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5 Multimedia Principles You Need to Know to Design Interactive Courses

As an instructional designer, you must have come across clients who insist that you include visuals, narration, and sounds, apart from onscreen text in their courses. You very well know that this is not going to work. How do you convince them? It is difficult, unless your clients are instructional designers. Or else, you need to make a convincing case, backing it with research on the usage and effect of multimedia principles in course design.

To help you, here is a refresher on five important multimedia principles for instructional design, developed by Richard Mayer. These multimedia principles provide practical common sense advice when you are designing interactive online training modules.

1. Redundancy Principle 

The Principle: People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration and onscreen text. 

Some e-learning courses have text on the screen and narration in the background. This might look like a good way to present information, but it does not work. In fact, studies conducted by Mayer and others indicate that better transfer of learning happens when graphics are explained by audio alone, rather than with both audio and text. In such a case, the onscreen text becomes redundant.

When visuals and onscreen text are used together, it presents a sensory overload to the learner, because he must simultaneously understand the graphic and read the onscreen text. The reason for this is learners can process only one thing at a time. They cannot pay attention to both onscreen text and graphics, simultaneously. So, if only audio narration is added, learners process the information through their ears and focus on the graphics with their eyes. However, when there is no other visual content on the screen, research says, it is better to present the content as both text and narration, for better retention.

2. Modality Principle

The Principle: People learn better from graphics and narration than from animation and onscreen text. 

Though the Modality principle may sound similar to the Redundancy principle, it is not. According to Mayer, put words in spoken form rather than printed form whenever the graphic (animation, video, or series of static frames) is the focus of the words and both are presented simultaneously.”E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth C. Clark & Richard E. Mayer (2016).

The Modality principle states that e-learning courses that contain graphics, must have an audio script explaining the graphics, rather than onscreen text. When graphics and audio are combined to present information, graphics are processed by the visual channel of the learner and audio is processed by the auditory channel.

If complex graphics and familiar words are presented together on the screen at a rapid pace, the learner’s attention gets dissipated and he will not be able to learn effectively.

There are certain exceptions to using onscreen text when:

  • You cannot record your narration or cannot afford the cost of outsourcing it
  • You face technical constraints of having an audience who will be using devices without audio capability
  • You have an audience of learners who will find it difficult to process spoken words
  • You have exercises in your course that require your learners to refer to the instructions
  • You have screen simulations which require a mixture of text, audio, and visuals

Section 508 Compliance: Including onscreen text is important when the course has to be Section 508 compliant. In such a case, use the closed captioning option or add a Notes field in the menu option that will display the text as it is narrated. This will help learners with hearing impairments.

3. Coherence Principle 

The Principle: Learning is better when extraneous words, pictures and sounds are not included in the course. 

Some instructional designers tend to go overboard when it comes to including graphics, illustrations, videos, and sounds in the course. Their aim is to present content in multiple dimensions so that it is easily comprehended by the learner. However, the opposite happens and they fail in their endeavor. The sensory overload that results from using extraneous pictures, visuals, text, and sounds will create a cognitive overload and confuse the learner.

Mayer conducted experiments on learners who were presented with basic details and another set which was presented with extraneous details on the same course. On assessing the 2 groups, he found out that those presented with basic details fared much better and showed better learning than the other set.

Research on why learners fail to learn effectively when presented with extraneous details, concluded that details distract learners from the core information in the course. Such details prevent the learner from organizing the material into coherent knowledge, or activate irrelevant prior learning that diverge his focus from the course. Visuals or text not relevant to the instructional explanation are best avoided.

Music at the beginning of the course to evoke learner interest and sounds for right and wrong answers in assessments are admissible, while any other sounds are extraneous.

The base rule of this principle is ‘less is more’, when the primary motive is learning.

4. Signaling Principle

The Principle: Learning is better when there are cues that highlight the critical elements of the course.

This principle states that the use of visual, auditory, and progressive cues helps to draw attention to critical elements of the lesson. To quote Mayer, “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.”

Imagine presenting your learners with a large block of text on the screen; do you think they would go through the whole text? You are right if you guessed ‘no’. Learners are intimidated by large chunks of text on the screen. If the same text is broken down into smaller chunks, and headings and images are used, then it becomes more appealing to the learner. Other ways to do this is by including illustrations, arrows, circles, highlighting or using bold format to emphasize important text, line work, or even using whitespace that can increase visual appeal.

In narration, this can be applied as pauses or vocal narration.

Signaling Principle

Using the signaling principle helps to direct the vision of the learner to certain areas on the screen and the use of cues helps him to follow a natural path that guides him through the course.

5. Personalization Principle 

The Principle: Learning is better when words used in the narration are in conversational style rather than a formal style. 

The Personalization principle states that the learner will be engaged if first and second person narrative is used, rather than formal language. When the narration directly addresses the learner, he establishes a connection with the course.

Mayer says, Based on cognitive theory and research evidence, we recommend that you create or select e-Learning courses that include some spoken or printed text that is conversational rather than formal.”

Other research studies on this topic recommend the use of a learning agent such as a character or an avatar, who speaking in a formal style, can improve learning.

Personalization Principle

Using the Personalization principle promotes learner engagement. When you are conversing with someone, you are expected to listen and respond. The same rule applies when the learner is interacting with the course, he has to invest his attention, process the information, and generate a meaningful response.

However there are certain caveats to this principle, you cannot overdo the first and second person constructions when writing the script for your course. Too much of a formal style can distract from the seriousness of the content. Remember, personalization is no excuse to use slang or sloppy language. The rule is to follow a conversational style, but maintain a professional tone.

For further help, download our e-book, Instructional Design 101: A Handy Reference Guide to E-learning Designers. This e-book provides fundamental concepts instructional designers need to know to design digital courses.

These are the five multimedia principles you must remember when creating an interactive course. These courses combine graphics, text, and audio. The insight into these principles, and how they work and are applied, will give you more confidence to use them appropriately in your courses.

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