A frequent and always interesting topic of conversation amongst my peer group at Penn State is whether or not the Millennial generation really are the super duper digital geniuses depicted by advocates like Michael Wesch. Personally, having witnessed a 3-year-old turn on a computer, load an internet browser, navigate to a website, and start playing games, I'm inclined to believe that the kids coming up through the K-12 ranks today are a lot different, if not far more advanced technically, than those of us from the (gasp) pre-computer days.
But the question that I find intriguing is if they really are different, should we be adapting our teaching to meet the needs of this new breed of learner? If so, how? Some of my classmates and I attempted an experiment that would measure the effectiveness of single and multi modal educational technologies on recognition and recall in an online environment. We had a slew of control variables we wanted to examine, one of which was age (hoping to differentiate between the Millennials & everyone else by demographic lines), "Power User Status" (which differentiated between people's comfort, interest, and actual use of a variety of technologies in everyday life), and multitasking ability.
Because of time constraints (cramming the experiment into the confines of a semester) we could not get a large enough sample to use age as a control variable, however we were able to to look at Power User Status and multitasking ability as well as perception to gain some interesting insights.
In our study, we found that there was a relationship between lesson modality, learning effectiveness and perception. Overall, learners do appear to exhibit better recognition when given a lesson making use of audio+outline (i.e. PowerPoint). However, recall was not significantly impacted by lesson modality. Learners also appear to have more positive (or negative) perceptions of certain learning modalities based on their power user or multitasker level. This is consistent with the speculations of Marathe et al. (2007).
Some analyses in our study displayed an apparent relationship but failed to rise to the level of significance. One example of this was the number of hours online and performance on the lesson. While those spending a higher amount of time online did appear to have a higher preference for multimodal lesson types, their recognition and recall performance wasn’t significantly different from those spending less time online. Power users also followed this trend with those classified as low power users finding the multimodal lessons much easier to follow than the high power users. Again however, high and low power users did not exhibit significantly different performance in recognition or recall.
This apparent disconnect between perception and performance is a very interesting finding for a couple of reasons. First, our expectation was that learners would perform better in the modality for which they have the greatest preference. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it calls into question whether the design of systems based on users’ preferences is necessarily resulting in an educationally superior product.
So, what about those Millennials? If we make the mental leap that Millennials = power users + multitaskers, we might speculate on which technologies and whal kinds of educational environments might be most effective. For example, a technology savvy power user who functions at a high level may perform worse in a rigidly constructed environment because it is restrictive and becomes frustrating for them to use. Conversely, low multitaskers may easily become overwhelmed in certain modality conditions that contain high levels of personalization or multiple modalities at play simultaneously.
The practical implications associated might allow for the design of future systems where personalization could be designed not only to allow the lesson to be customized based on the lesson content but also based on individual characteristics of each learner. This ability to tailor learning to an individual based on preference has exciting and potentially revolutionary implications for the way in which teaching and learning is accomplished in the online classrooms of the future.
For future research, we would like to look at the perception and effectiveness of more "natural" environments of a variety of educational modalities. For example, podcasts that include a variety of auditory cues and more professional production techniques compared to the homegrown podcasts being utilized by many faculty today that feature a lecture-based recording without bells and whistles. Another comparison could be the typical bullet-based PowerPoint lecture versus the currently hyped Presentation Zen type presentation format.
Obviously more work needs to be done on the relationship between learner performance and their classification as technologically savvy. The small sample in our study limited just how thoroughly this relationship could be examined and a follow-up study with a larger sample would allow this area to be better defined. While our study indicated difference in preference among power users and multitaskers, determining if a performance relationship exists would be much more informative in terms of design considerations that promote more effective learning outcomes.
One final item that merits future research consideration is the role that learner type might play in determining the optimal delivery modality. Given that certain learners prefer material to be presented to them in a certain way, visually for instance, it would be interesting to fully assess an individual’s preferred learning style and then determine if their preference is related to their actual performance. Our findings showed that preference and performance were not always compatible as in the case of multitaskers whose preference was for full-text and audio despite their performance being worst in that condition.
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