By Aaron J. Dewald for the Center for Innovation in Legal Education Blog.
A year or so ago, a discussion on Teknoids had started about what defines a video. It was inferred that something needed to move to constitute a video. Do narrated slide shows from Keynote, PowerPoint, etcetera constitute videos?
Legal education is going through some interesting changes at the moment. Much of it is related to distance education: online, blended, etc. Those who are starting to dabble in it are exploring a whole host of options for delivering this type of education: talking head, narrated presentations, hand drawing on white board, etc. Coming from a learning science background, I’ve read an array of research out there that talks about this very thing. They all ask the question: What kinds of digital materials should we be using? What is the impact of a “video” on learning and comprehension? Can including animation (things that move) improve learning outcomes by students?
Let’s set an operational definition of the of the word “video.” In the learning science literature, you typically see references to multimedia, visualization, or visual representation instead of the word video. For purposes of this blog post, I’ll refer to it as a visualization. Further, visualizations can be static or dynamic. This allows us to refer to the content, and not the vehicle that contains the data. I mean, technically, anything in a .mov or .mp4 format is a video…. because it’s a video format, right?
Looking to the Theory
Let’s start off with a definition of the word “visualization.” As I’m sure you can imagine, a visualization for these purposes is something someone could see – something visible. In the literature, visualizations are often separated into two different types: static and dynamic. A static visualization is one that does not have a temporal component. Nothing changes over time… it’s just… there. Like a photo or a drawing. A dynamic visualization is one that does include a temporal aspect. This is a key distinguisher when it comes to making decisions about the type of visualization you’d use in your class.
Let’s chat for a brief moment about static and dynamic visualizations. The materials that are used in instructional environments need to be carefully chosen to accomplish certain learning goals. The proper materials at the proper times can build learners up to the relevant level of knowledge they need. In the literature, this is called scaffolding. Now, with the nature of the Internet, there are so. many. materials. to. choose. from. The problem is, is that you really need to think long and hard about what you pick to use in your class, presentation, or other environment where learning occurs. The appropriateness and effectiveness of static or dynamic visualizations depends a lot on what it is you’re teaching and who you’re teaching it to? Novices demand simplicity and concreteness (Goldstone & Son, 2005). Experts do better with theoretical constructs. Novices can get hung up on seductive details that are irrelevant to what is learned (Clark & Mayer, 2011). Experts do a better job identifying what is important and focusing on that.
When I first started my PhD program, I thought that dynamic was always a better choice. I mean, TV is dynamic. YouTube has tons and tons of dynamic content. This idea that dynamic is always a better choice almost seems supported by the literature. Hoffler and Leutner (2007) did a meta-analysis of studies that directly compared static and dynamic visualizations. As an aside, a meta-analysis is one where you don’t necessarily conduct your own experiment – rather you aggregate many experiments and analyze those pieces as a whole. They examined 71 studies that directly compared static and dynamic visualizations. They reported a significant effect of dynamic over static. Specifically, they found this effect when the visualization contained procedural information. Sweet… so blog over, use dynamic… right?
Not quite. Other research done wasn’t so certain about this. Specifically, Tversky, Morrison, and Betrancourt (2002) suggested that dynamic visualizations aren’t all that Hoffler and Leutner cracked them up to be. They suggested that dynamic visualizations are only useful when the concept being portrayed has a necessary and natural temporal aspect. Basically, if the movement is necessary to depicting the “thing” being learned, then it should move. When Hoffler and Leutner did their meta-analysis, they examined an awful lot of studies that examined the effect of dynamic visualizations in teaching learners procedural information: tying knots, assembling machine guns, physics, hand-bandaging, circulatory system, dribbling a soccer ball, etc.
Tversky et al. offer two principles that can help decide whether or not dynamic visualizations should be used, the Congruence Principle and the Apprehension Principle. The congruence principle is rather simple. Essentially the visualization should match up to what it’s representing. This is specifically aimed at those that try to be clever and teach something in a way that’s completely unrelated. The apprehension principle is equally understandable: keep it simple.
Additionally, they think that learning from dynamic visualizations can actually be bad for some learners. Sometimes, the animations are too complex, contain irrelevant movements, or are too quick for students to learn from. Basically, they aren’t always designed very well. These inappropriate designs can impact the cognitive processes the learners use. For example, information in a dynamic visualization is transitory. Things move on screen, things move off screen. Pictures and other images are here, then gone. Narration is spoken… then never heard again. This transitory information makes it difficult for some learners to attend to. Further, asking the learners to integrate all of this with other transitory information as well as the information they already know (prior knowledge) might result in an excessive cognitive burden and divides their attention over the length of the visualization.
Let’s extend this a step further. Sometimes, designers or teachers will create learning materials that are dynamic for no other reason than, “because they can.” Prezi is a good example of this. Done right, Prezi works well for weaving a non-linear story. Most of the time, it’s good for making people sick and fragmenting their train of thought. Theoretically, this was studied by Lowe (1999). Lowe tested learners’ ability to learn from complex weather animations. They were asked to study from an animated weather map that taught certain atmospheric conditions. Their post-test examined their ability to recreate the phenomena they saw in the study materials. It was found that the learners focused on the wrong things. They spent more time looking at the perceptually obvious details as opposed to the perceptually relevant ones. The flashy things distracted the learners from learning. Do you want your viewers to focus on how cool the movements are or the information in your presentation?
The learners in Lowe’s case all had one thing in common. They were novices. These were learners with a limited base of knowledge in the domain. This brings up a valid point. When you choose materials to use in class, be sure you understand the prior knowledge of your learners. Many 1L’s come to law school with a very, very limited prior knowledge in any legal domain. Because of this, we should be using simple graphics and images. We should be using relevant animations (also simple) if necessary. Just because it looks simple, doesn’t mean it’s “childish” or “non-professional.” Remember, research has been done on this, so if someone calls you out, point to the literature! :)
What have we learned so far?
- Learners don’t always learn best from movement. Static might be just fine, so long as there isn’t relevant temporal information involved in the topic.
- Dynamic visualizations can be detrimental to some learners, especially if the visualization moves too fast or asks the learner to integrate too much. Comprehension is a process that takes time.
- Know your learner. Novices might struggle a little more with dynamic visualizations than more expert students.
Implications for learners and suggestions for legal education
What does this mean for our students? In today’s learning environment pushing blended learning, this should be a key consideration.
Many faculty and instructional designers want to get really fancy with their blended learning materials. They realize that forty minutes of a faculty member lecturing to the camera isn’t such a good way to teach online. In reaction, some will go all out, finding ways to use Flash or After Effects to create elaborate animations or cartoons. Some might feel “inadequate” that all they’re doing is narrating PowerPoint. What we’ve just explored should bring your concerns to rest. There are some anecdotal reports that they don’t need to be flashy. They can be casual. They can be simple. They don’t need to entertain. As long as you keep the principles we talked about in mind, you’ll do fine!
To wrap it up, law isn’t necessarily filled with lessons where time is a necessary and natural component of the topic. Much of law is interpretation and application on a foundation of relevant facts, rules, statutes, and more. Nothing in there necessarily lends itself to being displayed dynamically. This works out in favor of law schools that are seeing budgets slashed and technology departments shrink. There’s no need to have elaborate equipment or software to create visualizations that are used in class, online, or other places. It does suggest the need for individuals that understand multimedia literature, to some extent, but I feel law schools will need instructional design or educational psychology help in the near future… so be one of the first and hire an instructional designer.