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.