We’re bombarded with headlines and statistics about the growth of online and mobile video viewing; daily viewing of video—social media content, news, and advertising—continues to increase. Yet a recent Pew Research Center study found that younger adults are more likely to read news, albeit online, than to watch it, compared to those over age 50. How can we explain the apparent discrepancy?

Preferences. Some people might still argue that they “learn better” using a specific modality: visual, auditory, kinesthetic—even though research has pretty thoroughly demolished the idea of hard-wired learning “styles.” But the myth persists. Why? Because learners do have different abilities and interests—and they do have preferred modes of learning; it’s simply not a requirement that eLearning be tailored to meet each individual’s preferences.

On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that individual learners are, well, unique individuals. Some of us cannot sit through more than five minutes of video without becoming antsy. Others eagerly binge-watch movies, TV series, social media videos, even ads, for hours on end. Some began voraciously reading anything and everything while still in preschool; others get through college without cracking a book.

Preferences may vary by age, experience, ability, and opportunity. A busy person who finds herself spending a lot of time in the car might discover a “preference” for audio learning, listening to lectures, podcasts, or books while driving. A person whose dyslexia has always made reading a struggle might prefer to learn via video. A person whose eyesight is fading due to age or illness might get less enjoyment out of reading and videos than he used to and find himself turning to audio books.

The smart eLearning designer accommodates any and all of these preferences; offering information in multiple modalities can lead to greater engagement by larger numbers of learners. And, according to research published by Cisco, “Students engaged in learning that incorporates multimodal designs, on average, outperform students who learn using traditional approaches with single modes.”

Many learners who use varied modalities or take advantage of features that are generally regarded as accommodations for people with disabilities, such as captioning, do so not because of a disability but rather for reasons of convenience and personal preference. A study conducted by Oregon State University that surveyed 2,800 students at 15 American universities and colleges found that a third of respondents used captioning of audio learning materials, when available, to help them stay focused and to improve their comprehension and retention of the material. That number represents a significant proportion of students, particularly in light of an additional finding: More than half of the respondents said that they did not know whether captions were available or that captions were not available. In fact, most people who use captioning are not hard of hearing; a 2006 study by the UK’s Office of Communications found that only 20 percent of the people who used captions were hard of hearing.

The students who use captioning are on to something: Consuming information in multiple modalities can help retention. A 2007 study by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, analyzed how people read news—and how much they retained—and found that multiple modalities led to greater retention (see References). Study participants who saw news stories that were a “graphics-laden” mix of charts, Q&A, photos, maps, and other content remembered more information than readers exposed to text-heavy versions.

eLearning can easily combine modalities

Principles of user-centered and universal design emphasize flexibility and meeting the needs of learners; accommodating a wide range of individual preferences and abilities is one of the seven basic principles of universal design. Creating eLearning to encompass multiple modalities supports the goal of improving the learner experience.

Designers of eLearning are not limited to audio, video, or text; additional modalities abound, and more are on the way. Interactive formats such as games, animations, and simulations use audio, video, and audio sensory inputs, true. But learners experience an interactive simulation far differently from how they perceive text on a screen or a passive video-viewing experience. If the goal is to capture their attention and entice learners to spend more time with an eLearning module, expanding beyond the basics is essential. As AI, virtual reality, and augmented reality gain traction, learners will look for even more options in their eLearning.


Adam, Pegie Stark, Sara Quinn, and Rick Edmonds. Eyetracking the News: A Study of Print and Online Reading. St. Petersburg, FL: The Poynter Institute, 2007.

Institute for Human Centered Design. “Principles of Universal Design.”

Linder, Katie. Student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts: Results from a national study. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit, 2016.

Metiri Group, for Cisco. Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says. 2008.

Mitchell, Amy. “Younger adults more likely than their elders to prefer reading news.” Pew Research Center. 6 October 2016.

Pipps, Val, Heather Walter, Kathleen Endres, and Patrick Tabatcher. “Information Recall of Internet News: Does Design Make a Difference? A Pilot Study.” Journal of Magazine & New Media Research, Vol. 11, No. 1. October 2009.

UK Office of Communications (Ofcom). Television access services: Review of the Code and guidance. March 2006.