Resistance to visual pedagogy

This visual approach is considered by some to be a radical departure from orthodox means of communicating knowledge to students, and as such it will inevitably encounter resistance, just as any new challenge to a longstanding convention resists its usurpation.

Pawn brings down king, reversing hegemony, overthrowing existing asymmetric (dis)order. Copyright.

These are some initial thoughts I’d like to expand on in an article for publication for the next REF. They stem from a past reading of Freire’s classic work concerned with the idea that how we teach could in some way be considered oppressive. It sounds at first counter-intuitive. But there is clearly a case to be made at many levels, from how learning is imposed to how teaching neglects a student’s tabula rasa – the knowledge they bring with them to learning spaces. Freire’s work finds latter-day expression on writings on matters like active learning, which presents a critique of the passivity permeating pedagogic cultures globally. It also has ramifications for those concerned with commodification and marketisation of education generally, and HE specifically, since the primary goal of ‘efficiency’ determined through quantifiable metrication does not always or readily sit with the idea of education for education’s sake: to stimulate, provoke, entice and evolve a person’s lived world by ‘assisting in their discovery’, to use Mark van Doren famous words.

Mark van Doren, right. Copyright.

In this post, I’ll be looking at paths of resistance to hegemonic practices that have presented themselves as visual teaching and learning enters the pedagogic frame.  By ‘hegemonic’, I refer to the well-noted idea enunciated by Gramsci of ‘domination by consensus’. This is the notion that groups of people can submit themselves voluntarily to a form of absolute control. A useful example is most of humanity’s consensus to be dominated by capitalism, even though it may it be in their best interests. The mass acquiescence to have substantial degrees of our lives dominated by an asymmetrical exchange system can be thought of as submission to hegemony. Others have proposed that Brussels and thew EU are hegemonic forces to which European nation-states subsume themselves voluntarily (or at least elements do, BREXIT notwithstanding). The concept has wide application but I’m thinking here about the idea and place of the large group lecture in HE.


People agreeing to accept the truth as the media represents it. Origin.

Lectures have been with us for millennia, and they have faced a range of critiques based on their suitability for large group learning. These debates are well-rehearsed in the literature and I won’t be going over them in any depth. As a pedagogic method, they are valorized as locations where an expert can pass on his or her wisdom to large numbers of students; but at the same time that notion is challenged because communication is compromised by a variety of factors including but not limited to their exclusionary and homogenizing nature and their unidirectional form. It looks to all intents and purposes as if these debates have been largely rendered moot by the juggernaut of neoliberal determinism of planetary existence. By this I mean that the self-perpetuating, auto-legitimating, monolithic hegemony of neoliberal biopolitics into which HE has been subsumed, prescribes almost exclusively market mechanisms and their alleged efficiencies as the most appropriate means to ensure more people attain degrees in a competitive market setting that will enable them to participate productively in that market context. Where once the ‘end’ or goal of HE was knowledge for its own sake, more recently specific, prescribed knowledges (degree content, degree combinations and so on) reflecting perceived market needs have become the means to the goal of employment, profit and servicing of the market. I’m aware that this is a rather crude reduction. But universities now predominantly advertise their degrees based on metrics like graduate employment success, salary levels and the like. Often, because they have not been prepared for such a consideration, students arrive at universities with no sense that they are part of a greater and deeper ethos of scholarly learning and the search for truth, beauty and justice.  The point is that pedagogic challenges to lecture efficacy have been largely subsumed to market considerations and the economics of teaching an increasing number of students with shrinking and unpredictable revenue streams subject to an array of external economic shocks and political fads.

Universities are faced with expanding and diversifying competition form beyond conventional boundaries whilst governments seek greater oversight and offer less funding in many cases.

This may, however, work in favour of visual learning. MML literature predicts increased student engagement and promotes active learning processes. We are almost certainly stuck with the lecture format, whether we like it or not. But visual learning and teaching seems to hit two of the holy grails of teaching large groups – engaging the audience and creating an active intellectual interrogative process, if the results of testing to date are anything to go by. So, on the one hand, we may be in the process of developing a pedagogic means to the ends of engagement, active learning and large group lecture efficacy.

Two birds, one stone – achieving engagement and active learning in large group lectures using MML. Copyright.

But on the other, experience so far with presenting, publicizing and publishing on visual learning in HE bodies is meeting with various degrees of institutional and ideological resistance, mistrust, disdain, surprise and curiosity, not in equal abundance. I’ll start with the more positive aspects I have experienced.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) has been both interested in and supportive of this visual learning agenda. I’ve presented on MML methods at HEA events and content and argument have been favorably received for the most part. It is clear that scholars with an active interest in pedagogy as well as their own fields of research have for the most part been open and receptive at various talks I have participated in. It is equally clear that there are still many questions attached to this method, from the more usual technical matters of image sourcing, to legal concerns regarding copyright, to more profound questions regarding the ethics of image use, all by way of questions concerned with matters like process codification – how we locate apposite images. The HEA has also supported a Fellow-led initiative that attracted colleagues from across the UK to Loughborough. In addition, visual learning sessions at discipline-specific conferences like the Political Studies Association (PSA) and the British International Studies Association (BISA), while relative poorly-attended, have shown interest in and enthusiasm for the idea of matching how we teach to how we learn through this new-but-old medium. There is, then, what may be called a limited and peripheral interest in a medium of communication that may ultimately come to challenge the hegemony of the written word in teaching and learning.

David and Goliath, by the young Armenian artist Erik Bragalyan. This image is used here to symbolize the challenge of visual imagery to the hegemony of dominant logocentrism. Copyright Erik Bragalyan

Beyond this periphery, in HE institutions in the UK and in government, there is a different, and mixed story. Centres for Academic Practice have disseminated awareness of the concept across the UK, and take-up has been from universities at the upper and lower ends of key metrics rankingss, with sciences and social sciences represented. Universities that have seen the method being demonstrated have overall apportioned value to it, seeking consultation. Some bodies have been willing to pay to have members of their staff exposed to and trained in its rationale and application. This is not to suggest colleagues at other institutions have been forced to absorb this method. Instead, universities to which I have consulted have wisely left decisions about whether to engage with visuality, and the extent to wish they might do so, to the academics. The method has value-added beyond pedagogy: it can form the basis of pedagogic research, especially since it is both under-theorized and has had limited empirical testing; its use can demonstrate engagement with pedagogic literature; it can present as evidence of reflection for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and can serve as evidence for promotion bids.  And in government circles, the method has also found support. The Department for Education has integrated visuality in schools as part of its Inclusive Schooling agenda. So it’s ‘out there’ and it’s novel whilst also being very well-established when we think about it.

Visual learning has been around a very long time. Copyright

Resistance has become evident in efforts to publish on the subject. Most academic journals, especial in the social sciences, are not accustomed to printing and uploading imagery in scholarly articles. Subject areas that use imagery to communicate routinely, like engineering and biology, couple more experience with less reluctance. But my experience in social sciences publishing has been an uphill one, for the most part, with some notable exceptions. In some cases, there has been an extra-ordinary consultation process between editors on the use of imagery that has resulted in an outright rejection of the use of images in an academic article designed to communicate the idea of the use of images in academic communication – even online where it is easier to facilitate. In others, editors have had to consult specialists on the technological implications and then proceeded. Others spotted the irony of excluding imagery from such a topic at the outset and encouraged image use. A final category seems to fall into the ‘old school’ category of people who can’t tolerate a woman breast-feeding in public because part of a ‘sexual organ’ was on display. An image involving a pole dancer around a giant artificial phallus, representing radical, third world, constructivist and other challenges to liberal feminist support for sex work attracted the ire of one reviewer who demanded it be removed as ‘inappropriate’.  It had to be removed. I reproduce it below.

Critique of liberal feminist attitude to sex work. Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2016

Members of editorial teams have sometimes not seen the irony of using text only to discuss a method that advances imagery as the medium of communication. Some have refused outright to accommodate images whilst actively considering the text content of various submissions. Others perhaps more used to diverse communication practices have engaged the use of a limited number of images and have rightly been very concerned with copyright matters. Because this is an emerging and expanding field in pedagogy studies, publishers not in multimedia fields have limited experience with including imagery with articles, unsurprisingly. Indeed, academic publishing mirrors the broader trend in the academy towards logocentrism.

Logocentrism, or the idea that words are the most important form of expression of information and knowledge and understanding, dominates academia and has done for centuries. It is a deeply entrenched logic that has served the academy well in its time. Presently, however, logocentric hegemony operates outside both our students optimal learning capacities, and their lived experiences before and after university. Their worlds before and after university are at odds with their time and space in HE. In this most visual of eras, attendant upon globalization and digitization to name but two phenomena at work at this point in evolution, our students have learned to swipe a screen before they have learned to turn a page. Schooling increasingly acknowledges visuality and visual entertainment has never been more influential. The advertising, marketing and sales they are exposed to before their journey with us has fed them visually. The magazines and newspapers they read are more image-based than at any time in history. Their social media and communications engage visuality at all stages.

The routine demand for employee understanding of visual social media. Copyright.

Their employers are increasingly visually literate and aware, and demand the same from their employees. Their adult entertainment opportunities engage streaming video of all forms. But at university, logocentrism prevails. To be clear at this point, no-one I know of is suggesting an end to text, in any discipline. There is no expectation that adopting visual media means eliminating words. It is to suggest that as learning and teaching providers, we acknowledge our students’ physiological learning capacities and the visual spaces and experiences that have, and will, shape their lives. As long as logocentrism remains as dominant and exclusive of alternative and invaluable learning channels, it will subjugate and repress the pedagogic potency that visual learning, as a parallel medium, presents to engage students and communicate simple and complex understanding to students.

The ancestry of text, made to look dated by use of a largely-extinct technology. Copyright.

Presently, visual learning is unpopular in the academy as a legitimate and equal or parallel medium to text. The evidence in this respect is anecdotal and sketchy. But practice is not. Few teaching academics work with images as anything other than appendages, or occasional breaks in text (unless the subject is heavily visual like in Arts, Graphic Design and so on. In a survey of academics at Loughborough university’s School of Business and Economics, less than 10% of those surveyed claimed to use images for more than half any of their lectures. This data amounts to little more than a small sample; but based on what I’ve seen of colleagues’ teaching at 3 universities, at academic conferences here and in  Europe and the US, and lectures that appear online (discoverable by selecting for filetype in Google), I think it’s safe to suggest the logocentric pattern is consistent.


Costs and benefits

In most respects, this project of developing MML shouldn’t cost individual academics anything. This site is funded by Loughborough university, for example. Time I personally spend with this CoP is covered by a variety of initiatives I have connected to. Perhaps most importantly, my School is right behind this venture. It’s an Impact Case Study for the REF as well as evidence of professional development and esteem etc. It is acknowledged, respected and valued.

Not all Schools will be like this, yet. And although I am wary of making predictions, especially any based on academic theories, I believe all universities will have to at least not show resistance to visual pedagogies to support textual learning and teaching. Logocentric university teaching is framed and contradicted by UK public policy in schools by the Department for Education that insists on elevating visuality to support inclusive learning, and by the real world that is moving past textual hegemony into an era characterized by the potential for dual learning to match dual processing. This isn’t going to go away, and institutions not engaging and seen to be engaging with this conversation will experience intellectual and social opprobrium. Universities will ignore this digital visual wave in Canute-like fashion at their peril.

There will be more, not less, people taking images as cameras on phones improve and spread globally. There will be more, not less, images being uploaded online. There will be more, not less, image data banks. There will be more, not less, commercial imagery. There will be more, not less, normalization of imagery for communication. The only way I can see a reversal of these digital trends is the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse.

Zombie Apocalypse. Copyright AMC The Walking Dead.

For now, there will be little formal institutional attention to imagery, which implies perhaps a cash vacuum. But it is unquestionable that the idea of MML in HE is novel, innovative and ticks important boxes. I’m thinking about the need to demonstrate innovation and excellence and connect teaching to scholarship on teaching, elements of which appear to underpin the TEF. I also see our inquiry into this method as sustaining Continuous Professional Development. Even limited but rigorous research by us on our own student cohort into the methods we develop will demonstrate innovation and pedagogic investigation for promotion purposes. More substantially in some ways, my own appointment to a Senior Fellowship of the HEA was effected by the research appearing on these pages, so ‘higher’ climbing can be facilitated this way. It’s going to involve some hard work so there should, I believe, be a tangible reward for our endeavors. And in five years time, we may be the ‘tip of the spear’ as visual evolution and pedagogy is increasingly acknowledged and centralized.

Leading the field. Copyright

Schools will to varying degrees be tipped as momentum gathers. This means we will likely be better able to argue for subscriptions to commercial image banks like 123RF, Shutterstock and Depositphotos, to name just a few. These average around 300-400 USD a year for around 40 images a month. It isn’t much even for a cash-strapped Department. It may be the case that you can ask your Centralized Academic Offices for help, and it may be possible, if applying for pedagogic research funding, to include in your bids, access to various subscriptions. In fact, I wish I had thought of that earlier. The trend is towards imagery, not away from it. Other than this, access to images is largely free. Acknowledgement costs nothing and it’s what we do, as scholars.


The benefits, on the other hand, can be quite far-reaching. The evidence so far shows increases in the range of 40-60% for student engagement in large group lectures, not to mention increases in the presence of active learning characteristics of 60-80%. This is the evidence from formal longitudinal testing. Informal and anecdotal evidence indicates 30 percent increases in the number of students getting externally-validated ‘firsts’ in various modules where visual teaching and learning have been deployed.

We will also benefit in terms of taking this data and evolving it further, developing other approaches and areas of investigation and generally contributing to – maybe even owning to some extent – this almost untouched – and yet universally-applicable – research domain. Aside from Richard Mayer’s CUP tome, research has been sporadic to-date, with relatively few academics engaged in something that reaches all disciplines in all Schools in all universities in every country in the world. The potential for publishing is great, and this brings me to another area of benefits, in terms of CPD. The more we are able to research, consider and publish, the better our profiles, the more evidence we accrue for applications for pay rises and promotion, the higher our salaries and the better (hopefully) our pensions are. I call this the 3P’s: pay, promotion, pension. There are multiple strategic dimensions to the way I see this area of investigation and pedagogy evolving. Supporting colleagues’ CPD ambitions is one of a number.

Leg up. Copyright

So, yes, there will be a demand on our time as you engage here, but the amount of time is of our choosing, and has clear benefits to our students, for whom we work. But that’s just one side of it. IMHO, the potential benefits, to us and our students, is worth an initial surge in workload. It’s entirely up to us how we develop and exploit this opportunity.



Time investment

In another post, I alluded to the notion that teaching with images was for some comparable to an act of heresy, because privileging, or even moderately introducing a few images here and there, challenges millennia of logocentric orthodoxy. It is probably over-dramatizing the issue to suggest that we are involved in an act of pedagogic heresy; but the scale of the challenge facing us is every bit as epic as such a heretic position would imply. Kings and governments have crumbled over less. It’s the size and scope of the exercise in which we are involved that I want to draw attention to here, because there’s the matter of the amount of time we can choose to allocate to this venture.

There are dozens of competing pressures on academics’ time. There are many reasons for the changes in workloads that have evolved since what look now like halcyon days when I was a (mature) student taking my first degree. In the late 80s, as Western politics, economy and society were being transformed under Reagan and Thatcher, the academics that taught me were just starting to feel the bite. As effective challenges from opposition fell away, a variety of processes and fads brought the academy to heel, in line with the larger picture and forces that were transforming our professional existences and our students’ experiences. Thatcherism, managerialism, privatization and deregulation paved the way for the existing neoliberal order that privileges competition unleashed by metrication and the commodification of education.

Tornado. Copyright

Where once there was time for leisurely reflection on teaching – compromised by a lack of direction and urge among many scholars to do just that – now there is barely time to arrange a meeting with more than two academics in one place on the same date – if there’s a room available. Our job descriptions have broadened and tightened to the point that the profession I once knew has all but disappeared. In some respects that’s good. But it leaves us in the peculiar situation where most universities get much of their cash from block teaching grants, whilst most colleagues seek reward mainly for their research in areas other than pedagogy, and our diaries reflect this. So time is not on our side – not where innovative, original research into how to match pedagogy to physiology is concerned, which is the basis of this MML CoP. Getting more than 5 members of this CoP to one place on the same date, for example, proved impossible. What I’m saying, in a roundabout, but nonetheless important (I think) way, is that we’ve boldly chosen to rethink the very fundamentals of how we teach, with almost no time available to take on this mammoth task. Fortunately, one of the great virtues of a CoP is the division of labour and the range of personal aspirations to be found across that divide, meaning there is a pedagogic arsenal coming online. As Ellie’s Dad counsels his young daughter in the movie ‘Contact’, it’s ‘small steps’ that will take us forward. And that applies to anyone who wants to progress their engagement with visual learning. Because, when confronted with the idea of a visual presentation with limited text using apposite images, the task looks giant. But like most tasks, it’s much easier when you break it down. This blog post is about breaking it down.

Car broken down into its component parts. Copyright.

My own experiences with using images to teach began with using one unmodified image I came across accidentally that seemed to connect with what I was teaching (below). It’s s subtle horror show of an image, revealing only a smear of blood at an airport but telling a story of globalization, animal rights, corruption, neoliberal consumption, markets, the commodification of life, biopolitics and so much more. I felt at the  time like I had fallen upon the Mother lode.  I worked out how to insert the image but it bounced around when I tried to add text to it and it was blurred. I found a better version of it and asked someone how to keep an image still in PPT and they said ’embed it’, and Google did the rest. I used just the one image and that was it. But it was commented on and someone said I should use more. I looked around for examples and found few at the time but everywhere I turned there were amazing adverts telling huge and complex stories to regular folk.

WWF advert on endangered species trafficking, adjusted in Photoshop

This process coincided with changes in my life that allowed me more time to ‘mess around’ with this idea. But not everyone will have that opportunity. People have lives, and children, and parties, and conferences, and Open Days and school visits and weddings and all the rest. Oh, and academic careers. So what I would say to someone trying to juggle an already-overloaded diary is, you don’t need a lot of time to find just one image, to start the ball rolling. And if you’re inclined, which I suspect is likely given your interest in this CoP, you may decide to consider research into pedagogy if you haven’t already, and you will be in possession of unique primary data as you evolve your method in your own direction. Pedagogic journals are included in most REF submissions and this is still a niche market, if you like. Combining a shift in your teaching with efficiency in research time and output helped me reshape my research agenda (my career area has been peacebuilding in postconflict spaces but that was halted by university policy that was concerned with reputational harm to its name if I was injured in the field). Pedagogic research was a gift from heaven for me; our niche area may help us find more outlets for our interests and enable us to combine teaching and research/REF in one. There will likely be a blog series about research, as well. So, small steps, a few images here and there, building up and then research on that process and its impact on student cohorts. I’d be especially keen to see how this method might support non/partial-sighted students myself so if anyone works with non-sighted students, let me know and we might be able to collaborate. I’d be interested in working with anyone to extend our examination of MML theory and methods.

Small steps. Copyright

To close, there’s another way we can quickly and easily improve our students’ learning experience that doesn’t involve images but does involve Cognitive Load Theory and MML. It seems that splitting up text-loaded slides into multiple slides with, perhaps, just one point or one line on each, reduces the harm caused by overload. It’s quick and easy to do, adds more slides but not more content and divides up content to be absorbed. It isn’t images but it is cognizant of MML theory and it may be a good starting place for some, I imagine.


The ‘problem’ with PowerPoint

Since Microsoft introduced PowerPoint in the mid-to-late 1990s as a tool for professionalizing presentations, along with Apple’s Keynote, Prezi and Slideshare, these platforms have become ubiquitous and unavoidable. PPT is embedded in HE for better of for worse wherever there is electricity, all around the world.

Universality of PPT. Copyright David Roberts 2016

More than a decade ago, Microsoft estimated that 1.25 million PowerPoint presentations take place every hour, and yet most of them are used as ‘shovelware‘ to deliver ‘sliduments‘. This is a term that covers the use of slides to present documents, sometimes also referred to as ‘data dumps’, and this in part can account for slides full of text. One writer suggests that sliduments are the ‘illegitimate offspring of the projected slide and the written document’. It’s something close to academia; we are expected not only to impart complexity of a sometimes arcane nature, but also to cover our bases by avoiding complaints from students that we haven’t fed them everything we can. When we combine this common academic approach (it’s not just academics who use this delivery method) with the dozens of other ways we present that involve pedagogic challenges, we might easily be forgiven for thinking that PowerPoint is the problem.

Death by PowerPoint. Copyright David Roberts 2016

We wouldn’t be alone. PowerPoint has attracted noisy opprobrium from far and wide, perhaps most notoriously from Edward Tufte, who is concerned at the cognitive style of PPT derived from the linearity of presentation established by the use of bullet point. He famously declared in Wired that ‘power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely’, leading to the declaration that PowerPoint is ‘evil’. In the ‘evil’ range, Google’s former head of research, Peter Norvig, compared PPT with a loaded AK47 assault rifle because it could harm so many people. His parody of the Gettysburg Address done using PPT is famed. PowerPoint, it is declared, makes us stupid’. It even shouldered some of the blame for the Columbia shuttle disaster.

But perhaps there’s an uncritical, repetitive and even trendy dimension to this matter. It is water-cooler talk at conferences now to disparage and lampoon PPT. Yet here is a platform capable of communicating more than just text. It is a truly versatile and stable means of delivering what we choose to deliver, how we want to. We can embed videos, sound, images, hyperlinks, charts, maps, graphs, shapes, screenshots, objects, equations and more. But we choose to use primarily text, in the most visual, oculocentric era of human evolution. That choice is undoubtedly aided and abetted by Microsoft’s techno-deterministic direction: we open a new slide for a new presentation and it’s bullet-points that direct our cursors first and foremost.  Taking a step back, then, we might look at the issue as being more user-defined that a product of a poor platform, implying perhaps that we could be thinking about the baby we are ejecting with the bathwater.

Baby and bathwater. Copyright David Roberts 2016

MML theory and the limited data we have so far accumulated in and around this CoP provides us with a valid reason to think about how we use and can use PPT. If an apposite image is worth a thousand words – and the evidence so far corroborates this notion – and we have a platform capable of visual projection, marrying the two doesn’t seem like making a Frankensteinian monster.  Indeed, it might seem almost rude not to. This is less about suggesting that we are bad workers blaming our tools, and more about hegemony of practices that began before the visual era manifested digitally and accessibly, and throughout a period when critique of PPT use was dominated by an uncritical critique on a speeding bandwagon. We used PPT the way we had been trained to deliver knowledge and understanding to students traditionally, in an orthodox community that has belittled any paradigm challenging the centrality of logocentrism. In some quarter, suggesting we apply images still provokes reactions that in other eras got a lot of wide women burned as witches. In essence, proposing imagery as a valid and viable route to communicating complexity and meaning to students is a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm that declares language to be the primary authoritative and legitimate conveyor of meaning. I’m only partly speaking tongue-in-cheek when I say that the idea of visuality as possessing parallel pedagogic legitimacy as a delivery medium in its own right is almost heresy when considered epistemologically and in terms of how scholars like Freire and Foucault have characterized power and pedagogy.

Burned at the Stake by William Mortensen. Copyright







Relocating text

This post is designed to deal with one of the biggest concerns colleagues express about a visual method that appears to sideline, or balance, text delivery. Many people assume that a visual method means that text is removed, but this isn’t the case. PowerPoint is an excellent, well-understood and easy to use platform capable of multimedia delivery and storage and this is the case with the method of visual delivery derived from MML theory.

MML by Richard MayerWe are accustomed to using this platform to deliver text primarily, with images as occasional appendages rather than pedagogic media channels in their own right. Some go as far as to say that digital delivery platforms of today are primarily used in the same way that chalkboards and OHPs were in the past, as document delivery systems. Tom Schrand calls the use of such platforms ‘shovelware’. I have referred to this in a little more detail here.  But if MML is not about eliminating text, the most obvious question is, ‘what happens to it?’ There are 2 answers to this.

In the first instance, we can keep a limited amount of text on our slides, over the image. This might be a title, or a prompt, or whatever you wish. But it shouldn’t be presented in a way that conceals the image, or there’d be no point in having the image. I try to stick to a simple rule – no more than 1 line at 28 point font, and I highlight the text with a semi-opaque black fill (covered elsewhere in this blog post series).  But this doesn’t really cover what many academics are most concerned with. If we are encouraged to ‘feed’ students course information as a result of neoliberal universities participating in ever more comprehensive and Darwinian ranking metrics, we can put as much as we ever put on the slides, in the ‘Notes View’ section of PPT.

Here, I have included a lengthy quote connected with the image I chose for the slide. In addition, I have copied in lorem text to show how much more space there is for your preferred. ‘Notes View’ appears when you grab the horizontal bar beneath the slide and lift it. We can give students as much or as little text as we want to, and have imagery do some of the pedagogic work for us. We don’t need to create extra documents; as long as we make the PPT file available, our students can have a genuine multimedia learning experience. Since both VLE’s and lecture capture are increasingly adopted in UK and US HE, we have the right platforms to host those files.

Font choices

Blog 6 Fonts and dyslexia fonts

I thought I’d write a little bit about font choices, since I’ve also discussed contrast and backgrounds. I hadn’t started to think much about fonts until I came across Guy Kawasaki’s work about presenting slides. Kawasaki is a guru in the presentation world, who once worked with Apple and was involved in the famous launch of the MacBook Air in 2008 with Steve Jobs (whatever we may think of Apple’s employment rights positions).  I’ve recreated it below, because it’s also an example of what this CoP is about. Jobs communicated the key concept of the MacBook Air (its weight and size) not be putting up stats about its weight and depth but by comparing it with an envelope. I think it’s a useful example of the application of images in the communication of knowledge.

Made to emulate the event in 2008. Copyright David Roberts; Steve Jobs CC2.0

Anyway, Kawasaki came up with the 10-20-30 rule and I’ve adapted it for my own use. Most of it doesn’t apply to academic work but it does seem appropriate for the punchier world of business competition. It suggests that presentations should not have more than 10 slides, last 20 minutes and use a 30-point font. Given the size of PowerPoint slides, the 30-point font makes sense, although it’s easier to select 28 point from the drop-down menu in Word, and that’s what I have been doing. This size seems clear and visible enough even for non-20-20 vision students seated at the rear of large lecture theatres. So it seems reasonable to suggest 28 point fonts for our own work.


That takes us to what kind of font to use and how many we might apply in a single presentation. There is a design rule that appears in this very handy book by Robin Williams (not that one)

and is echoed across respected sources elsewhere that a presentation shouldn’t have more than 2 different fonts. There should be continuity across the slides, in other words. Then we can choose a font from 2 families, serif and sans serif. Sans serif has been characterized as ‘clean and smooth’ whilst serif has curly bits on it, like in Times font. I always use Segoe UI light, which I believe comes as standard in MS Office. In my view, sans serif fronts are better, and this is the case, it seems, for students with dyslexia. Which brings me to a handy font we can use that is claimed to be better for students experiencing dyslexia and presents no problems for students not experiencing dyslexia. It’s free to download here for anyone interested. Fonts are quick and easy to install, but you need to unpack them from the folder they arrive in first. Then select them all (sometimes font variations like upper case, italic and bold) come as separate files. Right click and ‘install’, and off you go.

There’s some overlap now in this post with things I’ve discussed regarding slide colour and background. I always use the same black background and use Segoe UI light in white to maximize contrast. I understood this to be best also for dyslexic students, but at the HEA event I convened, I learned that a blue text on a cream background is best. This being academia, unsurprisingly, opinion is divided, so it’ll be up to you to decide which is best for your needs.

Animation v. Transition

I imagine we’ve all seen PPT presentations and lectures where things fly around the place, dramatic changes happen between slides with shattering glass or rolling cubes and so on appear to spice up or add performance to the slides. These usually involve 2 elements of PPT and I’m going to look at each in turn. They are transitions and animations. The difference between the two might be characterized as being between slide and within them. But both appear to provide novelty, a degree of dramatic license and perhaps notably, given the persistent demand for ‘innovation’, choice about how we present and how we differentiate our work from others. I’ll start with transitions.


Transitions, like animations, have their own tab on the top of the PPT file. They act between slides. That is, they create a discernible gap or break in slide content form one to the next. They’re popular for a variety of reasons. There is an element of ‘pzazz’ involved and they appear to offer some form of break between slide content.  Transitions can be added to any one, or all slides, and you can add the same transition to all the slides in one click; or you can give each slide its unique transition. My concern with them is that, in dividing up the slides, they serve to interrupt the flow and add time in which nothing, other than a showy moment, is happening. In that sense, for me, they have always been a distraction, breaking up the flow of the slides and losing time between slides whilst also stopping flow briefly.


Melting clock, lost time. Copyright

I toyed with them when PPT first came out, but dropped them rapidly when the novelty gave way to a realization that for me, and for the presentation, they served no real purpose I could see. It was a case of form over function. Nowadays, I tend to discourage their use if asked.


Animations take place within a slide. As far as the use of images goes, there isn’t much to animate (unless the images are animations of course which is a different ball game). Animations here refers to the motion of text on a given slide. It’s not uncommon to see, for example, text appear as if it were coming out of a typewriter, one letter at a time. Some people even add the clatter of the keys. My own rule is to keep it simple. Like transitions, animations has a tab on the top menu bar of PPT. There is a wide range of types of animation and, for the imaginative and those with time on their hands, you can create your own, moving text (or anything else you can add to a slide) anywhere, with any vector (or movement in a given, or multiple, directions).


Animations for me involve motion of text on a given slide. There is a good evolutionary reason to consider using animations, given how much digital distraction an audience brings with it that we need to compete with (I’m thinking about people reading Facebook posts, sharing images on Instagram, replying to emails and texts and so on). Sudden motion at our periphery forces us to look towards what’s moving. My understanding is that this is about predation. Some take the view that it applies to us as subjects of predation – having to keep a wary eye out for an attacker. Others suggest that we as predators use the eye’s attraction to motion to locate victims.

Eye detecting movement. Copyright

Either way, text animation can draw an audience’s attention towards the screen we want them to look at – not always and not all the time, but this motion has a positive rationale whilst transitions seem less valuable.  In my experience, and with a nod to gurus like Guy Kawasaki, it’s wiser to use only discreetly. My own preference is for a ‘wipe’ effect or a ‘fade’, depending on where the text is on the image, how much space it takes up relative to the key object in the image, and what I had for breakfast. I’ll provide some guidance for anyone who might be interested. I imagine most people know how to do this but for anyone that doesn’t, this may help.

Menu bar – ANIMATIONS – CHOOSE FROM STARRED OPTIONS IN MENU ABOVE SLIDE – THAT’S IT. Speed and duration is automated, but I have found it really helpful to click the ‘after previous’ option next to the green arrow at the top right. This advances the animation as soon as your new slide appears on-screen, meaning you’re not having to click again to get the text to appear. The image below shows where that little arrow lives.

And for a really professional slide, we can add a semi-opaque fill, so the text isn’t rendered invisible by various different colours in the image it accompanies. I’ve put below an example of what a difference it can make to the visibility of text and the professional appearance of the slide.

Text without semi-opaque fill. Source


With opaque text fill

Creating a semi-opaque fill:

Right click on your text’s boundary box (not the text itself). FORMAT SHAPE – FILL – SOLID FILL – TRANSPARENCY (to taste, depending on image)

I’ll provide a free blank slide with built-in animation etc to anyone who asks.You’ll be able to modify it to your own taste if you want.


This perhaps sounds like a lot of effort, and it’s a fair concern. I’m going to devote a post to this issue, but if I were asked to justify it, I’d say we spend a great deal of time getting words onto a slide, and images have their own value as a parallel medium for communicating meaning. You don’t have to put images onto every slide – or even any slide if you’re not happy with it. A few at a time can make a big difference. From MML theory perspective, it’s no less legitimate or important a task than putting words up on the screen.


This posting is a straightforward technical overview of what to do with an image you want to put into a lecture. It applies to PCs, but I’m not Mac-literate any more. This said, at a session at St. Andrews, the process looked very similar.

There are various ways of adding an image to a PPT or Keynote (the Mac version of PPT). People often use the ‘insert image’ route, which is fine. In my view, there is a better way that gives you greater control over the quality of the image’s presentation when the slides are up. I’ll go through both and you can make your own minds up. Here’s the relevant menu bars etc

Relevant menu bars etc


From the top tab bar in Office 2010-2016; earlier versions use the same language, I think.

INSERT – IMAGES. Now locate the image as you would any other file. The image is now planted on the slide and you can move and resize as needed.  Sometimes there’s a border round the edge of the image, sometimes it fits. But to fit it needs to have bene in 4:3 scale to start with and most images these days are not scaled that way.

This brings me to the other method.

Take your blank slide and RIGHT CLICK – FORMAT BACKGROUND. You’ll see a new column open on the right, Find PICTURE OR TEXTURE FILL – INSERT PICTURE FROM FILE – FILE. Then locate the image on your machine.

The obvious difference is it’s a few clicks more than the other method. But the image is automatically resized to fit the slide, and it’s not on the slide it’s embedded. This means that when you add a text block, you can’t accidentally knock the image out of place, or have trouble identifying whether you’re clicking on a text box or the image. I was sold on the automatic reshaping. It’s instantly more accomplished than an image that leaves part of the slide showing.

Maybe now’s a good time to talk about professional slide preparation. I’ve developed a handy way of ensuring all my slides work the same way and appear professional. For reasons that will become clearer when I wrote about dyslexia, and for reasons of visibility, I only ever use black slides and white text. There’s a good reason for this. I’ve created a slide that amplifies the worst case scenario. Nobody would make one this bad; but there are a lot that hover around this ball-park.

Badly contrasted slide

The rooms we present our slides in can’t always be predictably lit unless they are purpose built theatres. Rooms with windows let in more light on sunny days than duller ones, for example. I enjoyed using the colour spectrum for my slides but realized that the only way I could reliably defeat the vagaries of the weather was to use the highest contrast possible – simple black and white. Dull too. But it worked well, and then I was told that dyslexic students have trouble with lower contrast backgrounds and text and I decided to stick with black and white – not white and black. For dyslexia purposes, it had to be black background and white text. Then I was told for some dyslexic people it’s the other way round.  I stayed with black background and white text, but sometimes I mix it up a little and use a fancy black background like this one. I made this myself so you can use it if you like.

Black mesh background free for CoP use

I’ll try to upload an animated PPT file master made from this, with working animation, soon.

So that’s how to insert, or embed, an image into a PPT file, just in case anyone needed to know.

Finding images

This posting is about finding images and attributing them. I’ll look at some sites and discuss their pros and cons as well as ways of attributing and hopefully some reassurance about usage. Elsewhere there’s a posting on copyright, but for now, I’d like to share some sources you may not yet be familiar with.

Using the web to locate apposite imagery.Copyright

A valuable first port of call is Google’s Advanced Image Search. This search engine is customizable with a range of filters including those aimed at copyright licensing. The subject search is similar to those used in academic library searching, allowing users to distinguish between exact words, any combination of words and so on. Usefully, it can also filter for size and that’s important for quality control. There’s no point in using an image that is pixelated beyond interpretation, so depending on purpose, we can rule out smaller sizes. I never use smaller than 800 x 600 – like the ones in this blog. It’s right for filling a PPT slide projecting onto multiple screens in any lecture theatre I have ever come across. There’s a handy guide here to resizing if you need it.

Google Advanced Image Search

Superficially, Google searches filtered for copyright are safe. But critics have pointed out that for Google to seek images, images need to already exist somewhere on the web, which means that whoever uploads an image may not always be accurate in assigning a copyright status to them. I’ll come to this in more detail in separate post on copyright, but as a general rule, if we’re not making money from an image, few people show any concern.

There are a few other sites I rely on. The first one sounds dodgy but contains the best of the best for my purposes. This is DeviantArt, one of the largest sites for commercial and non-commercial artists in the world. The search engine is effective and the variety enormous. Switch on the ‘mature’ filter and your searches are safe. This isn’t a copyright free site, despite there being ‘free-to-use’ stock images. My method of securing use of an image has been to contact an artist whose work I would like to use and ask permission for educational purposes. Nested comment boxes and accessible contact information allow rapid communication (or compete silence). My experience to date has been that when an artist hears I want to use their image for teaching, they are happy to support this for altruistic reasons, and also because it is free advertising for the artist because it will be attributed, of course. No-one has declined a request, although there have been some non-replies. An example I like to us to illustrate the calibre and potential of this site appears below:

In one image (above), the artist, Christophe Kiciak, conveys the tumultuous transformation from the DNA strand through fish to man in a primordially-brutal sea and sky.  Referring to evolution whilst talking over this image has been very helpful, according to survey comments. So the point is that images on sites like DeviantArt may require a little more patience to locate and secure, but can be invaluable as teaching imperatives, initiatives and innovations. Christophe agreed in writing for his image to be used for educational purposes with attribution after I wrote to him through the nested comments section on the page on which this image appeared.

My second source tends to be Flickr. Flickr is well-known and has been around a while and the quality of imagery can be outstanding (as well as less remarkable). They also provide a handy overview of copyright licensing here. Images appearing on Flickr can also appear on Google’s AIS, which is why I normally go to AIS first. I also use Pixabay, which in my view is the best of the free sites allied to a commercial image site, which I’ll come to shortly. Below is an example of the quality of free images on Pixabay, but the breadth of material is less ample. Nonetheless, for my purposes (some of which are image composition in Photoshop), it is an excellent site.

Performing water ritual

Most of the free sites are only partly free. Pixabay, for example, draws in image seekers with freebies and then exposes them to all the items on sale with an organization called Shutterstock, which brings me to a different category of image sites. These sites have millions – literally – of images covering most areas, although I’m sure academia’s propensity for the arcane will challenge the best of them. They charge on a variable basis, and have different forms of subscription. My own School discipline lead, Prof MN Ravishankar, has a budget that covers the cost of a subscription to similar site called 123RF and the School can download a given number of images a day for use in teaching. The total cost per year is about £500 and the limit on the number of images we can use is a little shy of 2000. Similar deals are offered by Depositphotos. In my experience, the subscription has been worthwhile. One reason for this is that it means I never have to use substandard images, allowing a consistency of quality across my teaching. Subscription sites won’t be able to provide everything, but they provide a lot and plug gaps. Shutterstock is another good quality provider, along with Depositphotos, 123RF and then Getty Images and the associated iStock, both of which cost a lot more than the others. They do have some of the finest shots in the world, however, drawing from the famous Getty collection of the last century or so, but at a routine whopping £400 a shot, I don’t think it represents the kind of value for money we are looking for.

Cost of some images on Getty Images

More recently I’ve been using Unsplash, images on which are free for use without attribution (which doesn’t affect us, we’d attribute a source anyway I imagine) has received some critical press in terms of contributing artists not be recognized – but it’s not a clear picture, ironically. But wherever you access images, they should be attributed, just as we would any other source we referred to. Generally speaking, I can think of two ways to choose from for this. First, we could follow scholarly convention and put the attribution at the end, after the main section, like a bibliography but numbered or some other way associated with a particular slide. Second, we could paste the source onto the image we use on the slide in a small font so as not to detract from the visual experience we are instigating, and make it semi-opaque. Or come up with your own approach and maybe share it with the community.

This is slightly complicated by different preferences suppliers have. For example, Depositphotos doesn’t seek attribution automatically, whereas 123RF have information to be copied from their site to the location of the image when you use it. I think it’s unlikely to the point of absurdity that if you show where the image came from in the wrong format, and you have not been using it to make money, anything worth noting will happen. Mostly people only get strict with such matters when commercial copyright is under investigation. Honest representation of the origin of the image will protect us. I may go into this in a little more detail in another post.

Finally, a quick mention of Haiku Deck. This is an online platform that at first appears to be the answer to visual communication. You can create image-based slides by typing in a word and telling the programme to get pictures associated with the word – all of which are copyright safe.  You can select styles, fonts and themes like PPT but with the added bonus it will select images and insert them into slides in seconds. They charge: it isn’t much at $4.99 a month for educators and it’s a way into visual creation and it’s laborious sharing and downloading then revising lectures. But mainly it’s constrained in the calibre of the images it uses. There’s a price to pay for this low price: the images are OK but they are selected by some form of artificial intelligence. There is no substitute yet for human selectivity; but it is a decent way into this method. Here’s a short online overview of some of these sites. And here’s a visme blog that outlines a bunch of others. Most are limited because although the images are free, they area  shopfront for other collections.


A Brave New Visual World (apologies to Aldous Huxley)

This Community of Practice does not arise in a vacuum. It is in some large part a response to a social, political and technological world that changes at an astonishing rate. This post addresses the wider context from which the idea of visual communication in Higher Education has come.

Instant access to billions of images. Copyright

Only a few years ago, in 2008, Peter Felten talked about a ‘pictorial turn’ in human history and evolution. This ‘pictorial turn’, first enunciated by WJT Mitchell, is the outcome of a combination of factors that have taken us to a point where the use of imagery in many walks of life is in the rapid ascendancy. It’s not difficult to see why someone might draw such a conclusion. But it has greater meaning than just being a new or recent social phenomenon, because it presents as a challenge to conventions in literacy that famously claim written language to be paradigmatic to the conveying of meaning. In common parlance, there’s a new kid on the block. This does not necessarily infer that images have or will take over entirely from the written word, but it does suggest to some that a ‘multimodality’ of communication is evident and required. James Paul Gee (2008: 210) argues that in this era, ‘meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.), not just words’. In short, the hegemony of the written word is being challenged to the extent that it could now validly be partnered by an additional range of mechanisms able to communicate the kind of meaning once understood to be accessible only or primarily through text. This is the ‘pictorial turn’ in the evolution of human communication.

Famous representation of evolution, adjusted to suggest visuality in Facebook is the latest development. Copyright David Roberts 2015

There are various factors at work of a political, social and technological nature, and their convergence has great meaning for the idea of visual communication within and beyond the academy. The political structure of our world entered a transformational phase when the great Cold War conflict that characterized the post-WW2 period drew to a close with the demise of the former Soviet Union (FSU). The FSU had kept from spreading a range of values, ideas and technologies developing primarily in the West. This sea-change in world affairs coincided loosely with the rise of digital communication technologies that could transcend national geographies at an accelerating rate, shrinking the physical gap between dominant regions and their counterparts around the world. This departure from analogue to digital communications that had largely begun and been developed in the West and the East enabled near-global coverage and access. Places once out of bounds geographically because of political concerns were exposed to external gaze and then digital capture; and the rise of cheaper air travel brought more people to more places, recording images digitally.

Suggests the world has been shrunk by a combination of digital telecommunications and cheap air travel. Copyright

The story is completed to some extent with the rise of the World Wide Web, which accelerated connection between places and people and then provided the infrastructure to carry and display the increasing number of images recorded by the emerging trend towards digital photography combined with cheaper travel to more places. Innovation in hosting platforms encouraged the uploading of millions, then billions, of digital images, accessible to an increasing number of people via PCs and then mobile phones, which themselves evolved to carry cameras of increasing quality and versatility. Images are everywhere, according to the New York Times. As the trend developed momentum, new software systems like Photoshop and its cheaper counterpart, GIMP, evolved that allowed regular folk rather than studio-based professionals to adapt, manipulate and represent imagery. I was able to make or adapt most of the images in these posts and here.

But it would unwise to hold too tightly to the view that this is only a recent phenomenon. Our distant ancestors began communicating through imagery before written language evolved; ‘parietal’ art on the walls of paleolithic/prehistoric cave-dwellers is testimony to this. And on emergence from the womb, we begin to learn visually long before we develop writing skills. For the remainder of our sighted lives, we continue to interrogate and interpret the world around us visually.

Prehistoric rock paintings in Algeria. Copyright

This generation is almost certainly the most visual of all. Having grown up knowing only the expansion and preponderance of digital environments, it has become accustomed to a remarkable degree of ‘visuality’ at all stages in life. Peter Felten, assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon University in North Carolina, maintains that this generation’s  socio-visual experiences mean that various forms of visual literacy must be a key imperative for how we think about education. Others take seriously the idea that such substantial change in communication media as we are presently experiencing deserve serious consideration in Higher Education. This is not presently a mainstream view, however. There has been little to suggest inside the academy that we should seriously engage visuality as a legitimate co-medium to support text and words, and there may not be for some time to come because this is a matter of orthodox hegemony and tradition in what remains, despite its relative digital modernity, a relatively conservative space of thinking framed by neoliberal discipline and prescription in the western hemisphere.

Weds the ideas of text and tradition. Copyright

Beyond the academy, visual communication is an ever-increasing norm. Product advertising has shifted towards the use of images, where once text dominated them. Of course, product advertising is not the same necessarily as the communication of a complex idea or argument. But even this is not beyond the remit of imagery. Creative advertising, made familiar by the American TV miniseries ‘Madmen’ in the noughties, has evolved in line with creative talent’s ability to market, or communicate, abstract and otherwise distant and unfamiliar concepts to people everywhere. In a single image, a complex message concerning domination, consumption, values, scarcity and rights famously brought into our lives the plight of endangered species. Hundreds of examples from an ever-more burgeoning creative design industry can be seen here. I’ve included two early and quite well-known images that convey great complexity with ease and simplicity.



Conveys the idea that although domestic violence is most commonly understood in physical terms, the spoken word can be just as harmful. Copyright


This image was used by an NGO to highlight the harm being done by people buying exotic pets on the endangered list. There are tens of thousands nor of this ilk. Copyright

The world beyond the academy has taken enthusiastically to the ascendancy of visuality in the digital era. From ‘selfies’ to Manga comics, from Facebook to Flickr, from digital art galleries to wedding records, from home-made websites to companies and universities avidly promoting themselves online visually, our environment is ever more visual, and the trend is set to increase as more people gain access to more phones and as Wi-Fi and broadband spread to and connect ever more remote locations and people.

The academy is less enthusiastic. Logocentric education remains hegemonic, whilst images are routinely treated with a range of reactions from ambivalence through distrust to outright hostility. Lectures, especially those done in PowerPoint, remain dominated by words, despite the platform’s visual versatility. Pedagogy too often takes a back seat to our chosen research areas anyway. But it is not as if universities are Luddite bodies. They are not. Universities lead the world is various areas of research. They have thoroughly and interrogatively embraced digital communications, so that academic journal articles that once took months to locate, order, photocopy and have delivered arrive after a few clicks. E-learning is a hallmark of the neoliberal university. Student records have been expanded to include attendance, sickness reporting and personal tuition in innovative and sometimes invaluable ways. But the same cannot be said for HE’s attitude to the use of images in communicating meaning as a valid counterpart, rather than an occasional adjunct, to the written and spoken word. We seem not to recognize or respect the experiences and expectations of our students, despite claiming to centre them in all aspects of our engagement with them. And most importantly of all, we are not taking seriously an opportunity to match how we teach, to how they learn.

Suggests that two processes are out of line or sync with one another, like teaching delivery, and how it is received, according to MML theory. Copyright David Roberts 2017

It is hard to deny the reality of this most visual of eras, nor to contrast this digital  visual revolution with the persistence of textual hegemony in HE pedagogy. It isn’t just HE. In most places where PowerPoint is used as the primary projection platform for knowledge, protocol, instruction, data, information or learning, people privilege text. I suspect this is partly because although we are increasingly conscious of imagery around us, most of us don’t critically process the communication implications of this phenomenon (apologies for any readers who are not academics at this point; I’m coming to an end here). Nor, I suspect, do most of us have the time to engage in years of reading, thinking and experimenting when the pressures on academics – and probably most professionals involved in presenting – leave precious little time to indulge ourselves in the luxury of such pursuits. Ever-increasing demands for efficiency and cost-cutting, coupled to diminishing revenues for many institutions, places a premium on quality but without proper parallel investment in testing and developing new pedagogies fit for purpose and fit for the times. This is particularly important in light of the imminent arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, set to measure teaching ‘quality’ in a system that too frequently doesn’t or can’t privilege it in pedagogy. I’m reminded of a Viet Namese saying, from some time spent in Hanoi in the early 1990s: ‘you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’.

King Canute by Brauner, Luis Arcas (1934-89). Copyright CC 2.0