Mind and media
Another of my favourite e-learning sources of research. This is a book that literally changes how you design and media components in e-learning. The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, two Stanford academics, is full of juicy research on media in learning. It provides a compelling case, backed up with empirical studies, to show that that people confuse media with real life. This is actually a highly useful confusion: it is what makes movies, television, radio, the web and e-learning work.
Media equals real life
35 psychological studies into the human reaction to media all point towards the simple proposition that people react towards media socially even though, at a conscious level, they believe it is not reasonable to do so. They can't help it. In short, people think that computers are people, which makes e-learning work..
Why is this so? We do not willingly suspend disbelief, it just happens. Think of a ventriloquist – it is hard not to see the puppet as a real person. 'People can't always overcome the powerful assumption that mediated presentations are actual people and objects.' We swear at cars when they break down and kick objects when they cause us harm. We do it because we're programmed that way.
Hearteningly, it means that there is no reason why online learning experiences should be any less compelling - any less 'human' in feel - than what we experience in the classroom. As long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, we will accept it. Read that last part again, 'as long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules'. If the media technology fails to conform to these human expectations - we will very much not accept it.
Don’t break the spell
The spell is easily broken. If the media technology fails to conform to our human expectations - we will NOT accept it. This is a fascinating lesson for e-learning. We must learn to design our courseware as if it were being delivered by real people in a realistic fashion. The effectiveness of the user experience on an emotional level will depend as much on these considerations as on the scriptwriting and graphic design. It all has to work seamlessly, or the illusion of humanity fails. This has huge implications in terms of the use of media and media mix.
Scrap learning objectives
Let's take just one example, in the phenomenon of arousal. Arouse people at the start and they will remember more. Yet if the first experience many learners have in an e-learning programme is a detailed registration procedure followed by a dull list of learning objectives. There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of an e-learning programme and not the usual list of objectives. On the other hand, as we shall see, persistent arousal can be counterproductive.
Another simple finding, that shows we have real life expectations for media, is our dislike of unnatural timing. Slight pauses, waits and unexpected events cause disturbance. Audio-video asynchrony, such as poor lip-synch or jerky low frame-rate video, will result in negative evaluations of the speaker. These problems are cognitively disturbing.
With experts, respected and authoritative views can not only bring credibility to the programme, they can also increase learning and retention. For this reason many e-learning programmes use a key subject matter expert, or someone with strong practical experience in the area, to anchor the theory and practice. This could be an academic, opinion leader, consultant or senior manager. People like identifiable experts.
Quality of video no big deal
They thought that because peripheral vision is largely ill-defined and we are used to dealing perceptually with low visual fidelity in twilight, fog and so on, we are likely to cope well with low fidelity visual images. So they tested their hypothesis by measuring attention, memory and evaluation of the experience when viewing video. Interestingly, they could detect no difference between those who viewed low as opposed to high fidelity images. So don’t waste your money on broadcast quality video.
Big screens are good
Taking their experiments further they also discovered that the size and shape of the screen and therefore image mattered more than quality. Large screens and images were preferable to higher quality images and horizontal screens and images were also preferred over higher quality. In other words larger wide screen format monitors have more impact than quality of image.
Quality of audio matters
They also showed that users are more sensitive to the quality of audio than they are to that of video. This may sound surprising, but people are quite unforgiving when it comes to tinny audio with variable sound levels. Learners expect consistently high quality at a consistent volume. Record good quality audio.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the book, however, is the role of politeness - which, it turns out, is hardwired into our systems. People are polite to computers and expect them to be polite to them. The authors' studies show that when a computer asks a user questions about its own performance, the user will give more positive responses than when a different computer asks the same questions. People also respond to flattery from computers, and are hurt if they get negative feedback that is too harsh.
These are just a few of the dozens of insights in this extremely worthwhile book, based on real research. It should be a must for anyone involved in producing e-learning content, or otherwise active in media production.
'If the designers of media would only follow their (Nass and Reeves’s) guidance, we would all gain through enhanced social graces in our interactions with media and technology,' says Donald A Norman.