Pros and Cons of Slide Based E-learning

Slide based e-learning has it’s uses, and has become the learning and development industry’s easy button, the supposedly nearly one size fits all solution for most learning challenges. While it can be effective, there are pitfalls, both practically and cognitively.

Practically speaking, trying to get an overworked, over-stressed executive to complete slide based narrated content that lacks a “WHY CAN’T I JUST READ THIS!?” option underscores the need to provide users varied content delivery options.

While many authoring tools have a transcript feature it’s often more of an afterthought and compliance thing with readers exiled to tiny notes in the margins of a content player, than something you’d really want to use.

My other reservation about slide based content is that there are potential issues with mixing text and narration.

Dual coding theory, multi-media theory and Baddeley’s information processing theory suggest that presenting relevant imagery plus narration is good, but presenting narration and written text simultaneously is a potential recipe for overloading our brains’ single channel for language.

According to the science, we can read words or listen to words and make sense of them, but when we try to read and listen at the same time, we can get overloaded and end up receiving “Wordswordswordswords…” with no meaning. If you’ve ever found yourself completely spacing out talking slides, you’re not alone.

On the other hand, long narrated slides with no bullets to help folks recall what they’ve listened to can also be ineffective.

So per the research above, narration plus animated diagram is best, but not all content lends itself to diagramming, and diagrams can be costly to develop. Fading in text as the speaker narrates is probably the next best thing, as it prevents folks from reading ahead at a different pace and going out of sync.

Things to avoid would include large amounts of text with narration, text that is substantially different from narration, text not timed to narration, and heaven forbid, putting the full text on screen and slowly… reading… it… without allowing users to read it themselves and skip ahead.

So that’s why the mixed feelings around slide based content. Personally, as someone who can power through a novel in a day, I’d rather read and highlight a PDF with images. It’s debatable whether the effectiveness of pencil notes the margins and a highlighter has been superseded by electronic options.

If done right, narrated, slide based, interactive e-learning may have some minor cognitive advantages in our age of short attention spans. It’s what users and purchasers are accustomed to, thus the default, ‘easy button’ that we end up applying to many situations, but attention should be paid to the cognitive principles that make it work or not work.


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