Prezi arrived on the scene about two (maybe three?) years ago. Since its introduction, conference attendees’ snoozing during a succession of PowerPoints has been interupted by a sense of sea-sickness induced by well-meaning presenters and their carefully crafted Prezis. All Prezis I have seen are like a PowerPoint presentation riding along a rollercoaster. They are linear in format, usually contain bullet-points (a major faux-pas in the eyes of Prezi-purists) and have a start, middle and end. They offer no additional advantage to PowerPoint. I don’t really like admitting this to the learning community, but I don’t really like Prezi.

Exhibit A:

Take the Prezi below. This was my one live presentation I gave at a chemistry education conference, I think in 2009. What attracted me to Prezi was the fact that you could show the audience the overall presentation in one go, and as you go along highlight the sections of the talk you go through as you progress. (This Prezi, for extra nerdiness, was shaped as a reaction profile diagram, which no-one in the audience noticed. For shame, physical chemists, for shame). It had pictures and videos embedded. It took me an age to do and I was very proud of it

I wonder however, in the effort to help peple get a grasp on the overall presentation, whether I lost them in the detail of the talk with a constantly swishing screen. Even now I can see faces in the audience following the presentation as it rolled around, probably trying to wonder where to focus next, as I wished helplessly for the presentation to stop being so gut-churningly jolly. There is something elegant and simple about a well designed PowerPoint slide.

Exhibit B:

Well I don’t like to pick on other people, but if you’ve made a Prezi, can you take a step back and ask yourself, what added value does it have over PowerPoint? There is an add-in for PowerPoint that allows slides to be grouped together. PowerPoint animation is becoming really quite impressive. PowerPoint doesn’t leave you fretting about whether the computer you’re giving the presentation on will have Flash Player. PowerPoint doesn’t make your audience seasick.

Exhibit C

We all recognise there is something terrible about most PowerPoint presentations. But people interested in technology have a terrible habit of ambulance chasing the latest gig (see Exhibit A) rather than taking something that’s quite good and working on it to improve it. For PowerPoint, I think disabling the bullet point, having a maximum word count per slide and creating purposeful handouts for after presentation digestion are three ways to improve.

Exhibit D

Someone very cleverly suggested to me today that Prezi could be a very useful mind-mapping software. I think that has potential. But it’s not a presentation!

I want to be wrong about Prezi. I really do. It looks and feels cool. But I just don’t see it as a good alternative for presentations. Am I wrong?!!

Articulate: Timed response for game/simulation

I’m interested in creating an interactive simulation around a titration, whereby a student, watching a video of a titration, has to click a button when they see a colour change. I think this should be fairly easy to do in Articulate – I’ve made a Screenr of how I intend to do it (buttons etc are rough and ready for this demo). I’d suggest watching it in full screen/HD:

Teaching Fellowship Launch Presentation

The DIT 2010-2011 Teaching Fellowships were launched on 23rd September 2010, and each recipient of a Fellowship gave a presentation on the work they plan to do. It was really nice to see what others plan to do; there was a lot of variety and a lot of overlap at the same time. My presentation – the main thrust of which was summarised in another post – is embedded below. All of the presentations can be viewed from the LTTC website.

The video is streamed from the HEAnet server using the Embedded Video plugin (for the information of any WordPress junkies out there).

Alternative gathering of Fellowship (image credit):

Cognitive considerations… in practice

I posted a summary last time of what best practice from cognitive science research preached about designing online resources. Putting it into practice threw up some interesting considerations. I’ve summarised these below in light of developing my first pre-lecture resource, as well as reflections stimulated by conversations about it with my colleague Claire.

The first pre-resource is for my first lecture in introductory chemistry which is based around the structure of the atom, the main components (protons, electrons and neutrons) as derived from the Rutherford model, the notion of elements and then progresses onto a discussion of isotopes, introducing the technique of mass spectrometry.  There are a lot of new terms – I counted 17 in the lecture notes* – and I derived four learning outcomes for the lecture. Both of these exclude the case studies used in the lecture, which also incorporates a demonstration.

1. The purpose of the pre-resource:

The first step was to define the main goal of the lecture, based on Norman Reid’s advice to me on this. I decided that while it didn’t encompass everything I did in the lecture, the main goal was “to describe the structure of the atom and how this leads to the definition of an element”. This would arise out of a discussion of the Rutherford experiment.  I decided to concentrate the pre-lecture resource on this goal, which threw up my first concern that the content would be very dry. I was torn between wanting to “advertise” the themes in the first lecture and rigidly focussing on the ultimate aim of the pre-resource – to introduce the viewer to some of the terminology. The resulting resource tended very much towards the latter. I suppose this makes sense, as it means the lecture can concentrate on the more interesting aspects such as applications, contexts and so on, but it was hard not to include some of this. I had to keep reminding myself that the resource was not a summary of the lecture, more a preparation for it.

2. Design

I made a simple tabbed design which uses tabs to outline the main structure – so that everything is visible at once. There are some flaws with this – for example a student who just clicks on tabs will miss two pages, although a left hand menu will highlight this.

3. Presentation of text

Keeping in mind the modality ideas discussed in the principles post, most of the text presented in the resource is spoken, with key phrases, aims and terminology given in written form. Having scripted the resource, I added the text to the notes, which can be viewed in the presentation. The first version was a bit robotic, so after reviewing other aspects, I re-recorded the audio to try to make it a bit more casual.

4. Effect on my consideration of how to deliver

Despite having taught this content for several years, being forced to choose a small amount of content meant that I really had to think again about how I introduce this topic. For example, in considering terminology, I had a dilemma about how to phrase the wording about electrons. The Rutherford model is an over-simplification, albeit a useful one, and I like to get the message across early on about its limitations, but discussing with Claire, decided to stick to the particle notion for the pre-resource, and gradually introduce the cloud model of electrons a little later through the lectures themselves. Other changes after initial review included including a definition of the atom to begin with as well as a rationale – why what was being presented was important. I have to say the exercise of distilling down to this core level has really made me think about how this content – the very basics of chemistry – can be effectively presented. One failing that I have not yet overcome is a way to integrate the content into the prior knowledge of students, although the definitions used would relate to what students who had studied chemistry before would be used to, and the lecture is based around one of the most identifiable symbols of science – the structure of the atom (which is how I start the lecture).

I also decided that some active work could be encouraged, so ask students to do some study of their own on the Rutherford experiment before the lecture – this will tie in with changes in the lecture itself on encouraging discussion, which will be discussed elsewhere in a post on scientific literacy.

5. Quiz

At the end of the resource, I had a short quiz. There isn’t much scope with this material at this stage to introduce fading, etc, so it is fairly cut-and-dry. Because I was initially going to tie this in with assessment, I did not include any feedback or right answers. The result was that it was a bit abrupt. Claire also felt the questions were tough, which they were on looking at them again, and suggested an easy starter. Therefore I decided not to include a mark for the assessment – merely to log the fact the students do them (via SCORM), and push the assessment elements to other aspects of in-class work. This freed me up to give feedback for each question (answer specific), and allow students to review the quiz and/or print off the sheet. I think this makes for a more useful learning object.

For comparative purposes, the resource before and after analysis are linked here. the next stage will be to implement them – roll on next week!

*New terms include atom, electron, proton, neutron, nucleus, alpha-particles, radioactivity, element, atomic number, mass number, isotopes, deuterium, tritium, density, atomic mass unit, mass spectroscopy, ionised.

Cognitive Considerations in Designing E-Resources

This post aims to consider cognitive load theory and what considerations should be drawn from it in the design of electronic instructional materials. Sweller (2008) discusses several strategies for harnessing the principles of CLT in e-learning design. Several of these strategies are described by Clark and Mayer (2008), so overlap between both are discussed in tandem below. Mayer’s multimedia learning model (Mayer 2005) is used here as the underlying framework for the principles discussed. Before these are discussed, there is a brief explanation of what CLT is, along with the processes involved in learning new information.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive load theory (CLT) is model for instructional design based on knowledge of how we acquire, process and retain new information. It proposes that a successful use of the model will result in more effectual learning, and the retaining of information in the long term memory, which can be recalled when required in a given context. The theory distinguishes three types of cognitive load (Sweller 2008, Ayres and Paas, 2009):

  1. Intrinsic load is caused by the complexity of the material. This depends on the level of expertise of the learner – in other words it depends on the learner’s understanding of the subject.
  2. Extraneous load depends on the quality or nature of the instructional materials. Poor materials or those that require a large amount of working memory to process will increase the load and leave little capacity for learning.
  3. Germane load is the mental effort required for learning. Because of the limited capacity of the working memory, germane load (the extent of learning) is dependent on the extent of the extraneous load, and also on the material and expertise of the learner – the intrinsic load. An expert on a topic is able to draw from prior knowledge, and release working memory capacity for germane load processing.

The mechanism of information processing was summarised succinctly by Mayer for the purposes of multimedia learning. This is similar in many respects to the information processing model familiar to many chemists through the work of Alex Johnstone (Johnstone, Sleet and Vianna 1994, Johnstone 1997). Mayer’s model is shown in the figure below (Clarke and Mayer 2008).

Cognitive Theory and Multimedia Learning (from Clarke and Mayer, 2008 and Mayer, 2005)

Information is presented to users in the form of words and pictures (there are other channels too, but these are the most pertinent to e-learning). The user senses these (what Johnstone refers to as a perception filter) and some of this is processed in the working memory, which can hold and process just some information at any time (this can be quantified using the M-capacity test). If this material can be related to existing prior knowledge, it is integrated with it, and effective learning occurs – the new experiences/information are stored in the long-term memory.

Considerations for Presentation of Information

1. Split-Attention

Learning materials that provide two sources of mutually dependent information (e.g. audio and visual) will require the learner to process both channels and integrate them, requiring working memory. Design of the materials should therefore ensure that as, for example, a reference to the diagram is being verbalised, the associated diagram reference is clear for the viewer to see. The alternative is that learners require working memory to process the diagram to find the reference being verbalised. Clark and Mayer call this the contiguity principle, and provide two strategies for considering it in practice, namely to place printed words near the corresponding graphics (including, for example, feedback on the same screen as the question and integration of text legends) and to synchronize spoken words with the corresponding graphics.

2. Modality

Because the working memory has “channels”, the most significant being  the visual/pictorial and auditory/verbal information channels, consideration of the nature or mode of information can be beneficial. In the split-attention effect, above, it was argued that they different modes must be integrated effectively to ensure that working memory was not overloaded. This can be teased out a little further. If learning material contains a diagram and explanation, (mutually dependent), the explanation can be in text or audio form. Presenting the explanation in text form means that learners’ visual/pictorial channel will be overloaded more quickly, as they must process the diagram and read the text. If the text is presented as audio, both channels are being used effectively. Clark and Mayer also discuss the modality principle, advising that words should be presented as audio and not on screen. However, they limit it to situations where there are mutually dependent visual/auditory information being presented (see below). Additionally, they argue that there are occasions where text is necessary – for example a mathematical formula or directions for an exercise, that learners may need to reread and process.

3. Redundancy

The split-attention and modality effects considered mutually dependent information. If there is multiple representations of the same material, each self-sufficient, or if there is material of no direct use to  learning, it can be considered redundant. The time required to attend to unnecessary information or process multiple versions of the same information means that the working memory capacity is reduced. Clark and Mayer also discuss the redundancy effect, especially recommending that on-screen text is not used in conjunction with narration, except in situations where there are no diagrams, or the learner has enough time to process pictures and text, or the learner may have difficulty processing the speech.

Consideration for Design of Interactions

1. Worked Examples

Worked examples have been shown to reduce cognitive load. The reason is that students who were exposed to worked examples and who then were required to solve problems did not need to spend extraneous load on the process of solving the examples, and could concentrate on the problem itself instead. Clark and Mayer agree, and discuss five strategies for incorporating worked examples into e-learning instruction, including fading, below. (Crippen and Brooks (2009) have previously discussed the case for worked examples in chemistry.)

2. Expertise-Reversal

While the case for worked examples is strong, the situation becomes problematic when learners who are already expert engage with the material. In this scenario, their learning may be at best the same as solving problems without worked examples and at worst hampered by the presence of worked examples. The nature of delivery of material (considered for example in the split-attention and modality sections) can also differ for experts, as some material may become redundant. A potential solution offered by Sweller is to present learners with a partially completed problem and asked to indicate the next step required. The response was then used to direct the further instruction pathways.

3. Fading

Fading is related to worked examples, and involves a progressive reduction in the information presented in worked examples, so that learners are initially provided with many details on how to process a worked example, with the amount of guidance (scaffolding) reduced as more examples are provided. Clark and Mayer discuss this in some detail, and highlight it as a potential remedy for the expertise-reversal effect. For a three step problem, they propose that in the first worked example, all three steps are shown, and in each subsequent example, one step is left to the learner until they are required to complete an entire problem. They do acknowledge though that there is not yet sufficient evidence for how fast fading should proceed. Clarke and Mayer state that some students may not engage with the worked out components of a faded example, and propose that a worked out step of a faded example could be coupled with  request requiring learners to state a reason/principle why a particular step was used. This is aimed to ensure learners are interacting with material that may otherwise be passive.

Having considered these principles, the next task is to implement them into a design framework. This will be discussed in a subsequent post.


Ayres, P. and Paas, F. (2009) Interdisciplinary perspectives inspiring a new generation of cognitive load research, Educational Psychology Review, 21, 1-9.

Clarke, R. C. and Mayer, R. E. (2008) E-Learning and the science of instruction, Pfeiffer (Wiley): San Francisco, 2nd Ed.

Crippen, K. C. and Brooks, D. W. (2009) Applying cognitive theory to chemistry instruction: the case for worked examples, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 10, 35 – 41.

Johnstone, A. H., Sleet, R. J. and Vianna, J. F. (1994) An information processing model of learning: Its application to an undergraduate laboratory course in chemistry, Studies in Higher Education, 19(1), 77-87.

Johnstone, A. H. (1997), ‘…And some fell on good ground’, University Chemical Education,1, 8-13.

Mayer, R. E. (2005) Cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning, R. E. Mayer, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Sweller, J. (2008) Routledge: Human Cognitive Architechture, in Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, Spector, J. M., Merrill, M. D., van Merrienboer, J. and Driscoll, M. P., New York, 3rd Ed.