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This is one of a number of posts exploring multimedia learning. I have been reading research on this topic with an eye toward improving my presentations and other multimedia instructional material. Here are earlier posts in order of creation:

In my previous post, I  outlined Clark and Lyons’ categorization of the communication roles of graphics in their book Graphics for Learning:

This graphic activates prior knowledge for those who read the earlier blog post.

Decorative graphics are to be avoided as they don’t support learning and can actually decrease performance. The explanatory graphics help learners construct mental models. All graphics should be aligned with learning objectives.

The authors continue their discussion of graphics by examining their psychological roles in facilitating learning:

  • Support Attention
  • Activate of Build Prior Knowledge
  • Minimize Cognitive Load
  • Build Mental Models
  • Support Learning Transfer
  • Support Motivation

Support Attention

Graphics that support attention help the learner help focus on what is important. The authors draw upon parallels in text: bold, italics, colors, headings, bullets, etc. as examples of effective in directing attention. Such cues, in text or graphics, are particularly effective when the material is more complex. Their suggestions come down to two of Mayer’s principles:

  • Signaling: “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of essential material are added.”
  • Contiguity: “Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.”

There are many ways to support users using signaling in graphics including placement on the page, color, contrast, and graphic elements such as circles or arrows.

This graphic signals important content in three ways: It dims extraneous content, enlarges the relevant material and uses a red circle to highlight a specific element.

Contiguity makes it easier for learners to focus on important material because it puts text close to the graphic:

The top triangle graphic applies the principle of contiguity

Call outs are another example of applying contiguity to a graphic.

This image demonstrates use of callouts that apply the contiguity principle (Credit NASA)

Finally the authors re-emphasize the importance of eliminating decorative graphics and advise caution with animations.

Activate or Build Prior Knowledge

People learn better if they can relate new content to their existing knowledge. Learning outcomes are improved when we activate prior knowledge. Those without significant prior knowledge can benefit from building background knowledge that applies to the content to be learned.

One way to activate or build prior knowledge is to provide an advanced organizer for the lesson. An advanced organizer gives the learner an overview of what they will be learning making it easier to integrate the details that follow.

The first graphic in this blog post activates prior knowledge for those who read my previous blogpost by reviewing the communication role of graphics–information that appears again in this posts and is related to the new content. A lesson that develops the ideas of a food web or trophic levels (i.e. primary and secondary consumers) would benefit learners by activating their prior knowledge about food chains.

This graphic activates knowledge about food chains before learning more complex food webs.

Comparative advanced organizers are recommended for individuals without significant prior knowledge about a topic.

This graphic of a narrowing in a pipe is used to help understand an electronic resistor.

They caution that one should implement graphics that activate appropriate prior knowledge and to avoid graphics that activate the wrong or irrelevant prior knowledge.

Minimize Cognitive Load

Cognitive load can be reduced in many cases by simply using graphics in place or in addition to text. For instance a photograph of installing RAM is probably has a lighter cognitive load than a verbal description.

Credit: Flickr user lymang

A line diagram could further reduce the cognitive load by excluding extraneous visual content. A line drawing is simpler than an actual photograph; hence, reducing cognitive load.


Build Mental Models

Graphics that help learners build mental models brings us back to the beginning of this post and to the material of my previous discussion about the communicative role of graphics. Explanatory graphics, organizational, relational, transformational, and interpretive, better support building mental models than decorative, representative, and mnemonic graphics.

Graphic organizers like that found at the beginning of this post are found to be more effective in promoting learning than text, even when the text uses signaling such as bold and italics. It has also been demonstrated to be more effective than outlines. Tables and matrices can also  serve as organizational graphics.

Charts and graphs function as relational graphics. The text discusses different kinds of charts and graphs and when each is most effective. That will be the subject of another post in the future.

One interesting point made by the text about transformational graphics. those that show changes over time or space, is that static depictions teach as well as animated ones.

Support Learning Transfer

The author discuss two kinds of transfer: near and far. Ability to preform simple tasks that are done the same way each time are termed near transfer. Those that require the learner to adapt to a unique situation each time to succeed at a task are called far transfer.

Near transfer would apply to simple and routine tasks such as launching a word processor and saving the file. In this case realistic representative graphics are important. In the case of software, a screen capture would serve well. The graphic below depicting changing copyright settings on a Flickr pages is a representative  graphic It also reduces cognitive load by signaling while still providing context which is also valuable in near term transfer.

This graphic illustrates how to find open licensed material using Google's search. In the advance search click Date, usage rights,…

Far transfer success requires building mental models which are best created by explanatory graphics. These graphics can facilitate understanding by making abstract ideas more concrete such as a number line.

They can show a process with a transformational graphic:

Transformational graphic (Credit )

Far transfer is also supported by giving a number of examples in different contexts applying the same skill. Someone wanting to demonstrate the design concept of contrast could provide examples of contrast in color, size, typography, etc.

Support motivation

Motivation varies with learners. Clark and Lyons counsel avoiding graphics that use emotional interest to motivate. They recommend adding cognitive interest by using familiar and easy to understand materials. Graphics that depict relevance is also important. No matter what one’s personal interest materials that are coherent, familiar, and easy to grasp are motivating to all learners.


Again, having learned more about how graphics can better support learning, I have a more critical eye regarding graphics in presentations. As a side product, I have also learned more about learning research in general.

Part of the problem becomes how to create some of these graphics. The explanatory graphics are complex and do not often lend themselves to simple photographs. Clearly, to create quality learning graphics requires the proper tools and techniques. I plan to explore this area in the near future.

It is time to re-examine my presentations and improve them with more effective use of graphics. More importantly, I am increasing my focus on how all all elements–graphics, text, audio, video, etc. support learning objectives. Clark and Lyons go further in exploring effective ways to plan for the use of graphics in learning.

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As I grapple with research trying to improve my instructional presentations, I have learned about Richard Mayer’s assertion that people learn better with words and graphics than just words alone. As a result, I have been investigating information about the role of graphics in learning. One natural extension of the reading that I have done thus far is Graphics for Learning by Clark and Lyons. Ruth Colvin Clark co-authored e-Learning with Richard Mayer.

The authors cite evidence that lessons with graphics that were appealing, yet did not support the learning objectives, hurt performance on tests. Graphics should be included with an eye to the instructional goal. In Graphics for Learning, the authors classify graphics by their communication functions:

  • Decorative
  • Representational
  • Mnemonic
  • Organizational
  • Relational
  • Transformational
  • Interpretive

Decorative graphics are, at best, tangentially related to the learning goals. At worst they have no relation. They may be added for aesthetic reasons or they may be intended to be humorous or motivating. The authors refer to decorative graphics as eye-candy and research shows that they can actually interfere with learning.

Eye candy does nothing to promote learning

Representative graphics are realistic depictions of something related to the learning objectives. Examples given by Clark and Lyons include screen captures or images of equipment.

Representative graphic of Ferdinand and Isabella

Mnemonic images can be used to help learners remember information. The authors regard these as powerful tools.

This depiction of a race car helps learning Morse Code for "R"

The next four types of graphics are referred to as explanatory graphics. They help learners construct mental models. They show relationships more effectively than words alone.

Organizational graphics show qualitative relations between content in a lesson. These would include most mind maps, organizational charts, tree diagrams, etc.

Organizational Graphic

Relational graphics illustrate quantitative relations between variables. Examples of relational graphics include line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts etc. Any graphic output from a spreadsheet program would be relational.

This graphic shows the relationship between 3 variables

Transformational graphics are used to show changes over time or space. These could include flow charts, step by step procedures, timelines, or animated graphics depicting changes. Arrows are a common characteristic in transformational graphics.

Illustration of process of photosynthesis (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Interpretive Graphics show more abstract constructs such as a theory. They can also include cause and effect models.

Graphic illustrating impact of constant speed of light in Einstein's Theory of Relativity: If speed of light is constant, then time must slow down for the person on cart (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Now that I have learned these distinctions among graphics, I examine those in my presentations and multimedia in a different way. It is not so important that we sort our graphics into neat categories, but it this serves as a way to think about our use of graphics. Clearly, the decorative graphics are best minimized. While representative graphics support learning, they do not help learners construct mental models as effectively as the four explanatory types.

In Multimedia Learning by Richard Mayer, the author surveyed the function of graphics in math and science texts and found that the overwhelming majority were either decorative or representational. Only a small percentage were explanatory.

We need to examine our work and consider the communication goal our graphics fulfill. I know that I need to find a way to integrate more explanatory graphics. These are more difficult to create than finding a CC licensed image and labeling it. I also wonder if some of the representational graphics that I use truly support my learning objectives. For example, does it matter what Ferdinand and Isabella looked like?

Clark and Lyons go further in exploring research regarding graphics for learning. They also explore the psychological function of graphics. This helps determine how to make our graphics more effective in meeting learning objectives. I plan to explore more of their ideas in future posts. Meanwhile, if you consider their ideas valuable, consider reading more work of their work:

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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.

This is a fairly specialized procedure for users of Keynote and TimeLine 3D, both proprietary Mac programs. The important thing is that it results in something that could be a high quality OER. I had a couple requests for a how-to on building a timeline like the one shown below.

Bee Doc’s Timeline 3D is a Mac application that creates stunning timelines ($65 discounted to $39 for an academic version). They can be presented as dramatic three dimensional animations within the program. Better yet, it also exports these timelines into QuickTime movies and as animated Keynote slides. I have used it extensively in my social studies presentations. When a colleague was creating OER media sets for historic periods, I was inspired to try to create stand alone timelines.

(This is a large file. Give it a minute to fully load, otherwise, it will behave strangely)

Full sized version of timeline (Give it time to load)

Zipped version for download

As mentioned before, the application can export the timelines to QuickTime which would function as a stand alone resource. Unfortunately, these animations proceeded through the timeline automatically at a fixed time interval between events. They would function better if a user controlled the progress by clicking to advance (Mayer’s research shows that user controlled pacing results in better learning outcomes). With trial and error, I was able to create such a resource. (As you can see, these timelines can be displayed on the web, but they work better on computers because of their size.)

To begin the process one needs to create a timeline in Timeline 3D. When creating a new event, an event date entry form:

Enter an event name, a date or a range of dates. Images can be copy and pasted into the image box or they may be dragged and dropped. One can also enter notes about the event. Don’t bother with the link in this case because it does not carry over to exported videos (unless you also want to export a PDF–see below). Data can also be entered using  as tab delineated files. For full instructions visit the developer’s site.

Once the Timeline is completed, it needs to be exported into Keynote: Select File–> Export 3D–> Keynote Slideshow. Select the size and toggle Media Type to Quicktime Movies. Motion blur should be set to None to reduce processing time and to reduce file size.

Upon completion, Keynote will be launched with your animated slideshow. Put a prompt to Click to Advance on the first slide then select File –> Export.

Select QuickTime and toggle Playback uses to Manual Advance. Select the desired Format (You can select Custom and reduce the frame rate to about 15 fps to make the file smaller). You don’t need Audio or Transparency, so leave them unchecked.

PDF Timelines with active links

As mentioned earlier, the links in Timeline 3D do not work in the animations. They do however work when exported as static PDF files. Link to a web resource or a file on the local computer (absolute path only–relative path would make this even better). Click on an event and a file or website will launch.

The animated timeline with working links would be even better. One could pair it with a PDF. Experiments with adding the links in Keynote indicate is possible, but difficult to format. One might be able to further change the video to a less proprietary format, but I found that an additional conversion resulted in significant loss of quality. Perhaps someone better versed in video could let me know what might work.

The last step is licensing your creation with a Creative Commons license  to make it an open educational resource.

There will be another post soon critiquing this timeline using Mayer’s multimedia research.

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If you have a Flickr account, one of the easiest ways to to contribute open educational resources (OERs) is to Creative Commons license your images. Once you have done so, your photographs will appear on Flickr’s Creative Commons search page according to the license that you have designated. This is quick and simple to do.

The first thing you need to do is to navigate to the page of one of your images.

Under Additional Information click the edit link next to All Rights reserved. The following will appear on the next page:

Just select the desired license and click save.

You can also set a default Creative Commons for all you new uploads by clicking a link on the same page:

Once you click on that page you are given the same Creative Commons license option. This will only apply to new uploads. The default licesne page also gives you the option to change the license on all the Flicker images you have already uploaded in one batch.

Creating OERs from you Flickr images is quick and easy. If every educator licensed their Flickr images under Creative Commons, it would greatly increase the number of resources available to  other educators and all learners.


You can also change the licensing of a set of images. Select a set, then click Batch Edit–>Change Licensing as shown below:

Select your licensing preference and click Change License.

Which License?

Here is a concise description of many of the options. Creative Commons has a license wizard that will guide you through the process of deciding which license to use. This post gives my reasoning in selecting CC-BY Attribution.

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