UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998


Interactive Multimedia in Secondary Physics Classrooms

Shelley Yeo
Curtin University of Technology

Recently, I joined the Physics Education Group at Curtin University of Technology after a considerable period in secondary physics education. This teaching/research group has a central interest in using information technologies for teaching physics. My focus has been the potential of interactive multimedia (IMM) and computer based instruction (CBI) for teaching qualitative and semi quantitative physics concepts at both high school and first year university level.

During the past 18 months, I have investigated student learning with a number of IMM software types: a tutorial (Movement); an 'intelligent' tutorial (Freebody); a motion analysis tool (Videopoint); interactive problem-solving sets (from various Internet sites); and a variety of interactive CD-ROM 'textbooks'. My aim in this work has always been to examine the nature and depth of student learning rather than to attempt to evaluate the programs. Evaluation of a computer program should be multifaceted, including an evaluation of production resources, how the program works, whether it accomplishes its objectives and finally, whether the user can transfer learning to other situations (Reeves, 1993). This is a major undertaking. My research has simply focussed on student interaction with the program and the nature and effect of the ensuing cognitive engagement. In general, the results point to limited learning outcomes for most students using a program and working alone and/or without external guidance (scaffolding). I do not imply that the programs are worthless; rather that we cannot assume that if a student uses the program, he/she will learn what the designers intended.

I do not believe that IMM or CBI materials (for teaching rather than for laboratory interfacing) are widely used in secondary physics classes on a regular basis although I know of many physics teachers who incorporate some programs into their teaching. How, then, do teachers decide what software to use and how to use it? Do they choose programs for their interactive or user-friendly interfaces or do they seek out theoretically-sound pedagogical design? Are teachers even aware of these program dimensions? Do they accept the ad hoc recommendations of those who have used them or do they choose programs simply because of their innovative appeal?

Earlier this year I ran two workshops, one at CONASTA (Conference of the Australian Science Teachers' Association) and the other at CONSTAWA (Conference of the Science Teachers' Association of Western Australia). My aim was to introduce secondary physics teachers to five different examples of instructional software (see references) which they were not likely to have previously encountered. The purpose was to generate discussion about the relative merits of the programs and (for me) to understand the ways by which teachers judge the worth of an instructional program.

The two workshops involved a total of 27 teachers. They (mostly) worked in pairs, becoming as familiar as possible with one program in 45 minutes (an ambitious task on its own) and then gave a short talk to the rest of the group outlining their views on the program. To facilitate this, all participants were provided with a brief set of focus questions related to how they would use the program and the physics that students might be expected to learn. I collected the completed questionnaires.

The following discussion reflects both the spoken and written comments of the teachers and the impressions and generalisations which I have attached to their responses. Given the limited time, the teachers' responses may not be well-considered opinions and this should be borne in mind. I have grouped the responses in three categories (under the three headings below).

How would the teachers plan to use this software (if they had purchased it and had the appropriate equipment)?

Most of the teachers talked about fitting use of the software into their existing teaching programs or practice, or restricting it to remedial use. Only two teachers made comments about making the software the primary focus or facilitator of the classwork.

Perhaps this is one reason why past successes with instructional software have been limited. Simple add-on use of a program must doom it to second-best, to be done after the important or real work is done. Worse still, it could be optional, and we all know the importance that most students attach to this. If this is the impression that students get then they too may view it as just another task to be done - reducing the likelihood of intentional learning occurring.

I see a need for teachers to adopt new or modified teaching methodologies which are designed around the instructional program, almost the opposite of what these teachers were suggesting. I believe it would be possible, for each of the programs which these teachers reviewed, to design immersive classroom learning experiences. Some would have to be for longer periods of time than others, but nevertheless all programs would lend themselves to innovative teaching practices. There appears to be a considerable mental barrier here for teachers to cross.

On what criteria did the teachers judge the worth or value of the program?

Most of the teachers focussed on the visible user interface of the program in their comments. They gave less consideration to the underlying pedagogical principles, physics content or teaching/learning potential of the program.

The negative responses were commonly about the user interfaces: i.e. "boring", "minimally interactive", "corny commentary", "doesn't motivate", "unusual operating procedures" and "not visually exciting". Positive comments were general and mostly related to program content: "interesting and useful contexts", "the contexts were motivating" and "real data". Despite an explicit 'focus question' about the physics that the students might be expected to learn, comments were again mostly general: "reinforce basic motion and dynamics stuff", "reinforce importance of units and careful measurement", "understand forces", "consolidate concepts", "visualise situations" and "skills in the use of graphs and diagrams".

A few teachers alluded to the potential of a program to promote student-student interaction and a few more suggested that a program would enable students to work at their own pace.

Given that most teachers have a specific set of objectives or outcomes in mind for each physics lesson or group of lessons, these teachers did not try to anticipate specific physics learning outcomes from these programs. This may also begin to explain why these teachers did not see a program being adopted as the central focus of a lesson. Several comments suggested that student worksheets (i.e. scaffolding) would be necessary and this was regarded as a disadvantage.

Only two of the programs were seen as 'motivating' but most thought that their students would like to use them "[students] love anything on the computer". Motivation is an intangible quantity but I believe that we must not confuse motivation to play with the software with motivation to learn physics.

Were these teachers aware of their own positive or negative reactions to programs or different types of interactivity and did they separate these from their judgements about the educational worth of the program? I think not. While we may be impressed or fascinated with the capabilities of the technology (or vice versa), we have to be more rational in the way we plan to use it. Students who use game software are not likely to be motivated to learn physics simply because of a 'clever' program. We should remember that, unlike us, most of our students are multimedia 'experts' but are novice learners.

What barriers do teachers face in using these programs in their classrooms?

The most overwhelming responses concerned lack of suitable hardware and the cost of software (particularly site licenses). Even where schools had more than one computer per laboratory, newer software was unlikely to be compatible with the capacity or operating systems of the hardware. Schools are still not in a position to either purchase the required number of computers, let alone regularly upgrade them. In most instances, the teachers felt they would be faced with using the program for demonstration only. This also may have been instrumental in limiting the teachers' visions about how to integrate use of the software in their teaching.

Other comments however, revealed teachers' personal concerns about control and needing to monitor student interactions with the computer: "students wouldn't read entire lessons", "tendency for students to fool around, jumping between screens and not engaging with the material" and "students could/would be annoyed by the delay in getting feedback".


My overall impression was that these teachers thought the programs were 'OK' ("I'd give it a go") but in most instances, there were too many impediments to their being able to use them. Two teachers, however, went away with the intention of investigating a program further. It was not my intention to promote this, but to get some critical and constructive dialogue between teachers as to how instructional programs are, or could be, effectively used. The outcome was more a critique of some of the features of the programs or of the impediments to their use. The teachers felt that they were not particularly successful in their attempts or plans to introduce the use of multimedia programs into the teaching of physics. Such attempts were essentially individually planned and mostly under-resourced both financially and educationally. Most described restricted use of a few demonstration programs but felt that there was a lot that they would like to do given time, resources and information.

Although this research was carried out using secondary physics teachers, it may prompt some in the tertiary sector to reflect on their use of instructional technologies. Perhaps there is a need for increased interaction and collaboration between the two groups. Tertiary institutions, despite their economic stringencies, surely are the organisations who are best-placed to lead the way in providing educational expertise and support, and in promoting networking for all physics teachers wishing to make better use of instructional technologies. Perhaps we should work harder to bridge the gap.


Reeves, T.C. (1993). Evaluating technology-based learning. In G.M. Piskurich, (Ed.), The handbook of instructional technology (pp. 15.1-15.32). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Programs used:

Multimedia Enhanced Physics Instruction
Maha Ashour-Abdalla and the UCLA Space Plasma Simulation Group, McGraw-Hill

Mark Luetzelschwab and Priscilla Laws
Dickenson College
Lenox Softworks Inc.

Graham Oberem, California State University
Physics Academic Software

Mentor Physics - Movement
Unit from "Body Systems - Interactive Physical Education", Dept Human Movement, UWA Specific physics units (Movement and More About Movement) developed by Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University of Technology

Web-based interactive activities:

Shelley Yeo
Physics Education Group
Department of Applied Physics and the Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology

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UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998

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