Main Body

What is Rich Media?

What is rich media and why does it matter?

If you do a Google search on “What is rich media?” you will be presented with results focusing almost exclusively on multimedia used in some form of advertising.

Rich media has not been identified as a conventional term used in education or instructional design research like, say, assessment, so it is not possible to present a summary of studies specifically related to the definition or use of rich media in online instruction. In fact, it is a bit of a curiosity that there is no specific body of research on the use of rich media in instruction, though a cursory search in employment listings for higher education will find positions for the purpose of developing rich media or “media rich content” for instructional purposes.

There is also a legitimate argument to suggest that perhaps the colloquial use of the term rich media in the educational context isn’t meant as a formal call for something actually called rich media, unlike how one might state the need for actual learning analytics. To say, “Our online courses need rich media” might only mean “something more than just text” or in a more patronizing sense, “pizzazz.”

Setting these informalities aside, there is a strong case to suggest that the maturity of online education requires new strategic thinking about the means by which information is communicated in a purposeful online instructional situation in our contemporary communication ecology. We – educators and students – live in a world of communication very different than a mere 20 years ago (ca. 2000) yet our starting point still tends to begin by asking “What textbook should we use? Where do I upload my PowerPoint slides?.”

There has never been more information about every subject in the world available in as many forms of communication as there are today. It has never been more easy to organize, compose, present, access, annotate, and interact online with information using open source systems and tools. It has never been more easy to create online knowledge communities, share information, make connections, and participate in the discourse of what is knowable about subject matter, praxis, or leadership through social networks.

The conversation about how we communicate in online education needs to change from asking what textbook we will use to “What form of communication is optimal for online learners in order for them to make sense of the information being conveyed?” Connected to this question are more philosophical ones that challenge the notion of what knowledge really is (is it expert driven and “settled,” or socially constructed and dynamic?), how knowledge is demonstrated as an artifact of summative learning (term papers, multimedia, or online content?), and whether the works created by students should be submitted and assessed (and then thrown away), or made open for the world to discover and build upon (throwaway assignments versus Open Pedagogy?). Rich media – as we refer to it in this book – is an ingredient in these conversations.

Thus, the rationale for a book about teaching with rich media drives the need to organize all of this “digital stuff” into something coherent, to articulate the unique affordances of rich media in a practical sense, and to employ rich media with pedagogical integrity. The outcome of implementing the principles in this book is a mindset in the practitioner that is habituated to…

  • examining the character of information itself,
  • identifying the needs of an instructional situation in terms of the natural human reflex for sensemaking,
  • selecting the form(s) of instructional media appropriate to those needs, and
  • crafting instructional messages and assessment designs that align to learners’ engagement with instructional media.

Defining rich media

We begin by assembling a definition of rich media according to the context of instructional design. First, what makes rich media “rich?” What is the substance that is richer in some media than in other media?

Daft, Lengel & Trevino (1986) developed a Media Richness Theory for the purpose of optimizing business communication. The research addresses the question of which form of communication is appropriate for managers to use given a contextual need for clarity, equivocality, and feedback in situated types of business communication.

Communication media are classified along a continuum between the terms “lean media” and “rich media” (see Fig. 1). The position of a given medium on the scale is predicated upon its inherent capacity to convey both information and how the information is intended to be taken as, semantically, by the recipient. Media that are closer to the rich end of the spectrum embody a greater capacity to provide unambiguous meaning and certainty in the receiver 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 email message.

spectrum of media richness
Fig. 1: Spectrum of Media Richness, Daft, R.L., Lengel, R.H., & Trevino, L.K. (1987)


Note, however, that “richness” does not necessarily connote “good,” and “leanness” with “bad” forms of communication. Instead, each medium is best suited for a purpose, with rich media employed in situations with complex subject matter or a high potential for ambiguity/conflict (such as gathering a group of people together to agree upon the goals of a project), and lean media, like email, best suited for communicating operational activities (Heeren, E. and Lewis, R., 1997).

We take from the Media Richness model a sense that there are differences in the capacity for a given medium to convey meaning. However it does not tell us why. Robert Kozma (1991) transplants this argument into a more scientific domain. He argues that there is a cognitive connection between the representative characteristics of a given medium and how it is analogous to sensory and cognitive functions in the human brain. For example, if the characteristics of subject matter has to do with visual representations of spacial relationships, the use of a visual medium to convey this information is advantageous to the learner in forming mental representations compared to a plain text description. In sum, Kozma proposes that each form of communication has inherent strengths and weaknesses to convey information based on how they are analogous to that which they represent. This theory will be elaborated upon in more detail later in the chapter.

From Daft, Lengel, Trevino, and Kozma, we propose that the substance that is rich in rich media is the qualitative ability to convey information in ways that are optimal according to the natural phenomena of human sensory perception and cognition.

Let’s now turn from the meaning of “rich” to the meaning of “media.”

In the word “media” we find not one, but several interpretations. The word “medium” is sometimes used to identify a communication object – such as an image, video, audio, or interactive program – or to identify a mode of communication, such as face-to-face engagement, telephone, television, an Internet platform, Web tool, etc. Each medium has a natural utility for communication based on its affordances which, in turn, have an effect on the interpretation, context, or integrity of its message. For example, Twitter is very strong in reaching a wide audience with a short message, but it is not very good in conveying the nuances of how that message is intended to be interpreted compared to the same message presented face-to-face in realtime.

From an instructional perspective, we may refer to media as either the material or means by which instructional information or messages are displayed, organized, accessed, or transported. For our purposes, we take the broadest interpretation of media because each of these characteristics will be observed in different ways as the communication ecology evolves. It would otherwise be risky to promote an absolute identity to the expression of media since current constructions or brands of media may become obsolete or disappear.

“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 resources to be used optimally under certain conditions.

A definition of rich media

Definition:  Rich media is a set of systems and resources with unique capabilities to convey information beyond the affordances of text alone.

Rich media systems are organized into the following classifications:

  • Multimedia
  • Social networks
  • Web-based tools

A practical approach for instruction

The case for using rich media in instruction is based upon how it can be advantageous to learners in achieving a set of instructional goals or in preparing learners to communicate according to standards of professional or scholarly practice.

  • Each form of rich media is useful because of its inherent characteristics, as media, to convey information compared to text media alone.
  • Each form of rich media varies in its strengths and weaknesses. Rich media are not better in all cases – they are simply different.
  • Rich media, used appropriately, streamlines cognitive effort, reduces cognitive load, and supports sensemaking/sensegiving in interpersonal communication.
  • Rich media, as forms of electronic communication, provide opportunities to practice communicating with tools learners will encounter under authentic professional or scholarly conditions.

However, we should note that rich media alone does not cause learning. Using rich media effectively requires employing a holistic pedagogical approach to an instructional challenge which we refer to as “the pedagogical wrapper” that surrounds a rich media resource in the context of learner engagement. This topic is covered in more depth in the chapter “The Pedagogical Wrapper.”

Classifications of rich media

Multimedia: Perceptual Resolution

Multimedia has optimal characteristics to stimulate sensory experiences and cognitive activity analogous to real world experiences and phenomena which, when used in instruction, are optimal for learners to construct mental models.

Definition: “The term ‘multimedia’ is a catch-all phrase to describe … the presence of text, picture, sound, animation and video; some or all of which are organized into some coherent program. The ‘interactive’ component refers to the process of empowering the user to control the environment usually by a computer. (Phillips, 1997)”

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, still images, animated images, and sometimes interactive programming comprising a combination of these elements. 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, p.46) state that multimedia-based instruction is intended to foster “… meaningful learning [through] the construction of a mental model of how a causal system works.” 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.

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 more 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. In short, practicing observation skills with a recorded video of human interaction engages the learner in a form of perception/cognition that draws from the same cognitive faculties they would use in an actual interpersonal situation.

Similarly, a student of linguistics would benefit from audio representations of phonetics; a student of statistics would benefit from an interactive simulation that processes input to test a predictive output model.


Below are some examples of multimedia. Note that some of these may require Flash to be active in your browser. If they do not work because Flash is being blocked, try a different browser or enable Flash:

Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews: This interactive chart enables the user to explore the words used by students to describe their male and female teachers based upon data extracted from about 14 million reviews at

NOAA Interactive Global Data Exploration tool: Select data sets to display interactive global environmental data over time. Example: Ocean temperature animation

IBM Watson Personality Insights: Artificial intelligence used to analyze text input and display personality characteristics through linguistic analysis.

Washington Post “Coming Home a Different Person”: An interactive multimedia presentation on combat related traumatic brain injury (TBI).

TED Talks: “Why climate change is a threat to human rights”. Like most TED Talks, there are more resources here than just a video recording.

Chrome Music Lab: Browser-based interactive demonstrations of sound and music.

Online speech synthesis application: “Pink Trombone” is an interactive graphical representation of human speech synthesis.

Cleverbot: An ongoing experiment in artificial intelligence where website visitors interact with “Cleverbot” – an AI system that is programmed to learn from its cumulative interactions with humans and carry on an “intelligent” conversation. Anyone can go on the website and type in a conversation. It was featured in an NPR RadioLab episode. An interactive Web page designed to do nothing more than show the visitor what they are doing within the Web browser as they interact with it. Includes both a text and speech-generated interface. Its design is intended to demonstrate how much information can be extracted from a person’s typical online interaction.

Thing Translator: Test out this browser app that looks at an object that you hold up to your webcam, tries to identify it, and then translates it into one of eight languages. It’s not very good, but it’s very engaging for use in language learning.

The Path of Protest: An interactive timeline of events related to the Arab Spring.

Test My Brain: An ongoing research project involving an interactive program for recognizing emotions and other cognitive processes. Includes a survey and results analysis.

Social media: Cognitive Presence

For the sake of discussion, “social networks” will refer to the systems upon which online communities and communication takes place. “Social media” will refer to the content on those networks.

Definition:  Social networks are communication systems designed around the purposeful interaction of people and entities through electronic means.  Keitzmann (2011) organizes the components of social networks into the following functional building blocks:

Identity – The extent to which users reveal themselves.
Conversations – The extent of communication among users.
Sharing – The extent to which users exchange, distribute, and receive content.
Presence – The extent to which users know if others are available.
Relationships – The extent to which users relate to each other.
Reputation – The extent to which users know the social standing of others.
Groups – The extent to which users are connected into communities.

A functional definition is offered here instead of naming specific social network systems because it insulates the practitioner from the turbulence of emerging and dying social network systems, all of which conform to some aspect of Keitzmann’s functional building blocks.

Social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, StackExchange, Quora,, or an industry related forum like, are powerful platforms for collecting, organizing, and displaying information. Social networks are constantly expanding with membership, topics, content, and organizational schemes (Weinberger, D., 2011).

There are several ways social networks are useful in instruction as a form of rich media.

Connectivist theory (Siemans, 2005; Downes, 2010) proposes, in short, that “knowledge is in the network” through the facility of connections on the Internet and network enabled applications. Weinberger (2012) predicates his thesis in Too Big to Know on the notion that, as individuals, we are limited in our capability to know all of what is knowable in any given subject, therefore the smartest person in the room (meaning, the network) is not a person on the network, but the network itself.

Evidence of this theory is found in the argument that it isn’t necessary to memorize, say, the order of presidents of the United States of America because that information can be found in the network easily enough at Wikipedia. But information networks themselves do not inherently contain “meaning.” As Nicholas Carr suggests in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (2008), networked information systems are strong in providing immediate access to information, but the convenience of obtaining instantaneous information comes at the expense of thinking deliberately.

This is where the principles of cognitive presence should be brought to the fore. Cognitive presence is a human perceptual experience that is felt by a person when they are a participating member of an online community (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2003). It is characterized by social, psychological, and emotional interplay that fosters a sense of community with others, and serves as a means for participants to construct their identities.

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 a variety of facets to subject matter. So, when we suggest that social networks are a form of as rich media, we are less concerned about what is on the network – we are concerned with the quality of participation on the network: diversity, sharing, trust, interaction, etc.

Collateral to participating in a social network community is the necessity to develop skills in information literacy which, in itself, may be a justification for its use in instruction. And in doing so, we are implicitly endorsing the legitimacy of participating in online social communities as a normal part of one’s presence as a scholar or professional.


Twitter as a search engine: Use Twitter like Google to find people, organizations, topics, events, and publications. No membership required. Type in a book of interest (YA/children’s literature, contemporary psychology, political analysis, etc. ) Review a range of reviews, both positive and negative. Here is an example using a controversial book by Pat Buchanan – “The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Culture and Civilization”. Scroll down to the filtering tools to review 5- and 1-star ratings.

Wall Street Journal – Blue Feed, Red Feed: A running side-by-side comparison of Facebook accounts configured with one side to receive only “blue” political content, the other side receiving only “red” political content. Quora is a Q & A social network where members can post a question about any topic. Other members answer the questions and “upvote” the ones they feel are relevant, useful, or informative. It can be hit-or-miss, but some questions can be revealing. Examples:

Instagram: An image-based social sharing app designed primarily for mobile devices where tags and hashtags are used as search filtering mechanisms.

Pinterest: An image-based curating site based on any topic or theme. A topic-based curating site. A photo repository where a substantial amount of content is available through Creative Commons license.

Web-based tools: Agency

Definition:  Web-based tools is a catch-all statement describing cloud-based tools and utilities used to access information, organize it, collaborate with others, manage projects, share resources, create and publish media.

Web-based tools, or webtools for short, are commonly accessible cloud-based applications used to access information (Twitter, Google Alerts), communicate (Skype, Twitter, Zoom,, manage projects (Basecamp, Asana, Google Drive), share resources (wikis, Diigo), publish media (WordPress, YouTube, Creative Commons, Wikimedia), build bibliographies (Zotero, EndNote, Evernote), annotate ( and create media (H5P, Screencastify).

The case for using webtools in instruction is different than the other two classes of rich media. Webtools have less to do with the character of information in an instructional context (such as with multimedia) or the means by which a person finds meaning among peers in a social network. Webtools are valuable because of the way learners use them to operate as agents of knowledge, such as being producers and organizers of knowledge instead of simply consumers.

Secondarily, there may be collateral benefits to integrating, say, Zoom video conferencing into an instructional context simply because Zoom video conferencing is the de facto brand of utility used in an industry or profession in the student’s field of study.

Third, and more fundamentally, practice with webtools promotes refinement of sub-skills that are commonly found in many applications. When students learn how to use a tool like Skype, they practice the following discrete sub-skills:

  • Locate, download, and install an application on their 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 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 webtools 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 for and participate in an online community of practice using 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 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.

There is a pragmatic value for using Web tools for its own sake. But the additional opportunities afforded in rich engagement cannot be undervalued.

Trello: A flexible card-based collaborative system for organizing information and resources for various academic and professional projects. A realtime and asynchronous collaborative system for visually organizing information and resources based on industry standard and customized organizational templates.

Video-based interactive tools:,, These are communication systems designed around using video as a central aspect of the interaction. Some are asynchronous; some are both synchronous and asynchronous; some have affordances for branching. Most have the ability to thread comments to a specific timestamp in the media so that inquiry can be proximal to its presentation. An open source platform where various forms of interactive media can be created and then posted in your course. There are also integrations for H5P on several platforms including Moodle.

Google Drive: A system containing a suite of Microsoft-like office tools with the ability to operate collaboratively and openly. A world-class blogging platform that is also capable of integrating other forms of social media communication. Also useful in designing Open Education projects.

Evernote: A system for curating and organizing a wide range of resources according to a given project design and sharing with others.

WolframAlpha: A computational knowledge engine designed to respond to queries about a range of subjects and disciplines.

InfoGraphic makers: A list of cloud-based  infographics applications.

Zotero: A browser extension to curate and organize Web-based resources for research purposes.


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.


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Teaching with Rich Media by Steve Covello is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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