Picture the Story: E-Comics as Teaching Tool

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Adding decorative visualizations to learning content is supposed to render educational material more interesting and motivate students. Though entertaining pictures may distract learners and add to the cognitive load, instructional designers seek to avoid the creation of textual wasteland devoid of graphic oases. Thus, the purposeful and selective use of e-comics and other ornamental illustrations is by all means an ingredient in the e-learning design repertoire.

As a graphic medium of storytelling, comics combine pictorial elements with more or less scarcely used text modules – often in the form of speech bubbles. This results in a dialogic style of narration. One way to use this form of narration in instructional design is to depict controversial topics by engaging two characters in a dispute. Another possibility is to trace historic developments and events as pictorial sequences. Following ideas of anchored instruction, comics can picture a scenario or problem that forms the starting point for investigating the learning content. Finally, comics can also be used to simply loosen the ground, i.e., by including a sketch, learning material can be rendered less dense.

There are a number of Web based tools for the design of educational picture stories. They offer a broad variety of elements to create a comic strip, including a drag and drop feature that facilitates the use of this medium significantly.

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Toondoo is a comprehensive, yet easy to use flash application to create comics. It comprises a variety of premade backgrounds, figures and objects. Moreover, you can upload your own photos and graphic materials and create new avatars using a step-by-step wizard. All objects can be aligned, enlarged, reduced, placed in the foreground or background, copied, deleted and more. Besides, you can change the pose and facial expression of the figures. The rubric ImageR allows you to cut, crop and alienate photos – however, a basic desktop photo editor such as Picasa or Irfanview provides more options and better handling. This also applies to the embedded drawing tool Doodler. In contrast, the feature Book Maker proves to be an extremely useful add-on. It  allows you to combine several ComicStrips into a book – a great way to present a class project or group work. You can download your completed comics as PNG-files or store them within the toondoo website in a password protected area.

Pixton is an alternative environment to generate comics from existing models. The process is easy to learn and the expressiveness of the figures is impressive. The Web application offers a wide selection of poses, gestures and mimics. The variety of background images is, in contrast, less comprehensive. In designing a comic, the you can choose between three different formats: The option “Regular” leads to a drag & drop editor, which allows the free arrangement of elements. The option “Quickie” leads to a selection of prearranged settings with figures and speech bubbles. The “Large Format” can be used to design a single, large-scale scene. The completed comics are retrievable through a unique URL and publicly accessible. You can embed their products into your personal websites as flash files. Print and download options are available as well, but require a premium membership.

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Comiqs is an easy to use environment to turn photos into online picture stories. Based on flash, the tool is particularly interesting for members of the photo sharing community flickr. Pictures can be uploaded or imported from your personal flickr account.  Afterwards, straightforward editing options allow you to arrange photos as comic strips and add speech bubbles.

Meet the Endless Summer – A Review of ED-MEDIA 2009

Stefanie_Panke80By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

The 21st annual World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications (ED-MEDIA) attracted 1200 participants from 65 countries. A diverse crowd, including K-12 teachers, university faculty members, researchers, software developers, instructional designers, administrators and multimedia authors, came together at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel from the 22nd to 26th of June with a common goal: to share the latest ideas on e-learning and e-teaching in various educational settings and at the same time enjoy the aloha spirit of tropical Oahu, Hawaii.

Organized by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE), the annual conference takes place at varying locations in the US, Europe and Canada. Thanks to funding by the German Academic Exchange Agency, I was able to join my colleagues in Hawaii to present two current research projects on social tagging and blended learning and en passant absorb the international flair and information overflow that go together with a packed conference program.


The attendees experienced a full program. In addition to various invited lectures, 210 full papers and 235 brief papers were presented, complemented by numerous symposiums, round tables, workshops and an extensive poster session. The conference proves to be exceedingly competitive with an acceptance ratio for full paper submissions of 37%, and 56% for brief papers. Eleven submissions were honored with an outstanding paper award. My favorite was the work of Grace Lin and Curt Bonk on the community Wikibooks, which can be downloaded from their project page.

Beginning with Hawaiian chants to welcome the participants at the official conference opening and the local adage that “the voice is the highest gift we can give to other people,” audio learning and sonic media formed a recurring topic. The keynote of Tara Brabazon challenged the widely held perception that “more media are always better media” and argued for carefully developed sonic material as a motivating learning format. She illustrated her point with examples and evaluation results from a course on methods of media research (see YouTube excerpt below). Case study reports from George Washington University and Chicago’s DePaul University on iTunesU raised questions about the integration into learning management systems, single-sign-on-procedures and access management.

Among the invited lectures, I was particularly interested in the contribution of New York Times reporter Alex Wright, who reflected upon the history of hypertext. The author’s web site offers further information on The Web that Wasn’t. Alan Levine, vice-president of the Austin based New Media Consortium, clearly was the darling of the audience. Unfortunately, his talk took place in parallel to my own presentation on social tagging, but Alan has created a web site with his slides and hyperlink collection that gives a vivid overview on “50+ Web 2.0 ways to tell a story.”

A leitmotif of several keynotes was the conflict between open constructivist learning environments on one side versus instructional design models and design principles derived from cognitive psychology on the other. Stephen Downes advocated the learning paradigm of connectivism and praised self-organized learning networks that provide, share, re-use and re-arrange content. For those interested in further information on connectivism, an open content class starts in August 2009. This radical turn to free flowing, egalitarian knowledge networks was not a palatable idea for everyone. As an antagonist to Downes, David Merrill presented his “Pebble in the Pond” instructional design model that — similar to “ADDIE” (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation) — foresees clear steps and predictable learning outcomes. Tom Reeves, in turn, dedicated his keynote to a comprehensive criticism of multimedia principles derived from the cognitive load theory, picking up on an article by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006), “Why Minimal Guidance Does Not Work . . . .” The audience, in particular the practitioners, reacted to this debate true to the Goethe verse “Prophet left, prophet right, the world child in the middle.” As Steve Swithenby, director of the Centre for Open Learning of Mathematics at Open University (UK) posted in the ED-MEDIA blog: “Well, actually, I want to do both and everything in between. I can’t see that either is the pattern for future learning – both are part of the ways in which learning will occur.”

With blog, twitter feed, flickr group and ning community, the conference was ringing with a many-voiced orchestra of social software tools. Gary Marks, member of the AACE international headquarters and initiator of the new ED-MEDIA community site, announced that he has planned several activities to foster interaction. So far, however, the few contributions are dedicated to potential leisure activities on Hawaii. The presentation “Who We Are” by Xavier Ochoa, Gonzalo Méndez, and Erik Duval offered a review on existing community ties of ED-MEDIA through a content analysis of paper submissions from the last 10 years. An interactive representation of the results is available online.

Twitter seems to have developed into a ubiquitous companion of conference talks. Whether the short messages add to the academic discourse and democratize ex cathedra lectures or divert the attention from the presenter, replacing substance with senseless character strings, is a controversial discussion. Accordingly, twitter received mixed responses among the conference attendees and presenters. In the end, 180 users joined the collective micro-blogging and produced approximately 2500 postings — an overview may be found at Twapper. As a follow-up to this year’s ED-MEDIA, participants were invited to take part in an online survey, designed by the Austrian/German twitter research duo Martin Ebner and Wolfgang Reinhardt. The results will hopefully further the understanding of the pros and cons of integrating microblogging in e-learning conference events.

The AACE used ED-MEDIA as an occasion to announce plans for future growth. Already responsible for three of the largest world-wide conferences on teaching and learning (ED-MEDIA, E-LEARN and SITE), the organization extends its catalog with two new formats. A virtual conference called GlobalTime will make its debut in February 2011. Additionally, the new face-to-face conference GlobalLearn targets the Asian and Pacific regions.

Is ED-MEDIA worth a visit? The sheer size of the event leads to a great breadth of topics, which often obstructs an in-depth discussion of specific issues. At the same time, there is no better way to gain an overview of multiple current trends in compact form. Another plus, all AACE conference contributions are accessible online through the Education and Information Technology Library. The next ED-MEDIA will take place in Toronto, Canada, from June 28 to July 2, 2010.