7 minute read

In this post, I will critique a technology-focused approach to designing multimedia for learning and set out six pedagogically-focused design strategies.

What is a technology-first approach to designing multimedia for learning, and why is it problematic?

The starting point for many uses of multimedia in UK Higher Education is often a desire to use technology, rather than a clearly defined pedagogic rationale (Kirkwood & Price, 2013 ). It is common for multimedia resources to either omit learning outcomes or to have a weak alignment with them. Additionally, these resources often fail to take into account the research on how people cognitively process information and how they learn. There is a default assumption that video and multimedia resources motivate students to engage with learning. However, this is a weak assumption which sees what is often shallow engagement as a proxy for meaningful learning. Robust evaluation of the effectiveness of multimedia is also rare.

How pedagogically effective are rapid e-learning tools such as Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate and H5P?

Designers of interactive forms of multimedia created with rapid e-learning software such as Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate and H5P often base their designs on the features of the software. The result of this approach can be a superficial learning experience where the focus is on clicking objects and drag and drop interactions which do not meaningfully address the learning outcomes. True-false and multiple-choice questions are the other most common components. Both Articulate and Adobe showcase examples that in my view, fit this critique. These forms of cognitively shallow interactivity have limited benefits for learning as they involve recognition rather than retrieval.

For further details, I highly recommend this biting critique of the shallow use of digital and interactive multimedia for learning (Clark, 2018). This summary of the key research findings on using video for learning Clark (2019) is also very useful.

Bower (2017), makes a similar point to Clark: “It is important that we can penetrate past the glossy look-and-feel of technologies to understand what they actually have to offer in terms of educational benefit – that way we can make discerning decisions about which tools are the most appropriate for a given context. Thinking through the action potentials of different technologies allows selection to be based upon explicitly identified learning needs rather than pure intuition or no reasoning at all.”

Critiques from within the digital learning industry

Even within the commercial digital sector, there are criticisms of the quality of instructional design which results from a software-focussed approach to multimedia design. Bozarth (2019) makes the point that rapid e-learning tools are often used by Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who have no instructional or learning design knowledge, and the result is often little more than a badly-designed PowerPoint. Pugh (2019) in a video titled Why I Stopped Using Articulate Storyline explains how he came to feel that he was defaulting to using Storyline for every learning project that came his way despite there often being many other possible solutions.

Designing and developing multimedia for learning is time-consuming and costly

All of this is even more concerning when we consider that developing multimedia for education is usually expensive and time-consuming. Several specialist skills are needed: instructional or learning design, creating and editing audio, video and animation, graphic design, copy-editing, interface design, user experience design and accessibility. Additionally, a project manager is often necessary, and finally, there are the subject matter experts whose time is usually both scarce and precious.

What strategies can help you to design more pedagogically effective multimedia for learning?

The strategies below are from several different but related fields. (1) Cognitive Task Analysis is from the field of Instructional Design. (2) Intended Learning Outcomes and (3) Constructive Alignment are ideas from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Advance HE (2016) describe SoTL as a field which focuses on teaching quality and quality enhancement, educational research and “dissemination of analyses of practice to inform others”. (4) Effective strategies for learning and (5) Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning come from cognitive psychology. Weinstein et al. (2019) define cognitive psychology as “the study of the mind, including processes such as perception, attention, and memory”. (6) Instructional Design and Learning Design both aim to provide models and processes which help to design for learning.

  1. Use Cognitive Task Analysis techniques

  2. Cognitive Task Analysis “uses a variety of interview and observation strategies to capture a description of the explicit and implicit knowledge that experts use to perform complex tasks” (Yates & Clark, 2012). It is most commonly used when designing learning for more complex or cognitively higher-order tasks. For a helpful (and concise) summary, see Yates & Clark (2012). For a more detailed explanation, see Clark et al. (2008).

  3. Define Intended Learning Outcomes

  4. Biggs and Collis define SOLO (Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome), as “a means of classifying learning outcomes in terms of their complexity, enabling us to assess students’ work in terms of its quality not of how many bits of this and of that they have got right”. See Biggs & Collis (1982) for a quick introduction. For more detail, try the FutureLearn course Introduction to the SOLO taxonomy.

  5. Follow the principles of Constructive Alignment

  6. Constructive Alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011), is an outcomes-based approach to learning design. In constructive alignment, you start with the outcomes you intend students to learn and then align learning and assessment activities to those outcomes.

  7. Be informed by the literature on effective strategies for learning

  8. There is substantial research evidence from cognitive psychology supporting six cognitive strategies which are effective for learning and teaching: spaced practice, interleaving, retrieval practice, elaboration, concrete examples, and dual coding. For a helpful (and concise) summary, see Smith & Weinstein (2016) on their excellent Learning Scientists website. For a more detailed explanation, see Weinstein et al. (2018).

    Generative processing

    A useful approach to motivating and engaging learners comes from cognitive psychology and the idea of generative processing (Fiorella & Mayer, 2015).

    Mayer (2018) defines generative processing as “deep cognitive processing required to make sense of the presented material; caused by learner’s motivation to make an effort to learn”. For more on generative processing, see Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies that Promote Understanding (Fiorella & Mayer, 2015).

  9. Follow the evidence-informed principles of Richard Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

  10. For an excellent but concise summary, see Donald Clark’s blog post: Mayer & Clark – 10 brilliant design rules for e-learning. For more detail, see Richard Mayer’s 2018 conference presentation. I also highly recommend the seminal book e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (Clark & Mayer, 2016).

  11. Use an Instructional or Learning Design model

Using an Instructional or Learning Design model can help you to define the need for and contextualise the use of multimedia within the larger unit of learning (for example within a particular topic, within a module or at a programme level). Generally speaking, Learning Design models such as UCL’s ABC Learning Design are more high level and open (i.e. ABC LD describes six learning types) and Instructional Design models are more structured and prescriptive.

For specific examples of how an Instructional Design model can inform the design of interactive multimedia, see my synthesis of M. David Merrill’s Component Display Theory. These examples illustrate Merrill’s ideas for teaching the acquisition of facts, part-whole relationships, conceptual knowledgeprocedural knowledge and the teaching of principles.  H5P was used to develop these examples. However, they could have been developed using any similar development tool such as Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate. The choice of software is of secondary importance to the instructional design approach.


Designing and developing multimedia for learning is often a time-consuming, complicated and expensive task. Therefore, it is essential to start with a clear pedagogic rationale and to define specific learning outcomes which link with higher-level ones. Be informed by the research from cognitive psychology on how people cognitively process information and how they learn. Finally, use an Instructional or Learning Design module to define the need for and contextualise the use of multimedia within the larger unit of learning. Using one or more of the six strategies suggested above can help improve the educational effectiveness of multimedia for learning.

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Advance HE. (2016). Defining and supporting the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL): A sector-wide study | Advance HE. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/defining-and-supporting-scholarship-teaching-and-learning-sotl-sector-wide-study

Biggs, J. & Collis K. (1982). SOLO Taxonomy. Retrieved 11 January 2020, from John Biggs website: http://www.johnbiggs.com.au/academic/solo-taxonomy/

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at University. 4th ed. Maidenhead: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 January 2020, from John Biggs’ website: http://www.johnbiggs.com.au/academic/constructive-alignment/

Bower, M. (2017). Design of technology-enhanced learning: integrating research and practice. https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/book/10.1108/9781787141827

Bozarth, J. (2019). Nuts and Bolts: Authoring Tools—Realities and Concerns. Learning Solutions Magazine. https://learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/nuts-and-bolts-authoring-tools-realities-and-concerns

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (Fourth). Wiley.

Clark, D. (2013). Donald Clark Plan B: Mayer & Clark – 10 brilliant design rules for e-learning [Blog]. Retrieved 11 January 2020 from: https://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2013/01/mayer-clark-10-brilliant-design-rules.html

Clark, D. (2018). Donald Clark Plan B: Why is online learning ‘all fur coat and no knickers’? Media-rich is not mind rich [Blog]. Retrieved 11 January 2020 from: https://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2018/03/why-is-online-learning-all-fur-coat-and.html

Clark, D. (2019). Donald Clark Plan B: Video for learning –15 things the research says – some may shock you… [Blog]. Retrieved 11 January 2020 from:

Clark, R. E., Feldon, D., van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Yates, K., & Early, S. (2008). Cognitive task analysis. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. J. G. van Merriënboer, & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed., pp. 577–593). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Retrieved 25 January 2020 from: http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/materials/Clark/CTA_Chapter_2007.pdf

Fiorella, L. & Mayer, R. (2015). Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies that Promote Understanding | Educational psychology | Cambridge University Press. (2015). Retrieved 18 January 2020, from https://www.cambridge.org/vi/academic/subjects/psychology/educational-psychology/learning-generative-activity-eight-learning-strategies-promote-understanding?format=HB

FutureLearn. (2020). Introduction to the SOLO taxonomy [MOOC]. Retrieved 18 January 2020, from FutureLearn website: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/learning-teaching-university/0/steps/26410

Kirkwood, A. & Price, L. (2013). Missing: evidence of a scholarly approach to teaching and learning with technology in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(3), 327–337. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2013.773419

Mayer, R. (2018). Research-Based Principles for Designing Multimedia Instruction. CET Teaching with Technology Conference : USC Center for Excellence in Teaching. https://web.archive.org/web/20190816100005/https://cet.usc.edu/twt/

Pugh, A. (2019). Why I Stopped Using Articulate Storyline. [Video file]. Retrieved 11 January 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ-4gpf1oYw

Smith, M., & Weinstein, Y. (2016). Six Strategies for Effective Learning [Blog]. The Learning Scientists. https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/8/18-1

UCL ABC Learning Design. (n.d.). Retrieved 11 January 2020, from https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/abc-ld/

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1), 2. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-017-0087-y

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Caviglioli, O. (2019). Understanding how we learn: a visual guide. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Yates, K. A., & Clark, R. E. (2012). Cognitive task analysis. International Handbook of Student Achievement. New York, Routledge. http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/eresources/9780415879019/Cognitive_Task_Analysis.pdf

Posted by Thomas H

Learning technologist at the University of London. Interested in Instructional Design, Learning Design, Multimedia Learning, Educational Research, and Open Education. Follow @myBRAIN_isOPEN

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