Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brilliant 35 studies in media and learning

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.

Awkward pauses

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.

Experts matter

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.

Politeness matters

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.



.paranoid said...

Mr.Clark thank you for such interesting post!
I agree with your point of view on effectiveness of the user experience and quality of audio matters.

Unknown said...

You write:

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.

Spot on and true for lessons with a teacher in the room, too. I once read that starting by an explanation of the objectives is a bit like delivering the punch line before setting up the joke.

Anonymous said...

An interesting post.Got to get the book!

What I have trouble accepting is 'scrapping learning objectives'. How can someone buy into something if they don't know what is expected of them. I do strongly believe that a long list of dull 'objectives' has a demotivating effect but isn't that because whoever is writing the learning objective doesn't know how to write learning objectives?

It seems that the objectivs Reeves & Nass are referring to are more list of contents which only serves to overwhelm.

A well written learning objective is merely a brief description of the assessed activity e.g. Accurately record customer details in a simulation from information provided in a scenario.

Simple ... and everyone knows where they are going.

Donald Clark said...

I'm not so sure. people doing a course know where they are going,a nd to bore them with minor objectives often leads to a drop in psychological attention at teh very point where they need to be stimulated. No other area of communiaction does this - you don't get objectives at the cinema, on TV, in newspapaers, novels, the theare and so on. It takes the interest and curiosity out of the process, making it more mechanical. Of course, it's grounded in old behaviorism, where conditioning towards performance objectives was the end game.

Imagine if all websites had a home page stating their objectives - you'd be out like a shot.

Rob Alton said...

Agree on the objectives + they are difficult to write and then map content/activities to them. Perhaps there's a half way house: "here's some material that will help you do XYZ"- you do need to set the scene somehow, even with a joke. When presented with the the classic list of objectives I get a little scared as a learner because the language is often too formal, often much more formal than the content itself.

Dick Moore said...

Hi Donald

Long term fan of Donald Norman, his book with Draper user centred system design, is on my shelf and used 25 years later!

Part of the human condition is to anthropomorphize everything around us, cars, planes, pets, computers, guns and mixing bowls, they all get names and personalities attributed so we should not be shocked that learners get an emotional engagement with good media.

Can we take it too far?

The research by Mori in the 70’s on robotics gave us the concept of the uncanny valley He basically says that as the technology becomes more human in nature we will increasingly empathize with it until a point is reached after which it becomes uncomfortable he calls this the uncanny valley, Here is the Wikipedia version

Well illustrated I think by how many people felt about the photo realistic CGI in the recent film Beowulf, compared to say how the nation feels about Wallace and Grommet.

Try taking a mobile phone away from a teenager to see just how emotionally attached we can be with our technology ;)

Rina Tripathi said...

Very interesting observations. Sometimes for a creative thinker like me it is a huge task to map objectives and the course ware with the assessment. Once when we had to make the doable objectives based on the analysis of data, I would loose track of the objective again and again.

Let us try and put this to practice:

Objective: To be able to answer who was Sita.

First screen with an interesting snippet on the epic Ramayana: Sita is the wife of Lord Rama in the 3,500 year old epic. She is a role model for Indian women across generations. She was found in a furrow by King Janak, married Rama when he broke the bow of Shiva and willingly joined her husband in fourteen-year-old exile. Sita embodies a woman's struggle for self in a patriarchal society. She is abducted by demon who keeps her captive. A war ensues between her husband and the demon and she is released. Male ego is satiated as Rama has won the war and won back the family honor. He now asks her to prove her chastity by entering the fire. Enraged she emerges from this test untouched. Rama is most righteous of the Kings and when he hears a washer man throw out his wife saying she is an adulteress and that he is no Rama to keep a woman who has lived under another man's roof,he abandons pregnant Sita in the forest without any explanation.

Second frame, to draw the learner more into the achieving the end objective: How do you relate to Sita's life?

Assessment: What, according to you describes Sita best?

Fine, now the next technique of direct interaction.

We will have a large frame of an oil on canvas of Sita in exile. We have a direct communication via a cartoon clip on Ramayana highlighting the Sita's plight. Like... say this one:

What will work better.I guess it depends on the audience. The attention spans will determine the output of the learners. I do not know much about this actually, just playing around. Thanks for this wonderful post, and I am not thanking the computer!

Wilfred Rubens said...

This book is more than 10 years old! We now have new technologies with different affordances (virtual worlds, better mobile devices), so new reseach is needed (maybe with different conclusions). And what about the relationship between 'expert knowledge', wisdom of crowds, user generated content, connectivism etc?

Donald Clark said...

Psychological research is sound if the methodology is right. I've looked at these studies again and think that most hold up to scrutiny as they were bdevice-independent.

However, you're right, there's loads to be done in this field.

Donald Clark said...

Psychological research is sound if the methodology is right. I've looked at these studies again and think that most hold up to scrutiny as they were bdevice-independent.

However, you're right, there's loads to be done in this field.