The Right Mix: Using Media in e-Learning

Posted on : May 26th, 2011
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Technology is always the backbone when developing e-learning content. With advances in technology, learners can now view learning content through a variety of devices – laptops, mobiles, tablets or smart-phones. This, coupled with an increased connectivity to broadband internet connections, is a heady cocktail! It opens the avenues of developing media rich content that has a strong impact on the learner, thereby fulfilling the foremost learning objective of any e-learning course. The chosen media type can be graphics, audio, video or animation – which in combination with text, can impart learning in an interactive and innovative manner.

But the pitfall in this scenario is the problem of excess – with so many options available, one can make the folly of using too much of a type or multiple types of media, which does nothing but confuse or worse, irritate the learner. Also, there can be the issue of inappropriateness. Use of media can just be a hindrance to learning- its insertion needs to be at an appropriate section or turn in context of the entire course-ware. Or for some courses or audiences, some media types are just not appropriate at all.

With so many options available, finding the right mix of media is then an important task for developers. An inward look into how we use media when developing e-learning content in G-Cube got us some interesting insights.

The importance of Text

Textual matter has traditionally been the main core of any learning material. Over the years, as learning strategies have changed, an ‘only text’ approach has been found inadequate. This is also true for content in e-learning. There are, of course, courses which do not aim to do more than just knowledge sharing and can sufficiently benefit from text-content. But the consensus of definitely on a more mixed approach – text is complimented and supported by graphics and other media elements. A few tips for making Text more visually appealing and learner centric.

  • Readability: That is simply the foremost quality that text should have. Blurry edges, inadequate or inappropriate spacing, jarring colors or even fonts can hinder the clarity in text.
  • Text on Screen: Reading from a book and reading from a screen are two very different experiences. Many older e-learning courses were just electronic pages of actual books. That approach had some benefit. The content was available and the task was to just convert it in electronic form. But this approach failed in most cases because learners failed to grasp the entire text in a screen – devoid of any relief. Even if a course is text heavy, it needs to be served in small chunks! Insertion of graphics or other media elements would also be a solution.
  • Keeping intact the benefits of Text: Even if considered inadequate in today’s world of technology, text has its own place in contributing to the learning objectives. One of the main features which contribute to its success – is the fact that text is largely learner centric. Each learner is has his or her own pace of learning. We like to read something, and then re-read it till it assimilates in our mind. This quality of text is sometimes over-shadowed by the presence of too much movement or distraction on the screen. This does little to benefit learning, in fact is an unnecessary halt in an otherwise smooth flow of reading. So, while graphics, audio, video or animation can very well be utilized to make the impact of text stronger – it needs to be done only where and when necessary.

The importance of Graphics

Graphics are just not embellishments when developing content. They have their own worth and place within the designing objectives. The importance of graphics in creating content that is more impactful is an established fact. This is further cemented by the phenomenon of many older HTML based e-learning courses being now converted into Flash based courses which allow more opportunities to include graphics into text-based courses. Some insights into what are the good practices when developing graphics.

  • Apt graphics go a long way: A graphical element with a connection with the text, a self explanatory image or a graph which visually represents data which is otherwise drab. These are all examples of apt usage of graphics. Graphics for the sake of filling up ‘space’ do not work. Over-simplistic or complex graphics end up confusing or misdirecting the learner.
  • Graphics can bring about a sense of belonging: Logos, colors or images which the learner associates with can bring about a sense of connect with the content. This holds a lot of importance when developing content for a group of learners from the same background – be it workplace, a common occupation or even ethnic backgrounds. When this sense of belonging is developed, the learner is inclined to concentrate and assimilate more.
  • Localization of Graphics: Graphics need to keep the learner background in mind. Images that are incorporated in the content have to be inclined to the regional sentiments of the learner group. For instance – if the learner group comprises of a mixed ethnicity, origin or gender, the images incorporated to depict ‘people’ have to be such that it represents the mix well.

The importance of Audio

Audio is also a popular type of media utilized a lot in e-learning today. It especially works very well with text-heavy courses and can provide the much needed ‘relief’. There are many kinds of audio that are used in e-learning – Narrations, Voice-overs, Sound effects and even Music. Here are some things to keep in mind when inserting an audio-piece to your e-learning content.

  • No use being repetitive: A popular belief, till a few years ago, was that audio should follow text in e-learning. That would be the best way to strengthen the impact of what was written. This belief is now a thing of past. Audio has its own strength. It can emote or dramatize to catch the attention of the learner. It can make the course serious or set it on a lighter note. It definitely does not need to just repeat text. In fact, many courses, which have an audio element, have lesser text and an accompanying audio descriptor.
  • Localization of audio: Accent in a voice-over or narration audio is of prime importance when connecting with the learner. Local artists should be used to create audio in the flavor of the region. This also makes certain that the audio is best understood. There should also be some thought given to the gender mix that the learner group constitutes of. Often it is thought best to keep a balance between male and female speakers to address a learner group that constitutes both the genders.
  • Providing backup: Insertion of audio in e-learning needs to keep in mind the availability of speakers or headphones at the learner-end. It also needs to ascertain that audio is of high quality and there are no disturbances that might lead to the learner grasping only part of what is being said. Even while developers keep these factors in mind, there needs to be a solution that provides contingency. Audio-transcripts are thus made part of e-learning courses which have an audio element. This makes sure that even if the learner is not able to listen to the audio section, there is a textual transcript available which acts as a backup.

The importance of Video

Video, too, has become a popular media insertion in e-learning content. Developers are always looking for ways of grabbing the learner’s attention and video is a sure-shot way of doing that. But what happens after the initial reaction to video? While it is easy to grab attention with video, it is not so easy to sustain it – as the learner’s connect with it has to be very strong to allow a sustained interest in a video. It is then a very strong medium, but one that also must be judiciously utilized. Some points to keep in mind when including video in e-learning:

  • Keep it short: Short bursts of video, come up, do their job and are more likely to have a sustained impact. Longer videos do not contribute to the overall learning objectives of a course
  • Keep it real: Videos of people have the best impact. Not only do they have a humanizing effect on the content, they are also most like to inspire the best. That is why inspirational videos of people excelling in games or other group activities or talking about their achievements are often a part of soft skills trainings.

The importance of Animation

People interpret the term ‘animation’ as used in e-learning in different ways. From a developers’ perspective, it can mean anything from a simple slide transition to complex 3D or 2D animations. It is a vast area and with technology taking strides, the possibilities to experiment with animation are ever-expanding. Some good practices when developing animation for e-learning:

  • Simple animations have their own worth: In addition to being easy to develop with simple tools like Flash and taking up very little time, animations like zoom-in and zoom out, fade outs, slide transitions and text building work wonders to give the most simple of content an aura of sophistication. They also increase the visual appeal of the content by leaps and bounds.
  • Animated mentors: When we think about a cartoon character, we cannot associate it with learning except for certain game-based course or e-learning courses for a K12 audience. But animated characters or for the usage in regards to serious learning. – Mentors, are a popular way of leading the learner through a course. This approach has seen brilliant success in many varied types of courses. It brings informality within the structure of the course, which acts as an element of interactivity with the learner and at the same time, retains and reaffirms the learning objectives of the course.
  • Choose the right kind of animation: Sky is the limit where animation is concerned, but it is also important to develop animations that suit the time and budgetary limits, without compromising on quality. Keeping time and budget constraints in mind, there are ways to develop impactful animations, within available resources at hand. For instance, a popular and effective way of creating a complex animation is by compiling a series of real-life photographs of an object (for instance, a machine) and then simulating that to create a life-like animation that represents every facet and characteristic of that object.

The Lesson Learnt

E-learning is past its crude stage, and is now fast evolving. Learners are exposed to a lot of media in every day life, and have come to expect the same in learning too. Each of the media type that we have talked about has its own strengths, but works best when coupled with one or more media elements. The prominence of each is decided by factors like learner profile, learning objectives and available resources. But it is a fact etched in stone that the use of media definitely makes content rich, impactful and the learning experience a story of success.

Arunima Majumdar

Arunima is the Marketing Head at G-Cube. She loves exploring and blogging about innovations in training & learning for the new-age corporate sector.

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