Research Profile: Online Multimedia Education

Many students spend a lot of time playing games. If we can present education in a way that is similar to what is attracting them, then they spend some of that time educating themselves instead of just playing without any benefit. That would be good.

- Dr. Irene Cheng, Adjunct Professor of Computing Science, University of Alberta


Using mobile phones to teach and learn.

In the olden days, when people over 40 were kids, they allegedly had to walk for miles to get to school and it was uphill both ways. Also, the education itself was sometimes a little dry. Learning often consisted of two simple steps: 1. Here’s the information. 2. Memorize it.

Learning that the water molecule is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, for example, was little more than being told this fact and repeating it at test time.

Well, it’s no longer the olden days, and educators are trying to make learning more imaginative than just rote memorization of facts and figures. One group contributing to this effort is a team of researchers at the University of Alberta.


Ivan Filippov presenting you with a new way to learn about molecules.

For instance, this team would test your knowledge of a water molecule by presenting you with an illustration of the periodic table of elements. You would then construct the water molecule by selecting atoms from the periodic table, dragging them into a virtual workspace, and linking them together.

Building the water molecule is intuitive and easy, and it’s a task that gives you an opportunity to interact rather than just regurgitate. You can even rotate the molecule in 3D and see it from all sides. But the niftiest thing about it might be that even as the question tests your knowledge, it reinforces and enhances what you know.

This reinvigorated chemistry question is just one example of how the U of A research team is striving to enrich education with the help of online and multimedia tools.


Irene Cheng and Chris Kerr.

The team is housed in the Multimedia Research Centre in the Department of Computing Science and is helmed by Dr. Anup Basu, the iCORE/Gautam Rao/NSERC industry research chair in multimedia, and Dr. Irene Cheng, the director of the Multimedia Research Centre.

The multimedia aspect of the team’s work is a key one. “Our lab is multimedia, so we make use of video, audio, image, animation, and 3D objects,” says Cheng. “Any media that can help the students to improve their performance, we try to incorporate.”

The water molecule question is part of one of the team’s biggest projects, the CROME project.

CROME stands for Castle Rock Online Multimedia Education. A major project partner is Castle Rock Research. Castle Rock produces the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum materials for Alberta Education and has enlisted the team to adapt these print resources for online delivery.

To move these resources online, the team is creating what they call item types. “An item type is a template,” says Cheng. “So there’s no content; it’s just like a container. Later a curriculum designer will fit the content into it.”

The water molecule question is an example of content that’s inserted into an item type.

Adaptive testing: Ask not how the student can perform for the test, but how the test can perform for the student

Item types can do more than test the knowledge of students and enhance their learning in the process. For example, the team is also incorporating item types into an adaptive testing framework. Adaptive testing tracks every decision students make as they answer questions.

“Everyone can start on the same questions,” says Cheng. “Depending on what students get right or wrong, they get more difficult or easier questions. So each student will follow a different path, and… we can estimate the ability level of a particular student.”

It’s different from regular classroom evaluation in that the teacher has better opportunity to cater to the specific abilities of any student, whether the student is learning-disabled or gifted.

The teacher can also observe a student’s progress very precisely, since every move a student makes is tracked. Not only do teachers see what questions students got wrong, but they also see exactly where students made their mistakes.

“We can achieve individualized student performance improvement in a way that cannot be done by paper and pencil,” says Cheng.

Putting intelligence to the item type test

Psychologist Howard Gardner theorizes that intelligence isn’t a single thing, but rather several things. He identifies seven types such as spatial intelligence and musical intelligence.

“We can implement item types to test these seven intelligences,” says Cheng, and this is exactly what the team is doing in another research project.

Master’s student Chris Kerr has been working on item types for testing the seven intelligences. He describes an item type for testing musical intelligence: “It’s a series of tones playing different rhythms, and you have to be able to reproduce it,” he says.

“(Musical intelligence is) a lot more basic than what someone might think,” explains Kerr. “It has to do with your ability to recognize rhythm patterns and different pitches and reproduce them. Here we’re testing your ability to make out patterns and rhythms.”

Adds Cheng, “We have to design (item types for testing the seven intelligences) differently from those testing subject knowledge. (Subject knowledge) is straightforward. You ask a question; the (student answers). But this is more abstract... So it’s a bit more work.”

Interested and engaged anytime, anywhere

This is just some of the work on the education front that keeps the research team busy.

For the CROME project, for example, the team is also adapting item types to work not just on computer monitors but also the tiny screens of cell phones and other handheld devices.

This effort reflects another crucial goal of the team: to make education as universal as possible. “We want our applications to be triple A: for anyone, anytime, anywhere,” says Cheng.

In many parts of the world, people can’t afford a computer, but they can afford a cell phone. Cheng witnessed this first-hand when she visited India recently. “In Bombay, I noticed that people selling things in the street, although they’re probably poor, have a cell phone. Why can’t they make use of what they have for education?”

There is still much work to be done, but Cheng says the team is encouraged by what it has accomplished so far. And preliminary feedback from students and teachers has been positive.

“Already high school students tell us they feel more engaged (compared to a multiple choice test). Getting students more interested in learning is our objective... If students are more interested, they are more engaged and maybe spend more time learning.”

Article and photos by Erin Ottosen, 2007.