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  • Cognitive Learning Research in Online Multimedia Education

    Dr. Juhani E. Tuovinen

    Senior Research Fellow in Interactive Multimedia

    Monash University, CeLTS, Churchill, Vic. 3842

    Ph 03 99026942

    Fax 03 99026578



    A framework incorporating multiple modalities is proposed for cognitive research into online learning interaction. Its fundamental interaction dimensions are taken to be various combinations of text, graphics, video, sound and immersive virtual reality. These dimensions are then considered at two further levels of analysis, distinguishing between 1-way and 2-way and synchronous or asynchronous interactions.

    Useful ways for siting current cognitive learning research and new research directions among these framework components are proposed. Methods for improving learning of cognitively demanding content by reducing the learning cognitive load in these online contexts are derived from recent cognition research. These are goal-free problem solving, worked and completion examples practice, reducing split-attention and redundancy effects, relating the heavy use of worked and completion examples to learners' expertise, the imagination effect, using multiple modalities and identifying and employing optimal conditions for discovery learning.

    The implications and scope of effective new learning approaches for online learning and opportunities for research are discussed. The current research is argued to have immediate implications for improving learning in non-online contexts, and be highly suggestive of fruitful areas of research and development in online learning environments, especially if multimedia or virtual reality are employed as interaction modalities. It is also argued that the existing cognition research provides powerful methods of planning, prioritising, developing, implementing and evaluating online learning using judicious combinations of multiple interaction modes and instructional methods.


    Some years ago I suggested a very basic classification of online education and training which I will use as a starting point for this presentation in a modified form.

    The simplest level of online education and instruction is via text only, such as in archived gopher materials, email, etc. At the next level we may have text with graphics, such as in a typical Web page. Alternately we may have sound-only messages, such as in radio broadcasts (one-way), or telephone (two-way). We could combine text, graphics and sound, as in audiographics or Web pages, and include video, which may be synchronous or asynchronous, and allow for one-way or two-way interaction. However, if we really want to immerse a student in a learning environment, we would use virtual reality enhanced with full surround sound.

    We may represent these categories as a diagram, which captures these distinctions in nine cells.

    Figure 1 Online eduction and training media

    However, all the above online interactions may occur in either synchronous or asynchronous manner, and may include one-way or two-way interactions. We may extend the above classification to incroporate these further dimensions as shown in Figure 2.

    Figure 2 Online instructional interactions

  • Thus the possible categories of educational online interaction range from pure symbolic text or sound presentations in 1-way, asynchronous mode to the totally immersive Virtual Reality with sound 2-way, synchronous interactions. In this paper an attempt is made to specify where in this categorisation obvious applications may be found for the recent cognition research findings. I will also point out the research and development opportunities I see within the online educational technology and cognitive research.

    Introduction to research

    My educational cognition research over the last few years has been conducted in the Information Processing framework. It has drawn heavily on both Schema Theory and Expert-Novice studies. An important aspect of the Information Processing framework is to see the mind as a computer. The three basic computer concepts, input, processing and storage, in particular, have been useful in developing theories with significant learning and teaching implications.

    The basic principles of this line of thinking are based on the three-store model of the human information processing system .

    Figure 3 Three component model of mental processing

    That is, the human mind receives information from the outside world through the senses (Input stage) which are decoded in the Sensory Memory. The information from the Sensory Memory is then processed in the Working Memory (Processing stage) and stored in the Long-term Memory (Storage). Of course the previous information stored in the long-term memory can also be drawn on, or activated by the working memory to help deal with the

  • processing in working memory . The processing in the working memory is what we commonly call conscious thought .

    One of the most interesting and significant aspects of the human mind is the very small capacity of the working memory. In 1956 G. A. Miller coined the famous term, "the magical number seven plus or minus two" to describe the number of distinct items he thought humans could hold in the working memory at any time . Since then the exact number of items has been shown to depend on a number of factors, ranging from age, health, level of fatigue, the type of item, familiarity with the content, training, etc. . However, without doubt the capacity of the working memory to deal with distinct items is quite limited, whereas the capacity of the long-term memory is very large, in fact no clear boundary has been established for it .

    There are two main mechanisms that improve the working memory operation. They are Schema Formation and Automation . If the items of information are grouped together in a meaningful way, e.g. 29011981 vs 29.01.1981 (my daughter's birthday) they become easier to remember and use as one item, called a chunk . Instead being eight separate items, they can be treated as a single entity by working memory. The structure we have used to link these numbers together, the date notation, is an example of a schema, which helps to organise and simplify mental processing.

    The second mechanism is automation. By this I mean processing that is so familiar that one does not have to think about the components of the processing consciously. This is the type of processing fluent readers use when reading text, where they do not try to make out individual letters, but process larger groups, words or groups of words, without attending to individual letters or even words separately.

    As one develops better schemas and automation one gains expertise in a given field. Then one is able to select and use more elaborate schemas and automated processes to avoid the bottleneck of processing in the working memory, with too many individual separate items of information leading to confusion, and poor processing, due to a mental overload.

    Cognitive Load Theory

    Based on this view of the human information processing a number of significant advances in improving learning have been developed under the banner of the Cognitive Load Theory . Principally the Cognitive Load Theory work has been aimed at reducing the cognitive load on the working memory during learning.

    A. Reduction in extraneous cognitive load

    Goal-Free Problem Solving

    The first method developed from the Cognitive Load Theory is called the Goal Free Problem solving . For example in the kinematics topic in physics a small number of equations of motion under constant acceleration are taught in senior high school. After being the taught the equations of motion, the students are commonly given problems of the type:

    If a body starts from rest under the action of a constant acceleration of 3 m/sec2, find the distance moved over 4 seconds.

  • This requires the student to manipulate the equations of motion, combining them and substituting known values for the variables until they find the value of the distance variable.

    The following alternative way of presenting the same problem was tried:

    If a body starts from rest under the action of a constant acceleration of 3 m/sec2, find all the things you can know about the body after it has been in motion for 4 seconds (using the equations of motion).

    It was found that the second type of problem led to far more effective learning. This was called the goal-free problem solving. The reason for the improvement in learning was due to reduction in the use of less effective means-ends analysis approach involved in common problem solving. In means-ends analysis the students are comparing the current state of their problem with the final end to be reached, and trying to move closer to the final end, stage by stage. Thus they not only have to attend to the details of the problem, but also to start, end and mid stages. In the goal-free problem solving they can concentrate only on the problem itself, and the next stage only. Thus they have more working memory capacity available to develop better schemas for the material to be learned. In a sense this is a form of Discovery Learning - in fact, one of the few effective forms of discovery learning, according to my research!

    However, there are limitations to the effectiveness of goal-free problem solving, thus the mechanism involved and the context where it is to be used need to be thoroughly understood before assuming it will improve learning in a particular context.

    This method has been tested and found beneficial in text, and text with graphics one-way, asynchronous presentations in conventional classroom contexts, as shown in Figure 4.

    Figure 4 Goal-free problem solving contexts

    This instructional approach has not been used in online contexts yet to my knowledge, and so there are research opportunities to test the effectiveness of this method in all the online technology contexts noted above in Figures 1 and 2.

    Worked Examples

    The heavy use of worked examples, instead of asking students to simply work through problems after a lesson, was found to improve learning , particularly for complex materials. This means that students were asked to study how given problems were solved, by being provided with the problems and fully worked solutions, before they were asked to solve similar problems. Interestingly both the ability solve the same types of problems and other related problems was always better than, or at least as good as for conventional lesson-problems solving approach.

  • This was another example of minimising the working memory load in learning by reducing means-ends analysis. The search for solutions in conventional problem solving took up so much of the students' working memory space, there were not enough cognitive resources available to learn the schema or structure of the content material. This technique has been found to be effective in a wide range of situations.

    The worked examples practice has also been conducted in the text only, or text with static graphics presented in non-online, 1-way, asynchornous contexts, leaving open plentiful opportunities for research in other areas as shown in Figure 4 for goal-free problem solving.

    Integrated Instructions

    In presenting complex study material in text and graphical formats a learning improvement was found if the materials were integrated, instead of appearing in separate locations which needed to be kept in the limited working memory . This integration was found to be particularly effective for material that required both the text and the graphics to be understood together. The integration also helps in a situation where different parts of a text presentation refer to the same issue, such as a conventional psychology report, where the method, experiment results and discussion refer to the same concepts. If these were integrated, students studying the reports learned the material more effectively.

    A particularly interesting application of this principle was found if students were studying to understand a computer program from a textbook, such as a software manual. If students use a textbook at the same time as they work on a computer, e.g. entering exercises from the book on the computer, a detrimental split-attention condition is set up. Instead the researchers working on the basis of the cognitive load theory separated the manual study and computer operation phases and found a significant improvement in learning .

    The manual needed to show the steps in a typical activity to be accomplished, e.g. control of a CAD/CAM system using a computer, the screen responses and the operator actions. If the book described these items clearly enough, it was found to be more effective for the students to study the book only, before working on the computer, rather than try to enter information on the computer as they read the book for the first time. The moral of the story for learning complex material is: turn the computer off, read the book (so long as it describes the process thoroughly), and then work through similar problems on the computer.

    The integrated instructions have also only used text only, or text with graphics presentations employing 1-way asynchronous, non-online modes as shown in Figure 4 for goal-free problem solving, leaving opportunities for significant research and development in online contexts.


    It was also found that the optimum format of information presentation changes with the development of expertise . When a student's competence in a particular field improved, e.g. in understanding electrical circuit diagrams, the need for integrated information presentation and structured worked examples reduced. So at the beginning of a topic the students needed to be furnished with many worked examples, with integrated graphics and text. However, towards the end of a substantial study period, perhaps lasting many weeks, they no longer needed as many text explanations, the graphics were adequate to convey the meaning on their own.

  • Redundancy

    As the interest in integrating text and graphics increased a reverse effect was found - adding text to some graphics actually reduced learning efficiency! . On further investigation it became apparent that the graphical presentation (such as the human circulatory system diagram with arrows indicating blood flow) was sufficient in its own right, and adding any more text actually increased the working memory load rather than reducing it, by introducing an extraneous cognitive load, i.e. redundant material.

    Thus the suitability of graphical and integrated text-graphics formats need to be carefully considered before they are used in study presentations. For example in experiments investigating the learning of new software, spreadsheets, via computer presented tutorials, if the material presented on the computer screen was sufficiently informative in its own ri...


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