Rich Media: Enhancing Content in Online Courses

For those enrolled or who are contemplating an online degree, rich media becomes a pipeline for recaeiving and responding to course content and other students' discussions.

Dr. Jeff Green has seen a significant shift in online education. He witnessed these changes while pursuing a Ph.D. in criminal justice, as an instructor and while writing a new book. Online higher education has been rooted in a simple - yet boring - reading and writing presentation. It now has blossomed with the use of various media intended to keep students interested, deliver a consistent message and appeal to the numerous ways adults learn.

Courses today routinely use streaming video, Flash animation and audio clips to deliver course content. Interactivity also has invaded the once-stodgy multiple-choice quiz. When a student selects a wrong answer, learning-management software can be configured to return the participant to the question with an alternative explanation of the question and a chance to redo the answer.

Green, chief of the FBI's Leadership Development program at its Quantico, VA, academy, says rich media "tries to engage more people in the learning process. Not many people want to just read...they all learn differently. Multimedia is meant to capture the learner's attention and make the information more accessible. We use it here at the academy and Capella University too."

Green's new book Graduate Savvy touches on rich media in the online environment as its 21 chapters seek to fill a need in providing graduate students a road map for success in web-based learning. "I looked around and could not find anything that really prepared someone for an online graduate degree, so I sat down last winter and with the help of my colleagues at Capella and wrote a book," he says.

Charles Tiffin, chair of Capella's Public Safety Program, says his university has embraced rich media in delivering its online courses to provide adult learners with a variety of ways to access course content. "It's really important for us to make sure our classrooms are cutting edge - 100% of our courses are online - so we use streaming video, Flash, audio, simulations and other media components to enhance the learning experience in our course rooms," Tiffin says.

Chuck Smeby, coordinator of the University of Florida's Fire Emergency Services program, also sees the distinct advantage of rich media in the university's online delivery. "We use Flash presentations to provide short lectures to our students. You might be able to put somebody in a classroom and get away with an hour lecture, but not online," he says. The course tempo, student demographics and need for realism have driven his program far from the electronic word. A planned course will use interactive video. "We will be using webcams in one class to allow students to get accustomed to doing presentations," Smeby says. "This is important that they are able to deliver their message in a public setting as they climb the ranks."

The genesis for the University of Florida to offer a bachelor's of science degree in fire and emergency services was the lack of any such program in Florida and a pronounced need perceived by the State Fire Marshal's Office. Smeby, a retired battalion chief, sees rich media and asynchronous delivery as the best combination to reach out to working firefighters and to engage them with a variety of delivery techniques that otherwise would be impractical. In a nod to traditional delivery, Smeby adds, "We still have traditional final exams, but they are proctored by someone we select who is close to where students live or work."

For those enrolled or who are contemplating an online degree, rich media becomes a pipeline for receiving and responding to course content and other students' discussions. It has become a mainstay in the online scene, with few credible institutions ignoring some aspect the diverse media. Some of the common multimedia terminology:

  • Audacity - This audio software, "...Is free, open source software for recording and editing sounds. It is available for Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux and other operating systems," according to its website. Tech magazine PC World has named the easy-to-use, yet powerful software, one of the best "tech gems" for 2008. As a standalone product, students or instructors can record audio, save the file in MP3 format and upload it for class use.
  • Podcast - A relatively new word in the educational lexicon, a podcast describes an audio file that is distributed via the Internet from a server that makes digital files available to many users. In practical terms, a podcast is like a broadcast that a student would download from a website and listen to it on his or her MP3 player while, say, jogging. Students take on the burden of recording lectures at some universities. This is the case at University of Michigan, according a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "At the ... School of Dentistry, which began podcasting all its courses in 2005, selected students see to it that lectures are recorded. The students tap into lecture-hall sound systems to record class sessions and 'tag' them with identifying information before they go online."

    Podcasts have become commonplace at many institutions of higher learning. If you have always wanted to hear what a computer science class is like at Harvard, a podcast is available for anyone who has access to the Internet and a way to play MP3 files; however, academic credit for a coveted university sheepskin is not included.

  • PowerPoint - This ubiquitous presentation software title has made an impression on all who have used it. Some have dubbed the improperly used, mind-numbing, text-filled, monotonous-toned reading of this modern day slide show, "death by PowerPoint." When properly used in combination with photographs, embedded video and narration, this powerful software is a multimedia mainstay. Its companion viewer is available free from Microsoft. Also, this dominant e-learning software tool has a free companion, "Producer." Available from Microsoft for 2003 versions of PowerPoint (a beta version for PowerPoint 2007 has just been released), "...Microsoft Producer 2003 for Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003 to capture and synchronize audio, video, slides and images, then preview and publish a rich media presentation virtually anywhere for viewing in a web browser," according to the software's website.

    Many other plug-ins, or small programs that work in conjunction with software, are available to create an assortment of file types and applications, including converting PowerPoint files to Flash and PPT to PDF (Portable Document Files). Rendering PPT files to PDF compresses them in file size and makes the distributed file more difficult to copy or alter by someone who downloads it.

    Presentation Pro and Articulate Presenter are commercial products that allow users to easily convert PowerPoints to Flash, with the possible inclusion of quizzes, learning checks and user surveys. Other free software is available to accomplish this, usually without the power or support of these commercial products.

  • Flash - Introduced in 1996 by Macromedia, and now owned by Adobe Corp., Flash is a set of software technologies that are used to add interactivity to web pages. The Flash player is available free from Adobe and is present on some 90% of all Internet-enabled personal computers. According to Adobe, Flash is "...for creating and delivering effective rich interactive content across desktops and devices. Flash enables users to integrate animation, video, text, audio and graphics into engaging user experiences that span a wide variety of digital devices, from desktops to mobile phones."

    "The most obvious application (for animation) is in representing processes, such as the weather or the working of the economy," writes Clive Shepherd in ITTraining magazine. "But animation can also help learners to visualize procedures and to explore structures and layouts." A notable example of this is are the courses offered by National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which include an introduction to ICS and Basic Wildland Suppression Orientation, which are both Flash-based.

  • Movie Maker - Initially intended to help the home hobbyist create, download and share movies; this free software from Microsoft has created a new multimedia learning tool. As described on the company's website, "With Movie Maker 2.1, you can create, edit and share your home movies right on your computer. Build your movie with a few simple drag-and-drops. Delete bad shots and include only the best scenes. Then share your movie via the web, e-mail or CD. Using third-party software you can even take movies you've made and turn them into DVDs. You can also save your movie back to the video tape in your camera to play back on a TV or on the camera itself."

    Instructors are employing this editing package when they require students to post video assignments such as presentations that are performed before an audience and video camera. The student edits the presentation into a short clip, then reduces its size and uploads it to the instructor for assessment. Courses that were once improbable to design for online delivery have emerged as a lesson unto themselves. What better way to teach future fire service instructors how to use the Internet to deliver courses than to have them explore video editing as part of doing a presenting a required lecture?

  • Media players - These include RealPlayer, QuickTime and Windows Media Player.
  • RealPlayer - This cross-platform media player is one of several software devices that play a variety of media files, such as MP3, MPEG4, QuickTime and Windows Media Files, among others. It was one of the first players to stream media across the Internet. A version of the player is available for Apple-owned Mac operating systems, which has its own media player.
  • QuickTime - Apple's media player, which also is available for Windows users, and like RealPlayer, offers free functionality for users, but charges a fee for some of the premium bells and whistles.
  • Windows Media Player - Another Microsoft product usually packaged with it market-dominant Windows OS, is also free to download and use. Students in the online environment really need to know which of the several players best suits their needs. All players provide the basic ability to show video and listen to audio files, but each wants to be the default player when the user installs it.
  • Blogs - This relatively new social commentary software, which is derived from the words web log, is best described as a resurrection of the older electronic bulletin board. A blog is usually maintained by an individual whose particular interest in a subject attracts others to post their opinions, video or audio files (podcasts). Blogs let online fire science students, for example, read a wide variety of personal opinions and commentary concerning 9/11. Because these blogs are highly opinionated, care must be used when viewing them. Yet when the author's point-of-view is taken in the perspective of a critical thinking exercise, these online comments are valuable to student learning.

    Says Paula Porter, a doctoral candidate in Instructional Design for Online Learning who teaches in a physical classroom and online for several colleges, "In the classroom, a blog serves as a journal for students to share with other students and the instructor. It's more robust than a discussion forum because students can literally create their unique background design, upload photos, put in links to YouTube videos or interesting websites, etc. Students can post problems and ask for help, keeping a running 'conversation' going."

  • YouTube - Far from just a place to upload video clips, YouTube really does have relevant education value in the online environment. Begun in 2005 as a social networking video blog that had no predetermined topic, YouTube has grown to be the third-most-accessed Internet site, with more than 80-million video clips. Prior to YouTube, posting a video online was difficult at best. The software company, recently acquired by Google, provides easy-to-use procedures to accomplish this feat, converting many popular video file types into its Flash-based format.

    Instructors frequently search this free site for topics germane to their course and post a link to in a module or course content area for students to view as supporting information. For example, searching for the use of fire extinguishers brings several good examples that could fit into the format of an online course, and also produced some results that might make a seasoned firefighter blush.

  • Wikis - Typically, a collection of collaborative web pages, wikis are gaining popularity in some online courses. Arguably the most famous wiki, Wikipedia, is not a desirable research landmark because its content can be edited by users. It is best suited for basic information before starting formal research. As a classroom tool, however, "Wikis are great for collaborative team projects - especially for online fire science students who could not schedule time together," says instructional designer Porter. "If preparing a presentation or report, the group or instructor can assign duties and deadlines and keep track of who is pulling their weight. Things can be edited, added, adapted and changed in a wiki and the instructor and other participants will know who and when. So those students who tend to let others do the work can't get a free ride or grade. It's also perfect for objective grading, as the instructor can tell who put in the effort and when. A wiki is the perfect tool for any writing assignments, especially when used like an electronic portfolio."

Regardless of media tool, rich media in online delivery is here to stay. As Kenneth Ott and J.D. Thomerson of Valdosta State University wrote in a recent issue of International Journal of Learning, two major hurdles exist for web-based instruction: the lack of multimedia in online courses and the lack of human contact - a powerful influence in the brick-and-mortar setting. Yet with the variety, low price and availability of rich media, these disadvantages become less important.

Author Green sees multimedia aiding in developing a key aspect of post-graduate education: critical-thinking skills. "The development of these skills allows students to become better problem-solvers and conditions them to look at problems from a different perspective." And with all the power of animation, audio, video and interaction only a few mouse clicks away, it becomes much easier to stress critical-thinking skills in any time zone or in any locale with an Internet connection.

PAUL SNODGRASS, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department and a former fire chief. He is an adjunct fire science instructor at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, FL, and Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA. Snodgrass is a former fire chief and holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Augsburg College and a master's degree in education from the University of Phoenix. He has been writing about, designing and teaching online courses since 2005. He can be reached at