Currents in Electronic Literacy

Hell Wasn't Built in a Day: Taking the Long View on Multimedia Development

by Olin R. Bjork

  1. In the heady days of the fall of 1998, great personal feats of multimedia development seemed achievable and necessary. As one of several first year English graduate students in Professor Jerome Bump's Web design seminar, I felt like I was joining the vanguard of a revolution in electronic pedagogy. Two of the buzzwords in our discussions were "hypermedia" and "interactive" (we were blissfully unaware that these terms had already grown shopworn in IT circles). My project partner Christopher York and I created a Web site entitled "Dante's Inferno: part one of the Divine Hypermedia Project." On the "About This Site" page, we included the following introduction:
  2. The Divine Hypermedia Project is an attempt to illustrate the potential for interactive technology in the study and criticism of literature in foreign languages. It provides multiple facing-page translations, oral interpretations of the text by Italian scholars, and several modern film segments, all cross-referenced with critical commentary in Italian, Latin, and English from the Dartmouth Dante Project. In the future we hope to add a concordance, a MOO-like virtual environment for critical discussions, and more extensive audio-visual resources. Our goal is to produce a digital text that allows the reader to develop an intimate familiarity with the poem in Italian--both written and oral--while also exposing him or her to the large constellation of interpretation that Dante's poem has inspired over the past seven centuries.

    The site was last updated on 5/4/99. Judging from this rather stale date and/or a short perusal of the site's limited, incomplete content, it becomes evident that our grandiose hopes for "the future" have as yet gone unrealized. After that spring, I became immersed in preparations for my Qualifying Exam, Christopher enrolled in a multimedia program at MIT, and the site languished.

  3. Now in my fourth year, I have had to learn to be patient (and mildly devious) with respect to my own limitations and the continuing development of this somewhat ambitious project. Such a mindset is not an unusual one here in Austin, where much has been made recently of a concrete shell of a building left unfinished by Intel since early 2001. Standing like Shelley's Ozymandias in the heart of downtown's business center, the unsightly structure is viewed by progressive and civic-minded thinkers as symbolic of the decline of the high-tech industry, a monument to corporate excess and disregard for local communities. Driving by the site, I sometimes think of all the partially completed Web sites (like ours) that litter public cyberspace. Unlike the $124 million Intel project, these remnants could be easily removed. Their owners, if they even think about them at all, no longer find it worthwhile to update the pages, yet they probably feel that the sites retain some reason for being.

  4. I want our site to remain up and running because I am as proud of its achievements as I am embarrassed by its failings (and audacity). As far as I am aware--and we searched rather exhaustively back in '98--ours was the first Dante Web site to include audio voice-overs in medieval Italian. Two professors in the Department of French and Italian, Guy Raffa and Daniela Bini, graciously allowed us to record their readings. I have now taught Dante's Inferno twice, in two sections of my "Rhetoric of Damnation" course, and my students seem genuinely struck by the otherworldly beauty of Dante's language. They also enjoy the images from Gustave Dore's woodcuts, the video samples from Peter Greenaway's film version, and the scrolling effects on the map page. The latter is just a "bells and whistles" feature, however, and other than the audio and video clips, the site's multimedia content and interface offer few pedagogical advantages over printed text while sacrificing many of that medium's affordances. The Divine Hypermedia Project was never intended to be a replacement for printed versions of the Divine Comedy but rather a collection of interactive hypermedia supplements.

  5. Over the course of my studies, I have come to learn that the two aforementioned buzzwords, "hypermedia" and "interactive," are not the self-explanatory terms Christopher and I took them for. With regard to the former, we designed the Web site using the simple formula: hypertext + multimedia = hypermedia. However, in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, George Landow argues that the concept of hypermedia
  6. simply extends the notion of the text in hypertext by including visual information, sound, animation, and other forms of data. Since hypertext, which links one passage of verbal discourse to images, maps, diagrams, and sound as easily as to another verbal passage, expands the notion of text beyond the solely verbal, I do not distinguish between hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information. In this network, I shall use the terms hypermedia and hypertext interchangeably (3).

    Landow argues against an additive notion of hypermedia and in favor of a seamless integration of all forms of multimedia content into one ideal medium: hypertext. Later, Landow focuses on the interactive possibilities of hypertext, a potential that Christopher and I seem to have mistaken for an essential quality of a hypertext interface. We assumed that a site is interactive if it has an interface and a user. Landow insists, however, that for a hypertext to be truly interactive, the user must be able to affect or even change the content, not merely to access it. Furthermore, before a site can be interactive, it must first be usable (Landow 219-266). Christopher and I soon realized that, from a usability standpoint, our Web site was (and is) a disaster. Users rarely find the resources the Web site offers without assistance or direction from one of the designers.

  7. In the spring of 2001, Professor John Slatin introduced me to yet another term: "accessibility." When and if I begin working on the site again, my first order of business will be to make its interface usable by, and its contents accessible to, the broadest spectrum of people possible, including those with visual and other disabilities. The most obvious problem is the lack of "alt" and/or "long description" attributes for the images, but the interface also needs to be more accessible and convenient for screenreader software and keyboard navigation.

  8. Aside from the Web site, I have managed to make some progress on some of the other components of the Divine Hypermedia Project since May of 1999. After failing to get funding for the project, despite the strong backing of Professor Raffa, I enrolled in an interdisciplinary multimedia class in the spring of 2000. I was able to enlist two of my classmates in developing a CD application designed to interface with the Web site as a set of interactive quizzes. We used Macromedia Director to create the application. Although the application currently has only one quiz and no scoring mechanism, the graphics and animation have actually helped my students visualize part of Dante's world. This is a crucial benefit of multimedia in that it is very difficult, just from reading the text, to maintain in the mind's eye a spatial and topographical representation of the circles of Hell. Although a heavily illustrated print version might offer similar assistance, electronic multimedia is advantageous in that it avoids the awkwardness of such voluminous (and expensive) editions.

  9. Most of my students are at least as eager to learn how to use multimedia software as they are to read texts, and I do not feel that it is wasteful (or inappropriate to the resources offered by a computer-assisted classroom) to teach them how to use Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash, and the like. This practice allows me to maintain a degree of familiarity with multimedia software without having to spend enormous amounts of time in development. In order to take full pedagogical advantage of the particular talents and inclinations of a new generation of students, I believe that teachers of reading, writing, and research need to make the experience of literature more like that of video games and the experience of video games more like that of literature. While one might argue that such a conflation cheapens literature or reduces the role of the individual imagination in reading, I am finding that multimedia technology encourages students to engage texts by opening their minds to the interactive possibilities of enacting and rendering literary works in myriad forms and media. This semester, my students and I are creating a new quiz and developing a MOO component as well. While learning about Dante and rhetoric, we are actually creating content that will be used to teach future students about Dante and rhetoric. Slowly, inexorably, the Divine Hypermedia Project moves along.

Works Cited

Please cite this article as Currents in Electronic Literacy Spring 2002 (6),