The learning effectiveness of mono-sensory versus multi-sensory learning environments
From primitive stone tablets to modern touch screen digital tablets, technological advancements have always influenced education whether in the classroom or distant. While course material can be easily delivered to those who study online as with those who attend traditional classroom courses, there are certain elements considered helpful to the learning experience that cannot be easily replicated online. Among them is multi-sensory communication and collaboration where students have the ability to simultaneously see, hear and interact with their tutors and peers.
We live in a multi-sensory world and we are multi-sensory beings. It is therefore likely that our brains have evolved to learn most efficiently in a multi-sensory environment. Mono-sensory communication, common in low bandwidth distance learning environments, frequently omits a speakers’ nonverbal communication that can often support the message. Multi-sensory learning environments, on the other hand, are more likely to simulate the real “multi-sensory” world and therefore may be more effective for learning.
Collaboration is an important factor in a good learning experience where a student can acquire new knowledge and skills through discussion and analysis with their peers and tutors. Multi-sensory collaboration may help to provide a channel for dynamic and organic communication with tutors and peers, and widen the scope of multiple learning style support. By providing a channel that could facilitate inter-student communication, multi-sensory collaboration could help to develop relationships between geographically distant peers and tutors, encourage trust and enable effective collaboration. Provided the learner possesses the ability and previous knowledge base, and the learning environment is capable and reliable, multi-sensory collaboration can foster productive learning environments.
However, online multi-sensory communication and collaboration is inherently challenging, can be expensive and faces many technological and sociological obstacles. This raises questions about the justification of this mode of teaching and learning, are the learning benefits worth it?
This was a key question that I sought to answer while researching for my MA in Digital Media for Education at the University of Limerick. The research took place online where participants engaged with a learning environment and collaborated with each other using a variety of software and devices. One group worked within a mono-sensory learning environment and used predominantly asynchronous communication and collaboration tools like discussion forums and emails, while the other group worked within a multi-sensory environment using a combination of asynchronous and synchronous tools like video conferencing and instant messaging. The research tools used for data collection were questionnaires, quizzes, observation and interviews.
My research findings highlighted a number of factors that indicated positive support for the research questions. It emerged that students working within the multi-sensory learning environment appeared to have a more positive learning experience than mono-sensory students. Multi-sensory students performed much better than their mono-sensory counterparts in the post-course knowledge quiz indicating that they had learnt more during the course. Furthermore, the multi-sensory students appeared to be more engaged with the learning process and material, which research literature indicate that this may be a result of working in a more natural “multi-sensory” environment. The research findings also indicated that those students who engaged in multi-sensory collaboration had a better learning experience and achieved better learning outcomes than those who collaborated in a mono-sensory environment.
The research and data from the findings indicates that distance learning students are more involved, more active and more engaged when learning within a multi-sensory environment. Furthermore, students who were learning within a mono-sensory environment specifically recommended that the tools that were available to the multi-sensory group be available to all students. The conclusions that can be drawn from the literature review, the research process and the data analysis are that multi-sensory learning environments are more conducive for effective learning that mono-sensory learning environments.
Andrew Tully is an educator, designer, marketer, programmer and wood-turner, but not necessarily in that order. As founder of Learning Glue, making education work beautifully with technology is a passion.
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