Strong Multimedia Skills Needed to Succeed in Web-Based Training

Many companies are turning to Web-based safety training as their sole means of educating workers, but is that such a good idea? Maybe not, according to a new study.

Students skilled at multimedia comprehension get higher grades with Web-based than lecture courses - but they still don't like them, psychologists at Texas Tech University found.

The researchers compared how well students did in the same course presented in traditional classroom lectures and online, and found a critical difference in students who did better Web-based work. The findings may help educators searching for effective means of moving coursework onto digital media, to provide "distance learning" and enable more students to enroll.

According to the research, which appears in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, special skills preparation may help level the virtual academic playing field. The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes the journal.

William Maki, Ph.D. and Ruth Maki, Ph.D. investigated why some students do better online. At Texas Tech in Lubbock, they evaluated outcomes for 143 women and 55 men in actual introductory psychology courses offered online or in lecture format, for each semester of two academic years. Maki and Maki also tested the same students to see how well they comprehended stories presented in a variety of media formats - on audio tape, as computerized text or as pictures on slides.

The researchers assessed subject-matter knowledge both before and after the course, with three to four difficult multiple-choice questions related to each chapter covered in the course. They also looked at grades from mid-term exams, which were the same for lecture and Web-based students.

That medium-to-highly skilled students tended to do better in the Web-based format raises the question of whether students with lesser multimedia comprehension skills would benefit from instructional intervention. The authors speculate about the potential for "intelligent tutoring systems" to help boost those skills. The authors also speculate that higher levels of comprehension skill enabled students to learn more independently, a crucial factor in success in the fast-paced, highly structured Web-based course.

Although testing predicted performance, student self-reports about their multimedia comprehension skills did not.

"We know of no quick fix, no rapid direct measure of comprehension skill that would reliably predict differential likelihood of success," said William Maki. "But we doubt that self-assessments are going to be very effective."

Interestingly, comprehension skill did not predict course satisfaction. Students of all skill levels preferred the lecture courses. The researchers discounted lower performance as a source of dissatisfaction, because even the high performers liked the online course less. And it wasn't the Web-based interface per se: Students rated the Web-based course components highly.

The psychologists suspect that instructor enthusiasm and/or coaching for exams might have led to greater satisfaction with the lecture courses. For the Web courses, they point to the high degree of structure, with many weekly deadlines, as a possible culprit in lower satisfaction - regardless of how much was learned.

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