How to use images in e-learning courses?

Even the instructional designer can suffer from the disorder of the ‘white page’.

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How can I illustrate a particular content? Which kind of communication method should I use? If I use images, how can I choose them and where can I find effective images?

It is demonstrated that images can enhance learning:

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  • It is easier to learn from a text combined with images, rather than from a text-only page;
  • It is easier to learn from text and images presented together, rather than from text separated from images (both spatially and temporally).

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Given the importance of images, we have to choose them carefully and accurately. 

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There are different kind of images we can use, depending on the kind of content we have to explain and on the function of the images.

Images can be:
  • illustrations
  • photos
  • schemes
  • diagrams

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Images can have different functions:
  1. Decorative: Images with a weak connection with the content of the lesson, a mere adornment. This kind of images can be an obstacle to learning, since they can distract from the object of the lesson;
  2. Representative: Images with a strong connection with the text, they reflect and reinforce it, for example a picture that shows the same scene described in a text;
  3. Organizational: Provide a structure for a text, for example a conceptual map or a tree chart. These images can be very useful to the learner, because they help to build mental models and to organize the knowledge in ‘scaffolds’;
  4. Interpretative: Clarify a text and give the learner a different perspective to interpret it, for example a representation of an electrical circuit;
  5. Transformative: represent something that changes over time, for example a timeline or a data map. These images can be very useful to memorize information.
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When we choose an image, it is always recommended to avoid decorative images, to use images that support attention, activate mental processes and help the learner to build mental models and organize information.

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As usual, the web can help us to find images and design visualization methods. There are a lot of websites that sell images and a lot that provide free images with Creative Commons licences.

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Many useful and effective examples of organizational, interpretative and transformative images can be found in the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods:

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A project of great interest is The noun project, a website that collects icons and symbols to build a “global visual language that everyone can understand”. 

There are hundreds of icons uploaded by different designers under a CC licence:

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I will not talk here of the many commercial websites that sell images: finding images is easier than designing and building effective and relevant images. 

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When we have a clear idea of the kind of image we need, and of the function the image must have, it will be easier to search for it or to design it by ourselves.


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