Digital technology has brought many benefits for users who are interested in learning new skills and knowledge, or who are required to learn them. At the same time, many of the new media are attractive and fun to create, and designers and their teams can benefit financially from mastering the required skill sets.

But (and there is always a “but”), developing content in the new media is not cheap and each application requires time and talent. The designer’s skill set must include the knowledge of how to use video, audio, AR, VR, still graphics, animations, and whatever else comes along to maximize learning and return benefit. In this article I will outline the basics of that knowledge and give you some references that you will find useful.

Design guidelines for the use of media

Richard Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has devoted years of research to finding the way to use multimedia that maximizes learning. He first published his findings in Multimedia Learning in 2001. Based on those findings, including additional research, Mayer now identifies 12 principles, which he organizes into three groups:

  • Reducing extraneous processing
  • Managing essential processing, and
  • Fostering generative processing

(I have not attempted to summarize the principles for this article, although the link in the previous sentence provides three of the important ones. Please refer to the books in the references, especially Clark & Mayer.)

Each principle also has associated boundary conditions for the likelihood that it applies. Taken together, the principles and boundary conditions are part of Mayer’s “cognitive theory of multimedia learning". The theory also identifies three assumptions that are based on cognitive science.

  1. The dual-channel assumption posits that humans have a channel for processing visual information (pictures and text) and a channel for information received through hearing and the spoken word. (Note: this does not refer to so-called visual and auditory “learning styles".)
  2. The limited-capacity assumption states that people can only process a certain amount of information at any one time. Most trainers are probably familiar with this assumption. As a guide to avoiding “cognitive overload”, they strive to keep the number of chunks of information in working memory down to between five and seven.
  3. The active-processing assumption says that people have to participate in active cognitive processes in order to learn, as opposed to the “knowledge dump” approach to teaching in which learners are passive. Active knowledge transmission involves identifying knowledge, organizing it into verbal and visual models, and then integrating it into the learner’s existing knowledge.

Applying Mayer’s principles and the cognitive theory of multimedia learning

The books in the reference section should be on every eLearning designer’s physical bookshelf. They contain more detail and practical examples than I have room for here. Learning Solutions has published a number of articles that reference them and that you may find helpful (search using “multimedia”). There are two key things to keep in mind when designing a learning application that involves multimedia (video, narrated PowerPoint deck, animated simulation, even, in some cases, an audio podcast).

The first key is to remember that effective use of multimedia in online training involves more than shooting a video, making a narrated PowerPoint deck, or producing animation and simply incorporating it into an authored lesson to be posted on the web. The production values must include adhering to Mayer’s principles and avoiding cognitive overload. Each of the media categories (video, etc.) requires a particular skill set and often a substantial budget. Unless the design incorporates the principles, it does not matter how stunning the multimedia is—the effort and money will be wasted if the end result gets in its own way and the users fail to learn.

The second key to remember is that there will be users who will not benefit from multimedia that does not take into account their particular sensory challenges. Section 508 in the United States, and related laws in practically every other nation do apply, as well as the ICT Standards and Guidelines for Web Content Accessibility (WCAG 2.0). (Search Learning Solutions using “accessibility.) Even without the legal requirements, why would you want to produce an application that a substantial number of learners could not use?


Clark, Ruth C. & Richard E. Mayer. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, 4th Edition. New York: Wiley

Mayer, Richard E. Multimedia Learning, 2nd Edition. Cambridge (England): Cambridge University Press