eLearning Technology Blog

Putting Lectures Online: Do We Know What We’re Doing?

by WSU Online 19. April 2012 09:45

“WSU Online’s Media Team is processing about 100 new narrated PowerPoint presentations a semester,” said Media Director Brian Maki at a recent instructional designers’ meeting. 

“One hundred new narrated PowerPoint presentations a semester!” we eLearning Consultants all exclaimed.  “That’s a lot!”

Given the go-getter attitude of my team, the next comment to circle the table was, “What can we do to make sure these narrated PowerPoint videos are effective at supporting student learning?”  (Not that most of us hadn’t been asking ourselves that and several related questions already.)  

First, let me explain what we mean by “narrated PowerPoint videos.”   With Microsoft Office 2003, the PowerPoint presentation tool boasted a new capability.    Audio could be recorded to accompany the slides in a presentation.  Sitting at a computer equipped with a microphone and a sound card, a presenter could open her PowerPoint file, activate the “record” command, and then talk her way through her lecture, forwarding slides as she proceeded.  The saved file married the audio narration with the slides in sequence.

When an instructor gives us narrated PowerPoint file, WSU Online’s media team re-processes it into a kind of steaming video.  We do this to ensure that even those students without Microsoft PowerPoint on their computer can listen to the lecture while viewing the slides.  Our processing method also allows students to scroll forward and backward, as in an audio recording, or to skip to a specific point in the lecture by clicking on the slide title, which appears in a list to the left of the slide image itself.    Students can easily return to and study sections of the lecture they found obscure or especially interesting. 

The audio feature has proved accessible and user-friendly and has been widely adopted, as our media team attests.  Certainly adding audio narration to PowerPoint slides has enhanced the versatility of the Microsoft presentation tool and has made it possible, and perhaps logical, to move lectures online.  

But now that we realize how heavily online instructors are relying on narrated PowerPoint videos in their online courses, we instructional designers have pledged to become even better versed in the way PowerPoints slides can contribute to student learning. 

Accordingly, I have been reading cognitive science research into the way our brains and our minds take in and process information.

So far, I have been reading publications by two leading scholars in the field of information processing and design.  One is Stephen M. Kosslyn, chairman of Harvard’s Psychology Department and a leading authority on the nature of visual imagery.  He has written a general-audience book specifically on the topic, Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). This book arose from two sources, he says.  The first was his previous publication, Graph Design for the Eye and Mind (New York: Oxford, 2006), in which he offered recommendations about “how to present information effectively in graphs [based on the] same principles that govern how our visual systems and minds make sense of the world.” (Preface. p. v.)  A second source for Clear and to the Point was his own impatience with innumerable PowerPoint-supported lecture slides that violate what research has demonstrated about how humans process visual information. 

Kosslyn’s two publications address, extend and revise earlier work by Edward R. Tufte.  Tufte’s three seminal publications, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, earned him the titles “the father of information design” and “the Leonardo da Vinci of data.”

My subsequent blog posts will be focusing on their and others’ research findings about information processing and its application to the ubiquitous PowerPoint technology.  The hope is that, as we eLearning Consultants work with instructors who are moving their lectures online, we can offer them research-based information about designing PowerPoint lectures that positively support student learning.

Charmaine Wellington

The Medium and the Message: Lessons from Teaching via Videoconference

by WSU Online 5. April 2012 10:34

Teaching via television really woke me up to the impact of the medium on my instructional message. 

My first job at WSU was as a faculty consultant (among other things) with the videoconference system, then known as WHETS.   Colleague Don Dover and I helped instructors make the transition from face-to-face to videoconference distance delivery of their classes.  Since their distance students’ classroom experience was actually mediated by the television screen, we asked the instructors to, well, think like television news anchors--to channel their inner Walter Chronkite, so to speak. 

Some of our “tips” might have seemed rather trivial to the instructors we worked with.  We warned them, for instance, to avoid pinstriped patterns that create a moire effect on the television screen.  We cautioned against chunky necklaces that would clunk against the lapel microphone.  Other tips were more significant though: don’t return graded papers to your local students without also having sent them to the distance sites to distribute at the same time.  Otherwise, your distance students will be resentful—and justly so.

Because the TV camera mediated the images the students received, Donald and I also offered advice about designing PowerPoint slides for television delivery.  We talked about font choices and font sizes.  We talked about formatting.  And we talked color choices, a design element definitely affected by television delivery.  Did you know that, until recently, TV cameras and TV screens couldn’t effectively reproduce bright reds?

So should the technical limitations of television influence an instructor’s color choices on a PowerPoint slide?  Yes!  Let me demonstrate (using a computer screen, obviously):

Need I say more? 

If your computer screen is at all like mine (and if your eyes and brain work at all like mine), the blue seems to bleed into the red, or the red jumps around against the blue.  However you might describe the visual effect of red text against blue, you probably would agree with Donald and me when we warned against using red text for emphasis when the PowerPoint slide used a blue background.  While using red text for emphasis when using a blue background might make sense if you plan to distribute printouts, clearly it’s not going to work if your delivery medium is the TV or computer screen. 

Red and blue PowerPoint slides, wardrobe choices and delivery of documents aside, working with the television medium offered me a significant experience of a fundamental fact of teaching: videoconference and other mediating technologies filter the messages instructors send and thus affect the message their students receive.  If instructors want their students to appreciate their skill as instructors, they wisely adapt their delivery methods to the particular medium of instruction.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more information and thoughts about the research on visual communication within the online classroom.  Please visit this blog again. 

Charmaine Wellington

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