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Middle school students as multimedia designers: a project-based learning approach.

Engaging students as multimedia designers extends multimedia authoring by placing students in a designer's position. Instead of merely learning the technical skills and creating a project, the designers need to consider such issues as the needs of the audience, the distribution of work in a group, the management of time and resources, and the deadline. They need to implement steps such as planning, designing, evaluation, and discussion. The authenticity and complexity of the design tasks provide students a learning environment where they can develop cognitive skills and skills of high value to the work place. This study investigated the effect of being multimedia designers on middle school students' learning of design knowledge, their cognitive strategy use, and their motivation toward learning. The findings showed that such an environment could facilitate the development of cognitive skills for the middle school students and actively engage them in learning. Students significantly increased their understanding of the importance of the cognitive skills involved in a design task from pre to posttreatment. They have internalized the design knowledge to some extent. However, sustaining these middle school students' motivation toward learning while they are engaging in a series of "boring" activities (e.g., planning, testing) for an extensive period of time presents a challenge and calls for creative teaching techniques.


Promoting higher order thinking has been an issue of critical importance to educators. Research shows that appropriate uses of technology such as using computers as cognitive tools to extend human minds can have potentials to enhance students' thinking skills (Jonassen, 1994). An example of such technology use is to engage learners as multimedia designers. Engaging learners-as-multimedia-designers uses a project-based learning approach, an innovative instructional strategy which shifts learning focus from "teacher telling" to student-centered "learning by doing" (Thomas, 2000). Preliminary research on the topic shows some encouraging results for motivating students and enhancing students' cognitive skills (Lehrer, Erickson, & Connell, 1994; Liu & Rutledge, 1997; Spoehr, 1993).

Project-Based Learning (PBL): Its Theoretical Underpinnings and Benefits

Project work has a long tradition in education. Kilpatrick (1918) has advocated "project method" and Dewey (1900) has promoted learning from experience. Typically project-based learning has five characteristics: (a) centrality, (b) a driving question, (c) authenticity, (d) constructive investigation, and (e) student autonomy (Thomas, 2000). In PBL, the project usually serves as the central teaching strategy to drive students to learn and encounter what they need to learn. The practice of project-based learning usually starts with a driving question, compelling students to learn about the central concepts and principles of a topic. This driving question usually corresponds closely with what happens in real-life and requires students to play authentic roles and perform meaningful tasks. To solve this question, students are engaged in such cognitive processes as problem solving, decision-making, designing, and reflective thinking. These processes help students transform information and construct their own knowle dge and interpretation. Throughout the process, students are encouraged to take charge of their learning and become autonomous for their decisions. When they accomplish their project, students are often endowed with a great sense of achievement.

Project-based learning derives its theoretical underpinnings from constructivist epistemological belief, which emphasizes providing a rich context for knowledge construction (Driscoll, 1994). The richer and more complex the context is, the more opportunities learners are afforded in building their knowledge. Examples of rich contexts include authentic tasks with real-world relevance. PBL encourages learners' cognitive involvement and entails the use of higher-order thinking skills. When learning occurs in such a context, the learning goals become meaningful and relevant to the learners.

Learning in a rich context, however, can present challenges to students. Scaffolding from the teachers and support from the peers are needed. Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989) have proposed engaging students in cognitive apprenticeship, in which teachers provide modeling, coaching, and scaffolding to students to facilitate their learning process. Teachers and students can form a learning community to interact with each other. When learners collaborate, they are exposed to ideas and solutions different from their own, and new insights may arise from this collaboration and negotiation process, which may otherwise not come about. Higher cognitive processes can develop as a result of this social interaction. The constructivist theory has provided direction for the practice of project-based learning. PBL emphasizes student-centered instruction, requires students' active participation, and engages them in authentic problem investigations (Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial, & Palincsar, 1991). Constructive investigation of the central questions, teacher scaffolding and peer collaboration are important characteristics of a project-based learning process.

Engaging Learners-as-Multimedia-Designers as a Type of PBL

Engaging learner-as-multimedia-designer is a type of project-based learning. Multimedia research in the past has mainly focused on testing the effect of predeveloped multimedia programs on students' learning. Research has shown that browsing multimedia/hypermedia programs alone will not automatically induce the constructive cognitive processes (Tergan, 1997). Instead, learning is most effective when it is embedded in social experience and situated in authentic problem-solving contexts (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). The instructional approach of engaging learners as multimedia designers, which provides both a problem and a social context for students, and engaging students in active use of knowledge, has presented a new alternative for using multimedia in instruction (Carver, Lehrer, Connell, & Erickson, 1992; Jonassen, 1994; Lehrer, 1993).

As multimedia designers, learners are given the opportunity to be creative and pursue actively their own intended goals. They are given an opportunity to become an intellectual partner with the technology and engage in a constructive learning process (Salomon, Perkins, & Globerson, 1991). The emphasis is on using multimedia tools to assist in processing information meaningfully and in integrating new knowledge with prior knowledge. The nature of a design project presents students with an authentic challenge and requires them to tap into their diverse intelligences (e.g., artistic, logical, linguistic and musical) and talents to accomplish the task (Gardner, 1999). Students are engaged in a variety of activities from brainstorming ideas, gathering data, researching information, writing, creating art works, to programming and evaluating. Some researchers have proposed that engaging students in these activities can help them develop many higher-order thinking skills.

In fact, 16 major thinking skills have been identified and are required of a designer. These thinking skills form five categories: (a) project management, (b) research, (c) organization and representation, (d) presentation, and (e) reflection (Carver, Lehrer, Connell, & Erickson, 1992). Each skill in these categories has its own place in the entire development process, and is needed for producing a successful multimedia program. The development process, from the inception of an idea to the finished product, involves exercising these thinking skills. It is not only important to acquire them, but also to internalize these skills. In addition, designing a multimedia project offers a social context for students to work together in a team. Students assume a different role, whether he/she is a programmer, a graphic artist, a designer, or a manager, and collaborate in completing the project. Such collaboration and group interaction provides a concrete and meaningful context for enhancing cognitive development throug h social negotiation. The potential of facilitating the development of these cognitive skills through a learner-as-multimedia-designer environment has excited many educators.

A number of studies have already documented the promising results of engaging students in the role of a designer. Some earlier studies were conducted using the Logo programming language. Harel (1991) engaged fourth-grade students as software designers in their Instructional Software Design Project (ISDP). Students used Logowriter to create instructional software on the topic of fractions for other students to use. As a result, students improved their ability to work on fractions and learned more about Logo programming than the control groups. The results showed that students have developed problem-finding skills and increased their awareness of strategies to solve a problem. Kafai (1996) worked with students in designing games using the Logo programming language and discovered that students not only acquired design skills but also reached a high level of reflection beyond the traditional school thinking.

Spoehr's study (1993) showed that students developed more complex knowledge representations and various thinking skills through the design of hypermedia programs. Lehrer and his colleagues (Lehrer, Erickson, & Connell, 1994) found similar results. In their study, ninth-grade students used a program called Hyper Author to develop hypermedia presentations about a topic in American history for their peers as an educational tool. As a result, students significantly increased their time ontask behavior and internalized some design skills over the course of their design projects. Students' responses indicated their increased understanding in such areas as: (a) mental effort and involvement, (b) interest, (c) planning, (d) collaboration, and (e) individualization.

Comparing seven multimedia science projects conducted at the high school, middle school and elementary school level, McGrath and her colleagues found that students' self-esteem was greatly enhanced (McGrath, Cumaranatunge, Ji, Chen, Broce, & Wright, 1997). The boys and girls were equally enthusiastic and committed to the projects. However, the researchers noted that students were not prepared to do the research and organizing tasks in the beginning. It was suggested that there may be an age difference in readiness for design--with the sense of responsibility absent at the elementary level, very mixed at the middle school level, and very impressive at the high school level. They also raised the hypothesis that novelty may be the factor for student motivation when one middle school class that had used multimedia for years responded that they were not very interested in using multimedia during the project.

In our research of engaging learners as multimedia designers, we have followed the cognitive apprenticeship framework (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989), and incorporated principles such as modeling, coaching, scaffolding and fading, articulation, reflection, and exploration in constructing the learning environment (Liu, 1998; Liu & Pedersen, 1998; Liu & Rutledge, 1997). Differing from other studies on the topic, the classroom learning simulated the multimedia industry practice as closely as possible. The students followed the design model used by multimedia companies (Liu, Jones, & Hemstreet; 1998), learned multimedia professional tools (rather than simplified ones), and were given the opportunity to work in teams and in collaboration with their clients to design for a real audience. Student learning was scaffolded through: (a) explicit design instruction; (b) learning various state-of-art multimedia tools; (c) coaching by the teacher, and the clients; and (d) interaction with l ocal multimedia experts. The research with at-risk high school students showed that the students have significantly increased their interest and involvement throughout the project (Liu, 1998; Liu & Rutledge, 1997). Students' self-efficacy was enhanced and they obtained a more positive image about themselves. Many students have reset their goals for the future--to work in multimedia design profession rather than working in fast food restaurants. In terms of the production and design knowledge, students have recognized the importance of storyboarding and collaborating with team members. The results also indicated that working with a client and designing for a real audience helped to bring about bigger changes in the students' motivation and design knowledge (Liu, 1998). In a study with elementary school students (Liu & Pedersen, 1998), two fourth-grade classes were engaged in hypermedia design as part of their science class. Students in the experimental group worked collaboratively as designers while students i n the nondesigner group worked individually in a more teacher-led environment. Similar results were found that engaging students in hypermedia authoring can enhance students' motivation, and allowing students to be hypermedia designers can support the development of design knowledge and higher order thinking skills. The findings also indicated that students in the designer group became less interested toward the end of the project.

The benefits of a learner-as-multimedia-designer approach are obvious. However, research also points out the challenge and complexity of designing such a constructivist learning environment. An important reason is that many elements are involved in constructing such an environment: The learners, the tasks, the context, the process, the coaches/teachers, and the outcome. A successful implementation depends on how these factors interact with each other. Scaffolding in multiple ways and different design activities are needed to address the needs of different age groups of the learners, and their curriculum needs.


This present study continues our inquiry to find out how we can best construct a learner-as-multimedia-designer environment based upon the cognitive apprenticeship principles. Following a similar theoretical framework (Liu, 1998; Lie & Pedersen, 1998; Liu & Rutledge, 1997), this study was to replicate the previous findings by examining learners' motivation and design knowledge. It also extended the previous research by studying the middle school students population and taking a more comprehensive look at the cognitive skills the middle school students developed during the process. We are interested in finding out if it is possible to involve middle school students in designing programs for a real audience using professional multimedia tools and allow them to have responsibilities and freedom in decision making.

The purpose of this research is, therefore, to examine in what way a learner-as-multimedia-designer environment affected middle school students' cognitive skills development and their motivation. The research questions are:

1. Are middle school students' cognitive skills affected by being in the role of a multimedia designer? If so, to what extent? The cognitive skills in this case referred to (a) multimedia design knowledge acquired and (b) cognitive strategies used.

2. In what way does a learner-as-multimedia-designer environment affect middle school students' motivation toward learning?



The participants were students in an elective multimedia class (N=16) from a middle school in the southwestern part of the United States. Eighty percent of the student population were white and 20% were of a minority race. The five female and 11 male students were in the age range of 12 to 14. To be admitted into this multimedia class, students needed a GPA of B and above, recommendations from two teachers and an essay describing why they wanted to take this class. These seventh and eighth graders had fairly high computer skills. On a Likert scale of 1 (not good at all) to 5 (very good) on computer skills, 33% of the students rated their computer skills as 5 (very good), 47% rated their computer skills as 4, and 20% rated their computer skills as 3. Many had used software such as Claris Works, Hyperstudio, Photoshop, and the Internet. Four of them were in the multimedia class for the second year. The class was co-taught by an art teacher and a multimedia teacher. Students spent roughly two-thirds of their tim e using computers and one-third learning art using a noncomputer based curriculum. Two researchers experienced in multimedia design and production worked closely with the students throughout the project.

The Learner-as-Multimedia-Designer Environment

The study took place during the spring semester of 2000. The multimedia class met every day for 45 minutes for a total of 18 weeks. This school offers a multimedia class as an elective for its seventh and eighth graders (such opportunity is not common for most middle schools) and the curriculum is in existence for the second year. The class had access to five Power Macintosh computers, 15 Dell computers, a color scanner, a digital camera, and a video camera. Professional multimedia software were available for use such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, and Microsoft PowerPoint. However, not all computers were equipped with all the software and zip drives. Students needed to share the resources, and transfer files from one platform to another, or one computer to another (as some computers were more powerful than the others). The PC and the Mac labs were quite a distance away from each other. With a very tight schedule in the middle school, it was challenging for students to make full use of the 45 minutes whi le spending some time transferring files or waiting for their turn to get onto a computer with some specific software.

Unlike a traditional classroom, this class simulated a multimedia production house. At the beginning of the semester, students were explained about the objectives of the class, and the tasks to complete. The organization of the class consisted of three phases. Phase I (approximately five weeks) was devoted to learning different features of the software and creating a small multimedia presentation as a practice. The goal for this phase was to learn the tools and be able to use state-of-art multimedia software. Phase II (approximately eight weeks) focused on working in groups and creating a large multimedia presentation for use in an upcoming teacher job fair. Students followed a four-stage development model (planning, designing, producing, and revising) (Liu, Jones, & Hemstreet, 1998) and created a program for a real audience. During the planning stage, students were engaged in critiquing a similar presentation created by teachers in the previous year and in brainstorming what to create and how to make it bett er (the content), whom to create for (the audience), and how to proceed (the process). The class decided on different subtopics to include. After discussions and negotiations, students were divided into three teams with about five students in each team. Each team was responsible for a few subtopics. Students also determined their roles and responsibilities in the team. Following the practice in the multimedia industry, students assumed the role of a researcher, a graphic artist, a programmer, a project manager, and audio/video specialist, depending on his or her preference. Cognitive aids such as storyboard and flowchart samples were provided to guide students on their planning of the project.

In the design stage, the students were introduced to four basic multimedia design principles: consistency, simplicity, legibility, and contrast. Students were presented the examples and nonexamples of the four design principles. Students were also engaged in defining and refining their topic, subtopics, and the strategies to use for presenting the information. Each team created a flowchart and a storyboard, detailing the overall structure of their program and how each screen was related to each other. Teachers and researchers provided directions and offered suggestions for students' designs throughout this phase.

In the production stage, students realized their storyboard ideas on the computer screen. These middle school students used some of the state-of-art multimedia programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere. They scanned graphics, took pictures using digital cameras, and created images using Adobe Photoshop. Students used video cameras to capture school events and converted the video clips into the digital video format. They researched their topics using a variety of methods such as interviewing teachers, writing letters to teachers/students, and searching the internet. Finally, they assembled all elements (graphic, text, video, and audio) into the PowerPoint program. Teachers and researchers continued their coaching by offering suggestions on where to look for the information, how to use the software, and checking the accuracy of the content.

Like the practice in a multimedia production house, evaluation and revision occurred continuously throughout the four stages. Students would show their work to their team members, teachers, and/or researchers to get feedback. Revisions were made immediately. When each team completed their parts, the whole project was assembled and the class was given a chance to evaluate the whole project again. In addition, a field trip to a local multimedia production company was arranged. Students toured the company's facility and received a debriefing about the industry and the multimedia design and production process. This event provided students a first-hand experience of what it was like to be a multimedia designer and a chance to reflect on their own experience.

In Phase III (approximately three weeks), students used the skills they acquired and worked on creating a web site template using Claris HomePage for their school. While students received direct instruction and much guidance during phases I & II, such instruction and guidance were gradually faded in Phase III. Students were very much on their own, applying the skills and making their own decisions. There were some review sessions on how to use the software, Claris Homepage, but there was no direct teaching. Guidance and assistance were provided only as needed. While the goal for Phase II was to provide needed scaffolds for the students and helped them acquire important design skills, the goal for Phase III was to see if they could apply what they learned on their own in a new situation. Students also chose their own teams in this third phase whereas in Phase II, the teachers assigned students to teams. Student teams were in a friendly contest with each other to come up with the best template design while all teams worked on different aspects of the same project in Phase II.

Data Sources and Analyses

To measure the change in motivation and cognitive skills, both quantitative and qualitative data sources were used. The triangulation of both the quantitative and qualitative data was to provide a better picture of the process under study.

Quantitative Data

Motivation questionnaire. To assess students' motivation, a questionnaire was used consisting of 26 items from the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ), (Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1991). The questionnaire addressed five aspects of motivation: (a) intrinsic goal orientation (Alpha=.74), (b) extrinsic goal orientation (Alpha=.62), (c) task value (Alpha=.90), (d) control of learning beliefs (Alpha=.68), and (e) self-efficacy for learning (Alpha=.93). The MSLQ instrument was designed for understanding students' learning in a specific situation such as a classroom setting and has been widely used in the motivation research (McKeachie, Pintrich, & Lin, 1985; Pintrich & Garcia, 1991; Pintrich, McKeachie, & Lin, 1987). Sample statements were "In a class like this, I prefer course material that really challenges me so I can learn new things," and "I am confident I can learn the basic concepts taught in this course." This motivation questionnaire was given as a pre and post test. Paired T- tests were conducted.

Resource management strategy questionnaire. To assess students' strategy use, four scales were selected from the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ), (Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1991) with regard to resource management strategies. These scales are: (a) time and study environment management (4 items, Alpha=.76), (b) effort regulation (4 items, Alpha=.69), (c) peer learning (3 items, Alpha=.76), and (d) help seeking (4 items, Alpha=.52). Sample questions included "I make good use of my study time for this course," "I work hard to do well in this class even if I don't like what we are doing," "I try to work with other students from this class to complete the course assignment," and "When I can't understand the material in this course, I ask another student in this class for help." Statements not relevant to the learning environment were dropped. For example, since students had to go from the Mac lab to the PC lab and the art classroom throughout the semester, the question "I usually study in a place where I can concentrate on my course work" does not accurately describe students' situation and was dropped. This questionnaire was given as a pre and posttest. Paired T-tests were conducted.

Project design questionnaire. A 20-item questionnaire based upon Lehrer and his colleagues' work was used to assess learners' various cognitive skills needed in producing multimedia projects (Lehrer, et al., 1994). Each item used a five-point Likert scale with one being "not true of me" and five being "very true of me." The 20 items addressed six categories: audience (3 items), presentation (2 items), planning (3 items), interest (5 items), mental effort (2 items), and collaboration (5 items). Sample statements included "I often ask myself about the best way to present an idea, like should I use a graphic or just write about it," "I think having other students look at my project is important," and "Doing projects sure beats listening in class." The KR 20 for the questionnaire was .82. This instrument was used in other similar research (Liu & Pedersen, 1998). Students completed the instrument at the beginning and the end of the project. Paired T-tests were conducted on each of the six categories.

Task ranking. Students were given a list of 10 tasks relevant to their project development, and were asked to rank the tasks according to their relative importance. Some of the tasks were "Making the graphics very colorful," "Have someone to try out the program," and "Plan and write down on your index card what your screen will look like." This instrument has been used in a number of research studies on the same topic (Lehrer et al., 1994; Liu & Pedersen, 1998; Liu & Rutledge, 1997). Students were given this instrument at the end of the project. Descriptive analysis was performed.

Concept map. Students were asked to complete a pre-concept map and a post-concept map on "multimedia development." Students were given the core node of "creating a multimedia project" and were asked to create a map of any concepts they would link to this core node and label the importance of each link. At the beginning of the semester, a brief tutorial on creating a concept map was given and each concept map generation took about 15 minutes. The differences between the two concept maps were analyzed descriptively in terms of their depth and breadth.

Qualitative Data

Reflection logs and interviews. Students were asked to reflect on their learning experiences after Phase II and Phase III of the project. For each reflection, students were given some questions. Sample questions included "Of all the things we have done this semester for this multimedia class, what activities do you like the most? Why?," "What activities do you like the least? Why?" Observations and reflections on the process by the researchers were also made.

Interviews were conducted with the students on their design and thinking process at the end of the research. Following Miles and Huberman's guidelines (1994), the data were transcribed, chunked, and coded using themes emerged from the data. Patterns from the data were extracted and the relationships between the coded segments were compared and contrasted. With the research questions as a guide, the data were then sorted into categories and sub-categories according to their common themes and shared relationships. The qualitative data together were to provide richer and more detailed information, and were used to substantiate the results from the statistical analyses.


Results From the Quantitative Data Analyses

Motivation questionnaire. The results of analyses indicated that there were significant differences between the pretest and posttest scores for intrinsic goal orientation, task value, control of learning beliefs, and self-efficacy: t(l,14)intrinsic= 2.47, p< .05; t(l,14)task= -2.62, p< .05; t(1,14)belief= -3.39, p< .01; t(1,14)self-efficacy= -2.28, p< .05 (Table 1). That is, the participating students had significantly decreased their scores of intrinsic goal, while they, at the same time, had significantly increased their scores of task value, learning belief and self-efficacy from pretreatment to posttreatment. Though the post extrinsic scores were lower than those in the pretest, the difference was not statistically significant: t(l,14)extrinsic 2.03, p = .062 (Table 1).

Strategy use questionnaire. The T-test results showed that there were some statistically significant differences between the pretest and posttest scores. Students' peer learning strategy use has significantly increased from pretest to posttest while their time and study environment management has significantly decreased (Table 2). The difference between the pretest and the posttest scores in effort regulation was close to a significant level of p < .05: [Mean.sub.pre] =5.31; [] =4.77. There was no statistical significant difference between the pretest and posttest scores in students' help-seeking strategy (Table 2).

Project design questionnaire. The paired-T tests showed that there were no statistically significant differences between the pretest and posttest scores. However, the mean scores for the posttest were slightly higher than those of the pretest for the categories of (a) audience, (b) presentation, (c) planning, and (d) collaboration (Table 3). Though not statistically significant, the T-test analyses showed the post scores were a bit lower than the pre-scores for the categories of (a) interest, and (b) mental effort (Table 3).

Task ranking. Students were given a list of 10 design tasks to rank their relative importance. The more important tasks in the students' opinion included "Discuss with your group what info to include," and "Research and find relevant information," "Plan and create a storyboard of what your program will look like" (Table 4). The less important tasks included "Making animation," and "Making sounds." It is interesting to notice that the important five tasks were all related to planning and designing. Four out of the five less important tasks were related to the mechanics of creating the media (Table 4).

There is a significant difference in the number of concepts accurately listed by the students from their preconcept maps to the postconcept maps: [TotalNodes.sub.pre] = 55, [] = 77; t(1,14) = -3.l4, p <.0 1. Students listed significantly more relevant concepts in the postmaps. In the preconcept maps, most of the nodes were about the production and only 12 nodes were about some aspects of planning, or designing. This number increased to 41 in the post-concept maps. More importantly, the concepts of "storyboarding," "designing," or "testing/evaluating" were not mentioned at all in the pre-maps while they were listed for 27 times in the postmaps. The concepts listed in the premaps were less specific. Figure 1 shows an example of a premap and a postmap.

Results From the Qualitative Data Analyses

The qualitative data (through interviews, reflection logs, and researchers' observations) provided more insights and detailed information that substantiated the statistical analyses. The most important qualitative data findings are summarized as follows.

Importance of planning and storyboarding. It is clear that after developing the multimedia programs, these middle school students had a good understanding of the importance of planning and how to use the technique of storyboarding to lay out the ideas and steps of implementation. When asked what things were important to produce a good multimedia program, almost all students mentioned planning and storyboarding. A sample statement was "I like the storyboarding. It helped us a lot because when you started, you were clueless." Students also acquired some understanding of the need for testing. Some students commented, "If we have another project, I'd suggest everybody have fun doing it and do it faster and have time to revise it. And plan ahead so that we have time in the end [for testing]."

Time management. The qualitative data indicated that the students overall had some trouble dealing with the time and environment constraints. Students commented on the difficulty of working in two different labs that were a distance away. One student said, "I didn't like that most of team weren't always in the same room. I would have to ask Bob (team leader) a question and I might end up not being able to find him." Another stated, "If there is anything I can think of to improve is that we can get together in one place. There were so many different places you have to be, like way up there and way down here....The group is all spread out." Some students recognized the challenge of managing the time well in doing the multimedia project:

If there is anything I would like to improve on the project, it will probably be the time we have to do it [the project]. If we started this a couple of weeks earlier, we probably could have really finished this off and done it nicer. I know we already have five weeks to work on it, but we spent a lot of the weeks learning how to use some stuff and kind of experimenting with it. It was kind of hard.

Team work. Students agreed on the advantages of working in a group. One commented on the teamwork process: "I like having a group that was really fun. We had a good group and we all helped each other and everything." Others commented on helping each other to solve problems:

I think working in a group has its advantages as well as working on it by yourself. You can overcome obstacles together. Our group worked well together. If somebody in our group didn't participate and contribute as much, then we go and talk to the person and tell them: "Look, we need your help and we need to finish this project on time, or we will get a bad grade. You should help or you should come after school and finish your part by yourself." It usually worked.

Another student stated, "I like working with a group because it makes me feel comfortable. If you did it individually, nobody came and helped you, but in a group, somebody in your group will help you." One student, though he did not seem to like the group work, still recognized the value of being in a group: "I hate working in groups because I have my own ideas and things I want to do. ...but groups are sometimes helpful because they can help you if you don't know how to do something." Interestingly, a few students also seemed to feel that they did not need to contribute as much when working in a group. One student mentioned, "I think it is better that we worked together as a group because if we did it individually, it would have been a lot more work to do. Like we had three or four people in a group, we split the responsibilities. It made it easier." In general, these middle school students preferred to choose their own groups rather than being put in a group by the teacher. They believed that they worked be tter if the members were all friends with each other.

Interest and engagement. Students considered the skills they were learning valuable and learning to create the multimedia projects was fun. They worked hard in this class. "This class has to do with computers, graphics, and hard working. You have to be patient and confident to finish projects." "That is not a class that you can do nothing and get a 100 for the grade." However, the interview and observation data also showed that these middle school students grew a bit bored of the same development process used for Phases II & III, and became less interested toward the end, a phenomenon also found in other studies (Liu & Pedersen, 1998). Multimedia design skills such as brainstorming, storyboarding, designing, and testing/evaluating were new skills for the students to acquire. It was intentional that Phases II & III followed the same 4-phase model to provide multiple opportunities for the students to acquire and practice these skills. During each phase, a considerable amount of time was spent on the apparently "boring" tasks of planning, designing, and testing. The data showed that the students became aware of the importance of these tasks, but they did not like doing them as much as learning software programs.

Acquiring technical skills. An important decision in designing this workplace simulated learning environment is that the tools these middle school students use are those professional multimedia software (not simplified ones). If the students can learn to use these professional tools, they can relate this learning experience to skills desired in the workplace more easily. Most students recognized the value of knowing the software tools, and appreciated the learning opportunity. They believe what they are doing in the classroom today "will be useful in the future." Figures 2 and 3 showed some screen shots of the programs students created.


Being A Multimedia Designer and Cognitive Skills Development

One research question for this study is "Are the middle school students' cognitive skills affected by being in the role of a multimedia designer? If so, to what extent?" The findings showed that the answer to this question is positive and it is reflected in two aspects: (a) their acquisition of multimedia design knowledge and design skills and (b) their realization of the importance of resource management strategies.

Both quantitative and qualitative data indicated that the middle school students gained noticeably their design knowledge and skills. Though many students had good computer skills before participating in this multimedia project, few knew what multimedia development was about and none had engaged in the similar process previously. The analyses indicated that the increase in the students' design knowledge was significant from the pre to post semester. After 18 weeks of working intensively as a multimedia designer, these middle school students became aware of the different steps involved in creating a multimedia program. More importantly, they realized the significance of planning, designing, and testing. It is interesting to notice that "needing a storyboard, "leaving more time for revising," and "having a better interface" began to be part of these middle school students' vocabulary. This finding is consistent with other studies on the topic that engaging in the multimedia design process for an extensive perio d of time helps students internalize the design knowledge and skills (Lehrer et al., 1994; Liu, 1998; Liu & Rutledge, 1997). The results also showed that the students were able to not only list the different design tasks, but also differentiate the more important ones from less important ones. Designing for an audience, working for a "client," learning professional tools, and visiting a local multimedia company all helped create the real-world context for the learning experience and contribute to the development of the design skills.

To be a successful multimedia developer, one needs to be able to manage time well, meet deadlines, work well with team members, and solve potential conflicts. In this study, we looked at how the middle school students managed the available resources. Their resource management skills were examined in four areas: (a) peer learning, (b) help seeking, (c) effort regulation, and (d) time and study environment management. The findings showed that the students' help seeking behavior remained the same from pre to post semester, and their peer learning skill significantly increased while effort regulation decreased close to a significant level. Students' time and study environment management skills also significantly decreased.

At first sight, the unevenness of the results may be puzzling. Yet, a close examination of the data helps make sense of what happened. In this project-based learning environment, students collaborated with their team members on a continuous basis. Not surprisingly, they greatly increased their peer learning behavior. To complete the multimedia projects, students were engaged in intensive collaborative work--they brainstormed ideas, provided support to each other, and reviewed and evaluated each other's work. There were plenty of interaction opportunities within and across teams. However, perhaps due to this reliance on peer support, the students seemed to feel that they did not need to contribute as much and work as hard. Several students mentioned that they felt more comfortable working in a group and that they felt relieved knowing that somebody else would share the work load and responsibility. This may explain why the self-perceived effort regulation has decreased toward the end of the semester. Creating multimedia projects provides an opportunity for peer collaboration and potentially affords students an opportunity to reduce their effort. It will be important for researchers and teachers to devise a project process in which individual and group efforts are equally emphasized and taken into account, and thus encourage individual student's effort and peer collaboration at the same time.

The help-seeking strategy remained the same before and after the semester. Group work is often an integral part of the curriculum in this participating school. Students appeared to have developed a strategy to identity the source of help before they took this multimedia class, which explained that the students already knew how and from whom to seek help. In addition, various cognitive apprenticeship scaffolds provided by the teachers and researchers were available during the entire multimedia development process. Students were readily assisted in their learning. This may explain why the students' help-seeking strategy remained the same, as the need for them to develop new help seeking strategies was not immediate.

Students felt they reduced their skills in managing time and study environment resources. The difference between the pre and post treatment scores was statistically significant. The complexities of dealing with cross-platforms and server issues, working within a group, and handling multiple equipment, space and time constraints, along with creating multimedia elements, made the learning/working environment chaotic and not as "normal." As indicated in the data, students complained about the difficulty of getting together with their group members since the group was often dispersed in two different labs some distance away. When students needed a certain file, they may have to wait for their turns as not all computers were equipped with the multimedia software or were not all equally powerful. Computers crashed and files were lost at times. Students had to deal with the lost time and equipment constraints. All these could contribute to the decreasing sense of control over their time and study environment, and in fluenced their ability to meet the deadlines.

Comparing to many other middle schools, this participating school has sufficient hardware and software for multimedia development. Students in this school are at an advantage to have the multimedia class, as most schools do not. However, this research project simulates the learning as a workplace environment and has created more challenges. Ideally, there should be a dedicated computer lab for multimedia projects and all participating students can work on their projects in one room. This would help reduce significantly the environmental constraints and relieve some cognitive overload of creating multimedia. However, given the current technology status in most public schools and the need to keep hardware and software updated, one will face the challenge of making best use of the limited resources and the need to find a creative way to address the challenge. On the one hand, it is probably beneficial if students can learn to deal with various constraints at this young age and learn to be a good problem-solver. On the other hand, it will greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the project development if the hardware and software constraints are kept to a minimum. Given the challenges of implementing such a learner-as-multimedia-designer project in the current school settings, teachers and researchers should provide as much support as possible, and be willing to be flexible to maximize the learning opportunity for the students.

Being A Multimedia Designer and Motivation

The results on motivation are mixed. On the one hand, the findings showed that students recognized the value of learning multimedia skills, and liked what they were able to accomplish. They were particularly excited about the opportunity of learning multimedia professional software, and working like a multimedia professional, and felt confident about their abilities. On the other hand, the data indicated that these students became less interested and motivated toward the end of the semester, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Being able to get enrolled in this elective multimedia class was an honor. All participants were good students academically, earning As and Bs in their classes. Whether they were intrinsically motivated, extrinsically motivated, or both, these students were motivated toward learning from the beginning. The students considered multimedia development a new and exciting opportunity, but most of them equalized it to simply learning some software. Yet, developing multimedia programs is mor e than just creating graphics, sound, and video. This is an important realization for these middle school students. In addition, producing a quality multimedia program requires the developer to be detail oriented (Liu, Jones, & Hemstreet, 1998), a very difficult task for this age level. These middle school students eventually grew tired of the "long" and repetitive development process, and lost some interest in what they were doing. This finding was in line with other research showing novelty plays a role in middle school students' motivation (McGrath et al., 1997). Novelty, however, can play a positive role. The challenge for the teachers and researchers is to keep the students interested while engaging them in the more important, but less fun, tasks such as planning, designing, and evaluating (Liu & Pedersen, 1998; Liu & Rutledge, 1997). That is, to let the novel opportunities help keep students motivated. Another possible reason for this decreasing motivation at the end is that many students mentioned they would have liked to spend less time in doing noncomputer activities. Because of the way this class was structured, students' learning time was divided between two-thirds of computer based multimedia activities and one-third of noncomputer based art activities. This is a limitation to this research project, a predetermined school curriculum that could not be changed.

Being a Multimedia Designer and Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Project-based learning approach shifts learning focus from "teacher telling" to student centered "learning by doing" (Thomas, 2000). Engaging students as multimedia designers implements different aspects of the project-based learning approach.

The challenge to create a multimedia product for a target audience serves as the central curriculum activity to drive students to learn and solve problems along the way. In a simulated multimedia house such as in this case, students worked like multimedia professionals, a not so common opportunity for the middle school students. The need to meet the client's requirements by the deadlines, the hardware and software constraints, the distribution of the tasks among the group and the challenge to work with others of a different personality all make the learning situation more authentic and complex. There is no ready answer to the challenge. The students have to learn just in time, tap into their multiple intelligences, and share the responsibility. Such a learner-as-multimedia-designer environment encourages the students to be independent learners, good problem-solvers, and effective decision-makers. It also makes learning a fun experience, and thus motivates students.

The results of this study showed that engaging middle school students in being a multimedia designer can have positive impact on their cognitive skills acquisition. Simulating the classroom as a multimedia production house and allowing middle school students to work like professionals help students see the value and relevance of what they are learning. Though promoting higher order thinking skills is an educational goal, it is usually a challenge for the 12-to-14-year-olds to realize their importance and to develop such skills consciously. The learner-as-multimedia-designer environment provides a structure and an opportunity for the development of such cognitive skills. The findings showed that the middle school students began to acquire an understanding of the important design tasks such as storyboarding, designing, and testing, though they may not like doing these activities. The results also indicated that managing time well and effort regulation are not easy tasks for the middle school students, just as t hey are hard for the high school students as well (Liu, 1998; Liu & Rutledge, 1997).

Peer collaboration is essential for multimedia development. Working in a group and each playing a specific role are an important part of the project process. As a result of this close collaboration, many of these middle schools had an opportunity to learn from each other and appreciate the value of the teamwork. A number of the students reflected on their experience and realized others' strengths. One student said,

I like our leader. Our leader took responsibilities and kept everything in control. He kept everything together. We followed the four stages the first time, so it took longer. If we have done it before, it may have been faster. To improve the project, we could have communicated [better] with other groups. Some of the color combinations looked good and some don't. If we have talked to other groups, we could have coordinated the colors and could have made it [them] match.

Such reflective thinking is encouraged in this project-based learning and particularly welcome for development at this young age level.

Given the complex nature of implementing this learner-as-designer PBL environment, it is important to provide scaffolding to facilitate students' learning process. In this study, scaffolding was provided in multiple ways: (a) direct instruction about the design process by teachers and researchers; (b) a simulated multimedia production environment in which each student had chosen or was assigned a role of being a researcher, a programmer, a graphic artist, or a project manager; (c) direct interaction with the client and multimedia experts; (d) use of state-of-art multimedia tools; and (e) use of cognitive aids such as storyboards and flowcharts. The assessment tools in the form of questionnaires, interviews, and reflection logs provided additional scaffolding. The findings indicated these scaffolds were not only necessary, but also critical for a successful implementation of this PBL.

The challenges for implementing project-based learning are also obvious. In addition to what is cited in the literature (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Thomas, 2000), when the students are collaborating and working like multimedia professionals, they could get excited, and sometimes argue with each other. Noises are inevitable, and the classroom can be chaotic. In a traditional classroom, students are often listening and teachers are teaching. Teachers who are used to an absolute classroom order may find this approach difficult to adjust to. The challenge is to allow students sufficient freedom (much more than a traditional class allows), while keeping any misbehavior to a minimum.

Though there is a desire to incorporate a learner-as-multimedia-designer approach into the curriculum, teachers are not necessarily familiar with the approach. Teachers' daily schedules are often full. Learning new instructional strategies and software, and implementing them at the same time add much work to their already full workload. While the researchers in this case took on some teaching tasks such as sharing design techniques, and showing features of the software, these middle school students were more used to their teachers as the authoritative figures. Establishing a community of colearners, where teachers, students, and researchers are on a true equal basis, takes more time than just one semester. There needs to be some preparation time, a learning stage, an implementation stage, and a refinement stage for a learning community with mutual trust and peer support to be established.


Learning a piece of software and creating a program with it is a typical way of multimedia authoring in a classroom. Engaging students as multimedia designers, on the other hand, extends multimedia authoring by placing students in a designer position. Instead of merely learning the technical skills and creating a project, the designers need to consider other issues such as the needs of the audience, the distribution of work in a group, the management of time and resources, and the deadline. They need to implement steps such as planning, designing, evaluation, and discussion. The authenticity and complexity of the design tasks provide students a learning environment where they can develop cognitive skills and skills of high value to the work place. This study investigated the effect of being multimedia designers on middle school students' learning of design knowledge, their cognitive strategy use, and their motivation toward learning. In support of the findings of similar research, this study has shown that su ch an environment can facilitate the development of cognitive skills for the middle school students, and engage them actively in learning. However, sustaining these middle school students' motivation toward learning while they are engaging in a series of "boring" activities for an extensive period of time presents a challenge and calls for more creative teaching techniques.
Table 1

Means and Standard Deviations (in Parenthesis) of Motivation

 [Mean.sub.Pretest] [Mean.sub.Posttest] T-value

Intrinsic Goal 5.72(.77) 4.67(1.56) 2.47
Extrinsic Goal 5.42(.86) 4.68(1.55) 2.03
Task Value 5.08(1.68) 6.18(.42) -2.62
Control Beliefs 4.73(1.50) 5.67(1.10) -3.39
Self-Efficacy 5.23 1.22 5.60 .52 -2.28

Intrinsic Goal p=.0269 *
Extrinsic Goal p=.062
Task Value p=.02 *
Control Beliefs p=.0044 **
Self-Efficacy p=.039

* significantly different from the pretest score, P < .05

** significantly different from the pretest score, P < .01

Table 2

Means and Standard Deviations (in Parenthesis) of Resource Management

 [Mean.sub.Pretest] [Mean.sub.Posttest]

Peer Learning 3.36(1.28) 4.39(1.11)
Effort Regulation 5.31(.54) 4.77(.80)
Time & Study Environment 4.48(1.11) 3.60(1.36)
Help Seeking 5.40(.66) 5.54(.75)


Peer Learning 2.92 p=.014 *
Effort Regulation 2.12 p=.057 **
Time & Study Environment 2.42 p=.034 *
Help Seeking -.888 p=.393

* significantly different from the pretest scores, P < .05

** close to a significant level of p < .05

Table 3

Means and Standard Deviations (in Parenthesis) of Design Skills

 [Mean.sub.Pretest] [Mean.sub.Posttest] T-value

Audience 3.88(1.04) 4.15(.68) -1.13 p=.27
Presentation 3.84(.83) 4.0 (.67) -.55 p=.59
Planning 3.25(.56) 3.40(.61) -.85 p=.41
Interest 4.16(.51) 3.90(.67) 1.39 p=.19
Mental Effort 4.0 (.86) 3.6(1.11) 1.35 p=.20
Collaboration 3.73(.68) 3.81(.74) -.53 p=.60

Table 4

Importance of the Design Tasks Ranked by the Students

Design Tasks Average *

Discuss with your group what info to include 2.4
Research and find relevant information 2.5
Plan and create a storyboard of
 what your program will look like 2.9
Brainstorm/Think about the best way to present an idea 3.5
Make sure the buttons & colors are
 consistent from one screen to another 4.6
Scan in pictures 6.1
Make the graphics very colorful 6.9
Get someone to try out the program 7.1
Make sounds 7.4
Make animations 8.5

* The lower the mean, the higher the importance.


The authors wish to thank the teachers, Karen Turpin, Michele Jetton, Elaine Burden, and their students at Cedar Valley Middle School in Round Rock, Texas for their cooperation in implementing this multimedia project.


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Author:Hsiao, Yu-Ping
Publication:Journal of Interactive Learning Research
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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