What closed captioning teaches us about the modality principle

This is the seventh post in a series on learning design principles for digital learning.

In previous posts we covered:

  1. The Coherence Principle
  2. The Redundancy Principle
  3. The Segmenting Principle
  4. The Contiguity Principle
  5. The Signaling Principle
  6. The Pretraining Principle

Open captioning and closed captioning have been around since the early 1970’s. The difference between the two is that open captions are visible to all viewers all the time, while closed captions have to be activated by the viewer. In the Canada and the US, the term ‘caption’ denote on-screen text for the deaf and hard of hearing, which aims to describe all significant audio content. This is in contrast to ‘subtitles’ which assume the viewer can hear but cannot understand the language or accent, or the speech is not entirely clear, so they transcribe only dialogue.

 Exciting jazz music indeed Exciting jazz music indeed

For the purposes of this experiment, let’s consider captions, and assume you have no difficulty hearing.

Have you ever tried to watch a movie with captioning on, and the audio turned off?

It becomes mentally very challenging to follow the story. Your eyes are taking in the action from the moving pictures, as well as the description of the audio. This is a classic case of extraneous processing. You would never do this, unless you had difficulty hearing, and therefore no other choice.

This is what trying to follow an e-learning with only text instruction is like. In a learning context, this kind of overload of the visual channel inhibits the learner’s goal of acquiring information.

A solution to this challenge is provided by the Modality principle. Essentially the modality principle says that a learning designer should “present words as speech rather than on-screen text (Clark & Mayer, 2011).”

A few important caveats to the research on this topic are that the effects of this principle are strongest when:

  1. the material is complex for the learner (Tindall-Ford, Chandler, & Sweller, 1997), and
  2. the pace is fast and not under learner control (Tabbers, Martens, & van Merrienboer, 2004).

Once again, it is clear that prior knowledge is a critical input when designing learning experiences. It is also important to take a blended approach to digital learning, and as such, offer learners the ability to retrieve information from printed text resources in addition to videos with narration.

In much the same way as closed captioning was introduced to assist the hearing impaired, so can a blend of modalities be used to cater to the varying styles of learners.

The Forgetting Curve

I came across this excellent infographic from eLearning Industry (which has tons of great, free resources by the way) that I wanted to share.

What I like about this is that it summarizes Ebbinghaus’s 1885 research perfectly in a really engaging way. And this research is still the reason today that we make use of spaced repetition in designing learning.

The takeaway here is that for any learning experience to be effective, it should have intentional repetition designed into it so that learners are constantly reviewing important material to reinforce the principles learned.

Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

Elon Musk, first principle thinking, and how we can design better training

This is the sixth post in a series on learning design principles for digital learning.

In previous posts we covered:

  1. The Coherence Principle
  2. The Redundancy Principle
  3. The Segmenting Principle
  4. The Contiguity Principle
  5. The Signaling Principle

When Elon Musk disrupted the automotive industry by starting the world’s first exclusively electric car company, he was widely criticized on the basis that batteries were too expensive to make the cars affordable.

In a great interview with Kevin Rose, Musk explains how. He says that while observers would say, “It’s going to cost $600 / kilowatt-hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future,” he thought about it by asking fundamental questions.

 Image Source: Motley Fool via Tesla Image Source: Motley Fool via Tesla

“What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? It has carbon, nickel, aluminum, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. Break that down on a materials basis, if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost?

Oh jeez, it’s $80 / kilowatt-hour. Clearly, you need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

By breaking the challenge down into its first principles, Musk was able to rethink the way electric cars were powered, and now every major car manufacturer in the world has an electric car division to keep up with the future that Musk has helped shape.

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”

— Elon Musk

As a learning designer, it is important to apply first principles thinking in your work.

By distilling a topic down into its fundamental definitions, characteristics, and concepts, you can manage the essential processing of a learner by covering these up front. That way, learners can instead focus on the causal connections between concepts in the rest of the lesson or course. This is a principle known as Pretraining. 

Studies have proven that for complex subject matter, and especially when learners do not have much prior experience of the topic, those that received pretraining in the form of definitions and concepts covered upfront had higher knowledge retention than those that did not (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011).

Aristotle was on to this over 2300 years ago when he said that a first principle is the “first basis from which a thing is known” and that pursuing first principles is the key to doing any sort of further inquiry.

Next time you’re designing a learning strategy, spend some time to think about what the first principles are that will help your learners build a deeper understanding.

What the 1994 FIFA World Cup taught us about learning design

This is the fifth post in a series on learning design principles for digital learning.

In previous posts we covered:

  1. The Coherence Principle
  2. The Redundancy Principle
  3. The Segmenting Principle
  4. The Contiguity Principle

 Image Source: Fox Broadcasting Company Image Source: Fox Broadcasting Company

Can you imagine watching sports without the constant on-screen graphic giving you the score?

Would you believe this wasn’t the norm until 1994?

Prior to 1994, sports fans who joined a game late had to pay attention for however long it took for the announcer to say the score.

But then an Australian named David Hill who was running Sky Sports in the UK began pioneering a permanent score graphic for English Premier League matches. It was not very popular when it was first received.

 Image Source: ESPN Inc. Image Source: ESPN Inc.

It didn’t take off in the United States, or globally for that matter, until ABC and ESPN’s coverage of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, held in the US. Even then, it wasn’t introduced to appease fans. In fact, fans resisted at first. According to the New York Times, the reason it was introduced in the US was to satisfy the demands of sponsors. You see soccer has a running clock and no stoppages in which to show commercials, unlike most American sports. So the broadcasters decided to create a graphic showing the score as well as the logo of a sponsor at all times.

Fox followed suit later that year (spearheaded largely by David Hill who had since become president at Fox Sports) with what eventually became known as the Fox box. And now, no sports fan in the world could imagine watching without it.

 Image Source: Fox Broadcasting Company Image Source: Fox Broadcasting Company

In the world of learning design, what is being applied here is the principle of Signaling. 

Numerous studies have shown that humans learn more deeply when visual and/or verbal cues are added to highlight the organization of the essential information.

This could be in the form of keywords appearing on-screen to highlight important definitions, or to mark chapters that are designing according to the segmenting principle. It could be to reinforce important points or to show a complex explanation using a diagram.

Visual cues such as these should be used sparingly and only to call attention to essential information. But if you design digital learning experiences without them, you risk your learners muddling through the training without knowing what the score is.