted in the inclusion of some attractive multimedia components into the online format. Figure 4 The Mathematics for Economists Online Course With Embedded Java applet. INTEGRATION OF VIDEO MATERIALS INTO WEB COURSES The integration of video materials is done in a fashion similar to the integration of Flash files into Web pages discussed above. Video files can be imported into Flash in the same way as audio files. The videos are put on a timeline and other information such as text or diagrams can be added subsequently; if necessary, they can be made to synchronise with the other video files. Figure 5 shows a Web page with the integration of videos. Both the video files in the mpg format as well as the Flash file are embedded into the HTML page. The video file can also be included directly into the Flash file. However, larger video files pose problems when handled in flash because of the file size. The integration of audio visual information is especially important if learning cultures are more oriented towards these media (Laaser, 1999). 53

6 Figure 5: The Integration of Video Materials. THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT Through the experience garnered while working on other online courses, the course developers found that courses have to be embedded into a proper study environment, commonly known as the Web portal, which integrates the course Web pages to central university databases. The focus of the multimedia development is then shifted from that of the course development to the platform development. Many institutions use commercial and ready-made platforms such as Lotus Learning Space or WebCt.. However, certain specific requirements of some institutions might not be met sufficiently well by these platforms. In that respect, Fern Universität, like many other academic institutions, developed its own platform internally using in-house resources to fulfil its specific requirements. This platform can be used not only for the course delivery mechanism but can be made to host various student support services in line with the characteristics defined by the virtual university system. Figure 6 illustrates the Web portal that shows a particular course that is embedded into a learning environment. The environment supports various pedagogical dimensions such as the presentation of the course material, communication with staff and regional tutors, assessment of students assignments and exercises and the link to other Websites supporting the course. The regular course information or bulletin may also be incorporated here. 54

7 Figure 6: The Web Portal REMAINING PROBLEMS The focus on the development of comprehensive learning platforms has resulted in lesser effort being placed on the development of the multimedia enrichment of an individual course. Existing instructional delivery emphasises the media mix that includes online learning that incorporates the traditional media including those of face-to-face meetings and the printed modules (blended learning). However, many pedagogical benefits have disappeared as a result of the development of a comprehensive virtual learning system which in turn becomes less cost effective when too many media formats are integrated into a single medium. With the increase in the number of electronic courses, there also arise some additional problems which need to be resolved. Even in cases where online courses have been developed by a team of programmers, media experts and instructional designers, the process of updating these course materials is still required and this has to be conducted by the faculty. The updating process requires the presence of technical expertise to upgrade the courses, provide the linking structures and incorporate new audio or video files. Here, the dimension of the training and supervision of the faculty has to be considered. Any untoward problem can be avoided by providing for faculty use a special Web site dedicated to demonstrations of simple multimedia applications with Flash. Detailed examples of interactive exercises, animations and simulations are presented, and the programming explained. The mechanism of downloading and modifying the source code are also illustrated. Figure 7 shows the Website that supports the faculty with the multimedia enrichment. 55

8 Figure 7: Website to Support Faculty in Developing Multimedia Clips. The problems of maintenance and updating occur when the Web portal is utilised. The Web information is only valuable and beneficial when it is updated continuously. However, in the university environment, the structure is basically a decentralised structure and the main responsibility of data updating is the hands of chair professors. To overcome this problem, the information on the learning portals is fed as much as possible from the central and as well as from the de-centrally located databanks so that the Web pages can be generated dynamically from these sources. However, new classification schemes, documentation requirements and finally, the training in using these data banks have to be provided. To enable easy updating and provide access to the output on different media, an XML-based editing and production system FuXML has been developed and tested and will become the predominant editing system used for the university s courseware in the future. SUMMARY This article illustrates the development of online learning via basic approaches to enrich existing courses utilising animated graphs, interactive exercises, video clips and simulations. This approach focuses on an economically viable solution which at the same time has the possibility of improving learning efficiency and motivation. Emphasis is on the tools that are flexible enough to create individual and non-standardised solutions. The focus of the instruction in this context is on the promotion of effective communication environments for the constructivist approach of learning. With sound instructional design, the Web based multimedia learning materials are capable of reducing the need of interaction so that the dimension of communication with the faculty as well as with peers can be minimised considerably. In this respect, existing course materials can continuously be upgraded to integrated Web based multimedia learning materials especially for open and distance learning students. 56

9 REFERENCES Kaderali, F., Rieke, A. & Paleschke, T. (1998). The Virtual University/FernUniversität Online. Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Networking Entities (NETIES) '98, Chania, Greece. Laaser, W. & Gerke, M. (2001). Multimedia on control theory design and evaluation. Journal of Educational Media, 26(2), Laaser, W. (1999). Technologies for distance education in developing countries. In S. Mitter, M-I Bastos & A. Bartzokas (Eds.). Europe and Developing Countries in the World Information Economy: Trade, Distance Education and Regional Development. (London, Routledge and UNU Press), pp Mittrach, S. (1999). Lehren und Lernen in der Virtuellen Universität, Aachen, p. 90. Sternberger, K. & Mohren, H. & Vogeler, B. (2004). Availability and security functions of the virtual university platform at FernUniversität Hagen. CD Proceedings of the 21st ICDE World Conference, Hong Kong. 57

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