Visual Design for Student Support

Why should you be concerned about the way content looks online when presented to students? The answer lies in understanding the difference between having dinner at McDonalds fast food restaurant, Golden Corral buffet style restaurant, and the Reunion Tower in Dallas, TX that provides a 360 degree view of the Dallas area while you eat. Still not sure why you should care about the presentation of course content that you spent hours, days, and perhaps weeks developing? Consider the differences between driving a Mazda Protege, a Toyota Camry, and Cadillac Escalade. What about the differences in shopping at a strip mall versus, outlet mall, or a themed mall like downtown Disney? One of the differentiating characteristics between selecting a restaurant in which to dine, a car to drive, or a mall in which to shop is the experience.

The visual design of content online contributes to the overall experience of learning and influences whether or not a learned experience can be recalled when needed. This is important because learning styles vary among students. Good teachers and good teaching honors the differences in learning styles and strives to accommodate those differences through relevant pedagogy. In the image gallery below, which content page image would you rather view?

Teaching students to apply style guidelines to manuscripts is usually a text heavy experience. We can read the book on style guidelines for our discipline. We can read web pages about style guidelines on the internet. However, there are very few visually oriented resources for learning publication guidelines. Learning experiences with a variety of media to teach an aspect of the publication guidelines, such as the one on plagiarism developed for Lycoming College, are limited in number and scope. Because content area teachers have tried using text to teach, reteach, and tutor students on various aspects of publication guidelines, my assistant academic dean and I thought we’d try a more visual approach to the topic. In The Scarlet Citation learning object, images, video, graphics, and animations serve three purposes. The first is to elicit an emotional response, specifically laughter. The second is to explain the content. The third is to maintain engagement throughout the experience. Lets look at how these purposes are achieved visually, and how the visual elements support the learning outcomes for apply style guidelines in an academic paper.

The learning object begins with a story that establishes a context and explains the most asked question of any teacher, “Why do I have to know this?” White, faceless, 3D stick figures provide a light-hearted humorous tone that contrasts the seriousness of applying publication guidelines. Why is a light-hearted humorous tone important? As the parody of the biblical creation story unfolds, the over-the-top exaggeration of the impact of not using publication guidelines will facilitate the recall of the importance of using them in academic and professional settings. The context of the story ends with the readers being exiled from the library and forced to do research online.

To keep with the theme of doing research online, a desktop computer is used to house the video tutorial and the instructions to the interactive activities. This brings us to the third purpose of the visuals, which is to maintain student engagement throughout the learning object. The Scarlet Citation story has a variety of images, graphics, and animations that change every few seconds or less. The change in visuals helps to maintain visual interest. The eyes are constantly scanning the computer screen for information. The senses are not dulled by viewing the same visual for extended periods of time.

Visuals are also part of the interactivity of the learning object. Images can be used in drag and drop, hot spot, matching, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple choice activities that contrast the short audio and reading messages. For example, an image of the title page to a manuscript, although not to scale, supports the learning outcome of the proper placement of required elements. The image of the Microsoft Word ruler allows for the designation of a “hot spot” where a learner indicates the spacing required for a hanging indent. Many people can learn from text alone. For the rest of us, a visual design is essential.

How do images in your learning object support eliciting an emotional response, explaining content, and maintaining engagement? Are there other purposes that your images serve, not discussed in this article? Your comments are welcome.