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Animations are increasingly used in technology-based learning resources because of their assumed superiority over static graphics. However, empirical research has failed to provide evidence for such superiority. Recent investigations suggest that benefits from educational animations are not achieved because of the way learners process the presented information. It appears that current intuitive approaches to the design and use of animations can be ineffective because they do not take account of the information processing challenges posed for learners. New approaches using principled design guidelines based on research into perceptual and cognitive processing are required to fulfil animation's educational potential.
Underwhelming can be thought of as the converse of overwhelming: the animation leads to the learner being insufficiently engaged so that the available information is under-processed. Because animations can provide a direct depiction of the changes involved in a dynamic system, learners need do no more than observe these dynamics as they are portrayed. There is no need to carry out the intensive mental manipulations required for a static depiction of the same situation. It may be that by making change processes directly visible, the explicit external depiction provided by animations can give learners a false impression that they understand what is going on. However, students with higher cognitive capabilities are likely to be able to fulfil the demands required for understanding the subject matter without external support for mental simulation. For these students, animation can save them from having to perform beneficial learning-relevant cognitive processes on their own (Schnotz & Rasch, in press). Using animations with students who can cope without them runs the risk of engendering superficial processing that may actually inhibit their learning.
Current educational animations typically offer what can be termed a 'behaviourally realistic' depiction; they portray a situation's dynamics in a relatively straightforward analogue fashion. The learner is presented with a continuous flow of changing information that maps quite directly onto changes that occur in the referent situation. Thus a student who understands the animation will also understand the actual situational dynamics. However, the same distinctive characteristics that allow animation to make the dynamics of a situation explicit may also pose various information processing challenges to learners. These processing challenges are not present with a static graphic and include (i) the amount of information presented (animations present multiple frames instead of a single frame of information), (ii) the very limited availability of that information (each frame must be quickly replaced by the next to sustain the dynamic effect, (iii) the need to integrate spatially disparate changes (events are distributed across the display area), (iv) the requirement to remember information presented on previous frames (successive frames overwrite their predecessors so they are no longer available). If the subject matter is somewhat difficult and unfamiliar to the learner (a popular context for the use of animation), the processing load from a behaviourally realistic animation may exceed the learner's capacity to deal with the information being presented (Lowe, 2001). In order to sustain processing in this potentially overwhelming situation, it appears that learners adopt selective strategies that have the effect of reducing their load. However, this can result in relevant information being neglected because learners make inappropriate selections of what to attend to and what to ignore.
One approach suggested for tackling this overload is to give learners control over the animation (Hegarty, Narayanan & Freitas, 2002). For example, a set of video-like controls allows learners to vary characteristics such as the speed, direction, and continuity of the presentation and so better match presentation to their own information processing capacities. However, studies of the strategies learners invoke when interrogating a user-controllable animation indicate that the actions they take to make the animation more tractable may actually result in the neglect of information that is highly relevant to the learning task (Lowe, 2003, 2004). Because the learners participating in these studies lacked expertise in the depicted domain (meteorological charts), they were apparently unable to select appropriate subsets of the information provided by the animation. This was attributed to their lack of background knowledge about the meteorological domain and a resulting dependence on perceptual characteristics rather than thematic relevance. Being unaware of the relative importance of different aspects of the presented information, they often looked in the wrong spatial or temporal locations within the animation and failed to detect key attributes of the display.
Research into how people learn from animations is beginning to indicate what types of visuospatial and temporal manipulations may help to improve their educational effectiveness (Lowe, in preparation). A key issue is how a learner's information processing load can be kept within the limits of available processing capacity while ensuring that what is provided remains highly relevant to the learning task. One approach that learners were found to employ when interrogating a user-controllable animation was extended pausing of the presentation on specific single frames (Lowe, in preparation). During these pauses, learners analysed the visuospatial structure of the material in the frame, something that can be difficult to do when a display is continually changing. Unfortunately, they rarely chose to pause on the frames that were of most relevance to their learning task. The findings from this investigation suggest that learners were comfortable with modifying the animation's playing characteristics so that it no longer presented its information in a behaviourally realistic manner. Unfortunately, in terms of the set learning task, the way in which they implemented these modifications was usually relatively ineffective. A possible implication from these findings is that user control of animations needs to be guided to some extent so that learners' interrogation strategies are more productive. Designers of educational animations would then have the responsibility to consider which portions of the total dynamic sequence may be more effective if presented as static frames rather than in animated form. Learners could be directed towards these portions and given guidance as to the aspects warranting particular attention. Modifications of this type that help provide learners with more powerful explanations could greatly improve the educational effectiveness of animations. This advance requires animation designers to progress beyond the current preoccupation with behaviourally realistic depictions to more interventionist approaches that really are able to provide educational value for money.
Hegarty, M., Narayanan, N.H. & Freitas, P. (2002). Understanding machines from multimedia and hypermedia presentations. In J. Otero, J.A. Leon, & A. Graesser (Eds.), The psychology of science text comprehension (pp. 357-384). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lowe, R. K. (2001). Understanding information presented by complex animated diagrams. In J. F. Rouet, J. Levonen & A. Biardeau (Eds.), Multimedia learning: Cognitive and instructional issues (pp. 65-74). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Lowe, R.K. & Pramono, H. (2003, August). Design features and the effectiveness of instructional animation. Paper presented at the 10th European Conference for Research on Learning and Instruction, Padua, Italy.
Lowe, R.K. (2003). Animation and learning: Selective processing of information in dynamic graphics. Learning and Instruction, 13, 157-176.
Lowe, R. K. (2004). Interrogation of a dynamic visualisation during learning. Learning and Instruction, Special Issue on Learning with Dynamic Visualisations.
Lowe, R. K. & Schnotz, W. (in press). Les animations: aspects cognitifs et perceptuels. To appear in J.-F. Boucheix (Ed), Les animations graphiques et les technologies pour l'apprentissage. P.U.F: Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.
Lowe, R. K. (in preparation). Learning from animation: Where to look, when to look. To appear in R. K. Lowe & W. Schnotz (Eds), Learning with animation: Research and implications for design. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Schnotz, W. & Rasch, T. (in press). Enabling, facilitating, and inhibiting of animation in multimedia learning: why reduction of cognitive load can have negative results on learning. To appear in Educational Technology Research and Development.
Schnotz, W. & Lowe, R. K. (2003). External and internal representations in multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction, 13, 117-123.
|Author: Associate Professor Ric Lowe can be contacted on R.K.Lowe@curtin.edu.au
Please cite as: Lowe, R.K. (2004). Animation and learning: Value for money? In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 558-561). Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/lowe-r.html
© 2004 Richard K. Lowe
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