Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Tangible/Visible Cues vs. Digital Media and the Learning Process

Digital strategy consultant, Dean Landsman, is writing an article about disappearing artifacts such as radios and record albums.  At first it felt simply sentimental, but in fact, there are business implications as well.

Dean's article begins by telling a story about passing an apartment in New York without curtains, looking in at the boxes ready for moving out, and the effect of seeing book spines and album covers he recognised.  From four objects -- specifically, 2 albums and 2 books -- Dean could ascertain that the people in the flat were about his age, probably from the same educational/social/economic background, and, like him, were probably Jewish.

He then asked me: what would I have known about these people if the content had been in digital format?  Probably nothing.

Dean wondered to me what the difference is exactly:
There are a number of angles to pursue to expand the narrative.  What became of "bedside books" or bedside reading?  What are the new signals, what if anything,is it that replaces those "identifying" and telling items?  Also, in learning, if the Period Table was always in view in a classroom (or student's bedroom) then the learning process might have had some element of osmosis.  When the lack of daily or regular visual repetition is gone, does this change the learning process?

It's hard to believe that content in digital format will offer the same impact if left on a computer, ipod or kindle, and viewed/read/heard as is.    First of all, digitally formatted objects don't reveal their contents unless you open them on a computer/device, unless, like an album, the cover is distinctive.

Forget about peeping in windows and learning about strangers.  Because we learn from association, and there are no visual cues to distinguish one piece of content from another in equally sized plastic covers, it's much harder for the content to stick in the head.

Objects that can be differentiated at a glance -- size, texture, or implied aural experience (say, where the dial is set on a radio) -- offer fewer cues and therefore fewer associations.  Emotional attachment/engagment isn't easy without a more immediate visual connection for us between the content inside and ourselves outside the object.

Let's take the example of the book by the bed.  The frequency of seeing the cover, feeling the texture of the cover/pages give us two ways to relate to the book as an object.  When the book is carried and read in a new context -- say outside, or on a train -- all the associations go with the content.  And the more senses that we engage in our exposure to content, the more likely we will learn it.

If we only open the book on a computer or kindle, we've got only one frame (the computer/kindle) on a desk, and we won't see the cover repeatedly, over time.  It therefore won't make the same impression. 

To change the impact, we'd need to create different contexts to see the same content -- albeit, online.  That's not impossible.  We can perhaps engage with it in a specially designed game, associate sound or music with it, and vary the kinds of interaction over time. 

Again, as human beings, we learn by association.  A book is a book, because it isn't a chair, before it's a book without reference to another object.  So our experience of some kinds of digital media will narrow associations due to the way we experience the format, perhaps its time to get more creative about new ways of interacting to make learning work online.

Dean's point is about marketing online, but the issues are not dissimilar.

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