Cognitive Overloading or Continuity of Learning?
An Analysis of Instructional Video Content Developed by Pakistan During the COVID-19 Crisis
Children have a right to education during emergency situations, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Pakistan is doing its part to ensure continuity of learning through various means, such as the development of instructional videos to be broadcast on public television. These videos not only respond to the current crisis but also serve as a valuable resource for future needs. However, the utility of these videos will ultimately depend on the quality and design of their instructional content.
As a learner views educational videos, he or she selects certain words and images, organizes them into verbal and pictorial models, and integrates them with prior knowledge leading to meaningful learning.
When designing instructional videos, it is important to factor in the three assumptions of how the mind responds to Multimedia Learning:
- Our information processing systems consist of two channels: Audio (for words and sounds) and visual (for text and pictures);
- Each channel has a limited amount of processing capacity; and
- For meaningful learning to occur, substantial cognitive processing should be based on input from either (or both) the audio and visual channels.
Failure to incorporate these assumptions can lead to ineffective instructional videos. For instance, a silent animation explaining how an engine works is less intelligible than a similar animation with narration.
Multimedia developers should be mindful of learners’ limited cognitive processing capacity and assist learners in the selection, organization, and integration of the new material. However, the instructional videos being developed in Pakistan often fail to recognize the limited cognitive processing capacity of learners, which leads to cognitive overload. As a result, these videos may not be contributing to meaningful learning. The instructional videos developed in Pakistan are being broadcast through a dedicated TV channel named Teleschool and are also available on YouTube. Keep reading for a summary of an analysis that illustrates the extent of cognitive overload.
Types of Cognitive Overload in Teleschool Videos
- When the visual channel is overloaded with essential material without narration.
Many of the videos begin with a silent animation that recaps what was taught in the previous lesson. Introductions to new topics also often begin with silent animation with labels and other text in English (instead of Urdu). Research conducted by Mayer and Moreno shows that this approach leads to cognitive overload as the learner has to split his/her attention between animation and reading the text. In the case of Teleschool videos, the cognitive load is even higher as the texts are often in English, which is less familiar to learners in Pakistan.
- When both channels are overloaded with essential material.
The pacing of content may determine whether meaningful learning can take place. The pacing of some Teleschool videos is too fast. For example, in a Grade 7 Mathematics video lecture on sets, the narrator explains the concept of “Equivalent sets” in 10 seconds and provides two seconds for learners to see the example of an “Improper subset.” This does not provide the learner with sufficient time to select and organize the new information and integrate it with his/her prior knowledge. Moreover, assessment questions at the end of the videos often do not give ample time for learners to think about the answer.
- When audio and/or visual channels are overloaded with extraneous material.
Adding a lot of visual effects and unnecessarily detailed animations might be entertaining to learners, but it actually causes distractions that prevent meaningful learning. For instance, in the Grade 8 Science video (Lecture 5), ten different animations are shown in 20 seconds to explain cell growth. Similarly, while cursorily mentioning examples of different body cells (i.e. skin cells, liver cells, etc.), detailed visuals of each cell are displayed with labels of concepts that are not discussed, adding unnecessary distraction.
- When the system is overloaded because of the manner in which essential material is presented.
This frequently occurs when the narration for an animation is in Urdu but the text on screen is in English. As a result, learners must spend a considerable amount of cognitive resources to determine which parts of the Urdu narration matches the English text. A cursory glance of the mathematics videos shows such overloading throughout.
In addition to these examples of cognitive overload, the videos have mistakes in narration (describing a pair of uterus instead of ureters in a Grade 8 Science Lecture), include unrelated material (the same lesson mentions Pavlov’s experiment on dogs without explanation), and are narrated by a ‘mechanical’ voice with grammatical errors and odd pauses between sentences. All of these issues make it difficult for students to comprehend the lesson. There are also poor transitions from one clip to another, with narration cut midway (Grade 8 Science, Lecture 3; 7:29). Clark and Mayer (2016) and Mayer (2014) have shown that mechanical narration, as used in Teleschool videos, is not helpful.
What is the Solution?
These problems could be significantly addressed if Pakistan replaced the Teleschool videos with those of teachers delivering a lecture in front of a blackboard. Recordings of lectures being delivered by teachers in acoustically sound classrooms can mitigate the problems related to cognitive overloading. The content, its pacing and presentation would be determined by what the teaching community believes is relevant and viable for learners. Animations help in conceptual learning and could be inserted at appropriate places. Videos would no longer be restricted by the availability of open educational resources for a particular subject.
Animated videos that do not take into account how the mind processes multimedia or elements of cognitive overload should be replaced by an actual teacher who smiles, emphasizes key words, pauses to ask questions, point to key elements of a text or a diagram on the blackboard or chart paper and shows how to solve a quadratic equation. It is possible that the challenges of cognitive overloading will remain in first-person live capture as well, but they will be much less than what we see in Teleschool videos. To improve the chances of meaningful learning through instructional videos, Pakistan should get its teachers in front of the camera.
Vijay Siddharth Pillai is a recent graduate in Education and International Development from the University of Cambridge and a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow (India). He currently works as Education Program Manager at Street Child.