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Image Learning: Higher Education and Interactive Video Discs

by Ben Davis - 1988

New optical information storage technologies such as the interactive video disc make possible change in how students will learn in classrooms of the future. Similar historical developments whose influences were wide ranging are discussed. Ongoing studies of interactive video applications at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are described. (Source: ERIC)

Traditionally, illustrations have been subsidiary to text in the higher learning. Visual information is being set free from its dependence on text and the consequences for education will be immense, if we can learn to exploit its possibilities.

Every age has its own peculiar set of interesting issues and ideas. Today, in our computer-enhanced, video-saturated society, this issue of visual computing in higher education has surfaced as a very significant one. That is why I have called this article “Image Learning: Higher Education and Interactive Video Disc.” To get a sense of the centrality and import of this topic for the university in our day and age, a brief imaginary excursion through time will set the scene.


Let us go back in time to the first human beings, to prehistory. Imagine that the most intensely interesting topic for the Pleistocene age is “Higher Education and the Campfire.” The new light-emitting technology of the campfire is having a profound effect on learning. It is providing heat, and meat never tasted better. It gives off light far into the darkness of night, keeping away predators. Everyone gathers around, discussing the fire, improving it a bit, staring into the flames, exchanging stories. The heat and safety of the fire allow a little wonder, allow a relaxed look at the stars. Bits of glowing bark blow up from the fire. Could the stars be distant fires? Beginning astronomy is now in session.


Time passes. It is 516 B.C. Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory. Simonides is inventing the art of memory. He is equating the methods of poetry and painting. He is teaching that painting, poetry, and memory are intense visualization. In order to demonstrate this, spaces are designed with visual details that elicit lines of poetry to the initiated. Carefully placed windows and small openings direct light onto these details. The topic of the day is “Higher Education and Memory Theater.” Could it be that the mind has an eye? Do we remember the face and forget the name? Can objects be the repository of memory? Noumenon, phenomenon?


We are in sixteenth-century Italy. The talk is of higher education and the printing press. Knowledge has been stockpiled in various libraries and monasteries where scholars dispense information to the elect. The illuminated texts are carefully handmade to create ‘the illusion that light is coming from the page. The printing press has just been invented. Knowledge can be bought and traded like any other commodity. If you cannot read, just look at the pictures—every picture tells a story, does it not? Now the great teachings can go home with you, they are mass produced. The teacher-student relationship is changed. No single teacher can have read all the books, so education is distributed, it is “universitized,” codified, filtered through institutions.


What have we learned? We know we are a long way from higher education and the campfire. We know longer intuit directly from nature. The memory theaters of Simonides are pale marble monuments. Picture books are usually for art collections, travel, children, and fads. The fire has been replaced by television. Tele-vision—to see at a distance. Whatever is far away is close up. Whatever is too close can be made to seem far away. Pictures are literally in the air. We are entertained. Endlessly fascinated by this notion of images produced by light. If we choose, we can look at 1917 in motion or the tenth century in still images. We can see the aberration of black-and-white history, that brief period from the invention of photography in 1840 to the mid-twentieth century when color returned to images. And we can see advertising. We can see all about ourselves.


We can remember everything as well. We have computers. Powerful devices capable of astounding feats of memorization and organization. Electronic brains powerful enough to guide men to the moon and take pictures of distant planets. Enormous data banks that can be linked together to create electronic libraries more vast and encompassing than any single university. The computer began as a number-processing machine. It has now become a text-or word-processing machine as well.


What would happen if we combined optical, light-based visual memory and the computer?

John Berger, in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, reminds us that

the visible has been and still is the principal source of information about the world. Through the visible one orientates oneself. Even perceptions coming from other senses are often translated into visual terms. (Vertigo is a pathological example: Originating in the ear, it is experienced as a visual, spatial confusion.) It is thanks to the visible that one recognizes space as a precondition for physical existence. The visible brings the world to us. At the same time it reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we are at risk to be lost. The visible with its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.1

What sort of a visual metaphor is this two-faced condition that lets light in but also can block it out?


The window. Or better yet a series of windows, each with its own kind of vision, that can be studied individually or correlated by peering through simultaneously. The first window is for dialogue. It allows the explorer to engage in a search. We can call it a menu because it provides choices of action. The next window is for picturing; it is the representational visual memory. Then a text window for reference and entering information into the system from the keyboard. There is a graphics window, used for annotation, animation. These windows may be shifted, deleted, reordered, sized, moved, and iconified. At Project Athena this is called the X Window system. Developed at MIT in conjunction with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the X Window is a network-transparent portable window system that allows applications to work seamlessly across various machine architectures and networks. It is a public-domain program originally written for Berkeley 4.2 UNIX. More than seventy computer companies and software developers have adopted X as a standard window manager, among them IBM, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, and Data General.


Let us concentrate our attention on the picture window. How can picture data be entered into this window? It must come from a source that the computer can easily accommodate. It must be electric. In the late nineteenth century amazing changes took place, changes we take for granted as we enter the twenty-first century. Skyscrapers, elevators, the fountain pen, zippers, the typewriter, airplanes, the electric light, all appeared as if by magic. The conversion of sound to electricity to sound again created the telephone, the radio, and the phonograph. Thomas Edison foresaw the phonograph as an instrument that would change mass education by bringing the voices of the great teachers to the ordinary person. In 1894 he invented the Kinetoscope, the motion picture projector, which he thought would replace textbooks. It was too expensive for education (as technology still is today) and instead became the premier instrument of entertainment. Edison actually wanted to combine the phonograph and the movie very early in his research “in the hope of developing something that would do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.“2 Motion picture records were never pursued, however. Instead, in 1926, sound was added to film.

Almost simultaneously with the developments in film, research on electronic image making was being undertaken by inventors like Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin. They were inventing television. The main concentration was on cameras, cathode-ray tubes, and methods of transmission that have given us our modern television broadcast systems. John Loggie Baird, a Scotsman, was working in a divergent mode. He was attempting to make television pictures by mechanical means. He worked on the idea of inscribing television signals on a waxed phonograph record, and he called it Phonovision. This was in 1926. In 1935 he tried unsuccessfully to market Phonovision. Developments in broadcast television were simply too powerful and his vision of prerecorded television for the home or cinema was premature. It was not until 1963, after the far-reaching revolution in television, magnetic tape recording, and integrated circuitry, that the notion of video disc reemerged as a medium of interest. The random-access nature of the nonlinear disc was a compatible design for the computer.


In 1916 Albert Einstein decided that he would spend the rest of his life attempting to understand the nature of light. His research led to his theories of quantum radiation. This work was fundamental to the invention of the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). The laser is a device that excites electrons into emitting photons (the basic unit of light energy) of the same wavelength. It then pumps those photons into an intense amplified beam. The power of a million campfires. Focused on a tiny spot on a light-sensitive material, the laser can record and read microscopic holes, impressions that can be decoded into analog pictures. The storage density of this new medium, the laser video disc, is quite amazing. On one side of a 12-inch disc, 54,000 individual pictures can be stored along with stereo audio and digital data. The laser can access a single frame in 1.5 seconds or less. Compact Disc Read Only Memory (CD-ROM) is another kind of disc that is only 4.7 inches in diameter but can ‘store 600 megabytes of digital information or the equivalent of 200,000 pages of typed text. Entire encyclopedias have been placed on a single disc. Compact Disc Interactive (CD-I) is yet another innovation that proposes to eliminate the need for a computer by placing operating and applications information right on the disc as well as still photos, music, speech, graphics, and computer programs.


To bring our historical journey to the present, on March 3 of this past year, the David Sarnoff Research Center announced the creation of a full motion digital compact disc—in other words, a video disc with the same capacity as the larger analog disc but only 4.7 inches in diameter. This announcement is startling for another reason: The environment of the computer is digital. This new development fully realizes the notion of video becoming computer-compatible. It means that an inexpensive digital video player can be connected directly to a computer with very little trouble. It means in effect that all video will be computer-compatible, and that anything that can be placed before a video camera can be accessed by computer. It means that the visual world has a home in the computer. And the computer is inherently a learning machine.


I say the computer is a learning machine rather than a teaching machine. Learning is a relational situation, We connect pieces of information to form a thought. Each of us has a special way of connecting information. The computer has the unique ability to imitate this mental process. Any student who moves from listening to classroom lectures to doing personal research has crossed into learning rather than being taught. The computer is a memory theater. It stores and displays information and is capable of being organized in an infinite number of ways. It remembers whatever is placed in it and can associate data in an enormous number of patterns. Anyone familiar with a word processor (as opposed to a typewriter) knows how fragments of text can be endlessly modified and rearranged and reassociated. Nothing is fixed until the computer activates the printing press.


In an effort to better understand the effect of computers on learning, MIT, in 1983, created Project Athena. This five-year program was established to explore innovative uses of computing in the MIT curriculum. MIT faculty were concerned that for the most part only graduate-level students had access to computing power. In order to integrate computers into the undergraduate program a large-scale effort would be needed, both technically and financially. Digital Equipment Corporation and International Business Machines agreed to provide MIT with approximately $50 million worth of hardware, software, technical support staff, maintenance, and networking. In addition, MIT raised $20 million for curriculum development. Twice a year faculty are invited to submit proposals to review committees. At the end of 1986, 111 projects were funded. It has become a large-scale laboratory to see how computing will lit into universities in the future. Its goal is a networkable coherence of machines and software. For instance, UNIX has been chosen as the operating system and X Window, developed at Athena, has become the chosen interface. Approximately 1,500 stations have been deployed in public work areas, living groups, laboratories, libraries, departmental areas, and special curriculum sites. Among these work stations are a cluster of very specialized machines, Visual Courseware machines. The visual work stations are demonstrating the combination of X windows, full motion color video disc, cable television, digital audio, high-resolution graphics, and CDROM, laser printers, and the very powerful 32-bit computers themselves (DEC MICROVAxII, IBM-RT).

There are ten courses currently under development: French, Spanish, German, and Japanese language; cellular biology (electron scanning microscope simulator), mechanical engineering (expert bearing selection), neuroanatomy of the human brain; and three architecture projects. Produced through the newly established Visual Courseware Group of Project Athena, these pilot projects represent an environmental approach to learning. (It is interesting to note that the subjects offered by MIT when it opened in 1865 were physics, mathematics, civil engineering, chemistry, French, and freehand drawing.) The student is interfaced with a multimedia networked station that is very much like a gateway into a new world of learning.


In a world where pictures are literally in the air, the use of electronic imagery as a visualization tool seems obvious. What is not so obvious is how to grasp the tool. The use of new optical-information-storage technologies like laser discs acted on by powerful personal-scale computing machines makes possible enormous leaps in information correlation. Connected into interactive networks, these learning stations create a new model for higher education. All educational experience has a visual component; from physics to literature the mind’s eye is at work. How a student visualizes and associates research becomes key to realizing the potential of the new technologies. By accessing libraries of text, video, audio, and computer graphics the student begins a journey into the collective memory. Image learning virtually means assuming the role of the artist, the person of integral awareness who creatively looks, literally, for meaning. Each of us has a special way of learning, which can be coded into the memory of the computer. Each interaction with data bases can be noted and refined so that no subject is beyond a student’s abilities. An art history interest can be applied to physics. You can comprehend whatever you are curious about because it can be shown to you the way you understand things. Everything is interesting; the world is open again to fresh insight.


Who will control this process? Who will decide content and structure? Who will have access? Is visual simulation a healthy idea? What will the inevitable marriage of education and entertainment mean? What will it mean to create knowledge gates that are independent of the campus and the institution? What role will the traditional teacher have in this environment? What will holographic visual memories mean?

These will be the questions for the next twenty years. The educator of today has responsibilities on a planetary scale. The seemingly innocuous introduction of something like interactive video disc into education suddenly tips a cultural scale. Interactive video disc is just a late-twentieth-century electronic campfire. It will allow a long gaze into our collective visual memories. What we see may astound us. The window can close, though. This is a two-faced world. While the window is open teachers must be responsible for what is seen. There is one basic factor that separates the educator from anyone else using these new light-based technologies: love of subject. The message of this new electronic learning environment is not the importance of machines or the possibility of a science of learning. It is that this is the time of the teacher.


The Visual Courseware Group at Project Athena is made up of creative individuals interested in visual language and with a passion for details about learning technologies.3 By bringing this kind of sensitivity into a technological setting we hope to create a visionary computer environment, literally and metaphorically, for the students. What will this mean for the teaching of mechanical engineering, neuroanatomy, biology? Certainly the creators of the architecture projects already have an understanding of this process. We are discovering very quickly, however, that the language projects are vital to creating this visionary paradigm.4 Language is environmental, It is not only concerned with words but with gesture, sound, body language, and facial expression. It is the dynamic fluid of cultural understanding and to this end all languages are in harmony. This is now a very small, fragile world that cannot risk misunderstandings.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 3, 1988, p. 352-359
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 534, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:07:18 PM

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About the Author
  • Ben Davis
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Ben Davis is the director of the Visual Courseware Group at Project Athema at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the chair of the research consortium for the National Demonstration Laboratory for Interactive Technology at the Smithsonian Institution.
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