Posted by: Ellie Kutz | December 16, 2011

Thinking about Multimedia

One starting point for an inquiry into the possible advantages of using multimedia to support engagement and learning was to reflect on my own experience as a learner and as a teacher.
I put myself in the role of a learner recently, when I attended a talk at Tufts by former president, Bill Clinton. In the talk, Clinton  reviewed a number of activities he’s been involved with around the world—AIDS action in Africa, efforts to create effective infrastructure in Haiti. He’s an effective and knowledgeable speaker, and I enjoyed listening to him. But as I listened, I kept wanting some visuals that would help me better remember what I was hearing and imagine the settings where the work was taking place. And as I looked around the vast auditorium to observe students, I realized that they were less engaged than I was. Many were looking down at their cell phones or looking around for their friends. Many left the minute the formal speech ended and before the Q&A session began. Although large numbers of students had turned out for this “event,” it seemed to be just one more (and a non-required) lecture for them. Would the multimedia that would have supported my own learning from this talk also have engaged them? Perhaps not, but in an era where most of their non-school learning involves such media, such an addition might have made a difference. The William J. Clinton Foundation website does include multimedia examples that help to illustrate the very points Clinton was making and includes an interactive map showing the areas around the world reached by different aspects of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, such as the effort to combat Malaria.
Indeed I found that many visuals that would have effectively illustrated Clinton’s talk could have been taken directly from the website. With such visual “hooks,” I think that I (and perhaps the students) would have been more engaged and retained much more of what I heard.
(I also want to note that another way of engaging participants in such settings has been to encourage the use of social media–to suggest a hashtag to be used on Twitter, for example. But no one invited students to use social media as a way of reacting to what they heard and when I searched Twitter with #billclinton the next morning to see whether anyone had used that hashtag to comment on the speech, I found only one post about the event, from a Tufts graduate student. Look for an upcoming newsletter issue on social media.)
In my own teaching, I’ve been working to integrate more media since I began posting materials online, on an English department website, about eight years ago. For my course on Language and Literature, where we explore how various authors work with language to create worlds, I post audio selections for portions of texts that students might choose to analyze, offering them the chance to listen first, to enter those worlds through the voice of a character or narrator before turning to the words on the page. At the same time they record the natural conversational exchanges of friends and family, posting those exchanges to our class site, analyzing how they work and considering how such features as tone can be carried over to the printed word.
For online courses I create narrated lectures with lots of visuals to illustrate key concepts, such as, in pragmatics,  the frequent gap between a speaker’s intention and a listener’s understanding of that intention in a speech act.
One lesson I’ve learned, I think, is that while having some multimedia objects present on an online site can help to reinforce students’ learning, having students create those objects themselves contributes even more, whether it’s selecting a salient portion of a recorded conversation to post or working in a small group to create a topic page for a week’s discussion, one that includes relevant cartoons, videos, etc. But my uses of multimedia in my own teaching have been invented, borrowed, and somewhat uninformed.  So my next step was to make a quick foray into the research on multimedia and learning.
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