Critique of Timeline Lesson

The animated Chinese timeline shown my previous blog post was a demonstration of a workflow using proprietary software to make a stand alone animated timeline. While viewing the timeline several times, I started examining it through the prism of the research on multimedia learning that I have been reading–particularly that of Richard Mayer.

One learning principle that I have not touched upon earlier posts is segmenting. According to Mayer: “People learn better when a multimedia message is presented in user paced segments rather than as a continuous unit. (Mayer, 2009, p. 275)” The timeline in its nature divides the information into segments.

One of the main goals of that post was to create a timeline in which the user controls the pace of the events in the animation. As it turns out, research has shown that user control of pacing has a positive impact on learning. Mayer cautions to keep navigation simple as is the case with the timeline.

Arousal Theory tells us that animations would grab users’ attention and improve learning. Others argue the animation between events on the timeline may add load to the visual processing. It could be seen as a distraction. While not conclusive, researchers found that  learners performed better learning from a series of static images than animation. On the remaining four there was no difference. Animation did not improve results in any of the studies (Mayer, Hegarty, Mayer, & Campbell, 2005). They caution that their research was restricted to college students. Further, the pacing of the animated presentation was not user controlled. It could be argued that the timeline animation shows relationships and context, but is it any better than a static timeline? Further, animations take more time, effort, and money to produce. On the other hand, I think they would be better than a series of static slides as the transitions do show relationships. We should, at least, not assume animated treatments are better.

Context or visual overload?

The modality principle suggests the timeline could be improved. As it is, the timeline has images with written text. The modality principle tells us that learners perform better with images and narration, than images with text.  This indicates the timeline would be improved with voice narration and reduced text. I was able to insert audio files in keynote and export successfully into QuickTime.

Finally the images must be examined. In most cases the images are representatives of art of the period had nothing to do with the  text. In this case, the image is merely decorative.

Decorative image

In next instance, the image could be described as representational as it illustrates the oracle bones discussed in the text.

Representational image

The coherence principle stating extraneous materials should be excluded suggests that decorative images should be excluded. Images should enhance understanding not just interest.

Overall, the animated timeline is appealing.  I have used them in instructional presentations in my classroom and, they are popular with my 10-11 year old audience. A classroom differs from a controlled experimental testing facility. The classroom is filled with distracting elements. Could it be argued that the animation directs attention to the lesson rather than what a classmate is doing, what they are daydreaming about, or what they see out the window? I plan on further exploring what research can tell us in this area. I am not sure what impact the animation truly has on learning in this case, but research points to ways in which it can be improved: adding audio narration, reducing text, and choosing images that matched the instructional message of the accompanying text. Research also affirms that adding user control to the timeline is worthwhile.