Way way back in the dark ages, in the pre-history of the Web – around 1991, to be more precise – I wrote a paper for what was then the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, or SCET, long since swallowed up by Learning & Teaching Scotland, and itself now merged with Scotland’s schools inspectorate to become Education Scotland. The paper was entitled Interactive Learning and the Multimedia Composition. Berners-Lee and Cailliau were still tinkering with their little-known online hypertext system, tentatively called the World Wide Web, but yet to be thrust into the mainstream with the coming of Mosaic, the first browser, in 1993.
Hypertext – later hypermedia – was the focus for lots of experimentation at that time. Even I was playing around with it when I led a joint Heriot-Watt University/Lothian Region Education Department project called Learning in Lothian, using a souped-up version of Apple’s Hypercard (I had added – clunkily! – the use of images to Hypercard’s native text-based functionality) with a bunch of schools in Leith to create a multimedia history of the old port of Edinburgh. The outcome of the project was a collection of essays, stories, photographs, old maps and bits of audio that were stored on a new technology called CD-ROM, with its magical and massive 600+ MB of storage.
In the SCET paper, I looked at the as-yet-inchoate concept of multimedia and noted that, where it was being used, it was used more or less exclusively for ‘presentational’ purposes. That was certainly the case in education at the time (although of course few in education then even knew the term never mind used multimedia in the classroom). In the classroom and lecture hall it was seen as a tool that helped teachers to ‘deliver’ more exciting curricular content to their students.
Noting this, I wrote:
For learners to derive real power from the technologies available they must take control of them. If learners are given the opportunity to interact meaningfully with the mass of materials, to handle the technology, to master the media, they will take control of a tool which could change the nature of a significant proportion of their learning. The point is to place the learner at the start of the multimedia process and not at the end. Learners becomes the active begetter of knowledge for themselves and not simply the recipient of information from others.
The product is less important than the process. It is in the laminated layers of interaction – between learner and information, between learner and media, learner and learner (in a collaborative activity), learner and teacher, learner and expert – that the real educative value is derived. Their creative efforts in pursuit of a learning-task will involve them in building upon their own knowledge and experience, in questioning assumptions, in debating issues, in synthetising – all the elements of multimedia composition. In relation to current ideas of computer-based learning there is a shift in metaphor here from conversation through exploration to construction, away from the perception of learners as the passive ‘receptor’ of knowledge to one in which learners are the active creators of their own knowledge. To know the world one must construct it.
Two points from this stand out for me today, almost quarter of century since it was written. The first is how hard we still have to push, and how far we still have to go, to move schools away from the ‘information delivery’ model that focuses on teacher-led instruction, to something much more learner-focused, much more participative and constructivist.
The second point – and the one I want to zero in on here – is my use of the word composition. In my own days as a school pupil, we wrote ‘compositions’. I never really grasped the difference between a composition and an essay – they seemed to be used more or less interchangeably. But it is a term I have always liked because it describes in a single word what it is the writer is doing: he or she is ‘composing’ a piece of writing, pulling together the elements, the ideas, the vocabulary, the purpose of the writing, and arranging them on the page to meet whatever purpose the writer has in mind.
Following on from my previous post on postliteracy, it might be useful to revive this now little-used term – composition – for what learners are now able to do when they are creating and combining in text, sound, music, image, video, animation, games, social media….and perhaps even in three dimensions in makerspaces. The notion of composition as a single simple memorable term used to describe a single coherent act of creation, in whatever medium or media the creator wishes to use, is, I think, compelling.
Let’s revive and restore – and upgrade – the composition for the age of postliteracy, for the age of transmedia, makerspaces, digital badges and – still! – the written word.