Monthly Archives: June 2014

Benefits and Disadvantages of Audio-Only Instructions

Designing instruction for audio was quite a bit different, because I had to be conscious about the tone of my voice and ensure the room was free of background noises which could create distractions when recording the instruction sequence. The audio file needed to be cleaned up to remove stutters, unnecessary breathing sounds, clicking noises, and to normalize sound quality so that one section did not sound significantly louder than another.

Chunking, which is something I try to do in every instructional sequence, became even more important to ensure that I maintained the learner’s attention. Additionally, segues were needed to lead into and out of each chunk of instruction so that the learner knew a transition was occurring. It was necessary to think about how and where transitions were going to occur and how I was going to signal the move to a new audio file to the learner.

I’m not sure that you could say creating an audio instruction was more efficient. If anything, it took twice as long as creating a text instruction, because I had to start by writing out a script which was basically a text-based instruction. The script then had to be recorded, and the recording files tweaked and cleaned. Finally, the whole thing had to be put into some format appropriate for presentation to the learner.

That said, audio instruction files uploaded to a site like iTunes University could be downloaded by learners and used on a phone, iPod, or other audio-capable device. The mobility of use and hands-free listening just might make this form of instruction more efficient to learners. Learners can listen to the instruction anywhere, or they can attempt to do the task they are being instructed about while listening at the same time. Certainly that makes this form of instruction beneficial and even more accessible for most learners.

This course is really the first time I’ve thought about individual mediums such as audio and images in isolation. I have often considered the benefits of adding additional media to an instruction, such as adding images to a text-based instruction or recording an audio-video instruction rather than using text and still images only. Having to work with single mediums allows me to see the benefits and limitations of individual mediums and forces me to think more deeply about why I might select a particular medium, in isolation or in combination with other media, to aid my learners when designing instruction.

Of course, audio, just like any other medium, has both benefits and limitations. Benefits include the portability of the medium and the ability to listen to the instruction and follow it at the same time, because your hands are free. A limitation includes inaccessibility to individuals with hearing impairments, as well as problems with adequate presentation in some format. Using Dreamweaver, I found it impossible to embed the media files directly into the webpage, despite downloading a Javascript plug-in that was supposed to allow this. The player displayed but the media simply didn’t play. I am not sure what is wrong with my version of Dreamweaver but this is not the first problem I’ve had this semester attempting something that should have worked and didn’t. I ended up simply using hyperlinks to the media, which permitted playing within the browser, but the only way I could figure out how to permit file downloading was to instruct the learner how to right-click the play button and choose “Save File As”. At any rate, I believe the benefits outweigh the limitations, and see myself using this medium in isolation a lot more frequently.

Audio-Only Instructions

In the age of iPods and podcasts, many instructions have been converted to audio-only format to accommodate mobile learning and learning on-the-go. Learners now listen to instruction while driving, flying, exercising, or completing household chores. The flexibility of having instruction delivered to learners orally while they multi-task appeals to many in the Net generation. Audio instruction leaves the learners hands free for hands-on application of the instruction. Learners with visual or learning disabilities may also benefit from audio delivery of instruction.

Some potential issues with audio-only instruction include delivery to learners with hearing impairments and learners whose learning preferences include visual or tactile learning modes. The instruction may become distracting if sound effects or music is overused or used inappropriately and does not add value to the instruction.

This is my first venture into a podcast or audio-only instruction. I have often incorporated audio as a medium into instructions containing other media but I see the value in this medium by itself and expect that if I am successful in creating this instruction, I might produce other podcast instructions.

Audio instruction involves careful scripting and thorough attention to detail, similar to text-only instruction. Additionally, inflection and tone become important as they help convey your message to your learners. With audio instruction, you can convey meaning through your voice which is impossible to convey via printed words. Some added benefits include the use of sound effects to add effect or assist the learner with understanding, and the use of music when appropriate. These elements can be used to excess and become distractions, so they must be used appropriately and in moderation. When all these elements are appropriately combined, the effect can be more powerful than text-only instruction, and is more portable and convenient than other forms of instruction. Add to that the benefit of having your hands free for hands-on learning, and this form of instruction becomes even more appealing.

Why use both text and images for instruction

When developing instruction with both text and images, I think it is actually easier and a lot more efficient than when creating instruction which contains just one medium. Text by itself requires a great deal of explanation and detail to ensure complete understanding. Images by themselves leave a lot to the imagination and the potential for misunderstanding. Either by themselves may also exclude a particular learning preference, which leaves learners struggling with an instruction not geared to their strong suits. Together the two ensure that instruction is complete and detailed without being overly wordy. It also produces an instruction which can be effectively used by most learners.

I use the dual instruction of text plus images quite often. Although my strong suit is text instruction, it is natural for me to include  illustrations or screen shots which better explain what I am trying to convey textually. First of all, many of my learners prefer to learn through visual modes of instruction, and the visual reinforcement helps them picture what I am trying to get across. Secondly pictures save words. You can say with a single picture what it would take many words to explain. Third, the combination of the words and the picture reinforce the concept and ensure clarity.

Sometimes there are limitations to using pictures. For example, I often send instructions to people via email, and they may be receiving that email on a mobile device. I have often been told by a learner that they did not receive the pictures because they were looking at my email on their phone. When creating an instruction which is going to include both text and images it is important to know how that instruction will be delivered. Pictures add bandwidth and size to a document which may limit how it can be delivered to someone who has a limited internet connection or is receiving the instruction over a mobile device.

There are, however, many benefits to the dual modality, including increased clarity, fewer words, better design, increased engagement, and reaching different learning preferences to name a few. This is one of my preferred methods of instruction for this very reason.

Using text and images for “Multi-Media” instruction

I guess it never occurred to me that the use of both text and images for instruction constituted “multi-media”, but I guess now that I think of it, text is one medium and images are another, so when I use both for instruction, I am using multiple media. I had always associated the term with audio-visual projects such as videos or computer animations. These past two weeks have expanded my definition of “media” and broadened my thinking about what constitutes a “multi-media” project.

I have often combined images and text together when creating instructions. The use of images reinforces the words in text instruction. Images provide an example to which you can reference. They help clarify for the learner exactly what you are trying to convey. Text on the other hand can help make instructions more specific than what you are able to do with an image alone. Sometimes an image cannot convey an idea or a concept as clearly as words can. The two media complement and support one another.

When using both text and images, you run the risk of leaving out important information or of cluttering the instruction with unnecessary information. The instruction needs to be clean, precise, and complete without being overwhelming and cluttered. Another problem is that images can represent products that change with time or which may vary depending on model. This can cause your instructions to be inaccurate for some users or over time.

As I am used to using a combination of text and images to create instructions and it is a preferred method of mine, I don’t imagine that will change as I develop skill with other medium. I use this method of instruction fairly regularly for short, simple instruction. When text instructions become too complicated or long, I typically switch to video instruction.

Obviously there is a place in instruction for multiple media, whether that is two simple media like text and images or several media like audio/video instruction. When creating video instruction, I am often incorporating video, still images, text, audio, and sometimes interactions. This is “multi-media” at its finest. Although it is not always necessary or cost-effective to deliver instruction using so many media, it can be very beneficial to the learner to have multiple media available to him or her. Learners do not learn the same way, and multiple media helps ensure every learner has an opportunity to engage with and master the material.

Single Media as an instructional device

When creating an instruction that uses a single media to teach, such as text or graphics, I have found that you have to pay a lot more attention to how you convey your information. While the saying may go that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, if that picture does not accurately convey your message to your student, those words are wasted and could even be misconstrued. Details become far more important.

I had a lot of previous experience designing text-based instruction. Even with this experience and much attention to detail, when I went back and looked at my document the following week, I found errors in it. Not only is it important to key in on the details; it is a good idea to have an outsider test your instructions.

The graphic instructions were much more difficult to design. Not being creative in that way, I struggled with the creation of images from scratch. Using someone else’s image as a starting point and tracing helped, but even then, I am a perfectionist and put way too much detail into many of the drawings. I found myself working for hours on one image. This project probably took me in excess of 120 hours this week.

The graphic project seems very limited to me. For one thing, graphics have to be a certain size to be legible. When laying them out on the page, I had a set of five steps which needed to be repeated. I wanted to put all the steps on one page so that I might easily create a circular flow from the last step to the first. Unfortunately there was no way to fit all five steps on the page without shrinking the images to the point of illegibility. I ended up with an arrow spanning two pages.

The benefit to the graphic instruction is its simplicity. It leaves a very clean interface which is very easy to follow, and it is not language specific. Of course, images would only work for a sighted person. A person using a screen reader to access these instructions would need to have text describing every image, and then they might as well just have the text-based instructions.

In the past I have used a combination approach where both text and images were incorporated together to create instruction. This has the advantage of allowing the images to reinforce the text instructions and clear up misconceptions, as well as providing a language-free version of the instructions. The text, on the other hand, ensures the picture conveys a clear message and helps provide order and flow to the instructions. It also provides an alternative to a person with a visual disability.

Even if Clark is correct and media is just a vehicle for delivery of instruction and does not impact the instruction itself, I think that the vehicle can make a difference in timing, presentation, and cost. For example, my husband works for Federal Express as a courier. Obviously not every package gets sent via Federal Express. To do so would be very expensive, as it can cost upward of $40 to send a package First Overnight. However, there is no other guaranteed way to get a package from my office in Texas to an office in New York by 8:30 am the next morning. Obviously, even though it is just a vehicle, that white truck with purple and red lettering makes a difference in timing. If the package arrives in good condition and the courier is polite and professional, then you may notice a difference in presentation as well.

I think the truth is somewhere in between Clark and Kozma. I don’t know if media has a huge impact on instruction. But I think it has some. I think that your choice of media can affect engagement and motivation. I think it can influence how long you are willing to spend working on the instruction. I am far more likely to work on an instruction that feels like a game than an instruction that feels like a chore. A well designed instruction, bundled with the correct media, can make a huge impact. Media by itself won’t have that great of an effect.

The importance of color and design theory in Instructional Design

I have been designing instructions for years and really haven’t paid that much attention to “color theory”. I do use color to gain attention, such as by using red arrows or yellow highlights, but the images I have used in past instructions have been entirely of someone else’s creation rather than my own original work. As such, color was not something I had ever thought about previously. Most of my instructions are print-based PDF files. A few reside on the website but these are constrained to the design elements already in place by the site’s CSS files. I guess I consider color when creating PowerPoint presentations, but only to the extent of selecting an attractive theme.

The only time I pay much attention to color as a designer is when working with instructors on course design within the learning management system. Even then, Blackboard offers pre-built themes which can greatly simplify the use of color within a course. It is only when instructors delve into the use of color on their own without an understanding of color theory that I see problems arising.

I have seen Blackboard courses where the instructor used color in their design to the extreme. The result was distracting at best, and may have been disastrous for some learners. Pairing low contrast colors together makes reading menus or text items difficult or impossible. Some color combinations do not work at all for students with color-blindness. For students with low or no-vision, the use of color as the only visual clue to an instruction’s importance is problematic.

Visual design theory comes more naturally. Obviously, by off-setting the margins and using bullets or numbered lists, you can break up the monotony of a line of text and call attention to a particular text element. Offsetting that textual element with a border or color highlight further helps to call attention to it and feature it on the page. Balance is a little less natural, but the eye does tend to notice when one side of the page looks lop-sided and wants to do something to adjust things so as to create a sense of balance.

I am sure that the use of both color and design theory will become much more important as I design media instruction. Things like the rule of thirds; balance; contrasting colors, especially related to on-screen text; creating movement; drawing attention; all of this will become very important as I design for media. Whether that media relates to still images pieced into a slide show, animation, or a full-motion video, I think the same principles apply.

Designing a text-based only instruction: pros and cons

Coming from a background in technical writing, it was frequently my task to write text-based instruction. I was usually permitted to complement such instruction with a limited number of figures which assisted the learner in visualizing the instructions being given. There were, however situations where I was limited to text and hyperlink instructions only. This was particularly true for software-based help systems where images were space intensive and difficult to program into the design of the help system.

The use of text-based instructions is not a new methodology and can be beneficial when dealing with new learners, complicated processes, or non-intuitive systems or products. Although it makes it more complicated for the designer to design instructions without the help of images or other visual cues, it is certainly not an impossible task. Similar to designing universal instruction for all learners, you have to describe the visual components to your learners more completely. For example, you cannot just tell them to press a certain button when dealing with new users, you may also have to describe the button and/or the button location. A well designed text-based instruction should be beneficial to learners even without images to support it. The responsibility falls to the instructional designer to “see” the visual components of the instruction for the learner and thoroughly describe them to the learner.

However, a poorly designed text-based instruction may be worse than no instructions at all. I have often received an instruction manual with a piece of software or hardware which was obviously written in another language and translated into English. The original designer had not taken time to ensure the accuracy of the instructions, had not well described the visual components for the learner (me), and then the translation into English was so poor that this further confounded the instructions leaving them to make little or no sense to the learner. In these cases the learner is left to struggle on their own, or attempts to use the instructions becoming hopelessly frustrated and lost. These learners are not helped by these instructions and may be potentially harmed by them.

A good instructional designer will ensure that their instructions are accurate and thorough, regardless of the format by which they are required to present them. This may require having a pilot group with similar characteristics to the intended audience test the instructions and evaluate them to give the designer a chance to make changes prior to implementation of the project.