IIMS 94 contents
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Benefits and value of multimedia learning systems

David C Forman
President, NETG-Spectrum, USA


In many ways, ours has been a multimedia society for decades. A variety of media - print material, film strips, and visual aids - have been used in the classroom for years. Conferences and seminars have long made effective use of music, lights, slide projectors and videotapes. And ubiquitous televisions have shaped a new multimedia generation, albeit a passive one.

What differentiates multimedia as the buzzword of the nineties, however, is the partnership potential of multiple media and computer technologies. Computers can now present data, text, sound, graphics, and limited motion video on the desktop. Computer based multimedia skill and knowledge applications offer benefits and value difficult to equal in non-technology implementations.

Why turn to multimedia learning systems? What are their advantages over traditional approaches? How can they assist your organisation in reaching its productivity and profitability potential? What does the multimedia revolution mean to you?

Organisational advantages

Today's business edge depends upon the ability to respond quickly to change - whether it stems from economic, regulatory, or competitive pressures. And organisations that wish to adapt rapidly to new environments confront well documented hurdles. Some of these include: Preoccupying corporations, then, are issues that we categorise as the "Three Cs": Consistency, Competence and Currency.

First, is consistent information being received by all employees in the company, local to or remote from headquarters? Performing well clearly depends on the quality of available information. If information is missing or workers receive variable information and instructions, then inconsistent performance levels are assured.

Second, is the work force competent, or ready to perform? Do they know where to find and how to retrieve critical information? More importantly, do they know what to do with that information to perform faster, with fewer errors, and smarter? With a broader range of responsibilities and less managerial support, competence has become more difficult to achieve.

Third, is the work force current, keeping pace with new information and products? Yesterday's product catalogue cannot meet tomorrow's business plan. How quickly can the organisation and its personnel respond to changing business realities? Can the organisation sustain high performance levels?


Multimedia learning systems, be they instructional or informational, offer the same content presented in the same manner each and every time an application is used. Program providers are assured of getting a standardised message out to their frequently geographically dispersed audience. Reducing inconsistencies in the message makes it more likely that programs will yield intended results and less likely that there will be errors or rework due to poorly covered content. Furthermore, the quality of the information is higher (ie, it is not merely textual), fostering attention and the likelihood that critical messages will be received.


Multimedia learning systems permit users to see, hear, and interact with instruction and information at their own pace. Learners can repeat or revisit realistic scenarios as often as they like. In many cases, needed data and explanations are at their fingertips for use during real time interactions with customers and colleagues. Furthermore, computers offer a variety of efficient mechanisms for monitoring and measuring knowledge and skill acquisition and tracking areas in need of remediation or improved explanation.


Perhaps one of the greatest advantages that multimedia learning systems provide is the rapid distribution of timely information. Should information content change - be it a new procedure for repairing a piece of equipment, a new health and safety regulation, or a new price list - it can be quickly and efficiently downloaded to local workstations or made available via diskette or CD-ROM on non-networked learning stations. The delays and overhead of cascading seminars, printing and distributing volumes of updates and revisions, or videotaping and distributing addenda are avoided. Further, program providers have built in mechanisms to assure that critical messages have been heard by user populations.

It is apparent that computers themselves can take a fair share of credit for many of these advantages, given their raw speed, storage capacity, geographical reach, and fingertip accessibility. However, multimedia adds the critical dimensions of high information quality and high appeal, providing the extra "bandwidth" that motivates workers to transfer knowledge and skill into on the job performance.

Instructional advantages

From early computer based training (CBT) "page turners" - predominantly text and simplistic ASCII graphics - to analog interactive video instruction (IVI) multimedia systems, to the latest all digital multimedia implementations, instructional methods continue to improve. Enabling technologies that underpin these improvements include: lower cost, more powerful processors; faster, higher capacity networks; greater amounts of low cost storage; feature rich operating environments; and more intuitive graphical user interfaces.

In areas as diverse as interpersonal skills, procedural training, knowledge of facts, or development of intellectual abilities, multimedia learning systems have proven benefits and value. Described below are their main instructional features, followed by research based benefits information.

Multiple information modes

As the name implies, multimedia learning systems communicate through the use of a variety of modalities, including audio, scanned images, bit mapped computer graphics, animation, text, and motion video. Regardless of the delivery method, experts agree that appealing to more of the learner's senses enhances attention, motivation to learn, and retention of material.


In 1991, US corporations with over 100 employees spent more than $2.5 billion on externally provided seminars and conferences, exclusive of trainee travel and per diem costs (Lee, 1992). By far the greatest number of training programs today rely on leader led workshops, which are minimally interactive. Learners are predominantly passive, called upon to answer questions or occasionally participate in role playing exercises. They have little opportunity to initiate activity and less still to direct the course of it.

Contrast this with highly interactive multimedia learning systems. Coupled with effective instructional design, these systems provide extensive branching through a variety of instructional strategies, including: inquiry; observation/coaching; trial and consequence; and guided learning. Learners see, hear, and do, confirming wisdom that has existed for centuries:

If you tell me, I will listen.
If you show me, I will see.
If you let me experience, I will learn.
(Lao Tzu)

Training when and where it's needed

There are often significant scheduling and throughput problems with classroom based training. Classes may not be available when they are needed. And for large numbers of students, it may simply take too long for training to occur in blocks of classroom time. IBM, for example, estimated it would take 18 years to upgrade the skill levels at one manufacturing plant using community college instructors.

Several factors make scheduling less a concern for multimedia learning systems located in learning centres. First, courses are always available and can be installed on systems in a matter of minutes. Second, technology based training significantly compresses learning "seat time", so learners can move through course work more quickly. Third, learners can spend as much or as little time as they can afford at one session: bookmark features allow them to return to courses without repeating material that has already been mastered, accelerating material completion. Of course. for multimedia learning systems located on the desktop, delays and inconvenience are no longer an issue.

Learner control of pace, direction

The issue of who controls the learning experience has a profound effect on the instructional outcome. Again, contrast multimedia learning systems with the workshop, or leader led, experience. Workshops are designed to appeal to the broadest common audience. Material has to be covered in the prescribed time, and there is little flexibility for learners to diverge from the content or flow of information dictated by the instructor's guides.

The branching strategies designed into effective multimedia learning systems allow for varying degrees of flexibility, from complete discovery learning to highly guided and forced choices. As noted earlier, learners can stop or resume at their convenience. They can review material, observe models, and practice responses as frequently as they see fit, without the peer pressure of appearing to be "slow" or interruptive. Furthermore, with the advent of new hypertext, hypermedia, and underlying database technologies, learners will have ever increasing opportunities to chart the paths and avenues of their own learning adventures. Learners are in control; they can make their own choices.

Individualised treatment, feedback and remediation

The workshop is largely a group based activity; everyone gets the same treatment.. But people learn differently, have different learning styles and frequently do not need all the instruction but only that part targeted to their specific learning needs. Even in highly interactive workshops (when there might be extensive large and small group interaction), the amount of individual learning practice and feedback is minimal.

Multimedia systems are ideally suited to provide tailored information and feedback to each individual. Selective presentations can be made based on what you know, how you perform or what your job is. Multimedia branching simulations can be effectively presented that confront learners with decisions to real life problems and then the final result actually depends on the earlier decisions reached. Specific, targeted presentations, feedback and remediation am significant factors that contribute to the research based advantage of multimedia systems.

Performance tracking

There are many reasons why corporations are mow concerned than ever before with tracking learner performance in order to measure training results. Among them: Whatever the motivation, monitoring performance is a multi-level process that can be greatly facilitated by multimedia learning systems. While the evaluation of classroom based learning usually limits itself to paper based course reactions ("smile sheets") and attitudinal input from learners, multimedia learning systems generally rely on online criterion tests linked to a course's learning objectives. Resulting data can be made available to management for review and coaching activities. It can also be uploaded to corporate wide courseware management systems that can issue performance trend reports linkable to business results, showing worker readiness to meet strategic business objectives.

Research based benefits/value

The preceding features associated with multimedia learning systems, coupled with effective interactive design, have been shown to greatly shorten the learning curve and improve mastery and retention of subject matter. There is, in fact, a growing body of research on the advantages of multimedia training (Wright, 1993; Fletcher, 1990). A number of industry leading companies have tested multimedia technologies against traditional forms of training.

The following chart, reported in the March 1992 edition of the Multimedia and Videodisc Monitor, represents a summary of key data from six of these studies. (Adams, 1992) In each case, a given course was produced in both interactive video instruction (IVI) and classroom formats. Content included both soft skills and hard skills training.

Research highlights: Interactive videodisc vs live instruction

Learning Curve60% Faster
Content Retention25-50% Higher
Learning Gains56% Greater
Consistency of Learning50-60% Better
Delivery Variance20-40% Less
Training Compression38-70% Faster
Source: US Army, Xerox, United Technologies, WICAT, and Federal Express

Probably the most significant research finding is the increase in content retention over a three to six month time period. In general, research indicates that retention is usually poor. Educational and academic literature suggest that a 10% to 15% retention factor is normal in passive learning situations.

If the retention data presented above are further substantiated, a significant and meaningful result has been realised by the use of multimedia learning systems. Of course, retention is critical to performance because it demonstrates that the learning gain is enduring and therefore laying the appropriate foundation for improved performance.

Business impact of multimedia

The organisational and instructional benefits of multimedia training should result in performance improvements, both individually and corporate-wide. In turn, these performance gains will have a measurably positive affect on business results. (Miller, 1992)

It is important to acknowledge the complexity of the linkage between performance improvements and business results. There is always the question of the extent to which learning programs themselves directly caused the impact. For example, if employee turnover is reduced after a new learning program has been implemented, other causal factors might include changes, if any, made to: labour pool entry qualifications, the selection process, pay, working conditions, management support, and career development opportunities.

However, it is equally important to gather data that attempts to address improvements attributable to multimedia learning systems. Each organisation must define its own success criteria and perform its own return on investment (ROI) analysis. Among the most important business results are cost reduction, increased productivity and revenue gain. (Forman & Ives, 1991) Specific findings are listed below.

Training time is reduced by 50%

This is the most widely accepted and often used business result. There is research to support a 50% reduction or compression time (eg, a two day workshop can be taught via multimedia self delivery in one day). The travel and living savings alone can be significant; a figure of $350-$400 T&E per day is not unusual. One client in a mid-sized company told us that it cost $400,000 a day to get their sales force (of less than 1,000 individuals) together in one place.

This figure can be even more significant if a calculation is made to determine productivity per day rates. Because people are back on the job quicker, they are productive sooner.

Reduced number of instructors

If more training is to be accomplished via multimedia, then fewer instructors will be required. In many organisations, these instructors are sub-contractors; attrition can also be a natural way to effect this reduction. Fully burdened instructor costs can range from $60,000 to $100,000 per year per individual.

Increased span of control

Fully competent employees - with multimedia systems that are available for review, recurrency, and reinforcement, as needed - require less supervision. These employees can get many of their questions answered via the learning system, not by their boss. A 10% increase in span of control is conservative; 20% is not unrealistic.

Reduced employee turnover

Retention and turnover are significant issues in many industries. A useful metric is to calculate or approximate the cost to recruit, hire, and train a new employee. In the insurance industry, for example, an industry association indicates that the investment per .surviving" agent at the end of the third year at a moderate level of productivity is $130,000. This is exclusive of recruiting, hiring, training, and lost productivity/sales costs for those agents who leave prior to three years' of employment; for one of our insurance clients, of their 600 newly financed agents, 150 were projected to remain after three years.

Increased safety/lower accident rates

The key indicators in this category are cost per accident, down time, and time off the job. Federal Express, for example, has quantified the savings from a two week course for people who drive vans. There was a significant difference in accident rates between people who did and did not go through the course, and the average cost of an accident was determined to be $1,600. The end result was an ROI of 23.9 % and a first year savings of $474,747 (Hassett, 1992).

Increased speed of service

Speed is a key variable. If activities can get done faster with high quality, then bottom line results will follow. Cycle time in manufacturing is critical. In customer service and telemarketing, the time taken to solve a problem on the phone can directly affect profits. Marriott, for example, answers 17 million reservation inquiries each year; for every second slashed from the average call time, $67,000 is saved.

Less rework/higher quality

It is often practical to calculate the cost of errors and then to carefully monitor performance against this standard. At Federal Express, for example, roughly 1.5 million packages are shipped each night. Even if Federal Express is 99% successful (which they often beat), this still means that 15,000 packages aren't where they should be. And with the service excellence guarantee at an average of $10 per package, this amounts to $54 million yearly. Fractions of a percentage increase can mean significant savings.

Higher customer retention

Customers are the primary asset of any company. The Customer Service Institute estimates that it costs five times as much to acquire a new customer as it costs to service an existing one. They point out that a company that each day for one year loses just one customer spending $50 a week will find its sales reduced by $949,000 for the following year.

It is possible and useful to calculate the "lifetime value of a customer"; this value will, of course, vary from industry to industry. In the automobile industry, for example, a lifetime customer is worth $150,000 - $175,000.

To further underscore the tremendous value of retaining customers, a recent study by Bain Consulting (Business Week, August 1992) shows that increasing customer retention by 2% has the same effect on profits as cutting costs by 10%.

Increased sales

The most direct way to increase revenue is to boost sales. As previously discussed, there may be several reasons for increased sales in addition to the implementation of a new multimedia learning system, but training can make a difference. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company conducted a longitudinal study for an IVI and Reflection based training program (Spectrum Interactive, 1991). The results showed:

Increase in first year commissions27%
Increase in second year commissions50%
Increase in initial calls16%
Increase in kept appointments24%
Increase in approach interviews43%

Executives expect this type of business case approach; they want to examine the data, even if it is not totally quantifiable; they are looking for a payback within two to three years; and they expect a reasonable return on their investment. Hurdle rates will differ from company to company and it is important to ascertain these goals early in the process.

Keys to a successful multimedia initiative

Based on consideration of organisational, instructional, and business related advantages, your company may decide to proceed with the implementation of a multimedia learning system. Below are seven factors that Spectrum has am correlated with successful multimedia efforts.
  1. Careful Planning. Project managers must understand the vision and specific goals of their multimedia project; the resources available to commit to it (personnel, financial, capital); timetables; evaluation criteria, including baseline data; and payback/ROI goals.

  2. High Level Sponsorship. Multimedia learning systems frequently involve collaboration between many departments: line organisation managers (sales, service); training personnel; information systems resources; financial analysts. As in any cross functional endeavour, the likelihood of success increases the higher the sponsorship within the company. In our most successful projects, I have witnessed the direct involvement of corporate CEOs, Presidents, and Executive line managers of Human Resources, Information Systems and Operations.

  3. Link to Business/Strategic Goals. In making the business case for a multimedia project to high level management, it is important to describe explicit links to the "hurt factors" or competitive pressures that cause organisations to take action. The tighter these links, the greater the impetus to sustain continued forward movement on multimedia projects.

  4. Internal Marketing to Build Consensus and Support. Many of our clients begin multimedia development with rapid prototyping efforts. Prototypes give learning system designers a useful tool for soliciting user feedback on the interface and functionality of the final implementation. They also give project managers something that shows the "look and feel" of the real system to other constituencies, helping to generate enthusiasm and internal cooperation. It is important to view the entire multimedia project as a marketing effort. It is critical to involve people, develop campaign themes, publicise the benefits, share the success stories and involve executives.

  5. Staged Implementation. Successful multimedia learning systems may be phased into corporations over a period of years in successive waves. Staging implementation in this manner is especially important when new hardware is involved, system integration issues are complex, support and maintenance staffs need to be recruited and trained, and many courses/learning system components are being built. Staging could also involve rolling a completed implementation out first to a small part of the total user population, allowing problem areas to be addressed before the remaining audience becomes involved.

  6. Support. Having trained staff who can distribute and install course material, integrate and repair system components, prepare usage/performance reports, and answer learner questions about course use and/or content are all ways to assure that learners have successful experiences on the system. Whether this staff is comprised of internal personnel or sub-contractors, speedy and competent support is critical if multimedia learning systems are to yield intended results.

  7. Commitment to Next Steps: Continual Learning Organisations. Successful multimedia learning systems help employees take control of their own jobs, careers, and futures. According to Robert Reich, the current Secretary of Labor, "A work force capable of taking responsibility for its own continuous learning will prove a more precious national asset than countless new factories and equipment." (Reich, 1991) Corporations that foster and support learning initiatives as more than one shot experiments will set the competitive and performance standards that others must follow for years to come.


This paper has attempted to document the many varied benefits achievable by companies that make a commitment to multimedia learning systems. Organisational advantages of multimedia systems are summarised by the "Three Cs": improving information or instructional consistency, especially critical for geographically dispersed populations; keeping learners current with rapidly changing facts and figures; and improving learner competence through their instructional features and benefits.

Instructional features discussed include multiple information modes; interactivity; learning that is available and accessible when and where it's needed; student control of the pace and direction of the learning experience; and performance tracking, which helps close the loop between learning objectives and critical business and strategic needs.

A growing body of research indicates that the benefits and value of these instructional features relative to classroom training involve shortened learning curves and faster times to full productivity; better mastery of instructional objectives; greater consistency of learning; reduced variance in delivery of content; compressed learning times; and greater content retention.

The business impact of multimedia learning systems will vary, depending on the nature and scope of the systems themselves. A frequently used set of parameters includes: a training time compression factor of 50%; reductions in the number of instructors; increased managerial spans of control by 10-20%; reduced employee turnover; increased safety/lower accident rates; increased s~ of service; less rework/higher quality output; higher customer retention; increased sales. It is important to arm executives with data that are as specific as possible to support a credible payback analysis.

The high bandwidth, high appeal of multimedia learning systems provide an innovative new use of computers that will play a leading role in the critical reskilling of the work force. Through careful planning and implementation, high level sponsorship and broad internal support, multimedia learning systems can change the way an individual, a work group, an organisation, and a society work and grow.

The future now belongs to societies that organise themselves for learning. What we know and can do holds the key to economic progress, just as natural resources once did. (Marshall & Tucker, 1992)


Adams, Gregory. (1992). Why interactive? Multimedia and Videodisc Monitor, March.

Fletcher, L. D. (1990). Effectiveness and cost of interactive videodisc instruction in defense training and education. Institute for Defense Analysis, July.

Forman, David & Ives, William. (1991). Calculating competitive advantage. IBM Multimedia, December.

Hassett, James. (1992). Simplifying ROI. Training, September.

Lee, Chris. (1992). Training industry report. Training, October.

Marshall, Ray & Tucker, Mare. (1991). Thinking for a living: Education and the wealth of nations. Boston: Addison Wesley.

Miller, Rockley. (1993). 10 good reasons for multimedia training. IBM Multimedia.

NETG Spectrum Discussion Paper Series. (1991). Case study: Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Reich, Robert. (1991). The work of nations. New York: Vintage Books.

Wright, Elizabeth. (1993). Making the multimedia decision: Strategies for success. Journal of Instruction Delivery Systems, Winter.

Author: David C Forman, President, National Education Training Group
Spectrum, 9 Oak Park Drive, Bedford, MA 01730 USA
Tel: (800) 227 1127 Fax: (617) 271 0330

Please cite as: Forman, D. C. (1994). Benefits and value of multimedia learning systems. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 140-146. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/dg/forman.html

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