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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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My presentation design has been greatly influenced by Nancy Duarte’s book slide:ology and Garr Reynolds, the author of Presentation Zen. I have integrated their ideas in both my conferences and instructional presentations. Their advice has dramatically changed my practice from bullet points to slides that are more graphically oriented with much less text.

Both Duarte’ and Reynolds are focused on business presentations, whereas I am interested in instructional presentations. Reynolds talks about the importance of graphics as mnemonic devices that help retention of ideas. I wonder how these ideas would apply to an instructional presentation and how research should inform my practice. Having applied their ideas, I know my presentations look a lot better. I know the students enjoy them more, but I am not sure that the instruction is more effective.

In the first chapter of Presentation Zen, Reynolds quotes University of New South Wales Professor John Sweller saying, “The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched.” He discusses this point in some detail in this blog post. He also quotes Professor Richard Mayer, author of Multimedia Learning. These have been the starting points of my inquiry.

I have found several papers authored or coauthored by Mayer. I have since purchased a copy of Mayer’s Multimedia Learning and Efficiency in Learning coauthored by Clark, Nguyen, and Sweller.

Mayer creates a cognitive model of the standard text bullet point presentation as shown below.

Illustration based upon Mayer’s Multimedia Learning p. 124

Mayer contends that using both spoken and written text in a presentation overloads the visual channel and interferes with the processing of the picture. My personal experience is that trying to listen to a speaker and read the printed word on a slide is very distracting. Mayer refers to this a the redundancy principle:

…eliminating redundancy is a useful way to reduce cognitive load. We refer to this result as a redundancy effect: Students understand a multimedia presentation better when words are presented as narration rather than as narration and on-screen text.  (Mayer & Moreno 2003)

Mayer asserts that the best approach is to use spoken words directed toward the auditory channel and pictures and animations for the visual channel.

Illustration based upon Mayer’s Multimedia Learning p. 124

This approach provides two sources of sensory processing without overloading either channel. Mayer refers the superiority of of simultaneously using words and pictures than just words as the multimedia principle (Mayer 2009 p. 223). More specifically, he speaks of a modality principle asserting that, “People learn more deeply from pictures and spoken words than from pictures and printed words” (Mayer 2009 p. 200). Using spoken words with pictures avoids the redundancy effect.

This is a rudimentary description of part of the theory behind some of the best selling books on presenting. I am reading Mayer’s Multimedia Learning and look forward to reflecting upon my instructional presentations. His book outlines eleven principles which, at first glance, are likely to help optimize my practice.

The work of Duarte and Reynolds have been a great starting point and have helped me hone my craft. I believe that classroom practitioners can benefit by digging deeper and exploring into this area of research. I plan to share my thoughts as I read more. I look forward to your thoughts.

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Some early users were disappointed by the lack of features upon Elgg 1.0’s release. What they didn’t realize is that the new Elgg was designed as an extensible core engine to drive plugins and interact with other social platforms. Elgg 1.0 developers are starting to release plugins that extend the basic Elgg 1.0. What has started as a trickle appears to be picking up momentum. There are already many great plugins.

As mentioned earlier, the full version of Elgg 1.0 includes a spartan set of features. While it is easy enough to modify this popular wysiwyg editor, many are uncomfortable editing a little code. Furthermore, many have been trying unsuccessfully to make embedded content such as videos and video sharing. A couple days ago, developer Lee Teague released Tinymce Advanced.

Tinymce Advanced is simple to install: download, unpack, and upload to your server’s elgg/mod directory. You simply activate it in  Administration–>Tools Administration. That’s it provided you like the way it is configured. Refer back to my post on hacking Tinymce if you want to change the feature set. Depending upon the desired results, it may be easier to modify this than the default Tinymce.

Lee Teague’s Tinymce plugin is full featured, adding several formatting features including alignment, fonts, colors, indents, and tables. Best of all the media button really works allowing you to embed several popular multimedia formats. It also can embed YouTube and other video sharing when you insert the code snippet into the post using the html source editor.

If you use this plugin, it is recommended that it only be available to trusted and accountable users because these tags can make the site vulnerable to attacks. While not yet developed, it would be great if it could be configured so that trusted logged in members could have access to an extended editor, while others has access to a leaner tool set. In a shout back to me, developer Dave Tosh suggested extending textarea to include links to user’s or friends’ file uploads.

Another great plugin puts Spotlight to use as an RSS reader. ThinkTank Studio created a Magpierss reader that displays the latest articles from your favorite rss feed in Spotlight.

Download, unpack, and upload to your server’s elgg/mod directory. Activate it in  Administration–>Tools Administration. It requires a bit of hand coding to configure. Don’t let that thwart you. Just keep a back up copy of any file you edit in case you make a mistake. If the site breaks, just upload the backup so it overwrites the errant code.

Once uploaded, use your ftp client to access the file elgg/mod/magpierss/views/default/page_elements/spotlight.php, then find this (it’s easy to find):

<!-- !! START MAGPIERSS !! -->
<!-- I put the title of the feed here -->
<!-- you can lay things out all pretty with divs or tables or something.  This is just a quick and dirty example -->
<strong>Discovery News</strong><br /><br />
    $url = $_GET['url'];
    $num_items = 3;
    $rss = fetch_rss( '' );
    echo $rss->channel['title'] . "<p>";
    foreach (array_slice($rss->items, 0, $num_items) as $item) {
        $href = $item['link'];
        $title = $item['title'];
        $description = $item['description'];
        echo "<b><a href=$href target='_new'>$title</a></b><br>$description<br>";
<br />
<br />

All you need to edit is the blue text: a title for the feed, the numbers of items to display, and the address to the feed. Overwrite the original file and if you did it properly, you should see your feed displayed in Spotlight. The example illustrated above it the simplest. You could use formatting such as tables in the above code to change the display. The developer has thrown this out hoping others will build upon it.

Finally, there is the Default Widgets plugin. Out of the box, Elgg delivers a new user to a blank dashboard without widgets and a link to edit the page. The profile is also empty. Default Widgets built by Jade Dominguez and Chad @ NCR at the Google elgg developer group populates both the dashboard and profile with a preconfigured set of widgets. Again, download, expand, and upload to your elgg/mod directory, then activate. As configured a new user sees this dashboard:

The profile:

Widgets can be configured differently, but that involves editing code. Open elgg/mod/default_widgets/start.php and look for:

	the add_widgets function only executes if the user has permissions to add widgets to his profile/dashboard.
	Since there is no user yet logged in, we need to artificially login the new user
	$log_user_in = login($object);	

		$profile_handler = array("friends", "a_users_groups", "messageboard", "filerepo", "status", "river_widget", "river_widget_friends");
		$dashboard_handler = array("river_widget_friends", "friends", "status", "bookmarks");

		$profile_column = array(1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3);
		$dashboard_column = array(1, 2, 3, 3);

Edit the values highlighted in blue using the the guidelines from readme.

More Elgg 1.0 plugins are available and even more in the works. As I try them out, I will feature them here. It appears that the trickle may soon be a steady stream.

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