For the LDA debate this month, Ruth Clark talked to Matt Richter and I about aesthetics in learning. Ruth, you should know, is the co-author of eLearning and the Science of Instruction, amongst other books, a must-have which leverages Rich Mayer’s work on multimedia learning. Thus, she’s knowledgeable about what the research says. What emerged in the conversation was a problem about tradeoffs in aesthetics, that’s worth exploring.
So, for one thing, we know that gratuitous media interferes with learning. From John Sweller’s work on cognitive load theory, we know that processing the unnecessary data reduces cognitive resources available to support learning. There’s usually enough load just with the learning materials. Unless the material materially supports learning, it should be avoided.
On the other hand, we also know that we should contextualize learning. The late John Branford’s work with the Cognitive Technology Group while at Vanderbilt, for instance, demonstrated this. As the late David Jonassen also demonstrated with his problem-based learning, we retain and transfer better with concrete problems. Thus, creating a concrete setting for applying the knowledge is of benefit to learning.
What this sets up, of course, is a tradeoff. That is, we want to use aesthetics to help communicate the context, but we want to keep them minimal. How do we do this? Even text (which is a medium), can be extraneous. There really is only one true response. We have to create our first best guess, and then we test. The testing doesn’t have to be to the level of scientific rigor, mind you. Even if it just passes the scrutiny of fellow team members, it can be the right choice, though ideally we run it by learners.
What we have to fight is those who want to tart it up. There will be folks who want more aesthetics. We have to push back against that, particularly if we think it interferes with learning. We need to ensure that what’re producing doesn’t violate what’s known. It’s not always easy, and in situations we may not always win, but we have to be willing to give it a go.
There are tradeoffs in aesthetics, so we have to know what matters. Ultimately, it’s about the learning outcomes. Thus, focusing on the minimum contextualization, and the maximum learning, is likely to get us to a good first draft. Then, let’s see if we can’t check. Right?