Bollettino del CIC, Numero 2, Anno 1994



Eleonora Bilotta, Mariano Fiorito, Pietro Pantano, Centro Interdipartimentale della Comunicazione, Università della Calabria, Cubo 20, 87036, Rende (CS), Italy.

Daniele Struppa, Math. Science, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, 22030, USA.




Abstract: In this paper the authors describe an interactive hypermedia prototype which can be considered as a an "educational-exploring tour" through the Calabrian culture (a Southern Italian region) to be placed in a museum or any cultural agency as a stand-alone tool. In particular they show how they managed the hypermedia organization and the information retrieval system, and, above all, the access to the contents by defining "ergonomic" interfaces appropriate for the naive and casual users.



1. Introduction


Moreover, recent technological trend developments in terms of multimedia-hypermedia offer a wide range of opportunities for the user to cope with rich information environments. Also "interactive multimedia-hypermedia systems answer to the need for effective educational paths that allow user to play a behavioural, cognitive and involving role in the proposed activities" (Jean, 1993). Knowledge is no longer perceived as a set of abstract information entities, indipendent of the user/learner or the context; consenquently, it is the learner himself who constructs meaning from context-bound information. Learning is then an active, goal-oriented, cumulative, self-reagulated process.

The basic idea is the possibility of using technologies as cognitive tools simulating human mental processes in order to convert them in "cognitive technologies" (Lowyck, 1994) and to adapt them to the human designing capabilities to the interaction.


Until now, technologies were not interactive and they presented informations to the user which were non related to the interaction between the user himself and the cognitive artefact.. User did not act "on line" on the artefact as it usually happens in face-to-face relationships decoding the information, acting, and manipulating it and he passively received the information. But this way of being is unnatural for men in fact, for every human being, adapting involves a continuous process in order to modify the social and physical environment itself.

Actually using cognitive technologies allows to improve learner's ability in building his own knowledge and skills. Particurarly, multimedia hypertexts offer a wide range of possibilities from an educational point of view since "cognitive flexibility and a constructivistic approach to learning can be brought together in these highly sophisticated hypermedia environments" (Lowyck, 1994).

In this paper the authors describe an interactive hypermedia prototype which can be considered as a an "educational-exploring tour" through the Calabrian culture to be placed in a museum (Bilotta, Fiorito & Pantano, 1994a) or any cultural agency as a stand-alone tool. In particular they show how they managed the hypermedia organization and the information retrieval system, and, above all, the access to the contents by defining "ergonomic" interfaces appropriate for the naive and casual users.

The authors' aim was to develop highly usable interfaces for demanding users applying a user-centered design process (Sellers, 1994). Consequently their attention is paid to produce "intelligent" multimedia interfaces in order to increase the bandwidth of information flow between user and machine and to improve the "signal-to-noise" ratio of this information.



2. The Exploring Calabrian Culture prototype


"Exploring Calabrian Culture" prototype is an interactive CD-ROM, hypermedia application for a more complex project developed at the University of Calabria at Cosenza (Italy) for Windows platform and it was authored in Windows's Authorware Professional by Macromedia (1993). It employs a diverse set of data types including self-made images (selected by a large archives of Photo-CDs) (Bilotta, Fiorito & Pantano, 1994b), videos, musics, and narrations about different topics as craftsmanship, environment, touristic tours, people, wedding cerimonies, etc., and consequently the content base of the program is comprehensive and visually rich. However, this learner centered CD-ROM creates an environment in which users are involved in a special experience and may choose to explore each topic as they were looking at a photos collection by a guided tour (a slide show) or navigating within the hyperspace in a self-directed and non-linear fashion.

The application interfaces system is higly interactive and also forgiving, allowing users/learners to control the learning environment by directly manipulating materials and to undo decisions. Moreover, the quality of programming, coupled with the choice of the Windows platform, affords an interface which successfully hides the complexity of the system from the users. As result, they are able to focus on the contents, entertainment, training and educational needs, rather than on the tools.



3. The user Interface metaphor


Since the hypermedia application is supposedly usable also by naive and casual users with non-computer expertise we dealt with the problematic of confusion, loss of overview, and navigation within the hyperspace (Vaananen & Schmidt, 1994). To ensure this usability we applied a user interface metaphor which, as Mountford describes, "is a powerful verbal and semantic tool for conveying both superficial and conceptual similarities between familiar and novel situations" (Mountford, 1990).

For "Exploring Calabrian Culture", a room showing a collection of pictures representing the real photos, served as the real-world, concrete, spatial interface metaphor (see Figure1).

Fig. 1 The opening screen of the prototype


It offers a familiar and motivating presentation of the hypermedia system and is represented through recognizable objects (the little photos) or "visual indexes" that allow direct manipulation. Our effort was to provide the user with objects in the program that were able to support the metaphor equally.



4. The characteristic of the visual ergonomic interfaces


Like other classes of software applications, much of the functionality of this hypermedia system depends on the usability of its user interface. The issue of usability is particulary important for those applications where the user is dealing with a considerable amount of complexity. In order to allow the user to handle these massive amounts of data and convert them into information, we have been designing "ergonomic" (Bertacchini et al., 1993) (Garzotto et al., 1991) user interfaces based on:

a) human computer interaction different styles;

b) interfaces analysis of the actual commercial applications;

c) userís mental models of interaction with the everyday objects; the computer as an artifact has changed over the years, so too has the role of the user;

d) implementation of an organizational metaphor in order to manifest inherent structure that can organize the path information within this metaphor-based space.

In view of the preceding topics, we defined a set of guidelines for developing our interfaces wich regard basically:

a) the styles of human-computer interaction; in this case we have defined all visitorís behavioural events which are possible to be realized within the instructional path. This means to deal with topics such as describing specific learning outcomes, creating scope and sequence outline, exploring multimedia techniques for presenting contents;

b) graphical user interface; we have studied and analysed all design graphical elements such as model of access, layers, metaphor, windowing environments, icons, buttons, menus, etc. (see the Figure2 for the designed multimedia page).

The screen layout is basically conceived as a set of usability and ergonomic places:

a) the first place is referred for the small size photo;

b) the second place (on the left side) is for the palette containing the buttons of textual, audio, and video informations related to the displayed photo;

c) the third place is for the "slide-bar" which allows user to choose directly a photo of the stack he is exploring at that time; this can be considered a tool for direct-manipulation query (Shneiderman, 1992);

d) the fourth place is for the general functions and navigation buttons palette. The palette is located at the bottom of the multimedia page and is composed of seven buttons called, starting from the left, "Calabria" or "home stack", "upper-level", "on-line help", "navigable map" or "browse", "slide show", "glossary", and "exit".



5. The navigational schema


The navigational system of a large hypermedia is one of the most complex components of the user interface. "It represents the action-oriented relationships between the learner and the material at hand" (Metros, 1994). There should be clear relationships between the user's action and their effects, and the state of the system and the interface (Norman, 1988). A navigational schema is composed of the various types of tools (buttons, menus, dialog boxes, maps, textual reminders, place and progress indicators, etc.), location of and access to these tools, and their various visual representations.

The primary navigational method used throughout "Exploring Calabrian Culture" is moving by "gateway or pathway". The application provides users with an opening screen (see Figure 1) containing visual objects where they are required to click on; so user will be "taken to" a nodes directly or another screen of choices.

The second method for moving in the hypermedia is by "relational links". The photo is considered as the smallest information unit; when it is displayed in the small-size format (big size or full screen format is also available by a mouse-clicking on the small one), available in the multimedia page (see Figure 2), users are able to get, by a mouse clicking, other kind of linked informations such as video, audio, and text. If the text button is choosen, users are taken to an hypertext document where access points to related nodes or objects are indicated by highlighted terms (hot spots) within the current text. This option is quite useful since "it helps to connect objects which are related in a non-hierarchical fashion, allowing users to make a number of judgments about the relation between concepts or objects" (Parsaye & Chignell,1993).


Fig. 2 The multimedia page


The third navigational method is by "map". Hedberg and Harper (Hederg & Harper, 1990) explain that a user can be easily confused because in complex and interactive environments, there are multiple paths to the same or different end-points. Users should be able to find out where they are quickly, and how to get back to where they were from anywhere in the information landscape. Exploring Calabrian Culture incorporates a visual map to display the hierarchical organization of the hypermedia (see Figure3).

Fig. 3 The navigational schema.


It is basically a navigable map that allows users to click on the button representing a topic and move directly to it. Not only it is used to navigate within the program, but it also provides a clear "sign", an highlighted red box, to inform users where they are in the hyperspace.


6. Conclusion and future work


The "Exploring Calabrian Culture" CD-ROM hypermedia application has been developed in less than one year and it had to be for naive and casual users since it was conceived as a stand-alone tool. Actually the project had attracted groups of professionals, academics, students, and assorted other specialists both for its unique and innovative approach to the study of culture, and also for the easy user-interface which conceals the complexity of the hypermedia system.

Actually the electronic distribution of the application is through CD-ROMs; future work will be to extend the range of potential users offering the materials to universities, schools, institutes, etc. via the Internet. The idea is to allow users to explore all of Calabrian culture using the Mosaic front-end graphical program. For instance, users will be able to find a more vast amount of related data on any subject making an exploring journey like the authors have realized in another project (Bilotta, Fiorito & Pantano, 1994a). Multimedia data will be stored in different systems (servers) located at various cultural agencies places such as musuems, universities, and more.




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