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Media and Learning

Definitions and Summary of Research, Do Media Influence the Cost and Access to Instruction?

Educators have examined the impact of media on learning since at least 1912, when the American psychologist Edward L. Thorndike recommended pictures as a labor saving device for instruction. Five questions about media and learning will be briefly examined. The first section will define media and summarize the results of research on learning from media, the relative cost of media use, and the impact of media on access to education. The second section describes new research on the economic benefits of instructional media, including suggestions for "cognitive efficiency" studies. The third section presents new information about learning problems caused by poor design of instructional media "displays." The fourth part will examine claims that new media enhance student's motivation to learn. The final section will describe work on technology integration that focuses on learning how to solve problems.

Definitions and Summary of Research

Media are generally defined as the means by which information is conveyed from one place to another. In the past century, various forms of media have been used to convey instruction and to support learning. Examples of instructional media include traditional means of delivering instruction (chalkboards, textbooks, overhead projectors, and teachers), mass media used for education (newspapers, movies, radio, and television), and the newer "electronic" instructional media (computers, interactive video, and multimedia systems). All instruction requires the selection and use of at least one medium to deliver instruction. Many alternative media and mixtures of media may be chosen for any given learning goal and group of students. Thus, research questions have compared the learning benefits of various media and mixes of media for different types of learning goals and students at different ages and aptitude levels. Thousands of studies have been and continue to be conducted.

Do some media produce more learning than others? In his 2001 book Learning from Media, Richard E. Clark concluded that there are no learning benefits from any specific medium or mix of media. He summarized the research on this issue in an analogy that is often repeated: "The best … evidence is that media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition. Basically, the choice of vehicle might influence the cost or extent of distributing instruction, but only the content of the vehicle can influence achievement" (p. 13). While some media will not convey certain types of information necessary for learning (for example, newspapers cannot transmit sound or "real-time" visual events), any necessary information can be conveyed by a number of media (sound and visual events can be conveyed by many media other than newspapers). A more positive way to state this conclusion is that educators can expect similar levels of learning from a great variety of media provided that essential instructional methods are used. When more than one medium can provide the instructional method needed for learning, the choice of medium is based on expected economic benefits such as the per-student cost of instruction, not learning benefits. An alternative view was expressed in 1994 by Robert B. Kozma, who contended that media and method should not be separated.

Media and method. The key issue here is that when media are used for instruction, they may often be confused with the instructional methods and information they convey. For example, computer-based instruction is often thought to be highly "interactive" because computers permit high levels of exchange between student and computer-delivered instructional programs. Yet most media permit interaction, although some media do so more quickly and economically.

Any medium seems to be able to increase learning provided that the information content and instructional methods they convey are adequate to support student learning. The existing research suggests that when learning is influenced by external events, those events must support the use of mental processes that are required for learning goals by students who are unable or unwilling to provide them for themselves. The specification for these external events is what Clark called an "instructional method." Instances of common instructional methods are learning plans, examples, and practice exercises with interactive, corrective feedback. Since a variety of media will present any of the common instructional methods required to learn, the benefits of media are not in their impact on learning but instead in their economic impact and their capacity to increase access to educational information and instructional programs.

Do Media Influence the Cost and Access to Instruction?

It appears that media can significantly influence the cost of learning and the ease and cost of access to instruction by students. Determining the per-student cost of instruction and access to information requires careful analysis. In 2000 Brenda Sugrue and Clark reviewed the research and practice in media selection and cost analysis. They described different methods of performing cost analysis prior to selecting media for instruction or training.

Cognitive efficiencies from media. A twist in the discussion about the economic benefits of media came from a suggestion made by Thomas Cobb in a 1997 article. He argued that some media and symbol systems lead to quicker and/or less demanding learning results than other media or symbolic modes for some students. Cobb's suggestion opens an area of research where there are at least two possibilities: First, any medium or representational mode used for presenting an instructional method (for instance, an example presented in either pictorial or verbal modes) might help some individuals to learn easier and/or faster (for instance, high visual but low verbal ability learners may learn faster from pictures than from narrative descriptions of examples). Second, the cost of learning is, after all, one of the most important issues for those concerned with the application of research to solving practical problems. The expectation that currently guides research in this area could be stated as: Whenever a given instructional method is necessary for learning, different media or symbolic modes will have different learning efficiencies for learners with different aptitudes.

Visual and aural learning aids. Compelling examples of possible cognitive efficiencies can be found in several studies, including a 1995 study by Samual Mousavi and colleagues, and a 1997 study by Richard E. Mayer. These researchers provided evidence that presenting novel and difficult science concepts to learners in both auditory and visual symbolic modes results in more efficient (quicker, easier) learning than information presented in either mode alone for high visual ability and low prior knowledge learners. The researchers' explanation for their findings is that the conscious human mind is supported by both auditory and visual "buffers" that specialize in storing different symbolic representations of information to be learned. These buffers permit instructional information to be stored in both visual and aural (sound) forms. Conscious consideration of information to be learned or used in problem solving can be held in the mind only briefly (approximately six to eight seconds) unless the person repeats it or elaborates it somehow. Imagine a person who is trying to remember a new telephone number someone gave them verbally as they walk a long distance to find a telephone. Unless the person repeats the information or writes it down, he or she will tend to forget it before reaching the telephone. Giving information content in two different modalities (visual and auditory) apparently results in storage by two different, sensory-based memory buffers, which increases the duration and quality of information available to learners while they mentally process the information. Thus, providing key instructional information in both pictorial and auditory (narrative) forms might extend the duration of "thinking time" during learning for some learners. It is critical to note that in their 2000 article Roxana Moreno and Mayer limited this "learning efficiency" impact of both visual and aural modes of instruction to a small group of learners. The increased efficiency was primarily useful for students who had a very low prior knowledge and very high visual ability. One might wonder what percentage of students received a significantly enhanced efficiency from both visual and aural forms of instruction.

Media Display Problems

There is increasing evidence that the "busy" screen designs that are typical in computer-based and multimedia learning environments often cause learning problems. Many media designers are tempted toward instructional presentations that include active animated figures, music, sounds, and other visually and aurally exciting displays. While most people welcome the visual and aural entertainment, the best evidence suggests that learners are often overloaded by these "seductive details" and their learning is reduced. Screen designs that separate visual and text-based explanations or demonstrations, and/or are heavily text laden, seem to damage learning because they overload a person's thinking while she is trying to learn. Mayer and his students recommend the spatial (visual) and temporal (time) integration of verbal and visual information. They also recommend the use of narration rather than large bodies of text. This line of research provides important guidance for screen design. It strongly indicates that instructional designers and teachers must focus learners constantly on learning goals and resist the temptation to offer enticing and aesthetically pleasing but irrelevant formats and features.

Do Some Media Motivate Learning More than Other Media?

While many advocates of new forms of instructional media have argued for motivational benefits, existing evidence suggests that important components of motivation may actually be decreased by common features of, for example, computer or multimedia instruction. In a 1984 article Gavriel Salomon presented evidence that students who express strong preferences for any medium or mix of media tend to expect that it will be a less demanding way to learn. This expectation results in the investment of lower levels of mental effort and lower achievement levels when compared to instructional conditions that are perceived as more demanding. Yet, it is likely that other motivational benefits might exist with newer media. For example, students may be more enthusiastic about enrolling in instruction presented by newer media because of optimistic expectations about ease of access and flexibility of scheduling. Delays in finishing online courses and rumors about high "drop-out" rates suggest the need for more research on whether students persist in courses offered using new media.

Not much is known about the direct impact of new media on mental effort (aside from Salomon's cautions), but the early research is not promising. Some studies indicate that many instructional strategies and complex screen displays risk overloading working memory and causing "automated" cognitive defaults where mental effort is both reduced and directed to nonlearning goals. Educators are thus faced with an ironic contradiction where students are attracted to media qualities that are known to reduce their learning. Complicating this finding is strong evidence that learners are not aware when they become overloaded by too much visual and/or verbal information.

Technology Integration

This discussion of media has thus far focused on media as a delivery device. Educators have typically viewed media in two ways. First, media are viewed as a means to amplify the teacher's message, such as with the use of an overhead projector or a video projector. Second, media are viewed as a way to deliver instruction using computer-based instruction or television. For example, Alfred Bork suggested that computer-based instruction would revolutionize schools and change the way students would learn. Yet, by the beginning of the twenty-first century the computer-based instruction revolution had yet to materialize.

Subsequent efforts shifted attention away from using computers to deliver instruction through a tutorial or drill- and-practice instructional method toward using computers as a tool that is integrated into other classroom activities to facilitate problem solving and learning. In their 2002 book Integrating Computer Technology into the Classroom, Gary R. Morrison and Deborah L. Lowther described technology integration as the process of using application software (for example, spreadsheets, databases, and web browsers) as tools to help students learn problem solving. An example of technology integration is the NteQ (Integrating Technology for Inquiry) model. This model provides teachers with a ten-step approach for developing problem-based instructional units that integrate technology. Students use computers to gather, manipulate, and present information related to solving academic problems. The emphasis at this level is on the use of the computer as a tool in the same way that scientists and business professionals use computers in their work.

This shift in focus from using computers and other media to deliver instruction to one of using computers as an integrated problem-solving tool places a greater emphasis on the development of media-based instructional methods. The emphasis of the research also shifts from comparing two media conditions (e.g., classrooms with and without computers) to one of investigating the effectiveness of the media-based instructional strategies employed in the classroom. An extensive description of a classroom-based example of technology integration can be found in an online article from 2000, written by Steven M. Ross, Morrison, Lowther, and Robert T. Plants, that investigated a school district's pilot of an Anytime Anywhere Learning project focused on writing achievement. Teachers in the pilot project, where the students had laptop computers, were more likely to use problem-based learning, cooperative learning, facilitation, and sustained writing than teachers in traditional classrooms. Similarly, students in the pilot project had significantly higher scores on a writing sample collected at the end of the year. These differences were attributed to the student-centered environment created by the teachers rather than the computer technology.


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