Multimedia can be a powerful tool for adult education. When used effectively it can captivate an audience, tug emotions, maintain attention, and contextualize scenario-based learning. But creating and producing quality content also has a number of drawbacks in terms of cost, learning curves, and copyright laws. Integrating multimedia into curricula can have a tremendous impact on the learning process, but are the drawbacks worth the trouble?  I’ve compiled this short of list of 6 benefits and 6 drawbacks of multimedia integration from my own experience developing curriculum at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.  What is your experience? I welcome you to share your experiences and opinions at the bottom of the page.

6 Benefits of Integrating Multimedia

1. Ward off BoredomImage: Audio Interview
Consider that the average adult attention span is between 15 and 20 minutes.  Afterwards, an individual’s focus must be rejuvenated either through rest or by changing activities. Multimedia can be a valuable source of instructional variation because it helps to capture the attention and imagination of learners to bring content to life. This is especially important for e-Learning which is often poorly designed and delivered, leaving students with lackluster, un-engaging learning experience.

2.  Engage the Senses
People learn in different ways. Visual learners are stimulated by images, auditory learners by sound, and kinesthetic (or tactile) learners through touching, feeling and experiencing. Too often learning is solely aimed at an individual’s intellectual or analytical capabilities while neglecting opportunities to provoke learners with a sensory or emotional experience. When implemented effectively, multimedia can stimulate the senses to create a learning environment where new information impacts an audience and is more effectively retained.

3. Activate the Imagination through Storytelling
Storytelling is a powerful communication tool that can activate our imagination and maintain our attention. When we hear a story we naturally visualize the context and characters and mentally rehearse actions as they unfold. Part instruction, part entertainment, stories can enable participants to mentally prepare for unfamiliar or unexpected situations that they may encounter in a job.  Stories are especially relevant to equip individuals for high stress tasks. When teaching, consider expanding your use of case studies and scenarios to contextualize and illustrate your learning objectives.

4.  Provide an Alternative to Statistics and Data
A number of research studies have shown that overloading individuals with facts, figures, and statistics can actually be counter-productive when trying to convince people to embrace new ideas. This is certainly counter-intuitive. It seems people are naturally defensive and skeptical when new ideas are presented in the form of numbers and data, as compared to more ‘human’ ways, such as making personal connections, telling stories, and engaging emotions. Strike the right balance before overloading participants with abstract statistics, or intangible data and numbers to emphasize a point. Multimedia can break of the tedium of content to help bring include those personal elements. If you’re interested to learn more check out the book, ‘Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.’

5. Utilize Virtual Guest Lecturers
Bring guest lecturers into your class–virtually. Why not let others who have expertise in the subject matter help you?  At the U.S. Institute of Peace we’ve interviewed more than 150 experts using video and audio to enhance our training courses.  The “video experts” share their experiences, stories, and analysis on specific themes that would not have made it to the students.  These additional perspectives and world views can enrich your content. Multimedia is especially powerful to stimulate reflection and group discussion.

6. Encourage Self-Directed Learning
Enhance a class with supplemental multimedia materials your students can access for further learning.  These can easily live within an e-Learning platform (such as Blackboard or Moodle).  If a student is intrigued by a specific topic they will know where to go to learn more.  In one of our classes, 23 supplemental videos were posted into our e-Learning platform. They were not assigned as homework but were recommended in case the students desired to explore further on their own. Interestingly, data reports revealed that more than half of the participants would watch each clip, even though not required.  Multimedia encouraged this form of self-directed learning.

6 Drawbacks of Integrating Multimedia

Multimedia Image

1. Cost
Up until 15 years ago multimedia was primarily produced by professionals with high tech equipment in multi-million dollar studios.  Times have changed, and now the barriers of entry have dropped dramatically.  Now anybody with a laptop, webcam, or microphone can produce their own media content.  Even though the tools of production are now accessible, the cost to produce media well can be expensive.  A simple webcam may get you on YouTube, but you’ll need some equipment to enhance the quality of your productions to look good and sound professional when you are ready to make your big debut.  Software is also needed for editing, not to mention costs for hosting and file storage.  The costs can add up quickly.

2. The Learning Curve
In addition to the costs, basic production skills are needed to move beyond the choppy, grainy, and often poor quality videos that propagate YouTube.  There is a significant learning curve that must be overcome to produce media well which involves specialized skills in filming, video production (post-production), audio recording, and audio engineering (post-production).  Depending upon the output of the media, skills in graphic design and web development are typically needed, too.  Producing decent multimedia will require a significant degree of training to overcome the learning curve.

3. Copyrights
The Internet is an amazing reservoir of valuable multimedia that can enhance your teaching and training.  Unfortunately, using it without proper authorization and rights is illegal.  You cannot simply download and reuse anything you want online.  Before downloading pictures for your next
PowerPoint l ecture at work or to post on your website, ask yourself if you are making your institution vulnerable to copyright violations.   Copyright laws apply to everything from DVDs to podcasts to pictures and restrict the use of potentially valuable teaching materials.  Thankfully, Creative Commons exists which facilitates “digital creativity, sharing, and innovation” by providing “simple, standardized alternatives to the ‘all rights reserved’ paradigm of traditional copyright.”  In today’s fast-paced internet era there are lots of gray areas. I recommend reading the latest Fair Use copyright laws that pertain to education.

4.  Potential to Distract and Derail Learning
Multimedia has potential to distract learners if it is not delivered well in a class.  You need to know exactly what you want your students to take away from the media experience.  For example:

  • What are the specific learning objectives of using the clip?
  • What is the added value for using it?
  • Is it meant to describe, illustrate, explain or analyze?
  • How will you contextualize the media and prepare students for what they are about to experience?
  • Will you leave the learning experience ‘open ended’ for students to draw their own conclusions and meaning?

If you do allow for a more open approach, be mindful of your learning objectives as group discussion can veer onto peripheral issues.  Finally, don’t forget your audience’s attention span. Long-winded “talking heads”, static lectures or webinars can just as easily bore an audience as a monotone lecture.

5. Research is Time Consuming
Finding good, relevant content that is copyright-free or which has Creative Commons usage rights is time consuming.  I’ve spent countless hours combing through databases looking for just the right picture, video clip, or audio to use in a class. Unless you have a dedicated research assistant be prepared to spend a lot of time digging online.

6. Abuse by Lazy Teachers
Media clips should not substitute teaching. How many of us have had a lazy professor who opted out of teaching by simply playing a DVD for the entire duration of a class? Don’t fall into that trap. It’s a disservice to students who pay hard-earned money to learn.

This shortlist of  benefits and drawbacks and is a result of my own experience of integrating multimedia into adult education. What is your experience?  Is multimedia worth all the trouble?

Dominic Volonnino is co-founder of TechChange. He is also a Faculty member at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. Related article by D.Volonnino:

Photo © Lee Jordanjsawkins, Flickr.com


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  • Kewal

    In my opinion, many of us use multimedia instructions in the class without even knowing or realizing it. We certainly do not realize that we need to call our method of teaching as using multimedia or integrating multimedia.
    The six benefits listed in the article is our objective to promote learning in the class. Most of us commonly use presentations in the verbal or on the screen. Most of us involve students in the discussion to promote free exchange of ideas, take advantage of each others knowledge, experience, background, and learn from each other. We encourage students to do research by suggesting alternate options to find solutions, different and often controversial ideas to explore and reflect. Most of the time a single stage or activity results in more than one benefit listed in the article.
    Kewal