Mayer and Moreno meet The Credit Crisis Vizualised

Having readMayer and Moreno’s paper identifying five principles of multimedia design, it is an interesting exercise to apply it to something out there in the real world and see how their principles hold up. While it is tempting to look at some progressive interactive educational whizz-bangery, I thought it was only fair that I stuck to their definition – “words and pictures” that “explain the step-by-step operation of a cause and effect system in which a change in one part causes a change in another part” (p.108). It’s pretty limiting, but hey, I’m just trying to give the guys a fighting chance.

I thought the best place to find a non-interactive explanatory video of this type would be YouTube. Interestingly, the videos I looked at were generally the kind of things people viewed by choice, not because they were part of a study curriculum (having said that they were all explicitly educational). I was particularly keen to look at Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us (a presentation by Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University). I love the way it uses text in a post-modern way that actually demonstrates the ideas and technology it describes. Unfortunately I think Mike’s decision to not use narration may have been partly a resource issue, so I felt it was a little unfair to assess the piece using Mayer and Moreno’s criteria.

Being a pinko-commie, I also considered using War Corporatism: The New Fascism, a piece written by Brian McNamara (design by Knife Party). It is a superb piece of visual storytelling that makes clever use of animation to bring out subtexts… but at the end of the day it didn’t really fall into the “step-by-step operation of a cause and effect system” definition.

Having said all that, if you haven’t seen either of those two pieces, do yourself a favour and check them out.

In the end I decided to look at The Crisis of Credit Visualised – Part 1, an animation by Jonathan Jarvis to explain the mechanics behind the sub-prime mortgage debacle. It is a seven and a half minute presentation using animation, text, music, sound effects and narration to explain a complex system that many of us are unfamiliar with the workings on – and it strives to do so in a straightforward and accessible way. I thought this was a particularly suitable example specifically because the content is so complex (at least for the economically-challenged like myself) – as a result you can really feel your brain starting to hurt, giving you some introspective insight into the ‘cognitive load’ issue that is driving Mayer and Moreno’s study. To date, this video has been viewed on YouTube almost eight hundred thousand times, by people doing so of their own free will.

Having already gone on for far too long, I will limit my comments to looking at how Jarvis violates two of Mayer and Moreno’s principles, and whether this suggests a flaw in Jarvis’ work, or their model. The principles reviewed will be the redundancy principle (suggesting that text and narration should not co-occur) and the coherence principle (suggesting that extraneous content should be avoided).

To be fair I should say that Jarvis is very much in tune with Mayer and Moreno on the other three principles. He presents key ideas by representing them visually as well as in words (the multiple representation principle), is very careful to synchronise the visual appearance of objects with the narration (the contiguity principle) and uses spoken narration for the majority of the text (the modality principle).

He violates the redundancy principle by using text on screen while narration is also occurring. I do feel that some of the on-screen text that mirrors phrases not specific to this discussion (‘how did it happen’ and ‘here’s how’ around 0:25) are redundant, and hinder rather than help. Most of the time however, Jarvis uses text on screen to identify the key terms and objects he is discussing (such as ‘collateralized debt obligations’, ‘mortgage lender’ and so on). In these instances, simultaneous text and spoken words serve to reinforce key concepts, to facilitate different preferred modalities (as a visual learner, I struggle if I can’t read these key terms), and helps signpost the important concepts in the narration. When used selectively and intentionally, Jarvis demonstrates that redundancy can add value.

He violates the coherence principle by adding in small visual details (at 7:25 ‘less responsible lenders’ are represented by silhouettes featuring tattoos, cigarettes and what looks disturbingly like a mullet) and sound effects (like the completely unnecessary ‘typing’ noise as text appears at 0:21). With such a dry and complex topic, these elements create engagement through emotion and humour – an engagement that is critical in holding the attention of a voluntary audience for over seven minutes. I think it is very interesting to note that the narration does not contain any extraneous material – clearly Jarvis agrees with Mayer and Moreno that putting irrelevant information into his story in this way will make it harder to grasp.

On reflection, it is clear that Mayer and Moreno’s intent is sound, but their scope of study is very limited and their conclusions overly rigid. I would suggest that rather than relying on work like this to interpret how the cognitive load model should inform our resource design, we should actually go and learn a bit about the cognitive load model itself. This gives us the capacity to be more flexible in applying it to resource development, and gives us the ability to apply it to a much wider range of scenarios. As classroom teachers who are operating in multiple modalities during our teaching, these insights will be invaluable.

Of course, once we have a good understanding of cognitive load, why stop there? Cognitive psychology provides valuable insight into much broader areas that may be just as useful in shaping our resource development, such as selective attention, short term memory capacity, visual perception and reasoning.

References

Mayer, R., & Moreno, R. (2002). Aids to computer-based multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction 10, 107-119.

Reed, S. (2009). Cognition: Theory and Application [8th Edn]. Wadsworth Publishing.

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