November 19, 2000

From Gerald R. Lucas

Computer Access in the Academy: Multimedia Rhetoric

A recent commercial for Intel’s electronic postcard software suggests that users will “find a reason to send one.” A colleague of mine is presently involved in a project, heavily funded by Microsoft, that seeks to find academic uses for Microsoft’s most recent productivity suite Office 2000. These seemingly disparate situations share a disturbing trait — a trend that I have noticed with more frequency: companies churning out technologies — whether productivity tools or new hardware — that we, as academics, are forced to find or invent uses for, or do without.

Now, logically, companies should consult its academic users before developing tools that academics might use. However, academics do not supply broad enough monetary support for soft-/hardware developers, often receiving educational discounts for the same products that businesses buy at full price. With big business as the primary audience for technological developments in personal computer operation, the academy must creatively discover uses for these tools as-is, or do without, relying instead on the tried-and-true ink interface.

Obviously, higher education has an ethical responsibility to provide its students with exposure to and training in the latest technologies. Well, setting these important pragmatic reasons aside — reasons that support big business anyway — my concern is how we as academics use technology within our disciplines of research, pedagogy, and presentation. We cannot afford to linger in the days of print; even though the book form still provides the primary means of disseminating knowledge, we must, for the sake of communication, teaching, and critique keep abreast of current developments in technological literacy. While we might decide to play the individual Luddite, that position within in the academy is irresponsible and unethical. Yet, the decision to embrace technology in our disciplines does not require us to practice blind acceptance. We still have the duty to remain critical of the technologies at hand.

With sundry multimedia authoring/presentation tools avail-able, one of our jobs is to figure out which facilitate the completion of our individual research, teaching, and presentation goals most efficaciously. Most tools at hand provide adequate output and user interfaces, but I define an efficacious program using several distinct categories. The program must:

  • Be compatible
  • Be intuitive and logical
  • Provide a wide-range multimedia support
  • Have internal and hypertextual options
  • Supply various interactive features
  • Compatibility and Necessary Considerations

One of the features that all programs need to be useful is cross-platform compatibility. Most of the political implications of this feature extend far beyond this article’s purview; however, we as educators must be wary of the private sector’s influence on how we teach and research. As information technologies gain a stronger presence in academia, we must assume a responsibility in assuring that these applications serve our purposes, not vice versa. A major software company’s decision to write a program in a certain way or their determination not to support a certain platform must be factors that inform our choices of what software we adopt for educational purposes. The very fact of the computer’s presence in the classroom forces us to reevaluate our traditional pedagogical paradigms in order to incorporate this technology usefully in our teaching. This fact makes it necessary for us to be informed about the choices that we have, not adopt a program or platform based on its market dominance.

Cross-platform compatibility allows both students and teachers a choice in what platform they know and are comfortable with as individuals, rather than forcing them to use a platform that a company has adopted for its own political agendas. However, one should also not be blind to a parent facility’s resources; if the school or university serves a majority of its students with labs, then this fact might also influence software decisions. Yet, I posit, cross-platform compatibility should remain a criterion in our choices because, if nothing else, it keeps choice paramount.

Implicit within an informed decision about the adoption of multimedia tools is also a question of access — both economic and intellectual; the latter will be covered in the next section. Access in this context means cost: What is the price of the product? Does the company provide a fully-functional demonstration version or will students be forced to buy the product? What will it cost to equip labs and classrooms with the software? How much is too much to ask students and administrators to pay? Ideally, price should not affect our decisions when it comes to education, but all disciplines have felt the tightening of the allowance belt, and we cannot responsibly ignore this question.

Finally, we must be cautious about over-zealous advocates of technology in our ranks, both administrators and teachers. The compatibility question also extends into curriculum. Does the inclusion of technology in a math class have the potential to improve the quality of a mathematics education? Are computers compatible with the study of the humanities, or should they be avoided as a distraction? I suggest that we avoid extremes when answering this question: neither a technophilic embracing nor a Luddite’s repudiation of technology will help us address these questions critically. Above all, I suggest, we must consider the compatibility of computers in our pedagogical philosophies. We should not be afraid to engage our own approaches to education and how they relate to the inclusion of technology, nor should we blindly ignore the potential that computers bring to education. A critical look at the particulars in individual cases should, however, begin with compatibility — both in platform and curriculum — to reach the broadest audience possible.

Multimedia Accessibility

The question of access is a question of literacy. I suggest that when discussing multimedia, we must consider two points of access: the technology’s capabilities and the user’s. How do we design our scholarly productions and activities in order to rest assured that most of our students and colleagues will have access? Will my colleague who is working on the Microsoft Office 2000 project produces be accessible? Only by very few. Even though I have reservations about the ideology of this project, work on developing new tools for collaboration and authoring is important. However, tools that will be used now must be accessible by the users.

There is no need to design Web sites for Lynx anymore. Most computer users who access the Internet at all have the assistance of a PPP protocol and a graphical Web browser. While we can be sure that simple text-based Web pages will be accessible by all, most users are now more sophisticated because of their technology’s literacy. Current operating systems make configuring the computer for Internet use much easier today than just a year or two ago. Newer computers have at least 28.8 baud modems allowing access to graphics, frames, tables, and plug-in dependent files. Even new developments in the integration of web sites with multimedia tools, such as QuickTime 4.0, even allow older, slower computers to run streaming video and audio. Most plug-ins are free for download from their manufacturers for any who dare to brave the capitalist onslaught. Web pages provide an excellent way to disseminate our information to users; just the sheer popular presence of the World Wide Web makes it accessible by most users. Yet, many Web-page authors get over zealous in their use of multimedia, especially video and audio. This multimedia should still be kept at a minimum, unless delivery is restricted to a LAN, which is rarely the case in academia. Local Area Networks and dedicated computer classrooms allow for more control of the technology’s literacy, but not the users’ varying levels.

The diverse literacy levels of students and colleagues might be more than can easily be estimated. Yet, I suggest, we can take logical precautions by emulating the rhetorician: know our audience as well as possible. Any multimedia mode that we choose for authoring may have an adjustment period by any user, but, as I mention above, we may take time to determine how intuitive, how compatible, and how accessible a product is. Here, the World Wide Web, and applications like WebCT that take advantage of this familiar interface, remains a logical choice.

Some Final Words

While I do not suggest standing still in our multimedia experimentation, I do suggest we strongly consider our audience in any authoring we do. We need to stay on the leading edge, avoiding excessiveness on either side of the technology balance, but not go so far that we cannot communicate with those who would most benefit from our productions. We must resist the urge to fulfill individual multimedia projects that have no practical benefit to our immediate audience, yet still encourages users to extend their conceptions of how and why information is disseminated in this age where technology itself is becoming the message. Do we, as Intel suggests, really need to “find a reason to send one”?