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Dr. Elizabeth Hanson-Smith
Originally published in 1997 in the
CAELL Journal, 7(4): 3-12, an ISTE Publication


Describes advantages of doing multimedia projects and methods of having students work collaboratively on them.  Defines both modest and more elaborate levels of technology needed for multimedia.  Includes outlines for several such projects, most of which can be mounted on Web sites.

Multimedia--color, animation, graphics, photos, and video, linked to text and sound--is very much a buzzword in technology-enhanced education, but often when we think of multimedia, we are imagining software products or World-Wide Web sites that transmit information to or at students, rather than ways in which students can use media tools to create and enhance their own work.  This article describes a “baker’s half-dozen” of multimedia projects that give students control of the creative process, enhance cognitive and language learning skills, and result in finished products that they can take home or send out to the world electronically.  A number of these projects were actually produced by middle school and high school students in a two-week Summer Institute, and their success indicates that students of almost any age or level of language proficiency can create exciting presentations.

The projects described below closely match current criteria for good pedagogy:  authentic language is required to create a project for peers (Byrd & Reid, 1995), especially if it might have a wider audience of English learners around the world.  While research on learners’ language with drill and practice software has been disappointing (Abraham & Liou, 1991), multimedia projects, particularly those produced by cross-lingual groups, demand higher levels of communication (Pujol, 1995/96).  A multimedia project is content-based (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 1989), and a perfect example of a task (Nunan, 1989; 1995), because students must research and collect information, completing parts of the project in stages.  Projects work best as collaborations by teams, which in turn necessitates the negotiation of meaning (Swain, 1985)--and for younger students practice of the crucial social skills needed to get along in a group.  Students quickly buy into the development of their own projects, thus avoiding some of the pitfalls of group work, which in other contexts can produce a loss of individual responsibility (Jacob, et al., 1996).  Organizing, planning, researching, composing, spell-checking, revising are all aspects of the higher cognitive processes recognized as necessary to the development of good learning strategies (O’Malley & Chamot, 1990; Chamot & O’Malley, 1996).  Individual learning styles (Reid, 1995; Lockwood, 1993), come into play as students write, draw, plan the layout of the presentation, manipulate various media tools, and exercise their creativity.  A number of these projects are brought to life by the exploration of the students’ home cultures, with an eye to teaching each other respect for differences and appreciation of their parents’ lives (Short, 1994).  And each project involves the use and understanding of the electronic tools that contribute to computer literacy, a significant goal for any learner.

The Jonas Salk Middle School/Encina High School Summer Institute

This past summer [1996], I was the technology coordinator for a 3-week Summer Institute funded by a Title VII Department of Education grant for LEP (Limited English Proficient) students.  Fifty high school and middle school students attended a two-week residence program on the California State University, Sacramento, campus.  Nineteen teachers and aides, including two exchange teachers from Mexico, arrived a week prior to the students in order to learn how to manage leadership training; help students develop study and reading skills; and create a multimedia presentation using authoring software (in this case, HyperStudio), technology tools, such as the scanner and digicam, and resources on the Internet.  Some of the aides had no computer experience, but most of the students had used a computer in their school labs, and many had accessed information on the Internet. 

The goal of the Institute was to help LEP students become successful participants in the high school environment, which at Encina meant access to technology.  They would practice respect for cultural differences as they became members of a project development team; they would learn new study skills, which they could apply to the creation of their project; and they would master some of the basic technology tools used in the world of business.  Multimedia projects were the vehicle for these new skills and practices.  Each student become part of a 15-member team, and each team was broken down into groups of 4-5 who were responsible for particular aspects of their project:  some went to the Internet for maps and photos and text; others spent some time in the library; almost all the students interviewed each other (and the teachers), and these interviews were included in several of the projects; some were given "throw-away" cameras to take pictures that would be incorporated into their projects.  In fact, the students' ideas for the projects, which were presented to their parents on the final night of the residence program, evolved considerably during the two weeks (sometimes to the consternation of the teachers), and most students went well beyond the minimum requirements in contributing to their team and group effort.  I found that the students worked best when they had plenty of time away from the computer lab to design their projects on paper, and that they were much more comfortable with the technology than were their teachers.

Because the students wanted to be hands-on immediately, initial instruction in using the computers, accessing the Internet, downloading pictures and text, and using the scanner--all these caused considerable chaos.  Lecture presentations on any of these elements fell on deaf ears.  Instead, we found the best way was to teach a few members of one of the groups how to use a particular tool, and then have them train others on their team as needed.  The same procedures worked in getting students to use the hardware and software described below.


Hardware and Software

Minimum requirements:

Modest requirements:

Bells & Whistles

A minimum of technology is needed to create satisfying student multimedia projects.  Hardware might be as simple as a color computer with sound capabilities, and presentation software, such as PowerPoint, HyperStudio, SuperCard, or ToolBook..  A single workstation in a one-computer classroom could be used by teams in rotation, and the final product could be viewed on the computer monitor.  Presentation software allows the user to create a “stack” or “book” or “slide show” and create or capture drawings, animate graphics and text, insert video and audio clips, use a variety of fonts for special effects, etc.  For example, the middle school and high school students that I worked with this summer brought tapes from home and simply held the tape deck up to the built-in microphone on our Macintosh computers .  (Obviously, one could also hold an external microphone up to the tape player.)  I chose to use a higher level authoring software, HyperStudio (also available for Windows).  Authoring software is just a step below programing.  Most of the directions are written in English and/or are chosen from a list of "tasks," such as "Play sound" or "Play video."  Authoring demanded that students devote some time to planning:  rather than being just a linear slide show, buttons on cards could lead in multiple directions.  Students had to see each group's set of cards as part of a larger whole, and plan their final oral presentation to take advantage of the multiple branching.

Generally, cost is a good indication of the capabilities of an authoring application, and its difficulty to master.  However, even very modest programs, such as PowerPoint (which is both cheap and easy to learn), allow you to capture photos, sounds, and movies from files created by other programs.  So you might use Kid Pix, for example, to draw fairly complex pictures, and then ask PowerPoint to insert them into its “slide show.”  And some inexpensive applications, and even some word processing software, will help students turn their project into a Web page. One may also obtain html (hypertext markup language) lessons on the Internet for free (see “ A Beginner’s Guide to HTML”).  

If your school has better funding or a more fully equipped lab, students could work on grander productions using all the bells and whistles.  These would entail use of a scanner, Internet access, a digital camera and/or video camera, and some kind of projector (such as cables and software to link to a TV, or an LCD panel) so that students can display the project to the whole class or school, or to their families.  A scanner is extremely useful for capturing photographs from home and duplicating text from paper materials.  For authentic, home-grown photos, give students a “throw-away” camera whose developed photos can be read by the scanner into digital files on your computer.


Internet access will allow you to download text, images, and sound clips from the World-Wide Web as digital files.  Again, these can be captured by your authoring software, as long as they are used only locally for educational purposes.  CD-ROM reference materials will also be helpful in gathering media to illustrate projects (Schcolnik, et al., 1995/96).  Our summer institute found excellent maps and pictures of the flags of our students’ home countries, as well as tons of information about the population, foods, music, cultural customs, art objects, national treasures, sight-seeing attractions, and history--all excellent background materials for some of the projects described below.  Keep in mind that the Web gives you the quickest and cheapest solution to adding professional-looking photos to your productions, but they won’t be as interesting as photos made by your students of themselves and their own environment.  Using photos brought from home can create a means to dialogue between generations.  And if you are planning on mounting a Web page with your student productions, home-made photos and audio will automatically ensure that there are no copyright infringements.


     [CAPTION:  “Music” buttons play a contemporary popular music clip from tapes brought from home by the students.]

Graphics conversion software usually comes with your scanner, and I mention it only because some presentation software works better with one kind of graphics file than with another.  Especially if you download files from the Web, you will probably need to convert the file type to suit your authoring program.  Your lab person can help you choose the right type of files, or you can have your students experiment with different formats.  Scanner or graphics conversion software will also allow you to shrink the photo or cartoon (smaller pictures make presentation programs work faster).  You may also use CD’s or diskette collections of copyright free pictures (“clip art”) and sounds to capture interesting visual and audio effects.

The addition of video files to student projects took the most time and produced the most frustration in our summer institute, largely because lighting and focusing were difficult to control with the tiny digital QuickCam video camera we attempted to use.  The slender cameras used for video conferencing should work more easily, and your school district or university may give you access to one.  You might even consider renting some time on a video cam at a local business services store set up for video conferencing on an hourly basis.  Since movies take a great deal of memory, they should be deployed judiciously.  In contrast, digital still cameras worked simply and easily.  Photos taken with the digital camera can be downloaded directly to your computer in the appropriate file format with very little practice.

A final note on equipment:  as your school or program becomes involved in student projects, you may find it very worthwhile to purchase a CD-ROM “burner” to create your own CDs, or rent time at a professional service or get permission to use your school district or university equipment.  Holding about 650 MGB of memory, writable CDs have become relatively inexpensive, and are easy to store and transport.  Since picture, video, and sound files take up so much space, CDs are an excellent storage option.  

Organizing Multimedia Projects in Collaborative Teams

Multimedia presentations make excellent team or small group projects. In simple projects, where students might normally want to work alone, sharing resources, computer skills, and great “finds” on the Internet should be built into the project overtly, so that they become an integral part of the experience:  using teamwork to produce projects can be a very significant element in language learning and social development.  In a very complex project, teamwork is a necessity:  students can each become masters of one piece of the technology and then share that expertise with their peers (and the teacher).  Our summer institute had four teams of 12-13, mixed across age, gender, native language, and country of origin. In order to save time in this short summer program, team projects were chosen by teachers, but redefined by student discussion, and further elaborated or transformed as new resources were found or parts of the project simply could not be completed as envisioned.  A form similar to that below [Illustration: Team Forms] specified who would be responsible for which aspect of the technology and project design.  Team leaders and stack designers (those responsible for the flow and direction of hypermedia links) were chosen after the group had learned more about the technology and gotten to know each other better.  Students who learned to use the scanner, for instance, then taught other small groups of students how to use it, or did the scanning for them.  By the end of two weeks, most students had taught each other how to use all of the equipment and software, except for the video camera, which was deemed too delicate for anyone but the lab technician to handle.


Team Project 1  Team project 2
[CAPTION: Students decided in teams who would do which kind of activity. In the second form, the process has been refined during one of the bi-weekly meetings.]

Students generally are willing to jump into the equipment with very little training, while teachers seem reluctant to handle the tools without a written handbook and step-by-step oral instruction.  Students are experiential learners, one might say, while teachers have long since become more accustomed to “indirect” learning.  For instance, our lab tech person tried to give students a half-hour of Internet training, but as soon as they sat down at the computer stations and got hooked up to the World-Wide Web, they were off and running.  The teenagers’ typical lack of attention to lectures, combined with the powerful pull of the technology, was simply too much to overcome.  It is far better to give a short set of directions on a single page, for example, how to access the Web from your particular lab setup, and then pull students away from the computers for the next step, for example, how to download an image file from a Website and where to save it, before letting them back on the computers to practice.  Or you may favor the “managed chaos” approach, letting the students explore for a longer period, while answering lots of questions.  The teacher should also be prepared to learn a great deal from their students, and if teams are primed beforehand to interact successfully, students will train each other.

Before the projects were even discussed, teamwork was enhanced by having students interview each other, taking notes and writing up their findings.  The interview process ensured that students would not simply take the line of least resistance, with the good writers writing text and the artistically inclined doing all the drawing.  During preliminary organization, students also were given the throw-away cameras and encouraged to take snaps during other class activities.  The interviews gave students the excuse to get to know each other, and the impromptu photos were later incorporated into some of the projects.  If a class has not worked in groups before, the teacher would be well advised to have students practice some of the discourse of polite agreement and disagreement, interruption and floor-holding, etc., thereby ensuring that students share some of the same modes of intergroup communication.


Organization and pre-planning are the most difficult elements of a multimedia project.  Teachers should build in plenty of time for students to spend in sessions away from the computer(s) in activities such as sketching the layout of their “cards” or “slides,” deciding what equipment they need to use, negotiating equipment scheduling with other groups, and--as projects near completion--what parts may have to be revised or abandoned.  I had students draw each of their proposed cards onto a cardboard 5 X 8 index card.  We then taped all the cards together with buttons indicating the hyperlinks we wanted to make.  We taped the set of index cards to a wall of the lab during each session.  This 'storyboard" gave students a much better idea of what they were working on, and how their individual cards would fit into the stack as a whole.  Holes in the stack, missing button links, and revisions were made clearly visible.  One teacher also made an outline of the index cards on a piece of paper and made a copy for each student.


[CAPTION:]  Flags are actually invisible “buttons” that link to subsequent menus for each of the countries.  World map is from the HyperStudio clip art collection.

Just as in a professional software product, the most complex and finished projects were those where students spent the most time organizing their data away from the computer.

Recipes for Multimedia Projects

The following projects all work well with students of any level, age, or academic orientation.  They may be adapted to a specific content in your curriculum, or replace or supplement such typical activities as a school or class newsletter.  Many of them, particularly when mounted on a Website, will serve as excellent advertising for an intensive program.  All of them will give students a sense of real accomplishment.  The equipment for each project can depends entirely on what the classroom or school has available.  Even with the minimal level of technology described above, students can produce very dramatic multimedia by drawing their own illustrations for their projects and making appropriate recordings to accompany the text.  The amount of time each project requires will depend ultimately on how elaborate it gets.  However, a "time certain" deadline is important, for as with any creative project, students will want to work on and perferct each element.  We found that the oral presentation of the student projects to parents gave a reasonable goal and finishing point in the summer institute.  Students put in at least six 6-1/2 hour days working on their projects, both in and out of the lab, and they begged for more time.

Hometown Magazine

Concept:  Students research their home/school locale and create a presentation that will be of interest to their peers, or to other students who might want to come to their school.

Media Ideas:
    Interview local “celebrities,” including the teacher; make a tape recording
    What’s the best place to eat? Shop? Dance? Listen to music?  Take photos
    Research jobs and educational opportunities
    History of the town; visit local Websites
    Interesting sights; photos or video of students visiting these places
    Have a click-on map:  click on a site to jump to a photo and description

A very extensive variation of this type of project is described in detail by Falkner & White (1993), whose classes produced an educational HyperCard stack for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Media Journal

Concept:  Many schools publish a literary journal with students’ stories, poems, and artwork.  However, a media journal can let you add sound and animation to your journal.

Media Ideas: 
Author reads his/her work as a recording to accompany poetry or story
Cartoons can be animated
Sculpture can be viewed multi-dimensionally with a video
A media journal makes excellent content for a Web site.

A number of media projects that can be placed on the Web, as well as e-mail and curricular exchanges, are described in Warschauer (1995b).

School Newsletter

Concept:  Newsletters are a natural for multimedia publication.  And as a Website, the school calendar may be enlivened with photos and video from actual events, and updated frequently without killing more trees.

Media Ideas:
    Interviews can include audio clips
    Calendar of events can be animated and regularly updated on a Web site 
    A newsletter on CD can be updated by adding a new folder for each issue
    A media newsletter may be viewed in a group, rather than read individually and so easily becomes a class resource material

An electronic School Newsletter mounted on the Web is an especially appropriate way of giving parents and friends overseas an exciting peek into the EFL students' new environment at an intensive program.  For other instructional benefits, Soltesz (1996) describes students writing Web pages as part of their curriculum.


[CAPTION]:  Buttons lead to different stacks.  “Interviews” were taken before the students knew what kind of a project they would do.  “Current Events” was mainly photos and text downloaded from the Summer Olympics, then going on in Atlanta.  “Movie Reviews” was also primarily photos and text downloaded from the Internet.  (Most movies now use Web sites to advertise.)  “Cartoons” was a comic strip drawn by the student, and “Poetry” was written and recited by the student.  “Foods” included recipes typical of the students’ home countries and photos of famous sites.  Pictures decorating the page were pasted in from HyperStudio’s clip art files.

Making Cross-Cultural Friends

Concept:  Students research gestures, common greetings, and some of the background of their country in order to make others students aware of possible cross-cultural conflicts.  This kind of project can foster communication with parents, and works well if teams are set up to cross cultural borders.

Media Ideas:
    Students record typical phrases used in their own language
    Student research signs and gestures and videotape them in use
    Students research their country’s geography, history, and cultural background

A variation on this type of sociolinguistic and cultural research project is described in Egbert (1995) as "action mazes," where students research conversational choices and create links to various parts of a HyperCard stack, depending on which choice the conversational partner selects.  Students add pictures, sounds, and even animation to enhance their explorations.
[CAPTION] A click on the “Phrases” button takes you to photos of the students and recordings of their voices.  The buttons with country names take you to photos and text concerning the background of the country.  Maps were scanned from an atlas.  Flags were downloaded from the Internet.


 [CAPTION]  Students had originally hoped to use movies of the gestures, but had to revise their plan when they could not get the digital video camera to function as they wished.  Buttons under the photos play recordings made by the student of the phrases in Armenian.


Concept: Students research places to visit in their home countries and record useful expressions for travelers.  This project is an excellent means to give immigrant students the opportunity to learn more about their native country and culture.

Media Ideas:
    Many commercial Internet sites have excellent photos of sights to see
    Students may have pictures from their home country
    The travelogue makes an interesting Website


[CAPTION]  The photo was downloaded from the Internet.  The student wrote the text (in a scrollable field under the photo.  The “Next card” button plays folk music during the transition to the next card.]

The most successful projects ensure that student teams are organized cross-culturally.  In the travelogue team, students worked in groups by region, so a Filipino girl and two Vietnamese boys had to produce a stack together.  They chose to divide each of their cards in half.


[CAPTION:]  Maps were downloaded from Internet sites.  The “Places to see” button leads to the photos in the illustration above, “Photos from Home.”  Text for the Philippines was downloaded from the Internet and rewritten by the student; text for Vietnam was written by the student.

Content-Based Learning:  I-Search

Concept:  The I-search paper has a basically simple format:
Part I - Chose an area you are really interested in.  Write down what you know or think you know about it already.
Part II - Research your area using print, Internet, and interviews.  (Teacher defines minimum standards and helps students find resources). 
    Write up your search:  what did you read, who did you talk to, and where did you find the best resources?
Part III - What did you find out?  Did it differ from what you thought originally?
    Write up your conclusions and compete your paper with appropriate citations.

Media Ideas:
Make audiotapes and take photos of interviewees
Scan or download pictures and graphs to illustrate the topic (being sure to cite resources)
Determine the most effective means to combine live oral presentation with media, and rehearse before presentation

While the I-Search is a virtually fool-proof formula for success in academic writing--encompassing note-taking, research skills, and an understanding of the value of appropriate citation--the multimedia presentation of findings is an enhancement that gives students important practice in the kind of oral-visual presentations they will need to do in many professional fields.

Curriculum Exchange

Concept:  A number of classrooms around the world have engaged in the exchange of materials and e-mail in support of curriculum  (Warschauer, 1995a).  For example, one of the oldest such programs, De Orilla a Orilla (Sayers, 1993), might link a class in Puerto Rico studying migration patterns with a class in San Diego examining family histories.  Typically, an exchange starts with two teachers deciding on an aspect of the curriculum to share.  Then physical materials are shipped from one classroom to the other.  Each receiving class makes a videotape of the opening of the package, recording students’ expressions and comments as they examine its contents.  The video is then shipped to the originating class, and becomes the basis for lively discussion.  Classrooms can now effect exchanges via their Websites and video conferencing, as well as by e-mail and surface mail.  From Helsinki to Cairo, from Japan to Brazil, classrooms have found this kind of exchange fosters language development and intense student interest in the culture of other countries, in addition to inspiring serious research on the curriculum topic at hand.

Media Ideas: Any of the combinations of media described above would find an appropriate place in a curricular exchange.

Teachers of classes interested in exchange can find more information at Tom Robb’s Website, via the ESLoop cited below (for adult classes) or at Dennis Sayer’s “Partner Teacher Clearinghouse" (for K-12).  Sperling (1997) offers a very complete guide for using the Internet for language teaching.


Multimedia projects give students of all ages the opportunity to take learning into their own hands while practicing skills that will be extremely valuable to them in the world of work.  These types of activities, however, require considerable teacher commitment, planning time, and patience with chaos.  The best way to prepare for these projects is for the teacher to try out one or more of them, from start to finish, getting to know the authoring program intimately.  The teacher must learn the software and hardware well enough to know when she/he can solve the problem, and when to call the lab technician.  The rewards of students’ achievement and pride in their work will, however, more than make up for the effort.


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