File this one under the challenging of outdated theories and assumptions.
I've been reading e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (2003) by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer. I'd say this is a must-read for learning/experience/ instructional designers, or whatever you may call yourself. For a great summary of the book, head over to Clive's blog.
When I got to chapter 6, "Applying the Redundancy Principle", I started to get that squirmy, oh-crap feeling. The realization that I've been working off some really outdated theories...as recently as this week.
The old theory:
Up until now, I've gone along with that concept of learning styles, which the book's authors tell me is based on the information delivery theory. This is the notion that we all have a preferred channels for learning: visual or auditory. (I've always included kinesthetic on the list as well.)
So when designing a program with different learning styles in mind, one presents information in multiple formats: both as onscreen text and audio along with an illustrative graphic. The idea being if you're more visual, you'll read...if you're more auditory you'll listen. You present the content in multiple ways so that the user can access the information in their preferred way.
So here's this program I've been working on: lots of animated graphics, audio narration, and timed text bullets (a full transcript of the audio does not appear on the screen -- just key points to underscore the audio).
Apparently , this is considered a Bad Move. Overwhelms the learner's visual channel. OK -- duh. Now it seems painfully obvious to me that this is what's going on, and explains why I so easily tune out with these types of presentations.
The new theory -- the Redundancy Principle:
The Redundancy Principle is based on the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. The notion is that people process verbal and visual information in separate channels. It's not one preferred style over another. Each channel can only process and handle so much information at once. So, if you present an animated graphic, the learner must look at the graphic in order to absorb the information. If you're also presenting onscreen text, you're overwhelming the learner. They don't know where to look and the visual channel gets overloaded.
The best presentation method is to show an animation/important graphic with narrated audio only -- no text. Don't include redundant on-screen text.
If you're not displaying a graphic or animation or other visual illustration, then text with audio is fine. (Be sure to read the book for more detailed information, research evidence, and examples of when it is ok to use redundant onscreen text).
I suppose if you still go for the learning styles approach, then you're best to opt for multiple representations of the content. Present the content in a variety of ways over a couple of pages. Clark Quinn is an advocate of this approach. In the session I took with him at the eLearning Guild event, he talked about multiple representations as a way to forge stronger pathways of memory in the brain. Cut a trail through the virgin forest; beat a path through the woods; create better connections in the brain by providing more opportunities for the learner to connect with the content.
A humble learning moment for this instructional designer.