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The Musical Staircase

At a recent meeting, one of the faculty members reported on a research article she had read regarding a musical staircase.  What she said was that in the experiment researchers set up a system whereby a staircase played music while an escalator in close proximity did not.  They wanted to determine whether people would prefer to take the musical staircase rather than the escalator; which is what reportedly happened. What’s dangerous is the application of the results of that research to classrooms:  online courses should have music and other forms of entertainment.  It seems to be a logical conclusion, until you look at the studies on cognitive load, and you consider that the individuals on the stairs weren’t trying to learn anything.

So, without going into cognitive load theory, let me give you some other scenarios to consider:  Have you ever been shopping in a store where you are very much aware of the music playing?  Are there times when you liked the music and times when all you wanted was to get out?  Have you ever pulled up one of those web pages that plays music the minute you hit the page, and desperately wanted to turn the music off?  I know that even if I like a particular song, I would not want it to play every time I entered my course page, or any page for that matter unless I was going there to specifically hear that song.  And students don’t want to be confronted with music every time they access a course either.

Extraneous matter: images, audio, video, animation, etc, meant to simply make a course more appealing without actually providing academic content not only are unnecessary and create a poorly designed course, but they can actually make the material more difficult to learn.  At the very least, they are distracting and/or annoying. The massive amount of research on Cognitive Load confirms this, but in reality so should common sense.

I met with a student the other day who told me she spent 40 minutes looking at a particular image in a course trying to figure out what she was supposed to take from the image, only to come to the conclusion that it was simply there as a decoration.  Ah! 40 minutes!  Some of us will do the same thing, but only momentarily, trying to decode the presence of a particular photo.   The need to figure it out is intrinsic to our nature but uses essential energy and time that should be used to understand and process  the required content.

So, while a staircase with lovely music, or a restaurant with violins, or snow flakes falling in a window may attract and hold our attention, they will distract students in a course.   Context is everything.


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