The use of PowerPoint and other similar presentation software, as a visual foundation for recorded narrated lectures for use in online courses is pretty common. These slide-based presentations typically present a series of individual slides that contain titles, visuals, and descriptive text or lists of bullet points with an accompanying voice-over recording. Using this approach to online content presentation seems familiar as it is a technology enabled extension of the traditional slide-based presentations instructors have used in a live classroom lecture. But narrated lecture for online presentation has some structural differences.

Whether transitioning a classroom lecture, or creating a new narrated lecture for online use, instructors at Ecampus are also encouraged to rethink their slide-based presentations. The recommendation is to create highly focused content and keep the duration of an individual narrated lecture presentation to about 10 minutes. This means a typical 50 minute classroom lecture may transition to several online narrated slide presentations as it is distilled down to 2-3 highly focused segments. 

Including voice-over with a slide-based presentation builds instructor in an online course. Narrated lectures also incorporate best practices in accessibility, copyright, and visual formatting. In essence, this process takes a PowerPoint presentation, incorporates best practice elements, and adds narration. This new instructor narrated presentation becomes a multimedia learning element for their course that is delivered as in video format.

Multimedia Learning Theory Redux

On the surface, all the previous work in creating a narrated lecture seems sufficient. However if we incorporate research on multimedia learning we may choose to do more with this staple of the online course; the narrated lecture.

In my previous article on the value of images in online learning I explained how online presentations that combine text, images, and titles are considered multimedia-based learning objects. Using written words with images on a PowerPoint slide with voiceover is also a form of multimedia learning. Given this it may be useful to revisit theory related to multimedia learning to see how it related to narrated lecture design. The model below illustrates how the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Clark & Mayer , 2016) informs our understanding of multimedia-based learning.

Model of cognitive model of multimedia learning.
Figure 1. Model of the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

The model indicates that people (i.e., learners) have two channels of cognitive processing: 1) for processing visual/pictorial material and 2) one for auditory/verbal material. Additionally, humans can only process a few bits of pieces of information in each channel at the same time. Learner engagement with pictorial and verbal information is linked to an individual’s ability to parse information from the multimedia and ultimately integrate it with prior knowledge…creating new learning. That parsing is linked to two things: 

  1. How we structure and deliver information during the design of multimedia and 
  2. The learner’s ability to engage the information in a way that compliments learning.

Let’s stop here for a moment.

Now think about what you just did in reading the text above and looking at the illustration provided. In this instance you called upon a single information channel, the visual channel of cognitive processing, to interpret the meaning of the text description of the visual model. Was that an easy process of you?

How hard would it be for students to process similar information acquisition through one channel….vision only? With the cognitive theory of multimedia learning in mind ask yourself this…How would adding audio narration impact cognitive processing? How would that impact learning? Let’s explore these ideas in the context of narrated lecture design.

Five Guiding Multimedia Principles

In an article titled Information Design with Teaching and Learning in Mind, Rune Petterson and Maria Avgerinou (2016) identify 12 important principles teachers should take into account when designing multimedia-based learning experiences. I have organized these multimedia-based learning principles into three sections in the table below. As you read through these 12 principles it becomes clear that not all of these apply to narrated lecture design.

Listing of the 12 principles of multimedia-based learning.
Figure 2. Twelve Principles of Multimedia – Based Learning Design

Principles 1-4 address more general, or global, understandings about multimedia design and learning. Principles 5-7 address design factors directly related to combining text and images without narration in multimedia-base learning. The last five principles (i.e., 8-12) address how the spoken word is best integrated into multimedia design to be consistent with the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. Although all the principles are important to multimedia design for learning, the last five guiding multimedia principles are the most salient for narrated lecture design.

From Theory To Practice

Remember, the goal for instructors is to develop narrated lectures that enhance the multimedia-based learning experience. It is not simply to create a replication of the in-class lecture. Let’s look at the five guiding multimedia principles and how the ideas in the principles might shape how you can prepare your narrated lectures as online multimedia learning elements.

Temporal Contiguity Principle

This principle suggests that the most effective designs using narration and graphics place those two elements in temporal proximity. They are seen and heard at the same time. Seems obvious. But you must think through this principle and plan the sequencing and duration of  slides and narration accordingly. You must know what you want to say and when to say it in the context of the visual elements you have on your slides.

Modality Principle

This principle affirms that presenting words as audio narration is more impactful than written text in describing graphics on a slide. They are particularly impactful when paired with animations.

In essence this principle helps guide design that takes advantage of both channels of information processing. This also helps manage cognitive load by freeing learners from trying to interpret written text and images via the visual channel only. If you absolutely have to use text with graphics on your PowerPoint slides keep text in short phrase form to avoid extensive reading and any potential cognitive overload.

Redundancy Principle

This principle proposes addresses presenting narration and written text that says the same thing combined with images. The redundancy principles guides designers to select either narration or written text with the image on a slide for the best learning experience. Choose one method of delivering the word-based description of the image. Don’t use both. 

Once again this principle is about managing, through design, the cognitive load of the media element. There are some complex scenarios where text only is a best option…see the Control of Processing definition.

Coherence Principle

This principle simply states that adding interesting, but non-essential, visual or word content can hurt learning. Narrated lecture design should avoid placing funny phrases, decorative images, excess lines, colors and sound effects and music that does not directly relate to the learning at hand of any particular slide. 

Instructors should know what they want to say and design to maintain keep cognitive focus on that learning. We sometimes think these extra element keep attention but actually the opposite is true…they clutter and create distracting cognitive load.

Sometimes this principle is not fulfilled through good intentions. It often occurs when instructors wish to have multiple images of something on the same slide. Then talk about each image individually in narration. It is much better design to put those extra images on a new slide and talk about it when it is the focus of the learning. This avoids visual overload and helps keep the pace of your presentation moving.

Personalization Principle

Creating a social conversation with learners softens the experience of learning via devices. It also helps build instructor presence in a lesson and the course. One of the best ways of achieving this via narration is to use a conversational tone.

Conversational tone in everyday life comes from an interaction that is authentic and casual. That is difficult to achieve in narration. Professional actors train to do this. Faculty at Ecampus are often provided with narration tips to help in this regard. Narrators are encouraged to have notes that guide their presentation but not encouraged to read a script verbatim. Not surprisingly, reading a narration is easily detected by the listener’s ear. Instructors can personalize narrated lectures by knowing what you want to say, practice it so you know when to say it, then just be yourself and let your personality come through.

Applying the personalization principle in design means thinking through and planning your conversation with the remote audience. Then practicing the delivery so it feels conversational. Learners will benefit from this narration design strategy.

Final Thoughts

Earlier in this article we posited that new learning is predicated upon the structure and delivery method of information to learners as well as the learner being able to engage with the provided information in a way that supports learning. In a very simple way we are saying that good design for learning presents content clearly and does not create barriers to information engagement by leaners.

Although instructors are correct to focus initial narrated lecture design on the slide presentation preparation that reflect best practices in accessibility, visual formatting, copyright, and more. It is also valuable to think through the narrated lecture design in terms of cognitive load, potential barriers to learning, and how to positively impact the learner’s information processing.

The five guiding principles for narrated lectures help instructors identify ways in which they can design and intentionally use audio narration with text and images that compliments an understanding of cognitive learning theory. In doing so they create online narrated lectures that are more effective as multimedia-based learning experiences.

References

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction : Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com

Rune Pettersson & Maria D. Avgerinou (2016) Information design with teaching and learning in mind, Journal of Visual Literacy, 35:4, 253-267, DOI: 10.1080/1051144X.2016.1278341

The Ecampus multimedia team creates animations to bring your thoughts and words to life. In virtual reality, creating these 3D objects and animations has become incredibly easy and fast.

The old ways … of power tool juggling

Developing “multimedia” often means using small aspects of many different tools. “Media” being a means of communication and the plural of medium: a means of doing something. To create an animation for your class, we quickly run through a long list of media.

Here’s an exhaustive run through of how the process works at the moment (feel free to skip to the next section! This is detailed): You would typically type up and email over a script that I take into Google Drive to edit and comment upon. You’d record audio in one of our sound booths, and I’d take the resulting sound files into Adobe Audition to equalize levels and remove background noise(s). Then I’d grab a pencil and sketch out a quick storyboard for each sentence to suggest visuals that could emphasize your point(s). Photographs of these sketches are edited in Photoshop and injected into another file on Google Drive.

And that is just the easy preparation portion. Depending on the animation style we’re going after, I’d dive deep into obscure programs I’ve learned to use over the past few decades – like Autodesk Maya / Mudbox / MotionBuilder / Meshmixer, Adobe Illustrator / Animate / Character Animator / Fuse / Dimension, Unity3D, the Procreate iPad app, Agisoft Photoscan, MeshLab, Instant Meshes, Mixamo, etc. … Simply trying to list the most commonly used apps is exhausting (much less all the other emerging apps we investigate, or the ones we mastered that went away. I still love you HyperCard, Director, and Flash!). Phew.

However the pieces of animation are generated, we still end up spitting out thousands of images or video files that have to be lined up in Adobe After Effects / Premiere / Media Encoder to assemble the final video that we can upload to YouTube or Kaltura and send to you.

What I’m saying here is: this whole process usually takes weeks or months. Or… we can just do it all in VR in an afternoon.

 

The new reality… of easy bake dreams

Tvori is an amazing tool to easily puppet objects and characters around in VR. You can record audio in directly, and export 4K videos, 360 videos, or animation data for all those old programs i mentioned above. The main reason I set out to write this blog post: was to promote Tvori. It offers an all-in-one easy pathway to making your own animatons in mere minutes. This amazing program runs about 20 bucks, and unlike the other (free) VR tools I’ll mention below – Tvori isn’t backed by a major corporation (*yet). I expect to be generating much more animation work for instructors with it, and hope to be advising you all on how to use it yourselves as you step into VR through your own office computers.

I’d say Tvori offers a level of animation comparable to an “animatic” – a movie industry term for quick and dirty approximations of what the final multi-million dollar film could look like. There’s a good chance animatics will be good enough for the bulk of concepts we wish to impart to students at the university level, with the added bonus that we can generate many of them in a single term. That said, maybe you’re curious what other creative tools are emerging in VR these days?

1) Whiteboard animations are a common request at Ecampus. Oculus Quill lets us draw and animate in this cartoon style in 3D (so it’s like our current 2D drawing tools, but we can move the camera around freely at any time, zoom-in endlessly,). This free tool for Oculus Rift users was updated last month to add a ton of new useful tricks.

We’ve already made fly-bys of 3D drawings in Google Tiltbrush, but we couldn’t actually animate the drawings directly (we just started recording, and moved our head through space). But both these programs are free and worth looking into.

2) In Oculus Medium, anyone can sculpt objects in the air at high resolution with weightless clay. If you own the Oculus Rift, this is an free and amazing tool for creating 3D objects. Now we can make things extremely fast and bring them into those old programs we’ve used for years.

Google Blocks is a similar free tool to quickly make solid low-resolution objects (it’s like Google Sketchup with VR ease and benefits). Upload them to Google Poly to share with the world (a service very similar to SketchFab or Microsoft’s Remix 3D). With these sculpting tools, and repositories of free creations, it’s a snap to gather the building blocks needed to start complicated animation projects. For example, we can bring any of these sculpted objects right into Tvori…

3) Final thought: you can use Google Earth VR to walk around any location on earth, while scaling up to Godzilla height or even zooming in and out from space. The multimedia team can record what you’re seeing and pointing at, along with your narration. While this isn’t a feature of the software (yet), we have the magic means to do it for you. (And we can also go back into Google Earth Studio to make a more polished and precise version of the path you traveled).

I hope this inspires you to go get a VR headset, come by our offices and try it out, or let us don the gear for you. We look forward to making your imagination a reality for students worldwide!

Could your online course use a boost? Is it lacking the secret spice that could be the difference between students coming away feeling satisfied rather than feeling like something was missing? Maybe there is a complex topic that students are consistently having a difficult time understanding or perhaps a particular concept that begs for more than a Power Point with some bland images collected from the internet. Well, perhaps the missing ingredient is an animation!

A brief history of animation…

In 1914, cartoonist Windsor McCay wowed audiences with his short animated film. Although not the first animation ever produced, Gertie the Dinosaur broke ground by employing new techniques, such as keyframes, loops, and the use of an appealing character, all of which would become standard practice in the creation of future animations. Interestingly, Gertie the Dinosaur also featured an interactive element where McCay would appear to give commands to Gertie which she would then carry out on screen.

Fast forward to 1928 where upstart Walt Disney Studios released the animated short Steamboat Willy and introduced the world to Mickey Mouse. Steamboat Willy also marked the first use of sound integrated onto film in an animation.

The 1930’s saw a boom in animation with Warner Brothers creating  its Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons which featured a cast of outrageous characters including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and arguably some of the most enduring pop-culture references ever. I admit, the Looney Tunes were an invaluable supplement to my formal elementary school education!

Disney upped the ante in 1937 with the release of the first feature length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. With Snow White, the Disney animators ventured into uncharted territory and proved that an animated film could be both visually stunning and a legitimate medium for storytelling. It was also around this time that the Disney animators planted the seeds of what would become the 12 principles of animation, a system of principles and techniques which have endured to this day and serve as the foundation in the creation of animation and motion graphics.

In the 1940’s and 50’s Disney continued to produce classics with films like Bambi and Fantasia while  another animator, Ray Harryhausen, perfected his “Dynamation” stop motion technique and brought fantastic monsters to life alongside live actors in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. Meanwhile, across the Pacific Ocean the Japanese were busy developing their own unique style of animation known as anime.

In 1960, The Flintstones became the first animated prime time television series and paved the way for animated programs like The Simpsons, the longest running series of all time.

In the 1970’s, animated cartoons dominated Saturday morning television. Although the content was mostly aimed at keeping kids engaged while mom and dad slept in, the power of animation’s potential as a learning tool was being explored in the form of short interludes during the commercial breaks. Most notable, Schoolhouse Rock combined animation and music in a powerfully memorable format to teach kids topics like grammar, history, math, and science. Meanwhile, Sesame Street  featured groundbreaking animations aimed at teaching through entertainment.

In the 1980’s, the computer arrived and ultimately revolutionized the way that animation was created as well as the way it looked. It was a clunky start but by 1995, Pixar studios released the first entirely computer animated feature Toy Story and there was no looking back. The omnipresence of the internet added fuel to the fire and allowed anyone with a laptop and a story to tell to publish their ideas to the world.

So, what does all of this have to do with online learning? Well, before the pedagogical red flag goes up and you think that animation is just for kids or that it’s too frivolous to occupy space in the world of higher education, read on.

We need look no further than the media that we consume on a daily basis to see how ubiquitous animation is. From television commercials, to the prevalence of the online “explainer” video, to online apps such as Headspace, which utilizes  animations to demystify the practice of mindfulness and meditation, animation is proving to be an effective medium to deliver information and get it to stick. Why wouldn’t we want to implement this powerful and available tool in online learning?

A well-crafted animation is a multi-sensory experience that can take a complex or abstract concept and explain it in a way that is concise, understandable, and engaging to the learner. Combining audio/verbal and visual information to illustrate difficult topics allows learners to associate images with concepts and has been proven to actually increase learner understanding and retention.

Additionally, animation can be used to visualize things that would otherwise be impossible or too cost prohibitive to depict with film, text, or still images. Things such as a biological or chemical processes that are invisible to the naked eye, or the ability to look beneath the earth to witness how a plants’ roots grow and utilize nutrients, can effectively be illustrated with animation. Larger scale events like planetary orbits, the hydrologic cycle, earthquake science, or the Russian Revolution can be represented in ways that are much more effective than using still pictures with arrows and text. Does the topic require a horse, a bug, a whale, a tractor, a piece of DNA? There’s no need to worry about the exorbitant costs and time required to train, catch, dive, drive, or dissect…simply animate it!  Animated characters, human, abstract, or animals can also add visual appeal and inject humor into a lesson. Finally, and arguably most important: animations are entertaining! If the student is entertained, they are more likely to be engaged in the subject matter and if they are engaged, they are more likely to retain information.

So what’s the next step? The Ecampus Custom Team is here to help you develop your animation. We’ll start by meeting with you to determine a learning objective and to brainstorm ideas for the project. You can view examples of our work to see if a particular style sparks your interest or, if you have a specific aesthetic in mind, we will work with you to refine it. Once we have pinned down a solid direction for the project, we’ll work with you to create a script. The script will serve as the narration for the animated video and is vital as it is an opportunity to distill the content down to its most potent elements. We prefer to keep the maximum length of the animation under 5 minutes and have found this to be most effective for the learner. When the script is finalized, you will come in to one of our studios to record the voice over narration. At this point, it’s full steam ahead and our team begins production on the animation! We’ll check in with you regularly with samples and progress reports to ensure an amazing final product.

-James Roberts, media team, Oregon State University Ecampus

References:

What’s An Image’s Value?

Image of postcard with a picture is worth a thousand words written on it.

Have you ever created an online course without using images? No?

That is not surprising as images can convey emotions, ideas, and much more. Their value is often captured in an old adage: A picture is worth a thousand words.

This article will discuss the value of images in online course design and how using visuals to accompany instruction via text or narration might contribute to or detract from an online learning experience. Let’s begin.

Multimedia Learning: Images, Text, and More

Online learning is a modern form of multimedia learning. Richard Mayer (2009) described multimedia learning as that learning that integrates the use of words and pictures. In traditional classrooms these learning resources might be experienced as: 

  • Textbooks:  Text and illustrations.
  • Computer-based lessons: Narration w/animation
  • Face-to-face slide presentations: Graphics and audio.

In online learning multimedia may also include:

  • eBooks: Text and digital images 
  • Video: Text, images, animations, coupled with audio.
  • Interactives: Maps, images, and video.
  • Digital Visual Representations: Virtual worlds and 3D models.
  • Screencasts: Software demos, faculty video feedback, and more.
  • Audio: Enhanced podcasts or narrated lectures.

These two short lists, although not exhaustive, demonstrates the importance of visual elements to multimedia based learning in online courses. There are many reasons why we might include any one of these multimedia learning experiences in an online course. For our purposes we will explore a bit more the instructional value of visuals to online learning.

So, how do words and pictures work together to help shape learning? Given that this is perhaps the most common learning object used in an online course it would seem useful to understand what may be considered this simple interpretation of visual literacy for learning (Aisami, 2015).

Visual Engagement Of A Learning Object

In a recent study of how people acquire knowledge from an instructional web page Ludvik Eger (2018) used eye tracking technology to examine a simple learning object composed of a title (headline), a visual element (i.e., diagram), and a box of written text. With no audio support for the learning object in this study, participants engaged the content via visual engagement alone. Results indicated that the majority of students started their learning process at the headline or the headline and visual element. The box of information, in text form, was the third part of the learning object engaged.

Within this context eye movement analysis indicates a learning process that is dependent upon a consistent visual flow. Purposely connecting the title, visual element and information text of a learning object may best reinforce learning. By doing this the course designer/instructor becomes a sort of cognitive guide either focusing or not-focusing learning via the meaning structure of the various learning object elements. In our case we want to use visual elements to support performance and achievement of learning tasks.

Choosing Visual Elements

In order to explore the choice of visual elements in an online learning experience it is helpful to understand how we process that experience from a cognitive science perspective.

Clark and Mayer (2016) describe that cognitive science suggests knowledge construction is based upon three principles: Dual channels, limited capacity and active processing. Let’s briefly examine what these are.

Dual channels:

People have two channesl of cognitive processing 1) for processing visual/pictorial material and 2) one for auditory/verbal material. See Figure 1.  below.

 

Model of cognitive model of multimedia learning.
Figure 1.: Model of the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Limited capacity:

Humans can only process a few bits of pieces of information in each channel at the same time.

Active processing:

Learning occurs as people engage in cognitive processing during learning. This may include attending to relevant material, organizing that material into a coherent structure, and integrating that material with prior knowledge.

Due to the limits on any learner’s processing capability it is paramount that we select visual images that help manage the learning process. Our goal is to limit excessive processing that clutters the learning experience, build visual support for representing the core learning process, and provide visual support that fosters deeper understanding of the learning at hand. What does this mean in practice?

Managing Processing Via Image Use

Making decisions about image selection and use is a key to managing this learning process. Understanding the meaning of images to select is also key and is really a function of literacy in one’s field and visual literacy in general (Kennedy, 2013).

In practice we can use the following guidelines to make decisions about image use in multimedia-based online learning. 

  • Control Visual Elements – Too many images on a web page or slide may force extraneous cognitive processing that does not support the instructional objective. 
  • Select Visual Elements Carefully – Images difficult to discern are likely to negatively impact learning. Think about good visual quality, emotional and intellectual message of the image, information value, and readability.
  • Use Focused Visual Elements – Target selection of visual support to those images that represent the core learning material and/or provide access to deeper understanding of that core content.

Other Image Tips

Emotional Tone: Emotional design elements (e.g., visuals) can play important roles in motivating learners and achievement of learning outcomes (Mayer, 2013).

Interest: Decorative images may boost learner interest but do not contribute to higher performance in testing (Mayer, 2013). Use decorative images prudently so they do not contribute to extraneous learning processing (Pettersson & Avgerinou, 2016).

Challenge: Making image selections that contribute to a degree of confusion may challenge learnings to dive more deeply into core learning. This is a tenuous decision in that challenge in sense making may prove to foster excessive processing.

Access: Images must be presented in a format that is viewable to users to be practical. This involves an understanding of technical features of image formats, download capability, mobile use, and universal design techniques.

Final Thoughts

It is valuable to remember that visuals communicate non verbally. They are most effectively used when carefully selected and paired with text or audio narration. Visuals appeal to the sense of sight. They have different classifications and could be pictures, symbols, signs, maps graphs, diagrams, charts, models, and photographs. Knowing their form, meaning, and application is part of being a visually literate course developer or instructional designer.

Web Resources

References

Aisami, R. S. (2015). Learning Styles and Visual Literacy for Learning and Performance. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 176, 538-545. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.508

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction : Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com

Eger, L. (2018). How people acquire knowledge from a web page: An eye tracking study. Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal 10(3), 350-366.

Kennedy, B. (2013, November 19). What is visual literacy?. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=O39niAzuapc

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

Mayer, R. E. (2014). Incorporating motivation into multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 171-173. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2013.04.003

Rune Pettersson & Maria D. Avgerinou (2016) Information design with teaching and learning in mind, Journal of Visual Literacy, 35:4, 253-267, DOI: 10.1080/1051144X.2016.1278341

 

Credit: Embedded image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.com

If you’ve ever needed an excessive amount of photographs or diagrams to accurately describe a physical object for your class, you may benefit from a 3D model.

Standard media types, including text, photographs, illustrations, audio, video, and animation, are crucial to the online learning experience. A 3D model is essentially another media type with a lot of unique qualities.

What is a 3D model?

3D models, in this case, are digital representations of physical objects. 3D models generally consist of a polygon mesh and a surface texture. The polygon mesh is a “shell” comprised of the different surfaces of a 3-dimensional object. There are three main components that make up this shell: vertices (points), edges (lines), and faces (planes). For what should be clear from the previous sentence, polygon meshes are often referred to as simply “geometry.” There are a lot of other technical terms associated with polygon meshes, but in practical application, you may never need to learn them.

The surface texture, at its most basic, is an image, mapped onto the surface of the polygon mesh.

A texture can be as simple as a solid color, or as complex as a high-resolution photograph. The texture will be wrapped onto the surface of the geometry with the help of a set of instructions called UVs. UVs are a complex topic in and of themselves, so it’s good enough that you just know they exist conceptually.

These textures can have physics-based properties that interact with light to produce effects such as transparency, reflection, shadows, etc.

You’re probably thinking to yourself now, that 3D models are too complicated to be of use in your courses, but that’s not necessarily true. The composition and inner workings of 3D models are complicated, for sure, but you don’t need to be an expert to benefit from them.

Where did they come from, and how are they used?

There probably isn’t a day that goes by where you don’t experience a 3D model in some way. They are everywhere.

3D models, in digital form, have been around for decades. They have been used in industrial applications extensively. 3D models are used to generate toolpaths for small and large machines to manufacture parts more consistently than a human could ever hope to. 3D models are also used to generate toolpaths for 3D printers.

3D models are used in movies, animations, and video games. Sometimes entire worlds are created with 3D models for use in virtual and augmented reality.

Modern interfaces for computers and smartphones are awash in 3D graphics. Those graphics are rendered on the screen from 3D models!

How can they help me as an educator?

If you’re still not convinced that 3D models hold any benefit to you, I’ll explain a few ways in which they can enrich your course materials.

  1. 3D models are easily examined and manipulated without damage to physical specimen.
    • If you are involved in teaching a course with physical specimens, you are no doubt familiar with the concept of a “teaching collection.” A teaching collection is a high-turnover collection that gets handled and examined during class. Normally these collections break down quickly, so instructors are hesitant to include rare and fragile specimens. Having digital proxies for these rare and fragile specimens will allow students access to otherwise unknown information. This has even bigger benefits to distance students, as they don’t have to be anywhere near the collection to examine its contents.
  2. 3D models give students unlimited time with a specimen
    • If you have a biology lab, and the students are looking at skull morphology, there’s a distinct possibility that you would have a skull on hand to examine. If there are 30 students in the course, each student will have only a short amount of time to examine the specimen. If that same skull was scanned and made into a 3D model, each student could examine it simultaneously, for as long as they need.
  3. 3D models are easily shared
    • Many schools and universities around the world are digitizing their collections and sharing them. There is a fair amount of overlap in the models being created, but the ability to add regionally exclusive content to a global repository would be an amazing benefit to science at large. Smaller schools can have access to a greater pool of materials, and that is good for everyone.
  4. 3D models have presence
    • A 3D model is a media object. That means it can be examined, but it’s special in the way that it can be interacted with. Functionality can be built on and around a 3D model. Models can be manipulated, animated, and scaled. A photograph captures the light bouncing off of an object, that is closer to a description of the object.  A 3D model is a representation of the actual physical properties of the object, and that strikes at the nature of the object itself. This means that a 3D model can “stand in” for a real object in simulations, and the laws of physics can be applied accurately. This realistic depth and spatial presence can be very impactful to students. Much more so than a simple photograph.
  5. 3D models can be analyzed
    • Because 3D models are accurate, and because they occupy no physical space, they lend themselves to analysis techniques unavailable to the physical world. Two models can be literally laid on top of one another to highlight any differences. Measurements of structures can be taken with a few clicks. In the case of a machined part, material stress tests can be run over and over without the need to replace the part.

These are only a few of the ways that an educator could leverage 3D models. There are many more. So, if you still find 3D models interesting, you’re probably wondering how to get them, or where to look. There are a lot of places to find them, and a lot of techniques to build them yourself. I’ll outline a few.

Where do I get them?

3D models are available all over the internet, but there are a few reputable sources that you should definitely try first. Some will allow you to download models, and some will allow you to link to models on their site. Some will allow you to use the models for free, while others will require a fee. Some will have options for all of the aforementioned things.

How do I create them?

The two main ways to create 3D models are scanning and modeling.

Scanning can be prohibitively expensive, as the hardware can run from a few hundred dollars, to many thousands of dollars. But, like anything else technological, you get what you pay for. The quality is substantially better with higher-end scanners.

For something a little more consumer-grade, a technique called photogrammetry can be employed. This is a software solution that only requires you to take a large series of photographs. There is some nuance to the technique, but it can work well for those unable to spend thousands of dollars on a 3D scanner. Some examples of photogrammetry software include PhotoScan and COLMAP.

Modeling has a steep learning curve. There are many different software packages that allow you to create 3D models, and depending on your application, some will be better suited than others. If you are looking to create industrial schematics or architectural models, something likeFusion 360, AutoCad, or Solidworks might be a good choice. If you’re trying to sculpt an artistic vision, where the precise dimensions are less important, Maya, Blender, Mudbox or Zbrush may be your choice.

How to use them in your class:

There are a number of ways to use 3D models in your class. The simplest way is to link to the object on the website in which it resides. At OSU Ecampus, we use the site, SketchFab, to house our 3D scans. The source files stay with us as we create them, but we can easily upload them to SketchFab, brand them, and direct students to view them. SketchFab also allows us to add data to the model by way of written descriptions andannotations anchored to specific structures in the model.

The models hosted on SketchFab behave similarly to YouTube videos. You can embed them in your own site, and they are cross-platform compatible. They are even mobile-friendly.

As you can see, there is a lot to learn about 3D models and their application. Hopefully, I’ve broken it down into some smaller pieces that you can reasonably pursue on your own. At the very least, I hope that you have a better understanding of how powerful 3D models can be.

A big THANK YOU to Nick Harper, Multimedia Developer, Oregon State University Ecampus