In working to develop online courses with colleagues I sometimes encounter challenges where others are interested in creating ‘sexy’ delivery. By this I mean that unless we choose to use extensive sound effects, they believe it will be boring and students will not want to engage with the material. These individuals have argued with me that we need to use a pedagogical approach of “edutainment” (i.e. that the program should combine entertainment with education) to help students learn. Although this may be appealing at first, current research suggests we must be very careful when considering adding material for ‘entertainment’ purposes.
In cognitive theory, the learner has visual and auditory channels available that can be leveraged in instructional design. The right mixes of words, visuals and sound can enhance learning, however, too much or the wrong combination with sound can actually impair learning. These insights form the basis of the “coherence principle” (Moreno and Mayer, 2000). In other words, it is important to avoid extraneous audio in e-learning.
I have experienced auditory overload in traditional classroom delivery and online. Years ago I used to play music during small group activities in my classes. However, I would sometimes get students asking me to turn the music off during these sessions because they could not think! In retrospect I now understand why, the music was interfering with their cognitive processing. In the online world, I have witnessed dozens of presentations where there were either sound effects or music added that not only got in the way of my learning, it actually hurt. I have on occasion had to turn off my speakers in order to learn from the material.
That being said, I have also found it helpful to listen to background music when I am reading to learn. However, there are only a few types of music that I find personally suitable for this (e.g. ambient new age piano) and the volume must be low. In discussions I have had about this with colleagues, there appears to be a lot of personal preference in terms of whether or not a person enjoys a particular type of music in order to be able to listen to it as a background.
I am fascinated with auditory component of learning as I consider it to be very ‘delicate’ and easily overwhelmed. The coherence principle is related to the redundancy principle. Visual images are best understood with words or audio, not both (Clark and Mayer, 2008). I also see a connection between the coherence principle and the modality principle (Moreno and Mayer, 2000). Students are able to learn more if visual images and an auditory narrative present the information. These principles seek simplicity to encourage comprehension. The human mind is easily overwhelmed with too much stimulus. These principles clearly illustrate that too much information in the wrong medium can harm the learning process.
I personally like the coherence principles as it encourages simplicity. It is important to me that we focus on the learning and ensuring we are supporting the process, not hindering it. That being said, the work of Clark, Mayer and Moreno does raise a lot of questions for me. The research that I have reviewed to date is focused on short training programs, not educational courses. Do these principles hold true for a larger educational undertaking? If a student is engaged in advance studies, are they as susceptible to cognitive overload?
References:
Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). E-learning and the science of instruction, 2nd edition. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, CA.
Mayer, R. E. (1999). Multimedia aids to problem-solving transfer. International Journal of Educational Research, 31(7), 611-623.
Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (2000). A learner-centered approach to multimedia explanations: Deriving instructional design principles from cognitive theory. Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning, 2(2), 2004-07. Last retrieved March 24, 2012 from http://imej.wfu.edu/articles/2000/2/05/index.asp

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