Multimedia Learning

When computer technology (hardware and software) advanced to the point where graphic user interfaces and network connectivity became standard components of personal computers (about the mid-1990’s), they also advanced to the point where they could display multimedia content (high-resolution graphics, and audio, video and animations) as well. From the second decade of the 21st century, it is hard to recall the pixilated monochromatic graphics and beeps that were multimedia in the early days of educational computing. The multimedia capabilities of computers opened new channels of communication, and computer users could see (both static and moving) images, hear sounds, and control information in ways that were not previously available.

In many ways, this multimedia capacity makes ICT-mediated information and interaction more natural to humans than print-mediated information and interaction. Print-based information and interaction is limited to vision (Braille and text read aloud obvious exceptions) and is limited by the literacy skills of the writer and the reader and also by the shared language of the reader and the writer. By comparison, multimedia information and interaction allow multiple senses to be used in conveying and receiving information and it requires less special training to create and consume, and even individuals with different languages can use gestures to begin communicating via multimedia.

Learning scientists have studied learning in multimedia situations and have made several observations about the practice. Scholars have found that learners do pay increased attention to information when presented in multiple media, but that motivation and the level of one’s cognitive engagement also affects attention. Further, control of the information and navigation aids and content cues can increase attention, but attention given to those parts of the information draw attention away from the content (Hede and Hede 2002).

Expert on multimedia learning, Richard Mayer (2005) has identified several principles of multimedia learning which posit information presented in multimedia environments is better-learned when presented in a manner aligned with those principles. The principles can be summarized in a series of presentation modes, each better than the preceding. Simple text is the least effective. Text supported with graphics is better. Text and graphics presented together is better; and graphics along with text that is also spoken even better (a voice perceived as natural is better than computer-generated). Best is natural spoken voice along with text and graphics that can be controlled by the user. Also, animations can improve students’ learning of complex processes, and users’ control of the animation is also associated with improved learning. Cues directing students’ attention to relevant parts of the information can also improve learning. Mayer concurs with Hede and Hede (2002), that as more elements are added, attention and cognition must be expended to control and make sense of the information which can interfere with learning the intended content, however.

Multimedia learning principles have been applied to several instructional designs. Scholars who study those designs have concluded that multimedia is particularly useful in providing cognitive scaffolds so that complex ideas can be accessible by learners who are new to the domain, and that through multimedia, thinking can become visible and thus facilitate reflection and repetition that are conditions necessary for knowledge building. Multimedia allows educators to provide guidance as learners work through ideas and observe worked examples; these allow complex problems to be broken down into explicated steps and provide the focus for collaborative self-explanations which is another condition for knowledge building.

Not included in the principles, but supporting multimedia instruction, is the observation that a human face with natural movements (such as a talking avatar) is also associated with improved learning. Also, the context of a multimedia experience is affected by learners’ prior experience with it and the learning that results from it. Educators who prepare students prior to the experience and give clues as to the contents can increase attention and decrease the cognition necessary to navigate the contents. Further, there is evidence that a multimedia experience can prepare learners for other activities. For example, watching a video on a topic prior to engaging in a traditional classroom activity can increase attention to the subsequent activity or provide a context in which the traditional activities can be understood (Mayer 2001).


Hede, Toby, and Andy Hede. 2002. “Multimedia Effects on Learning: Design Implications of an Integrated Model.” In Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links, edited by S. McNamara and E. Stacey. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, July 7-10, 2002.

Mayer, Richard. 2001. Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, Richard. 2005. “Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning.” In The Cambridge handbook of Multimedia Learning, edited by Richard Mayer, 31-48. New York: Cambridge University Press.