An Introduction to Multimedia Thinking

“The future is here; it’s just not widely distributed yet.” William Gibson

Welcome to this frame. In a moment, hidden elements in invisible frames will appear. Further reading will soon bring you to calling other "media performers" to the stage of these frames. Throughout this reading, click EACH link as it is reached.

Twenty-first century teachers, thinkers and composers develop, blend and manage a theater of media elements. Literacy as just the mastery of printed text and oral communication, literacy as linguistics and the language arts, is an idea accelerating into extinction, chased by the growth of digital communication and rapidly changing cultural settings. The composer's palette on the left graphically represent the growing collection of ingredients in the digital mix. Literacy as multiliteracies (New London Group, 1996) has flowered with the expansion of computers and digital networks and the high rate of global interaction. The rapid emergence of relatively cheap "digital pencils" (networked computers) led what Negroponte labeled the "$100 laptop project" (Pogue, 2007) heralds the dawning of a new era of education and culture. Everyone, from educators to all citizens, needs to grow their new literacy skills. This literacy is decidely not just about receiving information. In a rapidly changing world, composing becomes more important than reading.

It would be a useful foundation to start further defining literacy. For these chapters literacy is mastery of the communication and composition systems of a culture in its place in history. Literacy is relative to an era in time. The literacy of 20,000 B.C. was different that 1500 A.D. and willl be different again in 2020 A.D. Our first working definition of new literacy as multiliteracy or multimedia is a presentation or sharing of information in which more than one type of media composition is used. Television would not be an example of multimedia as its combination of motion pictures and audio are taken as one medium. A classroom which does not have a computer but uses a sequence of music players, radio stations, cable television, maps, and whiteboard diagrams would be a multimedia classroom.

An encyclopedia containing text and a wide variety images, audio, and video is a form of multimedia. Online examples of multimedia compositions include Wikipedia (free) and Encyclopedia Britannica (parts of articles free or all articles if the school or state has paid the access fee). Wikipedia also provides a Wikimedia Commons, a copyright free multimedia collection that includes audio, video and pictures. This rapidly growing Commons has gone through an excelerating progression from 70,000 different types of free media in April of 2005: over 950,000 in October of 2006; 1,097,934 media files on January 14, 2010; and 8,124,140 freely usable media files on January 5, 2011. This is a collection to which anyone can contribute. It routinely adds over 100,000 new media files every month. If literacy is the capacity to understand and compose what goes on a page, what has literacy become in the era of trillions of Web pages?

There are also tighter degrees of media integration. The degree of intertextuality, the connectedness between two elements of composition (e.g., print and a picture) is a measure of the quality the multimedia work. This passage of text alongside a videoclip for a course called Digital Literacy that uses a wide range of media would be unimedia. A passage of text next to a set of images taken from a search of an image database would also qualify. To help first time visitors to campus, putting a moveable and scalable map of the location of Western Carolina University over the top of this Web page would also meet this requirement. The Courier touch tablet is is an example of a computer designed to also have two side-by-side displays, like the two pages of an open book, which better enables the content in each frame to interact with each other.

The future of publication, communication and entertainment is framed in learning to harmonize the activity of multiple media and displays. Education has always eventually followed its culture's lead. This essay and this chapter are the start of the path to greater multimedia empowerment. When a wide range of media are harmonized or synthesized in composition and communication, the phrase comprehensive composition or related terms might be used. Does that make those who teach about the use of words, sentences and text essays, or any single system of communication, teachers of fractional composition? Whatever terms evolve, the goal of this online book is the development of works and authors that represent the best in multiliteracies and comprehensive composition.

The goal of comprehensive composition  is to be able to create or compose and use the most complete range of media available. A multimedia composition that included 3D terrain maps, an audioclip, alongside a text essay, next to a live webcam, that includes other Web pages with an animated slideshow of pictures of a stream at various levels of depth, next to a live graph of data recorded throughout the day from stream sensors, with a Web page which also invited readers to add their typed comments of the situations the data implied would also represent comprehensive composition, the most advanced form multimedia.

Literacy needs drive a significant portion of the curriculum of our schools and cultural change drives changes to the nature of literacy. When literacy changes, teachers and schools must adjust. "...(W)e need curricula in which children and teachers use their cultural and symbolic resources to deconstruct and design texts of varied modalities, that is, curricula in which they make decisions about the symbolic tools and substance that might suit an ever widening, evolving network of communicative practices. We also need careful research on the nature of such decisions.... And, to inform all of the above, we need rich visions of classroom possibilities" (Dyson, 2005). It is for the capacity to build such rich visions that these chapters were written. This adjustment will take time and the acquistion of further knowledge. Given the depth of knowledge needed to compose across the full range of the literacy palette, this knowledge acquisition is as significant as learning how to read text, both in terms of its complexity and the length of time to learn.

These ideas focus on 21st century literacy, the application of multimedia to education, building ever more comprehensive notions of the digital meaning of composition. It also considers multimedia's social and economic values. It explores compositions and designs by which multiple media can be used in sequence or in multiple combinations, for publication on the Web and on CDs, and DVDs and on or with other technologies. It presumes prior experience with different media, the Web and the Internet. It presumes some prior experiences in creating Web pages and uploading them to make them visible to others on the Internet. This chapter will take participants once or twice around Bruner's spiral (1960), prompting compositions which step-by-step  integrate a range of media: text; still images; video; sound & music; animation; 3D and virtual reality; and sensors and remote control. Completing these chapters will yield a comprehensive composition that integrates all digital media. The first chapter focuses on text as a media, introducing frame pages and the basics of interactive text links between frame pages.

There are many ways to design multimedia with a wide variety of software applications. Some single media designs expect the author to run or set up the entire presentation sequence and for the reader to sit back and watch or listen to a show. A few obvious examples would include radio, movies and television. Other designs expect a high degree of action and decision making by the user. Some obvious examples would be computer games, educational simulations such as flying an airplane, and many Web sites. Creating designs and compositions with different media can require a high degree of skill with a particular software application, while others require much less. This course will give much attention to the least complex way to get the greatest power out of multimedia for the lowest expense of time and money. Power here refers to power for both the designer or author as well as the user of the multimedia composition.  The importance of giving considerable power to the user or viewer or player of the media cannot be underestimated. The concept of "couch-potato" and all that it implies developed in the twentieth century as a direct result of the most popular medium of that century, television. If multimedia is to make a greater contribution to world culture in the twenty-first century than television did in the twentieth, it must engage the active participation of the audience. When the impulse for stimulation strikes, personal and cultural growth will be enhanced when the response to this impulse moves from one of watching to one of doing and participating. This creation of a culture of informal and life long learning which complements formal education has deep roots in the educational theories and writings of Bruner, Dewey, and Vygotsky. In Holt's writing, such systems would replace formal education.


Multimedia or comprehensive composition work requires some composition tools. The composition approach for the most power with the least effort involves something called frame pages and frame sets. The case for and against the use of frame pages can be debated at a later time.This is not to say that frame pages are simple, but the concept of Web page frames will be introduced in the simplest terms possible. The content of frames will be the media with which there is the most familiarity, text. The areas of the digital palette on the left within the gray rectangle are the focus on this chapter, text and frame pages.

Before proceeding on with frames, reflect on the richness of the term "text". Text is a much more nuanced term than might come to mind at first glance. Though our culture uses text in such familiar environments as sentences and paragraphs in articles and books, text is also the foundation for much of mathematical communication. Text is critical for spreadsheets, databases, computer programming, web search engines and more. Text is also routinely used in expressive and artistic ways, mixed on top of and alongside images and in tables made up of rows and columns. Text is enhanced by color and highlighting, boldfacing, resizing, italicizing, reshaped into curves and lines and hundreds of different styles of shapes called fonts. On the web a file consisting of a collection of text is referred to as a web page.

A basic building block for multimedia composition is having some way to divide a display space into multiple spaces, to allow side-by-side display, comparison and intellectual comparison of different web pages and other media elements. It is for this purpose that the concept of framesets and frame pages came into being. Framesets and frame pages enrich the intertextuality of media. Though the concept of frames will be described here with text, frame pages must be experienced more than discussed. A collection of web pages becames a frameset, with each frame containing its own web page. The example structure on the right is just one of many possibilities. However, a brief first exploration of one metaphor for frame pages helps set the stage for what will follow. Frame pages allow a presenter to create a kind of 3 ring circus in which multiple yet related acts can occur at the same time, yet easily switch out one or more acts while at least one act continues on the user's screen. These pages interact in the sense that a link in one frame direct a new page to appear in an adjacent frame. For example, one frame with a web page might hold a picture and a frame next to it might be used to display a series of Web pages that describe or react to the contents of the picture as one clicks on different areas of the picture. However, in Web design, one can have as many circus rings as one wants. The limitation for multimedia composers is not the limitation of the technology but the limitations of the brain to comprehend multiple combinations of elements. The solution is generally to keep static or freeze some elements to draw the users attention to just one or two new acts (elements or frames) at a time as they need to appear.

Revealing This Chapter's Frames

Let's take a look at one example. This composition needs some information that helps sequence what is to follow. It needs to teach a skill in reading or using frame pages. Click the sidebar link now to put information in the frame to the left of this frame then come back to the next sentence here. Now, right click that link in the prior sentence and from the pop-up menu that appears, select the command, Open Link in New Window. The simple click of the link put the page where the author wanted it to go. The second mouse click approach allows the user greater power to resize a frame and place it where ever the reader finds it best. That is, a web page in frame can be also be popped out of its frameset to become its own window, using links created by the page author or with mouse click commands in some browsers.

Now you can see that this composition is a set of four frames, a design called a frameset. The frameset that contains the directions for how to build the four ring circus is one file. The information or media that appears in each of the four frames comes from four more computer files. That is, it takes five files or five smaller compositions to make this frameset or frame page useful. One could easily design a smaller frameset with just two frames or any other number of frames. For each frame there must be a file to fill it.

Frame Tools

How is such a design done? What is the least expensive software program to have to be able to create a frameset? Ah, how sweet the answer. If you own a computer, you already have the program. It's free. Any text editor such as the Notepad program that ships with all Windows operating systems will work. All Macintosh computers ship with a similar program called Simple Text. If you have the skills to edit in a word processor, you have the skills to edit a frameset file. That said, there are power tools that greatly speed and simplify the process of making frame pages and Web pages. If you have Dreamweaver or other more expensive professional tools, you would want to master its tools for making frame pages. For now, let's take an approach that can be taught to anyone who owns a computer.

Click the link in the left frame titled This Frameset Composition. Complete its hands-on activities, then return to this reading.

Interactive Web Technology

Interaction is a critical component of teaching, learning and managing. What are the best ways for interaction to take place on the Web? How does this compare with the variety of ways to interact face-to-face? Be thinking of the kinds of interaction that teachers should require of their students and how this will play out in your own web design for this course. Plan on using ideas about interaction in your own Web design composition that will be completed as part of these chapters. Beyond using the mouse to click, Web page designs provide other special ways for readers and users of Web pages to interact with the composition. Some interactive designs are quite simple for anyone to implement. Others require additional server software. Simple designs include blog sites and application files. More advanced server software additions include Wiki software and form page designs.

Simple and Quick

Integrating a Blog Site

A blog is the ultimate in Web simplicity. See the left margin of this chapter for the link titled, Understand and Create Your Own Blog Site. Note the links to the blog sites authored by your course instructor. Visit them. Leave comments to a couple of my postings.

Linking Application Files

The readers can also click a link that opens a file in another application. For example, a story starter paragraph might be included in a word processor file such as a Microsoft Word file. Some initial data, labels and headings might be added to a spreadsheet file. A database with just a few records could be provided. Assignment directions for what to do on clicking and opening these files might be provided in both the Web page and in the application file when it opens. The completed assignment would be returned as an email attachment.

Specialized Server Designs


A wiki is quick, but it is not simple. The term Wiki is from the Hawaiian language, meaning super-fast. In the context of the Web, it means the ability to make super-fast changes to a Web page. Wiki server software allows readers of the page to see, read and change the content of a Wiki Web page instantly. The only way to really understand Wiki is to work with it. Be bold. Read these directions, Next, edit this Wikipedia:Introduction page, putting some comment down at the bottom of it. Don't worry. Others will delete it later while taking their own first steps. Go back and edit your own comments once they appear. Millions of people now contribute to Wiki Web pages around the world.

There are hundreds of Wiki projects available on the Internet seeking contributers. Versions of Wiki designs can be downloaded for free or wiki farms are available that provide free server space for your own personal wiki project without owning your own server. Running your own Wiki software requires the installation of the wiki program on an Internet connected computer that can be used as a server. Currently the most significant Wiki project is the international set of online encyclopedias called, of which the English version has developed over 1.5 million articles (as of January, 2007) in just a few years.

Though many Wiki designs are wide-open and therefore susceptible to vandalism, versions of the Wiki software do allow log-ins with passwords for more controlled access by a team or class that is collaborating on an assignment or project. An existing Wiki could also appear within a frame page, and student assignments to extend that Wiki in some fashion could be given.

Form Page Design

Form page design that seeks the reader's input is done in many different ways. For example, any use of an Internet search engine requires the user or reader to input information. When a button or key is pressed, the search term information is sent to the server for further processing. This Web page form technology provides for the creation of text boxes, text fields, radio buttons, pull-down menus and other standard text interaction tools. A much simpler use of form page features and frame pages is to provide a text area where the user can place notes and comments which can then later be copied and pasted to a text editor or word processor.

Clicking the notes text area link places a notes space at the top of this page. To learn how to create your own similar text box in a Web page, right click on this link to open it in its own window and examine and copy the source code to use in your own Web pages. Experiment with modifications of its width and number of rows. Also, check with your Web page editor to see if it provides special commands for the creation and editing of form tools. Microsoft's FrontPage and Adobe's Dreamweaver are two that do.

The Advanced Web Search page is a further example of integrating these form and frame techniques, a page which uses a text area in the left frame for the user to record search terms that may be copied and pasted into the form input boxes of search systems that will appear in the right frame.

The process of setting up a server to allow sending data entered by the reader to the server to be used in database searching or for other further processing is beyond the goals of this online textbook. A number of tutorials are available about Web forms design and pages; this is an important component of Web design that deserves further study in another time and place. Using existing Web server based databases will be covered in a later chapter.


Note that this cyberbook teaches one of many ways to design an interactive Web site, but the principles and ideas learned have broad application for the future of publishing. This includes:  CD-ROMS; DVDS; video games; online advertising; hybrid creation of essays, books and other media such as CD with a book; and kiosks. It is important to begin to develop your own ideas in the context of what others are doing, hence these two assignments.

Assignment 1:

One assignment for next week is to make an interesting and useful design using a frameset of four frames. You could think of this as one main display with 3 sidebars or areas of related interest. For example, one frame could hold text and the three other frames could hold pictures or the reverse. Another example would be to be a Web page in from another Web site elsewhere on the Internet, then use the other frames to direct activity in the main frame as well as to include critique or commentary about the remote Web page. If you do not yet have an active Web server account in which to post your assignment, send me your frameset files as email attachments or hand me a diskette in class with your work. Keep it simple unless you have the confidence to go further. A Web site for putting your design work on the Internet will be provided.

As the semester advances, more features of the frameset will be introduced. The focus in the forthcoming chapters is on designing different media to be used in frameset designs. The frameset should serve as the central organizing feature of the assigned activities of this course and book. For each additional media covered in the next seven chapters, the display of the media and the sequence for the viewer of your design should be set by elements of your frame design. Each new chapter models and teaches different ways this might be done.

Assignment 2:

Explore the titles, concepts and winners of interactive media compositions at this site: Browse, and then go in depth on your 3 favorite creations. Outline some design ideas that you find of value in the one of three you find most interesting.

Searching for award winning interactive compositions requires the right search strategies. Though not a requirement for assignment two, just an interesting option, can you create other search strategies beside these that yield similar results? Sample search strategies: awards WebDVD; winner interactive media; awards multimedia. award CD-ROM.

Assignment 3: Create a Blog

Use to create a blog site for yourself and create you first posting. This will be expanded in the weeks ahead as a place for your own reflective thinking, and as a place to invite and require the input and feedback of others. Others includes colleagues, classmates and the students that will be taught with this curriculum development.

Assignment 4: Think of a Curriculum Theme

Choose an area of curriculum that needs to be supplemented, expanded or perhaps created. The motivational theme and curriculum competencies chosen will be addressed by your design work the rest of the semester.

Multimedia Revisited

Multimedia has a wide range of applications beyond education and teaching. The short article on multimedia in the Wikipedia encyclopedia addresses a number of these other uses. The widespread and growing use of multimedia composition in world culture is one of the strongest arguments for greater integration in school curriculum. School curriculum should prepare students for the world they must face. An additional and more foundational case for multimedia is still emerging. Research continues that seeks answers two additional questions. To what degree does multimedia composition enhance intellectual capacity? To what degree do media project activities improve "end of the year" standardized test scores?


Dyson, A. H. (2005). Foreword. In Janet Evens (ed.) Literacy moves on: Popular culture, new technologies & critical literacy in the elementary classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

New London Group (1996). A pedogogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1) 60-92.

Pogue, David (October 4, 2007). $100 Laptop A Bargain at $200. New York Times, 157(54087), C1-C8.

Parent Frame | Page author: Houghton | Updated January 9, 2011