Posted by: talesfromtheid | April 20, 2008

The Science of Instruction (and its limits?)

Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction
Pfieffer, San Francisco, CA, 2003, 316 pp.

Many medical institutions and practitioners now practice a form of medical care called “evidence-based medicine.” In evidence-based medicine, the folk wisdom of doctors is not considered adequate. Instead, the question of which treatments are most effective for a given pathology must be answered by reference to the best available evidence, as published in reputable scientific journals.

Although they don’t use the term “evidence-based,” Clark and Mayer are nevertheless promoting a kind of “evidence-based instructional design.” As with evidence-based medicine, there are both pros and cons to this approach. On balance, though, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction presents with clarity a good sampling of research relevant to instructional designers. Some chapters also have useful things to say to other members of typical e-learning production teams, such as creative designers in charge of look and feel decisions.

Overall, the book is a wonderful summary of relevant research on learning, complete with recommendations for how to apply the research results to practical decisions that instructional designers must make, e.g., whether to use a voice-over narrator to read verbatim on-screen text or not; whether to describe pictures or animations with on-screen text alone, with audio narration alone, or with a combination of on-screen text and audio narration; whether to address the learner directly using a 2nd person narrative point of view, or to stick to a more formal 3rd person point of view, and so on.

The difficulty, not addressed in the book, is in deciding how generalizable the research results are. (This is also a problem in evidence-based medicine.) Using research results to defend designs that are insufficiently similar to those in the actual study runs the risk of turning the science of instruction into an authoritarian quagmire. Cornell University mathematician Steven Strogatz eloquently describes this problem in The End of Insight. Strogatz worries that, in the future, science may give us answers to certain problems without giving us an understanding of why those answers are true. For problems in human learning, because our understanding of the brain is so limited, we don’t have to wait for the future—we already have studies that tell us that certain things work better than others, without deep, insightful explanations as to why. As Strogatz writes, “When the End of Insight comes, the nature of explanation in science will change forever. We’ll be stuck in an age of authoritarianism, except it’ll no longer be coming from politics or religious dogma, but from science itself.”

To avoid this problem, we need to constantly re-evaluate what we are doing. We must use the evidence from learning research as a starting point, but not follow it slavishly if it seems to be leading us to design learning that isn’t maximally effective.

That said, I think e-Learning and the Science of Instruction is an extremely valuable resource, well worth the time of anyone tasked with designing online instruction.


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