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This themed issue consists of seven empirical papers, as well as an introduction and discussion, and has its genesis in three symposia, organised by the authors of this article and presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in San Francisco, California. The papers investigate a number of conditions under which instructional animations may be effective. This article uses cognitive load theory (CLT) to provide an explanation for why animated instructions have not currently produced the learning benefits expected. A brief overview of the papers with a focus on how they accommodate critical aspects of cognitive load is given. The issue finishes with a discussion on each paper and identifies some common principles and recommendations for instructional design and research into animations.