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E-Learning and the Science of Instruction reviewed


Title: E-Learning and the Science of Instruction
Authors: Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E Mayer
Publisher: John Wiley
ISBN: 0 7879 6051 9
Price: £27.95

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Clark and Mayer's book, which has attracted favourable reviews from both educationalists and IT people (Microsoft and Cisco are quoted on the cover) is a solid, well designed and well structured introduction to the topic as defined in the title.

The book is based on extensive research in the psychology of learning and "instructional design", that peculiar American concept that would have put me off learning for good if I'd come across it when younger. However, the book is full of useful snippets about what actually seems to work when real learners are sat in front of screens – not what ought to work, or what the multimedia people thought would look nice. For example – words and graphics are better than words alone to explain something. Words that are actually integrated into graphics are more effective than words that are placed underneath and separate from them. And animations with narration are more effective than animations without. Each of these findings, of course, is illustrated with a graph, although most of them look very similar and don't tell you a great deal – what Edward Tufte calls "chartjunk".

Each of these little bits of useful information is presented as evidence for one of a number of principles that run through the book - the Multimedia Principle (use words and graphics rather than words alone), the Modality Principle (present words and audio narration rather than words alone) and the Personalisation Principle (use conversational styles - something that open learning materials designers in the UK have known for a long time). But in case this sounds too easy and too obvious, there are a number of other principles which complicate matters. The Redundancy Principle tells us that repeating the same information in words and narration is counter productive, and the Coherence Principle that irrelevant graphics or sound effects can prevent learning.

It's one of those books where the contents list and the introduction give away most of the plot, so that once you have some idea of their basic approach, you can just dip into whatever takes your fancy. Throughout the book there are lots of bullet lists, diagrams and screen shots – unfortunately they're all in black and white, and some of them are simulated so they look a bit dated, but it may just be because they're from CBT rather than web-based examples. Each chapter also ends with a short "Coming Next" trailer for the following chapter – it's a pity there's not a "Previously in E Learning …" section at the beginning of chapters as well.

Overall, it's an interesting book, but I'm not sure that's a great deal of use to ordinary trainers in the UK. There's virtually no reference to anything from the extensive British and European literature on open and distance learning – neither the Open University nor learndirect, get a mention. There's a chapter on collaboration in learning that suggests it's a good thing on the whole, but most of the rest of the book is about individuals learning in isolation. The writing style needs a knife and fork to dissect in some places – elsewhere it's a bit too chatty and full of American neologisms (what's advisement?). It's a book that would probably be useful to an experienced multimedia designer who was new to the idea of e-learning but for the rest of us, there are better and more relevant books around.

Reviewed by David Evans
E-Learning Consultant and Trainer
Financial Projections Ltd


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