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Evaluating Media Characteristics:
Using multimedia to achieve learning outcomes

George Siemens

Originally Presented at AMTEC 2002
with Stephen Yurkiw

February 7 , 2003


Many media formats are available to designers of learning materials (for elearning, classroom learning, or any stage on the continuum). The challenge is to select the media type that most effectively presents the learning material in order to achieve intended learning outcomes. Not all media is created equal, and certain formats are more effective for certain tasks. This article presents various media formats, their strengths, weaknesses, uses, and roles in achieving learning outcomes.


The following are the steps involved in selecting media type to achieve learning outcomes:

  • Determine the outcome. What will the student be required to do/demonstrate/produce at the conclusion of the lesson/module/unit
  • Rate the outcome according to Bloom's Taxonomy (or similar taxonomy detailing levels of understanding)
  • Determine media characteristics (see below)
  • Select media based on availability, expense, time, expertise, and general considerations (bandwidth, technology (i.e. do learners have video/sound cards))

Media characteristics need to match with the requirements of the learning outcome. In some cases, circumstances (time, expense) may not allow the selection of the most desirable format, but a clear understanding of learning outcomes and media traits can still ensure quality learning.

Effective learning is linked more to media characteristics and learning context. Sometimes, text is still the best way to learn. No tool is perfect for every situation.

Media Formats:

  • Video - digital (CD, DVD), VHS, streaming
  • Audio - MP3's, cassettes, CD's
  • Text - webpages, text books, handouts
  • Visuals - pictures, diagrams, simple animations
  • Live/F2F - classroom, synchronous online
  • Software - simulations, complex interactive animations
  • Collaborative - shared digital spaces
  • Integrated - Using combinations (possibly in a single interface)


Text is the venerable back bone of learning. Paper, digital, manuals, online chats, discussion questions, and blogging are all effective uses of text. For most learners, this is still the area of greatest comfort (possibly because they've spent decades in text-based learning). With elearning, text still remains central...but can easily be enhanced through simple graphics and audio. Biggest benefit of text: surveyable and portable. Drawback: it's overused and abused.

Use for outcomes:
  • Surveyable
  • Easy to produce
  • Low bandwidth
  • Familiar
  • Many readers
  • Not much specialization
  • Overused
  • Passive
  • 100% learner motivation
  • Time lag
  • Simple to complex
  • Suited to synthesis/evaluation
  • Reflection – due to time lag


Audio has been a component in distance education for decades. Most colleges/universities had departments strictly focused on duplicating audio resources for distance learners. Audio is effective - it's more personal than text. Internet technologies like VoIP (check out PalTalk) make it fairly simple for instructors to hold two-way audio-based learning sessions. Voice-to-text translators allow learners with underdeveloped typing skills to contribute more to text chats. Audio pronunciations (foreign language terms) can also be very useful for learners. Biggest benefit: auditory learners/speed. Drawback: learners can tune out.

Use for Outcomes:
  • Two-way interaction
  • Enrich a text only course
  • Useful for explanations, accessibility, pronunciations
  • Great for auditory learners
  • Speed – faster than typing (and less inhibitive)
  • Easy to tune out
  • Text read – limits pace – user needs to be able to disable
  • Need professional “voice”
  • Extended audio needs to be indexed – time/expense
  • Across spectrum
  • Presentation
  • Explanations
  • Dialogue
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis


The Internet is a visual medium, and as bandwidth improves, it will become more so. One of the biggest values of visuals is the ability to liven up existing text through the use of graphics, diagrams (“picture is worth a thousand words”), and digital pictures. Benefit: visual learning. Drawback: expense/quality tradeoff.

Use for Outcomes:
  • Abundance
  • Low cost (if using clip art/digital camera)
  • Versatile – use for any learning task
  • Low bandwidth (if done right)
  • Enrich learning material
  • Can be poor quality
  • Motion/animation can be expensive
  • Time consuming
  • Involved if using graphic artist
  • Digital pictures
  • Graphics – Internet
  • Graphic artist – designing
  • Enriches text – “picture is worth a thousand words”
  • Animations


Few technologies have more potential than video for improving learning. Digital, streaming, and two-way video over the Internet offer distance education departments opportunities to improve the quality and personalization of the learner experience. Combining powerful mediums of video and the Internet also opens doors for on-demand learning. Benefit: visual/personal. Drawback: expense.

Use for Outcomes
  • Visual
  • Personal medium
  • Many viewers/large audience
  • Detail complex tasks
  • Ability to review
  • Increased variety – CD, Streaming
  • Specialized team – i.e. producer, editor, camera
  • Expensive
  • Not easy to modify
  • Sequential, difficult to survey
  • Passive
  • Demonstrations
  • Explanations
  • Lecture
  • Complex – i.e. whiteboard – physics problem solving
  • Two way (expensive) – instructor observes student


Software is critical to learning - from simple tools like Hot Potatoes, to more advanced tools like Flash, Authorware, TLM, and WebCT.

Games and simulations are an emerging field that promises effective, engaging, life-like learning. Benefit: re-usable, self-paced. Negative: expensive, complex

Use for Outcomes
  • Simulation
  • Self-paced
  • Re-usable
  • Team based
  • Memorable
  • Game-like – “edutainment”
  • Expensive
  • Time consuming
  • Complex to design
  • Team based
  • Added complexity for learners
  • Demonstrations
  • Knowledge
  • Broad knowledge
  • Practice complex skill in safe environment
  • Synthesis


Classroom lectures have been the predominate learning model for the last century. The heart of the model is personal instructor and learner interaction. Now with the development of tools like Centra and HorizonLive, similar interaction can occur over the Internet. Benefit: effective and familiar. Drawback: expense

Use for Outcomes
  • Highly interactive
  • Familiar – students and instructors
  • Effective
  • Proven history
  • Can incorporate other media
  • Only synchronous
  • Expensive
  • No “knowledge” trail (classrooms)
  • Limited audience size
  • Not surveyable
  • Everything
  • Main determinant of success is the skill of the instructor


Collaboration can be described as a media format - it is a combination of processes and tools that transforms "stale" isolated elearning, into a dynamic, interactive learning experience. However, collaboration often has slow social acceptance because it is unfamiliar to many. It's talked more than it is done. Younger learners have grown up in more collaborative learning environments and the transition may be easier for them. The nice effect of collaboration is the disbursement of control from the teacher to the learners. Benefit: effective, models real life. Drawback: hard to manage.

Use for Outcomes:
  • Knowledge building
  • Communities
  • Student to student
  • Time on task
  • Ideal for online environment
  • Supplements other media
  • Takes time – not ideal for short-course training
  • Difficult to do
  • Change required of student and instructor
  • Explanation/demonstration
  • Higher order
  • Synthesis, evaluation
  • Deep learning, not surface
  • Multiple perspectives


Each media type and format has it's own strengths and weaknesses. The plethora of options available presents a challenge and an opportunity. Instructors have an incredible wealth of resources to use in order to improve the learner experience. Yet, using the wrong media to achieve outcomes (try learning how to prepare an omelet through only text...or learning critical thinking through an audio resource that doesn't allow time for reflection) is a frustrating experience for the learner and the instructor. Proper integration of media formats presents students with rich, varied learning...and minimizes the weaknesses of each format.

Use for Outcomes:
  • Combine best features, minimize weaknesses
  • Enriched learning
  • Asynchronous
  • Synchronous
  • Instructors have to combine tools to achieve outcomes
  • “Ideal” elearning tool doesn’t exist yet
  • Complexity
  • High skill required
  • Anything

Resources and References

The Role of Different Media in Designing Learning Environments

elearnspace: Media

Understanding the Web as Media


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License