12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 4: Combine Words And Visuals.

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools are closing (Mirjam’s children have been home since Friday and will stay home for at least 2 weeks) and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the book ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

wijze lessenIn the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]


This is the fourth one. Stay tuned for more! We (Mirjam and Paul), together with ExCEL’s – the Expertise Centre for Effective Learning (of which Paul A. Kirschner is guest professor) Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen (researchers at ExCEL and also authors of the book), and Tine Hoof (also a researcher of ExCEL), we’re working hard to translate the next 9 building blocks, and how learning technology can strengthen them, ito English.

Building block 4 underlines the importance of combining words and images (dual coding theory – Allan Paivio), which is especially relevant when it comes to learning technology and creating educational content (like content developed using H5P or open-source communities like Xerte or online videos).

The Lessons for Learning authors explain, “Information that is offered through both words and visuals is more easily and better stored as compared to information that is offered through only words or visuals. This principle is based on the fact that verbal and visual information are processed separately yet simultaneously by two independent channels in working memory before being integrated into long-term memory. Combining word and images makes learning less burdensome and more effective.”

In this respect, Tim Surma et al. refer to Richard Mayer’s multimedia principle, describing the principle as “rules of the game that make sure working memory isn’t overloaded.” The message is: Combining words and visuals, instead of using only words or pictures in isolation, enhances learning.

This website explains the multimedia principles, which also apply to one of the most widely used (and probably also misused) technological tools: PowerPoint presentations.

While combining words and images is important, the authors also advise being careful not to exaggerate with images, sounds, and animated movies. They can be distracting and overload working memory. This is specifically true for overwhelming virtual and augmented reality environments, which the authors call ‘promising’ provided that the dual coding theory and multimedia principles are taken into account. I [Wilfred Rubens] wrote a blog in Dutch about whether VR and AR require separate design principles.

In short, the authors emphasise the link between online and blended learning and most importantly the important requirements that educational content should meet in order to be effective.

I [Wilfred Rubens] do argue that it’s not always easy find the most appropriate images to go with words. Especially in the case of novels, when the words are meant to appeal to the imagination.

[We would like to add a word of warning by sending you to Paul and Mirjam’s blog about ten common but dubious reasons to use multimedia learning.]

[1] Note: These blogs don’t take criteria/requirements for selection of learning technologies into consideration (including costs). It’s always wise to first consider which learning technologies your organisation already has and which are also supported. The different tools or functionalities all have strengths and weaknesses. In general, you always need to explore the properties and make a conscious choice. In any case, always take the General Data Protection Regulation into account.

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