Friday, November 26, 2004

Does multimedia really enhance learning?

An interesting article crossed my desk today. Despite being “long in the tooth” by today’s information age standards, the article published in 1996 in the Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia (Vol. 5 Issue 2, pp 129-150) by Lawrence J. Najjar is a very good read. While at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Najjar examines the literature in detail to try and show some foundation to the claim that “multimedia helps people learn.”

His resulting review shows several key studies in a wide range of fields where multimedia can indeed help people learn. He distills the findings to two major themes:

1. When multimedia encourages dual coding of information, it can help people learn better. The idea is that if more than one cognitive pathway is constructed (say, a cognitive pathway for pictures and a cognitive pathway for text) on the same material, learning will be better due to the fact that two pathways are being built. Later the learner can utilize more cognitive paths to retrieve the information than is a single encoding structure were used (i.e. simply text-alone or pictures-alone)

2. When different components of media support each other, it can help people learn better. The key point here is not to create multi-media for the sake of multi-media alone. One media must not distract the learner from the other media. All media must relate closely and supportively when addressing the teaching point, or the learning objective. A picture of a typical lightning bolt accompanied with a detailed text description of the process of how lightening is generated is an example of a one media distracting from another. Students may be distracted from the spectacular lightening photo which in actuality has very little to do with the process by which lightening is generated. The relevancy between these two media is lost.

3. When multimedia is presented to learners with low prior knowledge or aptitude in the domain being learned, it can help them learn better. Educational psychologists believe that information from different media sources can help learners who are novices in the topic to better understand which aspects of the content are most important and as a result, more useful cognitive pathways can be built. Those learners that are experts in the field already have a rich knowledge of the material and can more easily make new connections with existing material with mono-media presentations (i.e. by reading text alone).

On a side-bar topic, Dr. Najjar also notes another interesting observation that self-paced learning models are probably a more effective way to learn that group-paced learning models, as they allow the student to better control the amount of time they spend personally on learning activities for specific topics. The ability to move on to the next topic when required without being bounded by group-paced constraints may be beneficial to learners.

So, overall, an excellent read. Pick it up if you can. It just goes to show you that some research articles certainly stand the test of time.

Speaking of standing the test of time. I quick Google search failed to help me locate Dr. Najjar’s current whereabouts. He left Georgia Tech and worked for companies like iXL, Viant and BMC Software. No clue where he is now. Does anyone know?


paradox55 said...

Good multimedia can be a good tool to learning. Just as good text can be.

What media you use is of importance to the message...The medium is the message...

I believe in offering different presentations because people differs in which way they build their knowledge.

Eric said...

This is an excellent point. In today's technology ladden atmosphere, sometimes we use technology for the sake of technology itself. I beleive that it bears re-emphasizing that technology leveraged learning activities should only exist if they address directly the learning objectives of the lesson/course. Sometimes, text is the best way to go! So it should certainly not disappear from our online courses.

Eric said...

Paradox66, I also added your Blog to my Blog role. I hope that's ok.

Anonymous said...

At the end of your post, you asked if anyone knew where Lawrence Najjar was now. I believe I can help. I am now at BMC Software in Austin, TX USA. A few of my papers are at Thanks for your favorable comments on my article. And thanks for sharing the information with people who may benefit from it.

Eric said...

Dr. Najjar! Small World isn't it? The Internet certainly has changed the way people interact. Thank you very much for posting your web-site and for letting me know your current whereabouts. If you ever create your own blog, be sure to let me know.