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Avoiding multimedia-induced overload

Consider the three computer-based training screens illustrated in the following figure. Which screen do you find most readable and learnable? Which is the least readable? Which ones would probably make you want to simply turn off the computer?

Three CBT screens

Researcher Scott Grabinger asked groups of learners to rate 20 different computer screens, including the three shown on the previous page, for effectiveness. Not surprisingly, the Multidimensional Scaling screen was rated the worst of the whole bunch. So much tiny text could be expected to overwhelm any learner's working memory. But what about the Developer Stack screen? This screen also produces cognitive overload—too many confusing things going on. The AIDS screen was rated the most readable and learnable of all 20 samples. Notice how the simplicity of the screen and placement of graphics and text give you a feeling of both control and interest.

The first method for creating effective multimedia instructional design, then, has to do with basic screen design:

Keep cognitive load low with simple, consistent screen designs and sparing use of text, sound, motion, and color.

Multimedia tempts us with its power to create a rich blend of animation, color, text, graphics, and sound. But that power is a two-edged sword. It also gives us the opportunity to assault learners with a dose of cognitive overload greater than anything we could create with other, less powerful instructional media. To avoid cognitive overload, keep your screens simple and consistent. These guidelines are especially important if your learning audience is new to the knowledge and skills to be trained.

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