Featured Article
Idaho Forester 1996
University of Idaho


Ronald Robberecht, Professor
Department of Range Resources
College of Forestry, Wildlife and Range Sciences
University of Idaho

Recent advances in personal computers have presented teachers, students, and natural resource professionals with new and powerful tools for research and management of natural resources and the extension of science to the public. The modern multimedia computer system allows full use of three major new software technologies: interactive multimedia presentation programs, authoring systems for the development of self-study lessons and electronic books, and the internet. While computer-aided education in the field of natural resources is still relatively new, the new technology is opening up revolutionary possibilities for education.

The modern multimedia computer system typically has a sound card, software for playing digitized video, speakers, and a CD-ROM drive. When combined with the speed of new-generation processors, e.g., the Pentium and PowerPC processors, the multimedia computer can play digitized sound and video clips, complex animation and virtual reality sequences, and interactive electronic "textbooks" on CD-ROM. What makes the new technology different from previous "new technologies" such as video-taped courses is the level of interaction it makes possible between the student and the information. Moreover, once converted to digital form, all forms of media become interchangeable. That is, motion video, photographs, text, animation, and sound can be edited and manipulated as freely and easily as a modern word processor can manipulate text in a document. This capability, the essence of computer-aided education, makes it fundamentally different and vastly more powerful and useful than all previous tools in education.

One tool in computer-aided education that is becoming common is software for developing multimedia presentations. The simpler versions of such programs allow the user to quickly construct linear slide shows on the computer. Typically, these presentations consist of photographs, graphs, and text arranged in a similar way as conventional slide shows. Rather than being shown on a slide projector, multimedia slide shows are presented directly from the computer via a video projection device. Although the computer-based slide show appears similar to conventional slide presentations, there are some distinct differences and advantages. For example, photographs in digital form on the computer can be easily resized, color-enhanced, sharpened, and cropped according to purposes of the presenter. Scientific and conceptual graphs can be added and similarly edited to fit the presentation. Also, text and graphics such as lines and arrows can be added to the photograph. The cost and time for producing the slide presentation is typically much less than conventional methods The more powerful multimedia presentation programs allow the user to design complex branching within the slide presentation so that the presentation becomes nonlinear. The addition of digitized sound and motion video completes the interactive multimedia presentation.

Authoring systems extend the possibilities of computer-aided education into the realm of computer-based training (CBT), self-study lessons, and interactive multimedia electronic books. Educators can develop such computer-based modules for use by one person in an interactive manner. The student is actively learning rather than passively viewing a sequence on the screen. Modules designed with an authoring system can include the same multimedia capabilities as presentation software. While few CBT, study-study guides, and interactive electronic books are available in natural resources, these innovations will become more common in the future.

The third area of computer-aided education that is fast becoming an integral part of education is the internet. In many ways, the interactive multimedia capabilities of the current internet are not as fully developed in comparison with those of the modern multimedia computer and computer-based multimedia software. However, these differences will diminish in the near future. The internet allows users to interact with each other, and with the software, at a global level --- anytime and from anywhere. This capability presents numerous new avenues and approaches for education and the dissemination of information. Rather than centralized education, i.e., where classes held at a specific location and time, the internet can offer education at a distance and in a time frame customized for each individual. While distance learning provides more flexibility, it also requires students to work diligently and independently.

Each of these three new technologies provide unique educational approaches and directions in the field of natural resources. Educators can use these tools for innovative teaching of the sciences in the classroom and for customized distance learning. Students will have new opportunities to access information in natural resources and related fields, as well as new options for learning in a more flexible and individualized manner. And, natural resources professionals will have enhanced opportunities for continuing education and extension. The latter two areas of education are particularly well-suited to the new technology, particularly in regard to communicating science to the public. These three new technologies are converging toward a common goal in computer-aided education --- a more individualized and interactive way of learning and processing vast amounts of information in an efficient and coherent manner --- and present educators, students, and professionals in natural resources with many opportunities today and in the future.

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