Size matters. Size matters in our choice of mates and politicians. It also matters to students taking our courses online.
Regardless of the content we create for students, the size of their computer screen will determine how engaged students are and whether they like or remember what they saw.
Large screens display large images which excite us because they appear more consequential. The image of an elephant on a big screen engages our primal survival instincts. A large elephant focuses our attention, arouses our emotions and prepares us for action – fight or flight.
The effect of watching something on a big screen is powerful. Students will be highly engaged during the experience and they will remember what they saw for a long time.
It is unfortunate that our online courses cannot benefit from the advantages that big screens offer. We are creating lessons specifically designed for learners to take on small mobile devices.
An elephant on a little screen does not seem natural. We dislike the experience of watching a mini elephant run around a mini jungle. We are not aroused emotionally by the experience and remember little of what we see.
But before we mourn the loss of student engagement in our courses due to screen size, we must understand there is a downside of creating educational lessons for large screens.
Students respond emotionally and not cognitively to such experiences. While students remember large images and the emotions connected with them, they do not remember the point of the lesson.
So, if our students are not engaged emotionally in small images and are too engaged in large images, what are we to do? How can we design courses for mobile devices that have a lasting cognitive impact on our students?
Mobile devices are portable and personal. They are intimate devices that students have with them wherever they are. This allows us the opportunity to create lessons which speak to them at a personal level.
Students may not be emotionally engaged because our lessons spill across their screens like elephants on stampede, but they may be engaged because we speak to them in a conversational tone about content that is meaningful to them.
Teachers have often lamented that we cannot teach each student individually. We demand smaller class sizes and time in class to speak personally to each students for a few minutes even once a week.
Mobile technology now allows us to speak personally to each student every day for an hour. The new technology changes two important aspects of our teaching experience. It changes how we teach and how students learn.
Teachers no longer stand in front of thirty students speaking in a loud voice and presenting the same information at the same time to all students, regardless of their attention span at that moment.
Students no longer sit in distracting rooms trying to learn what they can the moment it is shouted above the crowd by the teacher.
When they are ready to study, students now put on headphones to focus their attention on a lesson presented by their teacher on a small screen in the palm of their hand.
This intimacy requires that we change how students see and hear us during a lesson.
For example, it is humorous and disturbing to witness two teachers having a conversation after school. When they step outside their classrooms into the empty hallway, they often do not lower their voices to a conversational tone. They shout at each other while discussing the events of their day.
Unlike teachers talking after class, we must change our tone when recording our online classes. We must be conscious to not shout at our students through their headphones as they work through one of our lessons.
Students need us to talk to them like we are tutoring them. We are present with them through our voice as well as through the device screen, which they perceive to be the face belonging to the voice.
Because students consider the screen to be a face, we do not need to include an image of ourselves on the screen. They do not need to see us to sense that we are with them.
Many teachers currently place a video of themselves teaching their lesson in a corner of the screen. Beyond the fact that such videos are unnecessary, they create several problems.
The teacher is almost always poorly lit and wearing a goofy headset. The camera angle is usually awkward and unnatural.
Few teachers are visibly comfortable teaching in front of a camera, and when recording videos on weekends, it is tempting to wear sloppy or unprofessional clothing.
Most importantly, a human face it is too small to view on mobile screens and distracts from what the teacher is presenting on other parts of the screen.
One last thing to consider is the amount of information we place on a small screen. Because of the limited space, we must not cram the screen with tons of information. The few objects that we do place on the screen should correspond to our verbal presentation of the information.
So, as we create content for our courses, we also must consider the size of the screen on which our students will view that content. Small screens allow us a more intimate encounter with each student who takes our course.
Like any intimate experience, students expect the voice they hear to be conversational and the images they see to correspond to the voice they hear and to fit neatly on the screen.