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Multimedia Guidelines

Posted on Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Today’s technology has made a veritable smorgasbord of multimedia that can be combined for engaging e-learning experience. But unlike gumbo where everything is thrown into the pot with mouthing-watering results, the selection and implementation of multimedia must take in the human cognitive processes.  Just as the chef must know how to prepare a proper roux and to season with okra and filé for the gumbo; the developer must know how to arrange the content and media for effective learning.


There are two types of e-learning, synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous e-learning is a learning event that is taught by an instructor in real time, such as a webinar or a virtual classroom. Asynchronous e-learning is an on-demand learning event which means that the student determines the pace and timing of learning. This article will focus on multimedia selections for effective asynchronous e-learning in transferring knowledge and skills needed for organizational performance or personal growth.

In order to understand the rationale for media selection, you must understand a little of the theory behind it. A noted educational psychologist, Richard E. Mayer, has made significant contributions to the theories of cognition and learning. His cognitive theory of multimedia learning is based on three assumptions.

  1. Dual channel – assumes that the human working memory has two channels that work in parallel – visual and auditory. Learning is more successful if both channels are used at the same time (see image).
  2. Limited capacity – notes that people can actively process only a few pieces of information in each channel at one time.
  3. Active processing – indicates that learning occurs when people engage in appropriate cognitive processing, such as attending to relevant material, organizing material into coherent structure, and integrating it with what they already know.


In the above image, the dual channels of the working memory go through three cognitive processes:

1,  Select words and images
2.  Organize words and images
3.  Integrate incoming verbal and pictorial representations with each other and existing knowledge.

Research by Mayer and other researchers resulted in several educational theories and principles that guide the design of today’s education in instructor-led classrooms and e-learning.  

Principle Based Media Selection

The following media principles represent the collective research of multiple disciplines and are standards in the field of e-learning. It is recommended that you keep in mind that this is brief description of different principles. You may want to do further research as you contemplate the use of graphics, audio, animation, etc. (Note: If enough interest is expressed, I will dedicate a newletter to each principle.)


Multimedia Principle – Students gain greater knowledge when both words and relevant graphics are presented than when just words (i.e. printed text or spoken text) are presented. In this concept graphics could be static drawings (i.e. charts, graphs, maps, and photos) or dynamic graphics (i.e. animation and videos). When just words are presented, a person’s cognitive process organizes text information into a cognitive representation and proceeds to integrate that information with existing knowledge. However, with words and either static or dynamic graphics, the presentation engages the learner in active learning by making the connection from graphic to text for them. The learner just has to associate these pairings with existing knowledge.

When selecting graphics, it is recommended to use representational graphics that help the learner understand the material (transformational or interpretive graphics) or organize the material (organizational graphics). Minimize the use of decorative graphics, which are added for aesthetic appeal.


Contiguity Principle – Deeper learning occurs when text is close to its corresponding graphics. If a learner has to scroll down to see graphic related to text, then cognitive resources allocated to learning are reduced while the learner searches to find the image. A few samples of breaches in the contiguity principle are:

  • When feedback is placed on a screen separate from the question or the learner’s answer.
  • A link in the primary screens opens a new window that covers the primary screen and/or graphics.
  • Avoid placing directions in text separated from screens where the actions are to be performed.
  • Do not create a layout that displays all text at the bottom of the screen as the learner has to scan back and forth between words at the bottom and the part of the graphic described.
  • Avoid the simultaneous display of animations and related text


Modality Principle – Recent research indicates e-learning is more effective when graphics are explained by audio narration instead of onscreen text. Mayer’s dual channels of visual and audio are like traffic on the Schuylkill. When one lane gets blocked, traffic slows to a crawl. The same occurs with the use of text and images if they both use the visual channel. However, if a narration accompanies an image, both visual and audio channels are utilized for greater understanding. There are a few exceptions to the modality principle, such as an [1]ESL student or hearing impaired students (see Redundancy Principle).   This could be resolved by using close captioning or providing a link which opens the script directions in a box that can be minimized or moved.


Redundancy Principle – If the graphic has both text and audio narration, the text is called redundant. In general, learners may waste cognitive resources trying to compare printed word with the spoken word or extraneous cognitive processing. The redundancy principle, like the modality principle, advocates using audio narration with graphics. However, there are situation when printed text and audio narration could improve e-learning course, such as:

  • a section or slide of the course has no graphics, drawings, animation, maps, charts, etc.
  • ample time is available to process graphics (i.e. on-screen text and graphic appear at same time or pace of presentation is slow).
  • learner must exert much greater cognitive effort to comprehend spoken text
  • only a few key words are displayed next to elements of graphic


Coherence PrincipleIn general a course cluttered with ambiguous content (i.e. irrelevant video, graphics, music, stories, narration, etc.) adversely impacts the cognitive load. Basically, the less the learners know about the lesson content, the easier it is for them to get distracted by anything shown that is not directly relevant to the lesson. A little “weeding” (Moreno & Mayer, 2000) must be done to remove anything that distracts from the goal of the lesson.


Personalization Principle – Using a conversational style of writing (including first and second person), a friendly human voice, and a friendly avatar enable the learner to experience a sense of social presence and enhances learning.  A polite tone is more beneficial to users with low prior knowledge. Personalization is important tool that engages the learner with the computer as a social conversational partner. For example, which avatar appears friendlier?

Avatar 1                                                             Avatar 2


Segmenting Principle

Learning is facilitated when broken into smaller, more manageable segments (i.e. “chunking”). This “chunking” would include breaking a long lesson into several shorter lessons and breaking long text passages into multiple smaller text passages.


Pretraining Principle – A review of key concepts or vocabulary related to the class content prior to the start of training will be beneficial to users with low prior knowledge. Learners find it easier to understand and learn the processes or procedures related to that pretraining. 

The purpose of this brief introduction to multimedia guidelines was to provide a basic outline or structure for you to evaluate your course material. As you review your slides, handouts, and other training material use the Principle-Based Media Checklist to aid you in deciding how you will revamp your material into e-learning.


Author:    Jane Hall
Date:       June 12, 2015



  • Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). E-Learning and the Science of Instructions. San Francisco, CA, USA: Pfeiffer.
  • Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (2000). A coherence effect in multimedia learning: The case for minimizing irrelevant sounds in the design of multimedia instructional messages. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 117-125.
  • Wikipedia. (n.d.). E-learning Theory. Retrieved June 12, 2015, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-learning_(theory)

[1] ESL – English as a Second Language