The Rich Media Playbook – Full Text

Posted on Sep 13, 2014

The Rich Media Playbook – Full Text

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“The best courses overflow their containers”

– Jesse Stommel

Executive Summary

Welcome to the Rich Media Playbook. The purpose of this document is to present a framework for using rich media in teaching and learning online, and to outline goals and procedures for a Rich Media Integration (RMI) program within a course life cycle.

The use of rich media in online instruction has often been championed as an advancement toward providing an exemplary online learning experience for our students. The RMI program seeks to fulfill this goal.

RMI is part of an instructional design process that involves analysis of learners, learning outcomes, instructional goals, and the context of learning to determine which rich media strategies and resources are most appropriate to use and how they should be presented.

The goals of the RMI program are:

To produce instructional content and activities which use the appropriate strengths and affordances inherent in rich media that will help students to achieve learning outcomes.

To offer opportunities for learners to use technologies and rich media in instructional contexts that they are most likely to encounter in authentic work or scholarly practice.

These goals are predicated upon the simple proposition that:

The employment of certain instructional strategies in online learning will support lifelong learning skills and habits that students will need in order to pursue their goals in the 21st century, whether in the workplace, academia, or in personal development.

Thus, we add the following statement to the standard instructional design challenges encountered in producing online courses:

To use rich media in situations where the unique affordances of a rich media-based strategy offer advantageous cognitive, creative, and/or social experiences.

These challenges are not met unilaterally, nor by the output of one individual. Successful RMI involves the participation of members of Academic Affairs, Educational Technology, the Instructional Design team, faculty, and media production professionals.

Rich media is not one particular thing, like a video or interactive simulation.

Rich media is a heading for a class of media systems that embody the capability to communicate or organize information so that learners can engage and interpret it with certainty, unambiguity, and shared understanding.

We introduce three rich media systems in this class: multimedia, social network systems, and Web-based tools.

None of these media systems, on their own, cause learning. They are often cognitive guides that contribute to achieving an instructional goal. Rich media must be implemented in a coordinated, deliberative, and pedagogically sound way, mindful of their affordances, costs, resource needs, other instructional media, and the impact on instructor and student workload.

Rich media serves more than a pragmatic role in learning. The use of rich media in curricula serves as an affirmation to students that they may expect to see and use these forms of engagement in the real world. Engagement with rich media builds sub-skill proficiency in digital literacies, and supports identity construction to operate effectively in 21st century business and scholarship environments.

The Playbook concludes with an outline that describes how RMI is initiated, carried out through the pre-launch course development process, supported in implementation, and evaluated. This process will change and evolve over time as it is integrated into broader schemes and influenced by student and instructor feedback.


The use of rich media has often been promoted as a critical part of providing a competitively high quality, interactive, and engaging learning experience for students.

In the past, the instructional design team has supported incidental requests by faculty to integrate rich media into their courses, with overall success limited to faculty who inquire voluntarily. However, to achieve a greater impact, our outreach needs to expand to a program dedicated to achieving broad based improvement.

Purpose, Needs, and Goals

The purpose of the Rich Media Playbook is to establish a framework for the College’s Rich Media Integration (RMI) program so that qualified courses can be proactively enhanced according to a clear and sustainable plan of action, consistent with the teaching and learning philosophies of the College.

The need for an RMI program is driven in part by institutional aspirations, but also by instructors’ low awareness of the full range of rich media options. Evidence of this is in prevailing ideas that adding rich media to an online course means simply adding videos or images to it, or that rich media is a “spice” that adds pizzaz to an already developed course.

The RMI program is intended to achieve two primary goals:

To produce instructional content and activities which use the appropriate strengths and affordances inherent in rich media that will help students to achieve learning outcomes.

To offer opportunities for learners to use technologies and rich media in instructional contexts that they are most likely to encounter in authentic practice.

A simple guiding philosophy informs the rationale for our RMI goals:

The employment of certain instructional strategies in online learning will support lifelong learning skills and habits that students will need to pursue their goals in the 21st century, whether in the workplace, academia, or in personal development.

The commonsense appearance of this statement belies a deeper sensibility about the way we teach, given the myriad of options we could implement to further our educational goals. How we teach – the philosophy of learning we embrace, the communication systems we use, the character of activities, the tools used in engagement – can be an influential factor in how learners construct identities in modern communities of professionals and academics.

It is incumbent on us as an institution – as a catalyst to student social mobility, career, and scholarly advancement – to consider the realities of the environment that students will be advancing to when they graduate. This includes more than just kinship with the body of knowledge and theories of a given discipline, but the communication environment that supports the advancement of knowledge, the conveyance of it, and the means by which it is organized, presented, and shared.

When we offer well-designed courses with soundly implemented rich media, we prepare students to be effectively engaged in a 21st century professional and academic environment where similar media, social networks, and applications are often present.

Thus, we approach online course design and development mindful, as always, of  instructional design standards, to which we include:

To use rich media in situations where the unique affordances of a rich media-based instructional strategy offer advantageous cognitive, creative, and/or social experiences.


The work of RMI is not a unilateral task performed only by the Rich Media Specialist, an instructional designer, or by any one individual. Instead, successful RMI involves input, assessment, and participation from members of:

  • Academic Affairs, in setting short- and long-term expectations of faculty and providing incentives to participate.
  • Faculty, who will serve as curators, creators, and facilitators of instructional activities that utilize rich media.
  • Education Technology, who will provide research, platforms, and systems to support media access, and training for end users.
  • Instructional Designers, who will serve as partners with faculty in promoting course quality.
  • Rich Media Specialist/Media Production, who will research and propose solutions appropriate for the course and its unique needs and conditions, and then see ideas through to successful production and publication.

Defining Rich Media

“Rich media” does not have an established, traditional academic definition like “digital literacy”. However, adjacent disciplines can offer insight into the provenance of the term.

In the study of information processing, Daft & Lengel (1986) propose a Media Richness hypothesis which classifies communication media along a continuum between the semantic terms richness and leanness. Media that are closer to the “rich” end of the spectrum embody a greater capacity to provide unambiguous meaning and certainty to its users/participants through the conveyance of nonverbal cues, rapid feedback, personality traits, and natural language. Thus, a face-to-face interaction is semantically “rich” compared to a semantically “lean” plain text email message.

However, we should note that “richness” does not correspond with “good”, and “leanness” with “bad” forms of communication. Instead, each medium is best suited for a purpose: rich media used in situations with complex subject matter, or a high potential for ambiguity or conflict (such as a gathering of people to agree on the goals of a project); lean media, like email, best suited for communicating operational directives (Heeren, E. & Lewis, R., 1997).

In a nutshell, rich media are “rich” because, under the right conditions, they can convey or process information to make ideas, principles, concepts, or causal relationships easier to understand than if one were to use text media alone.

Thus, when we consider using rich media in an instructional situation, we are expressing a desire for a mode or form of communication with the richness of natural human communication and sensory perception, as these factors contribute to improved co-orientation between learners and the instructor, proper orientation to subject matter, and shared understanding among participants.

In the word “media” we find not one, but several interpretations. Media can mean artifacts, such as an image, video, audio, or interactive program. Or it can mean a mode or channel of communication, such as face-to-face engagement, telephone, television, or an Internet platform, Web tool, etc. Each medium/mode carries implications for its practical utility. We must also monitor factors that can cause a collateral effect on the meaning or integrity of intended messages, or distract learners’ attention from the intended area of focus.

From an instructional design perspective, we may refer to media as either the person/artifact that conveys instructional information and content, or the digital platform upon which information is organized, hosted, and retrieved for viewing.

“Rich media”, then, may be described not necessarily as a particular thing, such as a video in a course, but rather a broad set of communication modes, channels, and resources to be used under certain conditions. In the context of the RMI program, we will coalesce them into a class of media systems used in online learning:

  1. Multimedia with optimal characteristics to stimulate sensory experiences and cognitive activity analogous to real world experiences and phenomena, used as a cognitive guide.
  2. Social network systems that provide users access to and connectivity/collaboration with others, with the capability to engage with content in a way that fosters encounters with multiple facets of knowledge.
  3. Web-based tools employed to match or approximate the tools used in authentic practice to search for and organize information, such as to curate, tag, share, classify, annotate, create, publish, and edit content.

What Does Rich Media Have to Offer?

Communication and educational research has produced theories about media in instructional situations. We begin with multimedia.

Multimedia is a cognitive guide in constructing mental models.

Multimedia has been a popular focus of educational research (Mayer, 2005; Mayer, 2009). While the exact definition of multimedia varies, commonalities among diverse perspectives include the simultaneous presentation of multiple modes of information: text, audio, video, still images, animated images, and sometimes interactive computer programming containing each of these modes. A simple example would be an animated video with spoken narration that describes how lightning strikes.

Multimedia may be employed in instructional contexts for a variety of purposes. For example, Mayer & Moreno (2003) state that multimedia-based instruction is intended to foster “… meaningful learning [through] the construction of a mental model of how a causal system works (p.46)”. The operative word in this statement is “construction”, as we believe that learning is characterized by a process of building knowledge through active sensemaking. Multimedia, therefore, is a cognitive guide (Mayer, 2005) in this process.

Foremost in sensemaking is learners’ active sensory perception of their environment.

For the sake of comparison, both a video representation and a text representation of the same phenomenon are equally capable of communicating information. The difference, and therefore the advantages inherent in video, audio, or interactive simulations, is in the high degree of perceptual resolution inherent to multimedia, which may be described as its presentation being most closely analogous to that which it represents (Kozma, 1991).

For example, if an instructional activity involves observation and analysis of a situation-based phenomenon with human interaction, a video representation would offer learners a more authentic1 basis for analysis than a text description alone. This is because video can reproduce visual information, non-verbal cues, audio synchronization, situational contexts, and time-based phenomena with a greater ability to control the focus of attention than text.

Similarly, a class in linguistics would benefit from audio representations of phonetics; a statistics assignment would benefit from an interactive data visualization or simulation that processes input to test a predictive output model.

These examples demonstrate how multimedia, as a cognitive guide, can be advantageous for learners.

 1 – The term “authentic” in this context is not meant to suggest that a video holds greater “truthfulness” than text, as it is evident that editorial choices are made in the development of all media. Authenticity, in this context, refers to the inherent representational capabilities of the video medium versus a purely symbolic text medium.

Social network systems can foster construction of meaning, identity, and connection to others.

Web-based communication systems are powerful platforms for collecting, organizing, and displaying information. Examples include LinkedIn,,,,; industry related forums like, and non-profit organizations that publish standards, host conferences, and promote membership (,,, etc.)

However, these examples are not always perceived as rich media in the same educational conventions as multimedia. There are natural differences in the way they appear and how users engage with them.

A multimedia artifact is self-contained and its content is relatively finite. Social networks, however, are the opposite – constantly expanding with new information, growing participation, endless capacity, and evolving organizational schemes (Weinberger, D., 2011). Yet social networks are equally capable of serving as cognitive guides for learners in the construction of meaning.

How is this achieved? How do social networks contribute to uncertainty reduction and shared understanding when they are comparatively lean in conveying the semantics of natural human communication?

The answer centers around the mechanisms in social networks to present a preponderance – or crowdsourcing – of agreement from the multiple perspective of its participants. Social networks often utilize a “voting up” or ratings features that allows participants to rank certain responses according to their sense of its relevance, quality, thoroughness, or insightfulness to the question or topic (e.g.,,, and others), with the ability for others to add comments. In some platforms, users can filter comments according to various criteria, including most popular, newest, and oldest.

While the “voting up” and ranking features are imperfect, they can be used as a cognitive guide that models how knowledge can be fluid – not static or finite; that “truth” can be contextual, and that the answers to some questions reside somewhere in the middle of an infinite range of possibilities that extend outward along the long tail of social knowledge.

Social networks also offer opportunities for learners to practice the experience of cognitive presence.

Cognitive presence, in online communities, is a human perceptual experience felt by members when they are part of dynamic interaction (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2003). Cognitive presence is characterized by social, psychological, and emotional interplay that fosters a sense of community and connection with others. Immersion in a virtual community helps one to construct and refine one’s identity and to observe the behavior of prominent figures in certain professions.

Most of all, cognitive presence in an online environment serves as an incubator to construct meaning (Palloff & Pratt, 2007), with multiple perspectives providing participants with greater awareness of the facets of a given topic. Thus, when considering social networks as rich media, we are concerned with the character of its members’ participation: the depth and quality of inquiry, the maturity of respondents, modes of connectivity, and interactive user experiences.

From an instructional design perspective, social networks offer opportunities for learners to turn outward from the insular boundaries of traditional course textbooks to observe how ideas are applied or portrayed in contemporary, authentic situations, and for learners to actually participate in the process of inquiry in communities of practice.

Social knowledge, facilitated through online social networks, can be messy. But they are also very powerful tools for collecting and disseminating information on a global scale. Instructional designers should propose ways to leverage it for teaching and learning. By doing so, we endorse that cognitive presence in social networks is a rich environment for knowledge construction in the 21st century, and a strategy for advancement beyond graduation.

Using the same Web-based tools used in authentic practice prepares learners for the real world.

Web tools are useful for more than just their pragmatic value. If pragmatic value were the only criteria for employing a given Web tool, our choices could be relatively arbitrary based on convenience, cost, or instructor’s preference.

Instead, specific Web tools have emerged as the de facto applications for professional and scholarly discourse.

Web tools are commonly cloud-based applications used to access information (Twitter, search engines, Wolframalpha), communicate (Skype, Twitter,,, manage projects (Basecamp, Google Docs, ScheduleOnce), share resources (wikis, Diigo, Evernote), publish media (YouTube, SlideShare, WordPress), build bibliographies (Zotero, EndNote) and create media (Jing).

Learners benefit from using these tools in a number of ways. First, some tools offer powerful methods for accessing information, locating interest groups, locating conference proceedings, and reviewing commentary on subject matter related to academic interests. When assignments involve the use of these tools, learners are initiated into the stream of global discourse.

Second, Web tools used for curating, collaboration, or composing presentations can build foundation skills for use in business or scholarly research.

Third, and more fundamentally, practice with Web tools promotes refinement of sub-skills that are commonly found in many applications. For example, when students learn how to use Skype, they practice and learn the following discrete sub-skills:

    • Locate, download, and install an application on a computer or tablet.
    • Establish a secure account username and password.
    • Develop a contact list of other users through a user search process.
    • Configure a webcam, microphone, or headset.
    • Send and receive text, video, audio, screensharing, and file streams.
    • Communicate synchronously with single or multiple partners.
    • Construct a sense of presence and identity with others in a particular communication mode.
    • Troubleshoot functional problems for themselves and others. 

These sub-skills can be transferred to both similar and dissimilar applications, which is valuable when new platforms or tools emerge that call for similar proficiencies. Exposure to and practice with even a few Web tools can build a substantial collection of sub-skill proficiencies.

For example, a traditional assignment may ask a student to read and evaluate content in a textbook and produce a term paper. An alternative to this assignment, utilizing a Web tool, could be for students to search in Twitter to curate articles or information using a subject-specific hashtag or search term, and then evaluate findings against textbook-based principles or systems.

A Twitter based activity offers the following benefits: 

    • Immersion in a realtime information stream on relevant news.
    • Exposure to industry or subject-related blogs or forums on contemporary issues.
    • Access to prominent practitioners or scholars who curate and share important research or commentary.
    • Alerts to industry events or conferences.
    • Interaction and connectivity with others with the same areas of interest.

Search results can be used as a focal point for academic analysis and evaluation, except in this case “facing outward” into global community of resources rather than strictly “inward” within the boundaries and editorial choices of the textbook.

When learners report to their formal learning communities with content curated externally, it enriches the learning experiences of other students, and can inspire them to explore or experiment on their own.

Rich media does not cause learning

In summary, each of the proposed rich media systems are “rich” because they can increase the quality of communication and enhance engagement for online learners, while offering opportunities to practice critical 21st century digital skills.

However, it must be stated that for all its benefits, rich media alone does not cause learning.

We cannot assume that the mere presence of rich media in an online course is a reliable cue for learners to engage with it as intended. We must signal learners to focus on certain themes or patterns in instructional media to prevent cognitive overload (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Some systems and tools can be so open-ended that we must prompt learners to use them only within the constraints needed to fulfill assignments.

Second, RMI does not imply excluding or discarding other useful instructional strategies. It is only one element among a set of other traditional instructional strategies that will enable learners to produce evidence of learning and achieve outcomes.

Third, we must be cognizant of the possibility that RMI may have adverse effects such as:

  • Causing an intolerable increase in workload for both students and instructors.
  • Posing greater probabilities for technical problems.
  • Causing complications in meeting ADA compliance.
  • Imposing additional costs for both students and the College.
  • Promoting negative feelings, such as imposing the use of social media on some students who, for personal reasons, may not wish to participate in an activity that requires presenting images of themselves or may have concerns about leaving the private confines of the LMS.

The use of rich media in online learning is new and experimental. Its benefits may be immediately apparent, or redeemed long after a course has concluded. There are risks in implementing rich media into an online course, though the College and its students may discover a greater benefit to having been part of an innovative program of learning than having settled for only using conventional teaching and learning methods.

The key to successful RMI will be in the wisdom to know where the benefits outweigh the risks and then forging ahead with confidence, flexibility, and resilience.

The RMI Process

The following outline represents a broad description of the RMI process. The process will evolve as experiences inform which strategies work best.

  1. Academic Affairs communicates to faculty about the RMI program to prepare them for contact from Instructional Designers (ID) and the Rich Media Specialist (RMS) about RMI course nominations.
  2. Courses are nominated based on some or all of the criteria set forth by ID and Academic Affairs (AA) staff, as follows:
    1. Instructor initiative.
    2. Timeliness of nomination prior to the start of term.
    3. Instructor experience and proficiencies.
    4. General formative needs of course, per ID and AA, such as “What is not working in this course as well as it could?”
  3. Nominated courses are submitted to the RMS, who conducts a complete analysis of the course, including:
    1. Review of overall role of the course within the curriculum.
    2. Learning Outcomes and the instructional activities designated throughout the course to meet them.
    3. Research of rich media resources appropriate for instructional tasks, learning goals, and overall course goal.
    4. Proposals developed for RMI where appropriate.
    5. Complete written document produced.
  4. RMS meets with the instructor’s assigned ID to go over the written proposal.
    1. ID and RMS discuss and refine each recommendation and determine which will be presented to the instructor, based on an ongoing working relationship with the instructor and the history of the course.
  5. ID presents recommendations to the instructor.
    1. ID and instructor negotiate which recommendations are feasible or preferred under the prevailing conditions.
    2. ID and instructor negotiate which recommendations can be done independently and which need involvement with the RMS.
    3. ID and instructor plan to report findings during certain intervals of the course, or at the conclusion, to document experiences with the revised course components.
    4. Instructor or AA produces a brief questionnaire for students to gauge the experiences and effects of the rich media activities.
  6. Instructor revises his or her course.
    1. Revisions are produced independently, or in collaboration with the RMS.
  7. Instructor teaches the course.
    1. Instructor maintains contact with ID and RMS to monitor progress, if needed, and experiences using the recommended RMI strategies.
  8. Instructor submits RMI experiences.
    1. The ID and RMS have an end-of-course debrief about student and instructor experiences. Formative plans and lessons learned are documented by the RMS.
  9. Summative evaluation of RMI is produced for each course.
    1. RMS produces a summative evaluation brief to the original RMI analysis document for use in continuous improvement efforts.

Additional questions for further discussion: Feedback and Evaluation

The following questions for further discussion seek to clarify our expectations of the RMI program.

  • What criteria will we use to compare outcomes from the use of rich media to prior outcomes?
  • How will we evaluate progress? Student/instructor feelings? 
  • What levels of achievement will we judge as success or failure? 
  • What form of feedback will be needed to judge effectiveness? Student feedback, instructor feedback, employer feedback?
  • Will student retention factor into evaluation?
  • If we survey students, when will it be done? During or after the course? 6 months after?

References & Supporting Resources

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Clark, R. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research , 53 (4), 445-459.

Daft, R. L., R. H. Lengel (1986). Organizational information requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science. 32(5) 554–571.

Garrison, D., Anderson, W., & Archer, W. (2003). A theory of critical inquiry in online distance education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of distance education, 113-127. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues and future directions. Internet and Higher Education, 10, 157-172.

Heeren, E. and Lewis, R. (1997), Selecting communication media for distributed communities. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 13: 85–98. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2729.1997.00011.x

Kozma, R. B. (1991). Learning with media. Review of Educational Research, 61, 179-211.

Mayer, R. E. (Ed). (2005). Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. E. & Moreno, Roxana (2003). “Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning.” Educational Psychologist, 38(1).

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.


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