Speaking Their Language

With expanded internet access and the infusion of educational technology in classrooms, including 1:1 laptop, iPad, and Chromebook programs, educators must realize the importance of using visuals for their online course content. Today’s students are growing up in an internet-​forward culture. Social media is an important part of how students connect with their friends, peers, and the world. Their online interactions involve accompanying memes, emojis, and graphics interchange format (GIFs) that they use to describe and supplement events happening “IRL”—in real life. Just as we use technology to enhance the learning experience in the classroom, it is perhaps equally important to speak the students’ language as a way of improving student engagement and learning in the digital contexts. This is essential in an era when education has experienced a shift in purpose—away from delivering instruction to producing learning.

It is possible to tailor educational content to meet students where they are and in the visual manner that they often use. This does not mean a shift to using memes, emojis, and GIFs as a means of scholarly communication—rather, that we use these visuals in representative and organizational ways to gain students’ attention, to add visual appeal, and to help arrange online content. Just as a visually appealing website draws increased interest and time spent on a site, similar graphics ideas can be applied to educational online content. The goal is to modify instruction and content in order to generate improved learning outcomes.

Online Visuals and Research

Research has shown that the design of online course materials can impact students’ perceptions of the course and their course outcomes. Online nonverbal immediacy behaviors or design aspects—including visual imagery, audio, and video—are related to higher levels of course engagement by students. This reinforces earlier research showing that attractive visual design (layout, colors, imagery, etc.) can evoke positive emotions in learners that help facilitate the learning process. Making your content visually appealing is a great step toward having students readily engage with your course materials. Whether those visuals are in-class presentations or online content such as screencasts, hyperdocs, GIFs, or videos in a learning management system like Schoology, it is about more than just making your course “look pretty”—it is about engaging students and improving learning. In “An Analysis of Student Self-Assessment of Online, Blended, and Face-to-Face Learning Environments: Instructions for Sustainable Education Delivery,” authors Sidney Castle and Chad McGuire state, “The purpose of media elements should be to deliver the content and instructional methods, not to make a program merely look appealing.” A judicious use of a selection of visual design elements lets students instantly know where they are, what they are doing, and how things are ordered.

Visual appeal should be a result of good instructional design. Part of this process involves learning how to best use visuals to actively engage students. Author Timothy Slater refers to this as visual literacy, which both actively engages students and increases student metacognition in the learning process. He calls these Metacognitive Visual Learning tasks, in which learners are presented with “visuals such as images, diagrams, figures, charts, or graphs.” Today this could also include GIFs, hyperdocs, and embedded videos.

“Sketch noting” represents another hot topic in education when it comes to visuals. In this method, notes include drawings along with words rather than just text alone. These sketches allow the note taker to engage several modalities—including visual, kinesthetic, and semantic—which is superior to involving one. According to Youki Terada, research and standards editor at Edutopia in San Rafael, CA, “When students draw something, they process it in three different ways, in effect learning it three times over.” Students also better recall information from texts when the texts contain illustrations. This is because the images supplement the information in the text and engage more modalities. The same techniques can be applied to online learning content. When students use more than one medium to process a lesson, learning is more deeply encoded. Being dependent on a single presentational modality is a formula for ineffective learning.

Multiple Intelligences Versus Learning Styles

It is important to understand that modalities are not learning styles, which is a widely misunderstood idea related to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory (he proposed seven different intelligences and later added an eighth). Terada states, “The theory of multiple intelligences has too often been conflated with learning styles, reducing Gardner’s premise of a multifaceted system back to a single ‘preferred intelligence’—students are visual or auditory learners, for example, but never both.” Terada notes that, “Research has debunked the idea that students learn best when teachers try to match instruction to a single modality.” Instead, she states that Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences hypothesizes that “all of us as human beings possess a number of intellectual potentials.”

Labeling students as having a disadvantageous learning style can discourage students from using different styles of thinking and learning or developing their weaker areas, Terada says. Avoid confusing multiple intelligences with so-called learning styles. It is not about trying to match a mythical “learning style,” but rather designing learning content that engages multiple modalities. The more modalities we involve students with through our materials—either in the classroom or online—the greater the chance that students will learn and remember those ideas and concepts.

Using Visuals to Increase Appeal and Engagement

To effectively use visuals, we need to first know about the types of graphics for learning. Authors Kapri Livingston and Adam Shaw list four main types of graphics to enhance student learning: representational, organizational, relational, and decorative. Decorative elements are used most often but add little instructional value. Relational graphics help illustrate the relationships between variables, such as in a graph. In order to help students with your online course materials, focus instead on representational graphics that describe or portray content and organizational graphics that help students grasp your course flow and sequence.

Visual Tips

So, how can you add educationally effective visual appeal to your online course elements? Terada offers several tips to engage students. First, give students multiple ways to access information to make lessons more engaging so that students are more likely to remember information. Then, individualize and differentiate your lessons to engage more learning modalities versus a one-size-fits-all approach. Make sure the visuals support or reinforce the other materials, and make those visuals serve as a way to provide students multiple pathways (and shortcuts) to materials. Remember that multiple pathways, along with multiple methods of showing learning, are parts of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Then, make sure those visuals serve as a way to help organize your content in a consistent manner for students.

Consistency is key when it comes to creating your online content. A consistent organization pattern of materials and assignments helps students quickly find and access the required readings, assessments, and videos. This saves time instead of them hunting around for materials in list course resources. Some of the consistency tools I use in my Schoology courses include: hyperlinked course banners (Figure 1); unit homepages with hyperlinked images; embedded unit plans via hyperlinked Google documents; unit folders with a consistent set of subfolders; the use of completion rules for assignments; and the use of GIFs, memes, and badges (both digital and stickers).

When it comes to GIFs, “10-Second Demos: Boiling Asynchronous Online Instruction Down to the Essentials With GIF Graphics” by Karla Aleman and Toccara Porter found that librarians often inserted screencast videos and integrated screenshots into online learning tools to teach students basic research skills. The study showed that GIFs were a good blend of the two media. An example I use is an updated version of a beginning-of-the-year assignment for my History of Western Civilization students in Schoology (Figure 2). This Harry Potter-themed Daily Prophet newspaper page is embedded into an assignment with Google slides. It uses text and gives students visual representations for the assignment, which asks them to watch two videos and then respond to a set of three questions. The pictures on the slide are black-and-white GIFs that loop—much as in Daily Prophet images in the movies—and are hyperlinked to the lecture videos designed to introduce the class to two key concepts. The first concept is making connections between events in history or to the world today. The second concept involves thinking historically and being aware of the context of events.

Remember, visual elements not only add to the aesthetics of online content but also use UDL to help students succeed by providing multiple pathways to materials. Using visuals—including images, videos, memes, and GIFs—is not about making your online content look pretty; it is about engaging students, providing them with flexible access to material, and improving learning.


Philip Pulley, EdD, is a high school social studies and communications teacher at Fieldcrest High School in Minonk, IL.


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You can actively seek new and different technology resources that may bolster student learning. Technology is often a source of connection to a broader world, a way to personalize learning for students, and a tool to find interconnections between concepts. Technology can also be a source of support for initiatives that indirectly support student learning, such as building management and operations. Furthermore, technology can open doors to individuals previously locked out of learning and, in turn, can make learning more inclusive.

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