Multimodal learning

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 that one).

Reading a book
Reading a book, page after page of text. Where are the pictures?

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 learning style tests over the years and I typically have a pretty strong preference for visual and multimodal content, 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 learning styles, 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 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.  For example you may listen to a pod cast of this post.

Admittedly this does take a bit more time to do, and so it should, but it does also have a number of potential pay-offs. 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 🙂

In future posts I will address specific techniques for adoption of multimodal design, framed around the concept of heuristics, or rules of thumb. Looking forward to sharing these with you.

sound blog
Sound blog of this post

To hear an audio of this presentation please go to http://soundcloud.com/michael-sankey/multimodal-design-for-learning .

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