What’s An Image’s Value?
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.
People have two channesl of cognitive processing 1) for processing visual/pictorial material and 2) one for auditory/verbal material. See Figure 1. below.
Humans can only process a few bits of pieces of information in each channel at the same time.
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.
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.
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