Visual Authoring System Benefits Instruction as Well as Instructor at Ohio State

Article excerpt

Visual Authoring System Benefits Instruction As Well as Instructor at Ohio State

J. Brooks Breeden was, in his words, "capital-B bored." A professor in the department of landscape architecture at The Ohio State University, he teaches courses that involve lots of mathematical problem-solving. And for a while there, in the mid-'70s, he spent virtually all his free time on campus holed up in his office constructing those math problems--horizontal and vertical curve calculations, percent of slope calculations, etc. Fresh problems for tests, student practice, classwork and homework assignments were necessary, of course, but to Breeden they were all "old-hat."

Students of landscape architecture, which concerns the design of all outdoor space, study civil engineering, horticulture, ecology and the natural sciences. Math plays an important role in the discipline. Miscalculate the low point in a driveway curve, and the catch basin for run-off could wind up a yard away from a puddle of rainwater. Miscalculate where to construct an apartment building, and zoning laws could require that it be torn down. Breeden's classes help ensure that future land planners know how to correctly determine such things.

Interim Solutions

In 1976, Breeden consulted Ohio State's office of computer-assisted instruction (now the office of computer-based instruction) to see if courseware existed that could automatically generate random math problems suited to his purposes. It didn't, but a systems analyst in the office, Carl Philabaum, helped Breeden develop his own CAI program--written from the ground up. "I was not aware at the time of any high-level authoring languages," says Breeden. "I thought you just had to do this."

Over the next few years, he and various colleagues painstakingly wrote a series of problem-generating CAI programs, but a disquieting fact slowly emerged. The mainframe terminals that this courseware ran on couldn't handle graphics, so students had to visualize some highly complex scenarios. A formal university study in 1981 confirmed what Breeden suspected: Students didn't transfer learning from the alphanumeric computer displays to real-world graphical applications.

For a brief time, Breeden was able to remedy this by using Magnavox Orion plasma-panel terminals with 35mm rear-slide projection and touch-sensitive screens. But when the machines were discontinued and the language support was withdrawn, CAI reverted to the original mainframe terminals. In 1984, 20 IBM PCs were installed in a School of Architecture lab, and Breeden rewrote 24 problem-generating programs to run on them. Adequate graphics could be displayed on this equipment, but they were complicated and time-consuming to produce.

A Chance Encounter

When HyperCard came on the scene in Fall 1987, Breeden went back to Ohio State's office of computer-assisted instruction to investigate the possibility of using it for CAI. A member of the office staff, however, had something else to show him: a demo of the icon-based Course of Action authoring system from Authorware, Inc. of Bloomington, Minn. "It blew me away," recalls Breeden. "I said, 'My God, look at the animation. …

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