Staring at Goats: How do we engage students remotely?

As if engagement wasn’t challenging enough already!

Engagement is on political agendas worldwide, as competitive metrication takes hold. It’s part of key annual surveys indicating institutional quality. It’s also part of the language and rhetoric of Continuing Professional Development. To top it all, learning spaces are populated by students using distracting, disengaging mobile devices.

Now, in the wake of Covid-19, we have to engage students remotely over distance, in learning spaces over which we have no direct physical influence, supervision, or monitoring capacity. It’s almost like a scene from the George Clooney movie, ‘The Men who Stare at Goats’, where the protagonists try, mostly unsuccessfully, to project personal influence and control over others over a geographical distance.

Multimedia Learning

Luckily for us, we don’t need movie-star looks or paranormal powers. We have Multimedia Learning (MML) methods. Multimedia Learning is based on more than half a century of research on cognitive psychology, working memory, and neurological processing.

Key principles of MML, according to Professor Richard Mayer, include:

  • The Multimedia Principle – humans learn best from words and pictures than just words alone;
  • The Coherence Principle – cutting out anything in our visual material that the learner does not need;
  • The Signalling Principle – showing the learner clearly what to pay attention to on-screen; and
  • The Redundancy principle – if the audio simply reads the words on screen then get rid of them or put them in subtitles.

You can review all 12 of Mayer’s key principles here.

MML scholarship argues that because our brains use two channels to process information and engage and learn, so should our teaching. We process knowledge through audio-textual and visual channels, so we should be teaching using those channels in balance. If we do not – if we teach mainly with text – we ‘crash’ working memory and cause cognitive overload – otherwise known as ‘Death by PowerPoint’. Our students’ brains become disengaged (Ayres, 2015).

I imagine we’ve all been on the receiving end of it at conferences.

Conversely, if we transmit content so it mirrors how the brain functions, then we will ease stress on working memory and increase engagement.  The key idea is that images are shown to increase online engagement, active learning and inclusivity.