June 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 3 // Tools of the Trade // 3TOT1

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Thinking in Multimedia: Research-Based Tips on Designing and Using Interactive Multimedia Curricula.

As the use of computers as an educational medium increases, Extension professionals need to be informed about new technology-enhanced methods for use in community-based, educational settings. Interactive multimedia curricula (IMC) have been touted by many as a way to increase learning and facilitate a shift to a more learner-centered educational experience. As with any other educational method, IMC needs to be viewed in a critical fashion. This article addresses the question, "What things seem to make effective IMC?" and presents some research-based recommendations for those using or developing IMC.

Randy Brown
Area Extension Specialist
University of Nevada, Reno
Las Vegas, Nevada
Internet Address: rbrown@agnt1.ag.unr.edu


Unlike educators in traditional educational institutions, community educators often do not have the luxury of having students who are a captive audience. Thus, an important part of community education programming is attracting people to participate in programs and engaging them once they are there. Due to the sophisticated marketing the public sees these days, this is becoming an increasingly difficult task.

As program participants are exposed to interesting and exciting presentations on the Internet and on TV, the bar is being raised for Extension professionals to develop educational resources and materials that are attractive and engaging. Using and developing interactive multimedia curricula can be one way to help community educators stay competitive now and into the future. Community educators, however, must view interactive multimedia curricula as critically as any other educational method.

For some time, educational theorists have argued for more interactive, learner-directed methods (Hannifan & Land, 1997). Some educational researchers have found that interactive multimedia curricula (IMC) can promote a shift to a more learner-directed education style, thus increasing the learner's sense of control and motivation to learn (Katims, Diem, & Carlson, 1997). Ideally, IMC uses multiple media (text, graphics, animation, sound, and video) in an interactive design (Shavinina & Loarer, 1999). Typically, interactive multimedia is distributed via a CDROM, DVD, or viewed on the Internet.

For example, a user who is learning about how a catalyst works can read text about the definition of a catalyst and then click to view an animated version of this reaction with an audio explanation. A user also might click to see a video clip of an actual reaction. The user also might be prompted to piece together the components of a reaction in order to cue an animated reaction. Although this example is from a classroom setting, IMC is also being used in training and prevention education (e.g., Castaldini, Saltmarch, Luck, & Sucher, 1998).

Research evaluating the efficacy of IMC is just beginning to catch up with the methodological developments in this field. Research studies report that interactive multimedia curricula, when compared to more traditional methods, are significantly more likely to increase learners' knowledge (Epstein & McGaha, 1999), achievement (Erwin & Rieppi, 1999), higher-order learning skills (Taylor, Renshaw, & Jensen, 1997), and positive behavior change (Campbell, Hones-Morreale, Farrell, Carbone, & Brasure, 1999).

Even though these and other findings are encouraging, many questions remain about the use of IMC as an educational tool. Still, as access to and knowledge of technology broadens, methods such as interactive multimedia curricula may be an important tool for community educators.

What Makes Interactive Multimedia Effective?

Although IMC seems to have great promise, it is necessary to critically evaluate what factors in particular make IMC successful and to investigate how it can be used most effectively with Extension audiences. To date, preliminary research on the use of interactive multimedia curricula has revealed some important clues. The following are some research-based suggestions for the design and use of interactive multimedia curricula.

One Medium at a Time for Explanations

When a new concept is presented in IMC, a single medium should explain the new concept. Studies have found repeatedly that text and auditory explanations presented simultaneously promoted significantly less learning than either text or auditory explanations alone (Kalyuga, Chandler, & Sweller, 1999; Moreno & Mayer, 1999). The message here is that presenting multiple media all at once can be confusing to a learner. So, it is important to keep it simple, providing visual-based text and auditory explanations at different points in the curricula.

Gender-Neutral Themes

If presentations are designed to appeal to both males and females, or boys and girls, the presentation should not have a gender-stereotyped theme. For example, research has found that girls learned significantly more information when the theme was gender neutral as opposed to a theme that was more male-oriented (Littleton, Light, Joiner, Messer, & Barnes, 1998). So IMC that has more male-oriented themes, like fighting, kings, or soldiers, should be avoided.


The temptation with multimedia curricula is to simply transfer traditional text information into a more visually appealing format like a CDROM book. This approach, however, does not realize the full potential offered by this technology. Both theory and research suggest that when a learner interacts more with information, his or her interest in and understanding of the information increases (Shavinina & Loarer, 1999). Creating curricula that encourage a user to respond to questions and dilemmas is very challenging. It is this interactivity, however, that is instrumental in the success of ICM (Hannafin & Land, 1997).

Participant Involvement in IMC Design

As is important in any curriculum development process, gaining input from the potential audience is critical. In my own work designing IMC targeted at a youth audience, youth involvement and ideas have been extremely beneficial. Many of the best ideas for our current project have been generated by youth.

IMC Combined with Non-Computer-Based Learning Experiences

Interactive multimedia curricula can be most effective when it is combined with cooperative learning experiences (Boling & Robinson, 1999). Giving participants a CDROM and asking them to complete it on their own might be missing an important educational opportunity. The same CDROM can be completed by groups of students or prompt a group discussion. IMC should not be used to replace other educational methods; instead, it should be used to enhance them (Boling & Robinson, 1999).


Clearly, there is great promise for the use of interactive multimedia curricula in a community-based educational setting. By using empirical research as a guide for this technology, community educators can adopt and develop IMC in a thoughtful and measured way. Extension professionals in particular, with our commitment to research-based approaches to community issues, should be well informed about research in this area. Moreover, it is important for Extension professionals to begin considering how they might take advantage of this new and exciting educational method.


Boling, N. & Robinson, D. (1999). Individual study, interactive multimedia, or cooperative learning: Which activity best supplements lecture-based distance education. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 169-174.

Campbell, M., Hones-Morreale, L., Farrell, D. Carbone, E., & Brasure, M. (1999). A tailored multimedia nutrition education pilot program for low-income women receiving food assistance. Health Education Research, 14, 257-267.

Castaldini, M., Saltmarch, M., Luck, S., & Sucher, K. (1998). The development and pilot testing of a multimedia CD-ROM for diabetes education. Diabetes Educator, 24, 285-296.

Epstein, J. & McGaha, (1999). ATOD-TV: Evaluation of a multimedia program designed to educate the public about substance abuse. Computers in Human Behavior, 15, 73-83.

Erwin, D. & Rieppi, R. (1999). Comparing multimedia and traditional approaches in undergraduate psychology classes. Teaching in Psychology, 26, 58-61.

Hannafin, M. & Land, S. (1997). The foundations and assumption of technology-enhanced student-centered learning environments. Instructional Science, 25, 167-202.

Katmis, D., Diem, R., & Carlson, P. (1997). Technological interventions and student attitudes: A case study of secondary students identified as at risk. The High School Journal, 80, 95-101.

Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1999). Managing split-attention and redundancy in multimedia instruction. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13, 351-371.

Littleton, K., Light, P., Joiner, R., Messer, D., & Barnes, P. (1998). Gender, task scenarios and children's computer-based problem solving. Educational Psychology, 18, 327-340.

Moreno, R. & Mayer, R. (1999). Cognitive principle of multimedia learning: The role of modality and contiguity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 358-368.

Shavinina, L. & Loarer, E. (1999). Psychological evaluation of educational multimedia applications. European Psychologist, 4, 34-44.

Taylor, H., Renshaw, C., & Jensen, M. (1997). Effects of computer-based role playing on decision-making skills. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 17, 147-164.