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Resisting the visual: Why academia is still resistant to the power of imagery in learning

Introduction

This blog is about academic resistance to a good idea. It’s not uncommon that good practices sometimes prompt people to reject them, but that’s different from the other things I’ve talked about in earlier blogs, like being unaware of the problems associated with the ways we often use our primary projection platform, PowerPoint. Being unaware of alternatives is different from knowing of an alternative but resisting its adoption, and this blog is about the latter of those two scenarios.

In other blog posts, I have made a number of arguments advancing the use of images in lectures. These arguments derive in large part from two arenas of thought, one social and one scholarly. The social argument for using images in lectures is that we now live in the most visual era of human existence. Not since cave days have we used imagery to communicate elemental, fundamental knowledge en masse.

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The scholarly argument warns us of the peril of continuing with this imbalance.  Multimedia Learning (MML) scholarship declares that a much more efficient, less harmful, less counter-productive pedagogy would balance delivery of images and text together, exploiting our dual visual and audio-textual processing capacity and easing pressure on working memory.

Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2017/123RF

This more balanced delivery, it is claimed, makes for greater engagement, a particular bug-bear in UK HE presently. But in addition, using images can organically stimulate active learning in student audiences. That is, without having to create other pedagogic spaces to counter the lack of active learning in any lecture theatres, introducing images can automatically trigger inquiry and interrogation in an audience.

Image provision will grow, not shrink. The academic world gives us reason to deploy imagery as a matter of course, as a parallel constitutive pedagogy with as much legitimacy as text. The opportunities and justification create the potential for a transformation of the lecture space from what can often be a disengaging place of passive learning into an arena fit for the challenges of an unpredictable world demanding a critical population and workforce. It is a paradigm-shifting moment in HE history, guiding us from hegemonic adherence to the Gutenberg Press towards a more fit-for-purpose multimedia dimensionality. And yet, it doesn’t take off. Why not? The remainder of this blog is directed at why academics may resist the rise of the visual in human evolution and its potential in Higher Education teaching.

King Canute. CC 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/30591976@N05/3402395112

Resistances

MML scholarship is still novel. The primary tome, published in 2014, has come in for little, if any, reasoned criticism. Perhaps this is because it rests on decades of respected scholarship undertaken by the likes of Allan Paivio, a world-renowned scholar of cognition and memory whose work spans five decades. Its bedrock is solid and has been accepted and integrated into much other work in other fields, such as Psychology and Cognitive Load Theory. I have yet come across no reputable material that takes issue with the primary claims made by MML research, which is that we learn better with images and text, than text alone (Mayer, 2014). And since the method has not been widely applied in HE environments, empirical data concerning its effects has not been rigorously formulated. So, if there’s little discernible scholarly resistance to the use of images in HE lecture theatres, what forms of resistance push back at this counter-hegemonic pedagogy?

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There’s plenty, so we could do with a framework for organizing it. Stephen Sterling (2004) is a scholar concerned with why it was so hard to get the idea of sustainability into Higher Education before it became commonly internalized. The idea was to educate for change as well as change education: it was a new, external concept that was directed at HE and which required HE to change in the way it operated. I’m going to use some of his categories to present some forms of resistance to the use of images I have come across. There will be others, inevitably, that I have not included and commentators are most welcome to share such resistance with me.

Typology of resistances

The first category Sterling identified was denial. In this case, it means that MML is not yet considered valid as a pedagogical approach and therefore poses no challenge to the prevailing, logocentric orthodoxy. This kind of resistance is common enough where a new contender challenges a long-standing tradition, like when the Gutenberg Press challenged the handwritten word, or perhaps when TV challenged radio.  The prevailing logocentric wisdom in HE has stood the test of time, is widely if not universally applied, has mass legitimacy and is dominant because we have made it so. It occupies a position of hegemony that we reproduce each time we use it. It is a deeply-rooted concept.

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Most lectures in most places of HE are done textually (with exceptions, naturally, since no generalization modelled on human behaviour holds true constantly). Each time this happens, it affirms the legitimacy of the practice and, therefore, the illegitimacy of methods other than this. And it’s a vicious cycle. That logocentric legitimacy is preserved further as it rejects new contenders. For example, we are not long in such a conversation before we hear that images in HE ‘simply entertain or illustrate, providing a respite from serious academic work’ (Thomas, et al., 2008, p. 23). They are a ‘cop out’ (Jarvis, 2014; Turkle, 2004) and/or the ‘lowbrow detritus of a shallow media age’ (Little, et al., 2015, p. 1). Goldfarb (2002, p. 3) says the visual is construed as a ‘more base, even primitive, and also untrustworthy form of knowledge transmission’. Using images is not far from playing with Lego, childish or infantilizing, unfit for Higher Education purposes, some suggest (Havergal, 2015; Mitu, 2016).

Sterling then directs our attention to the idea of the ‘bolt-on’. Applied to the idea of images as a pedagogic insurrection, HE tolerates the visual as an appendage in teaching, rather than as an ocularcentric challenge to the primacy of an increasingly eccentric logocentrism. It is perhaps the easiest reaction, since many academics use images already, in one way or another. Astronomers use images of the Horsehead Nebula; chemists and physicists show the structure of atoms using scanning electron microscopes; historians show images of ancient artefacts to students and so on. Images have their place; it is second and it is as an appendage and what’s more, we already do it.

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MML has infiltrated the academy under cover of regular practice and without the legitimacy of great scholarly interrogation of its value by those using them, for the most part. But it has limited sanction and is not accepted as a countervailing, balancing force that might improve our students’ pedagogic lot.  Furthermore, there is normally a limit to their use. Felten and Little (2010, p. 5) talk about images being used ‘to provide visual interest’ and little more, as opposed to balancing cognitive load distribution or using working memory more efficiently, as MML research does.

A third category of Sterling’s concerns an existential confrontation to a prevailing orthodoxy. MML scholarship is based not on content but on a cognition all sighted people share, which implies that the perpetuation of a universal problem (most people using PowerPoint use it the same way) faces a universal challenge.

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When dominant orthodoxies and beliefs are challenged, it is a normal reaction to close down, go into denial and even hide from the threat. If academics have learned to teach using text for all their careers, and have not engaged with countervailing argument (for many good reasons), there is less to suggest a challenge has legitimacy. And where such a challenge implies, inaccurately, that to engage with it substantial change is required, leading to increased workloads, new technologies and other distractions from research-led hierarchies of professional expectations and incentivization/rewards systems, there is a human tendency sometimes to turn away from that challenge.

Copyright 123RF

These aren’t the only ways people resist change in academic circles. For example, it’s well-understood that academics resist pedagogic change when it threatens to undermine our professional security and/or identity (Lotz-Sisitka, et al., 2015). We can be ‘invested strongly in avoiding embarrassment, and… reluctant to adopt innovative [pedagogic] tools or practices’ (Herckis, et al., 2017). And research at Carnegie Mellon found that academics ‘need the validation of satisfied students, take student satisfaction as a sign that things are going well, fear the professional consequences of poor teaching evaluations, don’t think alternatives are a good fit, are sceptical of literature that supports alternatives, and believe that institutional support for alternatives is lacking’ (Herckis, et al., 2017). That study wasn’t alone; Deidre LeFevre (2014) and Samuel Bloom (1988) both identified similar resistances.

There are more practical, immediate concerns at work here as well. I’ve had the chance, when consulting to universities here and in the US, to talk with people about their feelings on the subject. A common strand in these conversations concerns copyright, and rightly so. We fear being ‘done’ for copyright infringement, especially if there is an associated consequence professionally-speaking, and especially when the provenance of an image may be unclear or unstated. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, in a very real sense, we already have expertise in dealing with such issues because as academics we are carefully and highly trained not to plagiarise. We routinely execute an automatic, inbuilt responsibility to ourselves and our profession to attribute the work of others to their rightful owners, and this is no different. We can check for Creative Commons licences by filtering our searches accordingly. Google’s Advanced Image Search allows such control; Flickr states the use rights on or near each image; and subscription sites like 123RF (paid for out of School budgets rather than our pockets) are clear about non-commercial use of images. Other sites like Pixabay and Pexels allow a choice of attribution of their images.

In short, copyright is a technical issue that can be adapted to our needs and is no obstacle to the legal and acceptable use of images. Another common concern has been the time investment required to adopt MML approaches. The first thing I’d say is, ‘it isn’t compulsory’. It’s a choice we can make. The second thing I’d raise is that we can spend as much or as little time as we want on such projects. The third thing I’d say is, we invest a lot of time in creating lectures anyway and we update them as we go. Conversion or adaptation doesn’t have to be instant, it can be something done over time. The last thing I’d say is, just reducing visible text on each slide will reduce cognitive overloading, and that doesn’t take a huge amount of time and the input we make will be valued by our students.

Conclusion

We won’t be reversing the pictorial turn any time soon, if at all. Some have even argued that new technologies will merge text and images in radical ways (Lester, 2014). Resistance, as they say, is futile, but how we respond to change is up to us. The main grounds of resistance that can be substantiated are not presently directed at the pedagogy itself. They reflect other concerns external to MML research and scholarship. Are these good enough reasons to ignore the peer-reviewed research and the implications for our students’ learning experiences?

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This Blog post was written by Dr David Roberts, Senior Lecturer of International Relations and member of the International Business, Strategy and Innovation discipline group. David can be reached on D.Roberts@lboro.ac.uk