Learning is a complex process. It not only involves individuals attempting to learn a given content, but also social exchanges between the learners and the instructors. In other words, learning involves individual cognitive processing but also communicating with those doing the teaching, including instructors, lecturers, teachers, and peers. When students and instructors share a physical space such as a classroom, there is an exchange of rich social information, including human presence, nonverbal communication, and voice. These social cues are generally effective aids to foster learning.
In our laboratory at the Institute of Education, Center for Advanced Research in Education, Universidad de Chile, we are investigating the influence of these social cues in multimedia learning. We want to understand if these social cues affect the teaching effectiveness of teachers and pedagogical agents teaching through multimedia modules. In other words, we want to know if these typical beneficial effects of social cues in the classroom can also be present in other current learning scenarios, such as through computer multimedia and virtual meetings.
We have recently published a meta-analysis about this topic with researchers from the US, the Netherlands, Australia, and Chile. We analysed studies about multimedia pedagogical agents conducted in 2012–2019. The meta-analysis showed that these agents were effective helpers for learning. Learning scores were higher in participants that had studied the multimedia modules with agents, as compared to groups studying the same multimedia contents but without the agents.
We also investigated which of the social cues was more influential for these beneficial effects of the multimedia agents. Of all the agents’ variables analysed – including appearance, gender, gesturing, facial expression, eye gaze, movements, and voice – we only found that appearance made a significant difference. We observed that agents with 2D appearance were more effective than agents with 3D appearance. This could mean that agents looking simpler (2D) may be less distracting than more complex agents (3D). It could be that 3D agents have too many details that distract the learners so they cannot focus on the main depictions of the multimedia.
Another notable finding is that all the other variables did not influence the results. In other words, agents were equally effective, independently of their gender, movements, and voice. Similarly, agents gesturing, showing facial expression, or eye gaze, were as effective as agents not showing these social cues.
Regarding the discipline of the multimedia that was explained by the agents, we observed that in biology, computing, maths, and English, the agents were more effective than in history, language, or education. In other words, having a social presence by a multimedia agent may be more needed in certain disciplines than in others.
Future research could investigate why some variables are more influential than others. A key message from this meta-analysis is that the presence of agents is very important for learning, and several of their variables may be not influential. In other words, as long as an agent is included in a multimedia module, independently of how it is presented, it should boost learning.
How can these findings help teachers in pandemic times, who have become pedagogical agents in their Zoom and Meet classes? How can these results help teachers and instructors who are explaining topics showed in PowerPoint slides or YouTube videos? The answer is straightforward: These instructors should aim at showing themselves in the multimedia, as their presence is key. They could explain the topics showing gesturing, facial expression, eye gaze, and movements. However, if the content is too difficult or visually challenging, in those moments the instructors could hide, so the students focus their gaze only on the most important learning depictions on the screen, and do not get distracted by the appearance of the instructors.
Juan Cristóbal Castro-Alonso, PhD is an associate researcher at the Institute of Education, Center for Advanced Research in Education, Universidad de Chile. You can connect with him on Twitter @DrCrisCastro.