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Multicultural multimedia across the curriculum: a pilot project.

During spring semester, 1992, as research associates from the Center for the Design of Educational Computing at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), we conducted a campuswide program to encourage thinking about internationalization and cultural differences using a multimedia platform. This article is a report on that experience.

* Initial Impetus

In 1991 we had participated in a new technologies initiative in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences to produce a "laser checkdisc," a videodisc pressed for single or very limited production. Our segment on this disc became an archive of some 250 print advertisements and 30 full-motion video ads from eight (mainly Euro-American) countries, the majority from France, our particular area of specialization.

Once the checkdisc was pressed in January, 1992, we began to call professors whose spring semester courses might benefit from exposure to the images in our archive and the new media. The positive responses were overwhelming; we had to call only the first 20 names on our list to get 13 invitations into 15 classrooms in five colleges. The disciplines included: psychology, anthropology, history, English, modern languages, business, biology, fine arts/ design and urban affairs/communicationsMost classes were at the undergraduate level, though four were graduate courses.

We asked potential participants to meet with us for a short preview of the images on the disc. They were asked to choose ones that might best reinforce their subject matter or, better yet, those with visible cultural differences that might provide an entirely new optic on the course. From their selections, we designed an individual interface for each presentation using HyperCard. Eventually we developed generic cards since faculty were tending to choose similar thematic groupings. Even though our sample archive lacked both breadth and depth, in only a few instances did we find any need to supplement the disc materials with other media, such as slides, print ads or videos.

While they were choosing, we asked professors to elaborate on the goals of the class and to indicate extra materials from which their students might benefit. So, for example, for the psychology class on gender differences we later furnished French gender demographics; and for a graduate marketing class, we were asked for listings of advertising museums and archives here and abroad. Based on discussions with faculty, we also came prepared with background information on cultural differences, such as the organization of disciplinary knowledge in various counties.

* Cultural Contexts of Ads

We never claimed that our collection was representative of world advertising, indeed far from it; the most international collection we had contained print campaigns about AIDS (specifically designed for a professor in Cultural Studies in the English department). It turned out to be the most provocative series, in part because it had the greatest scope and in part because of the range of culturally diverse treatments of sexuality and disease. To our surprise, a professor of International Management chose it--precisely because of its range.

Other groupings on the disc include French and American perfume and cosmetic ads; French, American and German beef; French, American, Canadian and German milk and milk products; American, French and Spanish cigarettes; Benetton's United Colors and (supposed) social consciousness campaigns; French and American apples; French ads displaying Americans and American icons; an "archaeological" trench of French images of French women over a ten year period; and France's "tendre macho," a man who does housework and takes gentle care of children.

Our choice of television commercials was limited to those already in or converted to NTSC (the American TV standard versus PAL md SECAM used by the rest of the world). Furthermore, the TV ads were put on the master tape by technicians to fill up remaining space. These commercials are a rather eclectic grab-bag that nonetheless have managed to round out some of our print categories as well as give another dimension to our "sampler": cars, drinks, batteries, toilet tissues and cheeses, to name a few product areas that are covered in these TV ads.

* Exploiting the Shock

American professors and students, having had little exposure to foreign advertising, were surprised, often-times shocked, by the overt sexuality denoted or connoted in the ads. Whatever the assemblage of ads, many students--and some of the professors experienced culture shock. lf nothing else, the inability to "read" advertising images was disconcerting.

It is estimated that we come into contact with around 2,000 ads per day. So advertising has a "familiar" feel: we know what it is, what it means to do and how to attempt to ignore its omnipresence. In addition, advertising depends on recognizable commonality to ground its persuasive techniques. When an ad viewer is all ready to "read" a banal commercial message but it turns out to be unreadable or confusing, there is a sharp, cognitive disruption.

Our project is designed to exploit that moment of "unheimliche" to challenge the very notions and operations of "normalcy" and thereby lead students to confront cultural differences as something more than skin deep. Students may actually begin to recognize that different cultural ways of being and doing extend beneath and alongside obvious linguistic differences.

The videodisc medium helps us in that most of the time the low resolution on TV screens in classrooms discourages reading the verbal texts; thus, the major contact with the ads during our presentations has been at the level of layout and imagery, where students are prone to expect sameness. Photographic representations are most effective precisely because viewers assume photorealism and objectivity.

* Role of the Medium

The medium also played an important part in the experience. As mentioned above, playing the images on a standard TV monitor in classrooms kept students from reading the texts in their foreign languages. Even when we had access to overhead, large-screen projection, the verbal element begged to be ignored due to poor resolution. Although this would be counterproductive in some disciplines, for our short-term purpose, it was actually beneficial. (In the language classes we visited, however, we prepared legible copy for the students.) Since students tended to focus, then, on the images and layout, they were "reading" the ads the way they most probably do American ads: imagery first and then, if sufficiently captivated, text second.

The medium also worked to lull them deeper into a sense of familiarity, as television is want to do. That made the shock more wrenching, and consequently less easily dismissed or ignored. In addition, the videodisc medium itself--its split-second, non-linear access to all images--allowed us to support or expand upon differences that students found hard to accept or completely rejected. To a few student charges that our readings were implausible or outrageous, we were able to conjure up sufficient evidence that, indeed, it was not our interpretations or arrangements but rather the confrontation with difference that was disconcerting them. This also confirmed for us the need to expand the holdings of the archive.

The medium was important in other ways. As mentioned in the opening, the laser checkdisc was part of an initiative to encourage faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences at CMU to use new information technologies in their classrooms. Despite occasional glitches in the hardware setup or software, by and large the HyperCard/videodisc platforms we created for each classroom presentation were technically easy to use. In fact, one professor opted to show the images by herself; the only reason she called us in for a second presentation was for our cultural expertise.

It became apparent to us that more professors would use new technologies if, at first, all they had to do was point and click--if all the collecting, programming and interfaces were pre-prepared and technicians were available for setup and troubleshooting. Moreover, after our presentations, many of the professors wanted to learn more about the technologies we used to serve their own research and pedagogical agendas.

* Promoting Diverse Use

Another important aspect of our program has been to encourage professors to see the ads as discrete objects that, given the electronic medium, can be arranged in any order to promote thinking and discussion about the subject matter, in this case, through a "foreign" looking glass. We also have underscored the non-linearity of the medium and the transportability of the images. Since we used a scanner to capture the ads rather than shooting them onto the videotape master for the checkdisc, all of the print ads are also available in digital format on a hard drive and, in the best of all possible virtual worlds, will find their way onto a network server. Had we had access to QuickTime video compression as we were developing the checkdisc, we would have digitized the full-motion video ads as well.

What this all means, in shorthand, is that the electronic archive is far more versatile than images stored on other media because they are randomly accessible, and particularly because they can be copied and manipulated with various software packages from Microsoft Word to Photoshop. To this effect, we see the archive as an experimental resource for new types of electronic writing. In fact, in the Rhetoric Program of the English department, David Kaufer, who is developing PrepEditor, a software tool to enhance drafting and rewriting processes, has asked to use the archive to allow students to include images into their writing.

* Expanding Reach and Scope

Our collection on the checkdisc lacks both breadth and depth because this was simply a low cost, pilot effort. In fact, we thought of it as an experimental arena from which to learn from our mistakes. It has always been our plan, however, to have no closed borders on the archive as a larger project develops.

We have used this pilot to contact potential collaborators from a wide range of disciplines. This includes scholars competent in semiotics (the science of how signs bear meaning, or lie, in cultures) in the Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, German, Spanish (Chicano, Honduran, Mexican and Puerto Rican), Caribbean, Senegalese, Indian, and South African and African American cultures.

One of the biggest problems we face, after the financial one, is the elaboration of an archive index, for it is the organization of knowledge that is too often the least obvious but most powerful mediation of cultural information. Our goal is to make the archive and index structurally flexible enough to support culturally and disciplinarily diverse users as well as to promote expansion. In other words, we are conceptualizing an "object-oriented" archive for re-purposing and diversity.

Still, indexing alone will not make the materials accessible to multiple users. The index we currently utilize, Hyperlndex, which is part of the Interactive Video Toolkit, lets us simply give a title to each ad and a short description-both of which reflect our idiosyncratic uses of the images and are virtually meaningless to other users. Until now, we have spent a lot of time preparing presentations and accompanying the materials into the various classrooms. "Authentic" materials such as these ads are not self-evident and the many layers of meaning are not transparent.

Part of the reason for our outreach, then, has been to figure out exactly what kind of ancillary information, in conjunction with the index, will be sufficient to make the archive useable without the presence or extensive preparations of culture experts like ourselves.

In one instance, I designed a stand-alone, interactive interface in HyperCard to make a select group of materials engaging to elementary school students. And, although it is possible and desirable to make parts of the archive available to young learners, this experience gave us yet another perspective on the problem of making the archive of value to diverse populations. Even the educational levels of projected audiences has to be taken into consideration or else used to limit the range of audiences. At the same time, we realize all the more how versatile an archive can be given the user-appropriate interfaces and cultural databases.

Our outreach has not been limited to classrooms, nor even to the Carnegie Mellon campus. We have offered to present extracurricularly to the Pre-Med Club, the Women's Center and CMU's Fall International Festival. The videodisc has been suggested for use in our ESL program. We have displayed the images off-campus: at Westminster College (two classes in French, an interdisciplinary seminar and a course in media) and Colfax Elementary School (the specially designed interactive program for their ethnic festival and an invitation to come into geography and social studies classes). We have also been asked to demonstrate at a local high school.

Parts of the collection have been viewed by the Pittsburgh Alliance Francaise and the French-American Chamber of Commerce. We also previewed the project in the fail of 1991 at the International Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums held in Pittsburgh. Other international conferences at which we have demonstrated include CALICO's Monterey conference in February, 1992 and the Ninth International Conference on Technology and Education in Paris, March, 1992. We also exhibited it at FLEAT II, part of the International Association of Learning Laboratories, in Nagoya, Japan, in August,1992. Finally we are working with the American Advertising Museum in Portland, Oregon, and a French advertising archive to refind yet more ways to promote and expand the archive and its users.

* Conclusion

What our visits have been proving is precisely what we expected: that many professors and students, in fact the general public, are eager to investigate cultural differences; that advertising is a discursive field well-suited to exploration of mass media imaging of various cultures; and that the multimedia format affords the flexibility needed to move across the curriculum and extramurally. Furthermore a digital archive encourages experimentation with new ways of thinking and writing for the Age of Information.

Brief forays into the larger business and educational communities reinforce our claim that multimedia platforms can be designed to provide important avenues for internationalization and multiculturality while also fostering important technological skills. Indeed, we have found that most educators and the public want to internationalize and learn about cultural differences--the problem has been how to go about it. We have designed a cost-effective strategy that is, at least, one step in the right direction.

For more information on either the pilot project or the continuation of our efforts, contact us at the Center for the Design of Educational Computing in Smith Hall. second floor, Carnegie Mellon University (412) 268-5824, or via Internet e-mail:

Kathryn A. Murphy-Judy's research and development brings together semiotics, French and American cross-cultural study, advertising, economics and new communications technologies. She is currently setting up a touring multimedia exhibit of French and American cross-cultural advertising in her role as visiting curator of the American Advertising Museum in Portland, Oregon.

Chantal F. Cornuejols is currently president of the Alliance Francaise of Pittsburgh and director of the Alliance School for French Language and Culture. Her research focus is foreign language pedagogy and contemporary French civilization using French and American advertising.

Products mentioned:

HyperCard VideoDisc Toolkit, a stack for indexing and

using videodiscs; Apple Programmers and Developers

Association (ADPA), Buffalo, N.Y.

Microsoft Word; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.

Photoshop; Adobe Systems, Mountain View, Calif.

PrepEditor; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

QuickTime; Apple Computer, Inc., Cupertino, Calif.
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Author:Murphy-Judy, Kathryn; Cornuejols, Chantal F.
Publication:T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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