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How to: Harness learning methods for great elearning design


Elearning designHow do we learn? And how does that information affect elearning design? Keith Bound examines the principles and research, and how it impacts on designing the most effective multimedia learning.

With the growth in digital media technology, traditional teaching methods are changing from teacher to facilitator and the learner from being passive to active. Being exposed to a wide range of interactive multimedia environments, the student is gaining knowledge informally through self-discovery by engaging with the internet and gaming through a wide range of ICT platforms, from the traditional PCs to PDAs, mobile phones, mini PCs and newly emerging devices.

For these technologies to deliver successful learning programmes, it is crucial that organisations develop a robust learning methodology providing learners with a positive and effective learning experience. However, in order to develop a design methodology for elearning, we first have to understand how our brains process information and how multimedia technologies can improve the learner’s capability to encode and recall information.

Learning using multimedia techniques

The theory of cognitive multimedia learning has been pioneered by Richard E. Mayer (2001). Mayer and his colleagues started his research with the notion that using images with text would make learning more effective. His cognitive theory is based on how working memory (short-term memory) processes information. He tested Paivio’s (1991) work on dual coding theory through multimedia learning research studies which states that our brain process information through two channels, visual and verbal. Baddeley and Hitch (1974) also suggested that these two channels run in parallel and do not conflict with each other.

Photo of Keith Bound"It is crucial that organisations develop a robust learning methodology providing learners with a positive and effective learning experience."

So what does this mean for the learner? Well the visual channel would process images and on-screen text whereas verbal narration and music would go to the verbal channel (auditory). Although on-screen text is absorbed through the visual channel it is later transferred to the auditory. Mayer’s theory of cognitive multimedia learning is based on Paivio’s research in that the working memory is limited to processing only small amounts of information at any one time. Therefore, when we design multimedia programmes we need to ensure that the content does not overload the learner’s capacity to process and retain information.

Through research, Mayer (2001) developed some key design principles, hereby improving the learner’s capability for processing and retaining information which underpins the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. The key principles are as follows:

The spatial contiguity principle is concerned about the relationship between a screen image and on-screen text which share the same message. The location of the image and text is important because if they are apart the learner has to use additional cognitive resources to understand the whole message, which could lead to distraction or overload of the processing channels. When the on-screen image and text are located together, the overload effect is eliminated.

The temporal contiguity principle focuses on the relationship between animated images and words in time, so the words and images need to be aligned in time to be effective.

The redundancy principle states that students learn better when viewing animation which uses images with verbal narration rather than having additional on-screen text because this overloads the visual channel.

The coherence principle occurs when the learner experiences cognitive overload due to additional visual or verbal material which is not related to the learning objectives (Mayer calls this extraneous material).

Mayer’s final principle focuses on the design effects on individuals. For example, design effects are stronger for low-knowledge learners (unfamiliar with the learning material) than high knowledge learners (familiar with the learning material), and for high-spatial learners rather than for low-spatial learners. Based on his research Mayer provides the designer with some clear principles in developing an effective design methodology for multimedia learning.

Although his work establishes a good foundation for designing multimedia learning programmes, the research only focuses on learning information and does not take into consideration whether the learner has gained a receptive learning state to maximise their learning outcomes. By not engaging the learner with a pre-learning process before viewing the content it may have impacted negatively on their performance and results. However, if we add some accelerated learning techniques within multimedia learning we might be able to bridge this gap, therefore learners will encode and recall information more easily than using traditional learning methods which focus on quality or delivery of the content.

Accelerated learning

Dr Georgi Lozanov (1967) developed an educational breakthrough in learning foreign languages which later led to accelerated learning. He developed six stages to the learning process which are as follows:

  1. Remove mental blocks and that learning is not limited (positive psychology e.g. learning is fun and easy)
  2. Relax - to create a receptive learning state so your mind will absorb more information
  3. Create a mental map of what information you are going to learn
  4. Learn the material with music (Baroque - composed 1700-1750)
  5. Relax and listen to the music – the music acts as a vehicle to help the learner process and encode the information
  6. After a night’s sleep the next day starts with puzzles and games which are designed around the learning material. The process happens in a non-judgemental environment again focusing on positive thinking e.g. no blame culture even if you provide incorrect answers

With the combination of positive psychology and the development of a relaxed state of mind, learners are able to develop a receptive learning state (pre-learning stage) in a non-judgemental and stress-free environment. This enables them to encode and recall information more quickly and easily, therefore accelerating their learning performance.

Receptive learning state for effective processing and recall

One way of developing a receptive learning state is to control your brain waves. There are four brain wave patterns or mind states from being wide awake to being in a deep sleep.

When we are wide awake, Beta waves (13-25 cycles per second) become dominant as we need to be alert. However, this is not an ideal state for learning because we are easily distracted and become stressed.

The second level is Alpha (8-12 c.p.s) which is when the mind relaxes and your imagination runs wild.

The third level is Theta (4-7 c.p.s) a drowsy stage, nearly falling asleep and when you’re more receptive to experiencing flashes of inspiration. Young children can access this state while wide awake which explains why they display high levels of creativity.

"Being exposed to enormous amounts of information and images, today’s youngsters are developing their own visual language and informal learning through a wide range of ICT platforms."

Delta (0.5-3 c.p.s) is a deep dreamless sleep. By shifting our mind state from Beta to Alpha we change our mental perspective from being stressed about a problem to seeing the whole picture, and if we access the Theta state we start to create inspirational ideas with ease.

Therefore by applying these techniques in multimedia learning we can perhaps help the learner encode the content much faster and easier than traditional techniques.

Music also acts as a catalyst to creating a receptive learning state, and rhythm and rhyme are also powerful mnemonics (anything that helps you remember better). According to supporters of accelerated learning, applying the right music can help us concentrate and process large amounts of information by making the encoding more powerful. Baroque music in particular has been recognised to help us relax and bring our mind and body in unison.

Studies have shown that if the encoding of information is stronger, then we will have better recall. To improve our memory we can also apply associations by connecting two or more pieces of information together, be it an image, text or sound. Interaction also plays an important part to remembering facts and the way in which we can interact with multimedia is becoming very diverse from using a mouse to motion sensors detecting movement in virtual environments.

The role of digital technologies

Although we have explored some interesting techniques for designing effective multimedia learning programmes, with the rapid development of interactive digital technologies and the demand for quick accurate information, elearning organisations face a challenging role in meeting the needs of the learner.

One of the dramatic trends of today is how children and young people are adapting so fast to these technologies and using them in different ways to adults, which is even exceeding manufacturer’s expectations.

Being exposed to enormous amounts of information and images, today’s youngsters are developing their own visual language and informal learning through a wide range of ICT platforms from mobile phones, PDAs, mini PCs and laptops.

This trend is causing a digital divide in how young people use these technologies compared with adults. With the insurgence of a wide variety of emerging technologies, teachers, trainers and lecturers face an enormous challenge in how they will adapt to using these technologies for teaching and bridging the knowledge gap between adults and young people. Is the answer to continue our obsession in developing learning through electronic games or should we take an holistic approach to learning and leverage digital technologies as an effective tool or process that makes it easier for everyone to learn information more easily and quickly?

While the theory of cognitive learning (Mayer 2001) demonstrated some clear design techniques for developing effective multimedia learning, the studies seemed to have ignored the potential impact multimedia learning could have on the whole learning process, such as helping the learner to create a receptive learning state before being presented with the content or even investigating how a multimedia post-learning support process would help embed the learning outcomes.

By integrating some of the accelerated learning techniques by Lozanov (1967) it creates a new direction for designers of multimedia learning programmes and the application of ICT in learning.

Designers should be able to develop an effective design methodology by combining the principles of the theory of cognitive learning (Mayer 2001) with some of the process stages of accelerated learning techniques (Lozanov 1967).

The future success of elearning organisations will depend on how they embrace and implement learning theories with emerging digital technologies. Designers also need to investigate how they can make a positive contribution to the whole learning process rather than just focusing on designing content.

Only by proceeding in this direction will organisations be able to develop an effective design methodology for the demands of the 21st Century learner. This is an exciting time for learning as it changes from a transactional process to a transformational and engaging learning experience, enabling learners to encode and recall information more quickly and effectively.

Keith Bound is an innovator, international facilitator and speaker. He is the creator of Image Dynamics and gained recognition by being nominated as a finalist for the World of Learning Award 2007 and a runners up in the Business Enterprise Works Innovative Idea Award 2007. For more information go to


Mayer. E.R, Multi-Media Learning 2001, Cambridge University Press, New York

Mayer. E.R, The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning 2005, Cambridge University Press, New York

Clark. C.R, & Lyons.C, Graphics for Learning 2004, John Wiley & Sons Inc San Francisco

E-Learning and the Science of Instruction 2008, 2nd Edition, John Wiley & Sons Inc San Francisco

Rose. C, Accelerated Learning 1991, 5th Edition, Accelerated Learning Systems Ltd, Aylesbury

Mier. D, The Accelerated Learning Handbook 2000, McGraw-Hill Companies Inc, New York

Green-Sefton. J, Literature Review in Informal Learning with Technology Outside School 2004, Report 7: Futurelab series, Futurelab, Bristol

Stead.G, Anderson. P, Sharpe. B Cych.L, Philpott. M, Emerging Technologies for Learning 2006, Becta ICT Research, Coventry


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