Multimodal Design: A Personal Learning Journey

Sometimes I get into a conversation with someone and I just find myself phasing out, I hear the voice, but then I realise I haven’t heard a word they have been saying for the past five minutes. I seem to remember this happened to me in lectures at Uni (back in the day) and it still happens when I go to conferences occasionally, particularly after lunch (but I know I’m not alone with this one).

reading a book
Reading a book, lots of words, page after page.

Similarly, I can be reading an article or book when I suddenly realise I have read two or three pages and cannot really recall what I have been reading. I know this is not dementia (at least not yet, or that I just can’t remember) as I can remember other things very easily. So there must be another explanation. Basically my mind just starts to wonder onto other things. I’m reading the words but thinking about something else. So long periods of reading, unless it’s a particularly gripping story, just doesn’t do it for me.

Interestingly this doesn’t happen as much when I’m watching the television or a play. One reason for this may be that there is more advanced stimulation occurring to multiple senses. In many cases there may also be an emotional response occurring to what I am experiencing. Not that this doesn’t happen when I am reading or listening to something, rather, it simply does not happen as often.

Admittedly, and to be fair, I have done a number of cognate tests over the years and I typically have a pretty strong preference for visual and multimodal content (but I’m strongly resisting the urge to call this my learning style, LOL), so I suppose their is no surprise in what I have written so far. However, as a designer of learning environments I can, if I am not careful, tend to design these environments to suit my particular preference for receiving information. So for example, in my practice I like to use quite a few diagrams and have them accompanied by some audio explanation, as opposed to having to read about them. But I have also found that having the text in front of me may also be handy, if I still don’t get it.

Now, I have a colleague who really dislikes this approach, she doesn’t like reading diagrams. Give her a written explanation and all is good with her world. Consequently, the way this person would design a learning environment will be quite different to the way I would. Is my way better than hers? Well, yes it is, if everyone had a multimodal approach to learning, but the problem is there are not enough of us interesting people around (joking of course).  So I suppose I have to admit that the answer has to be ‘no’ (albeit reluctantly) 🙂

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the need to design environments that can cater for a range of different approaches to learning, but without making these environments appear over-the-top. You see, if we present to much information to our senses (sight, hearing and feel), all at the one time, something called cognitive overload can kick-in. Basically this means the brain cannot cope with to much information all at one time and so certain receptors just shut down for a while, resulting in limited information being processed and retained. So this cannot be good.

Ultimately that means people have to be given a choice as to what type of information they would like to access, which means we need to multiple represent certain key information. I would not suggest that everything needs to be represented in multiple modes, but I would suggest that each core concept needs to be represented in an alternate way. But what does this main in practice?  It means the written text may also be augmented with some form of visual, to reinforce the main point. It also means that there is an optional aural explanation of that same concept provided.

Admittedly this does take a bit more time to do, and so it should, but it does also have a number of potential pay-off’s. The first is, there is a much fuller representation of a particular concept for the student to benefit from. Our research has shown that this is particularly helpful for non-traditional learners and for those learners who do not have English as their first language. Secondly, there is the opportunity to have the extra representation provided as a learning object (or series of objects) to be used across multiple contexts and for revision purposes in more advanced courses. Thirdly, if built around core and enduring concepts, these may be made available as open education resources (OERs) and shared with others through some form of open repository. Although this may be a foreign concept to many institutions, if others adopted this approach we could all benefit from what is being created. This in the longer-term could actually save us all significant time (and money) by not having to produce all the representations ourselves. Of course this does pre-suppose a level of communications with others in our disciplines to ensure a common, robust and usable suite of resources are being produced. But hey, that must also be a good thing.

As a cute aside: Quote from Lewis Carroll

So here are some practicle things I like to see in place when designing multimodal learning materials*:

  • Now that we are doing so much of our teaching online nowadays, it’s important to understand that the screen is not a text book. In other works, less is more online, and lean or summarised text can get the point across better than lengthy, elaborated text. Students should not have to read large amounts of information from the screen. If lots of reading is required, make this available in a form that does not need to be read from the screen, e.g. in a printable document. its then their choice as to how they consume it.
  • Where possible, incorporate images that tell a story, giving the learner a reference point or anchor for the information being transmitted. But, don’t use images just for the sake it. Pedagogical benefit must be present.
  • Avoid including additional music or sounds in the background, unless these are an essential component of the learning interaction, e.g. like adding the sound of the element being described.
  • Provide the learner with some control/choice over how they navigate the learning environment, making the instructional strategy clear. When providing alternative representations, e.g. an audio of a written piece), allow ample opportunity for learners to make decisions as to how they access these materials.
  • When creating online presentations (image, text and audio), keep the text simple, preferably in point form and allow the voice to elaborate. As is the case nowadays, a transcript of your elaboration should also be made available (potentially auto generated by the tool you are using).
  • Build knowledge gradually with stepwise segments of information (sequentially), not in one long presentation. The online environment is especially suited to presenting information in smaller “chunks” with supporting information. So online presentations should not exceed 12 minutes, and preferably much shorter.
  • Ensure that background image or colour does not interfere with the clarity of information presented in the foreground. Use contracting colours – light on dark, dark on light. you can also use a variation in colour or intensity to highlight important information.
  • With complex images (info graphics, diagrams, etc) start simple, then add to the complexity as the learning sequence progresses, by building with animation or by a series of still images.
  • Prevent the need for visual search. Make it obvious where to find certain elements by placing all related information together, so that learners don’t have to hunt for this information. so avoid referring to an image or diagram that appears on another page or screen.
  • When additional multimedia elements are used, also use some easily recognisable icons, so that it is easy to see how and where to access these from.
  • If a speaker is not confident in front of a camera, just use audio instead, as poor visuals can be distracting. The audio needs to be kept lively, so use of a vibrant, or multiple voices. It is also helpful when only using audio to have some visual material available to allow students to concentrate on something that complements the voice, to prevent them wonder off (metaphoricly).
  • If formative quizzes are used, these should be incorporated and contextualised into the environment, rather than requiring students to link to an external environment. Programmed feedback should also be provided with formative quizzes.

I hope you find these points helpful and all the best with designing your multimodal learning materials.

*Adapted and updated from my original research presented in: Sankey, M. D. (2007). How to develop 15 multimodal design heuristics in 3 easy (not) lessons. International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning. 3(2). pp. 60-73. DOI: 10.5172/ijpl.3.2.60

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