Cognitive Load vs. Load Time October 9, 2009Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
Tags: Design, Development, eLearning, psychology, Training
This article, by Eric Matas, is the first of a three part series on the Psychology of Elearning. Eric is an Instructional Designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Thanks, Eric!!
Designers love a little cognitive load theory. Any glimpse into the brains of learners sparks a trainer’s curiosity. It makes sense: if you want to influence brains with new knowledge, it helps to know how brains function best while learning.
Cognitive psychology certainly aims to give trainers such a look inside the brain.
Cognitive load theory inspires designers to influence various neural systems so attention is focused and retention is optimal. Influencing different neural systems means developing different events. And using different events in elearning means a multimedia approach. Recently, wired with cognitive load theory, I made the perfect elearning course in Captivate.
It was beautiful.
But I write that with a sigh because it never worked. It blended narration, text and image; it encouraged, nay, required interaction—more meaningful than simply clicking to advance; and it matched learning events to attention spans, appealing to different parts of the brain. Colors were lovely. Fonts were harmonious. And hover-over sidelets opened without causing visual disturbance.
I won’t go on. As you know, it failed. When we tested out of the LMS, we saw some strange effects but wrote them off: surely the great and powerful LMS would handle the files more seamlessly. Yeah, no.
Bottom line, the sheer size of the files was too much to handle. Cognitive psychology ran smack into the hard wall of file size. In the LMS, we heard strange sound reverberation, and load times were unbearable. The lesson? To develop multimedia elearning that succeeds, juggle image, sound and text without creating long load times.
By reducing (and reducing) until the CBT would run, I learned valuable tips for running on fewer kilobytes. Three design tips stand out, curiously titled:
- Necessity is the Gender Nonspecific Parent of Invention
- Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain
- Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition
In this post, I list the three and explain the first with examples. I explore the others in two follow-up posts so I can convey real, tangible tips without one blog taking too much bandwidth.
#1 – Necessity is the Gender Nonspecific Parent of Invention: Do what I did—just go for it. Make it big, as theory and SMEs dictate. Then cut, cut and cut some more. I got creative when reducing. So will you. Letting go of original designs is too hard, so you will make that thing work on a kilobyte budget.
In creative writing courses I’ve taught, we call it sculpting. First, get all the clay you want or the biggest hunk of stone. Then sculpt. Remove, chisel and scrape to the essential statue within. In developing elearning, you sculpt by removing redundant assets, cutting images or narration and combining everything possible.
First, some no-brainers—I include them, however obvious they seem, because I didn’t always know! With software like Captivate, you finish with superfluous background material and images. Just by deleting unused items in your library, file size shrinks significantly. In PowerPoint-driven tools like Articulate, take advantage of the master slide templates to reduce. Find instances of a similar asset appearing on multiple slides, and then consolidate, creating a new template that only uses the image once.
I’ve read many evaluations that express venomous hatred for text on the screen that is also narrated. I read them right after I wrote them. Since narration is probably preferred, remove the redundant text, especially if narration is available in closed captioning or notes. Occasionally, keep some text, using only key words to augment the narration, not mimic it. Sometimes, an image is titled by a text box: ask yourself if that’s necessary, and if not, cut the title box. The best images show viewers what they are. (I have special tips on reducing redundancy in post 2 of this 3 part series.)
Cut Images and Narration
Images devour megabytes. I love images, but they are expensive when bytes are the currency. A quick, democratic decision: reduce all images by ¼ inch. Smaller is smaller. But deleting images will free up megabytes faster. Don’t be afraid to link to a website instead of using a picture of the site—just set the website to open in a new window, keep your elearning open for learners.
Narration can be cut several ways. We originally recorded very personal, casual narration to warm up the elearning. In other words, it was wordy. I found that I could cut unneeded words with Captivate’s editing tool, and it still seemed personal because of the tone. Be careful: the audio can become bizarre when cutting certain words—save the original. I also saved megabytes by cutting silence out of the narration: at the start and end but also within the narration.
Everything from sentences to text boxes can be combined. Long paragraphs are not a learner’s favorite thing to see. You can shorten them by combining sentences. Wait—let me combine those last two sentences: Combine sentences to shorten annoying paragraphs.
I’ve grouped text and photos in PowerPoint and saved as a single asset (.png) to reduce. Even bigger, you can combine slides.
In my beautiful (failure) project, the seven sections each had a title slide with brief narration announcing the section. The next slide was an objectives slide. But the title slide did the announcing with text and had plenty of room for learning objectives, so I cut the narrative announcement and deleted the 2nd slide, moving the objectives to the 1st slide. This fix I liked better than the original (the objectives appeared after a few seconds to give that title its glory).
I hope you return for more tips in parts two and three of this series on winning the battle between cognitive load and load time. The next two posts offer specific tips to reduce file size while still getting what you want in the design. Look for these posts:
#2 – Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain
#3 – Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition