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, 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.

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.


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






Thinking about theory
About this blog

For lecturers, there is life beyond Death by PowerPoint

First published in Times Higher Education July 17, 2014


By harnessing the power of images, academics can fully exploit students’ learning potential, says David Roberts


Image copyright Times Higher Education
The business world uses full-slide, high-quality images to convert the literal to the figurative: to attach visual representation to oratory

I have often wondered if one day I would find out that I’d been doing it wrong all along. One day, about a year ago, I did.

It happened when I came across the published research of Richard Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the subject of multimedia learning. Mayer propounds that we have two processing elements at our disposal when we are learning: audio and visual. In a traditional lecture based on listening, his research suggests, we are able to deploy only 50 per cent of our learning potential. If images were used too, he says, we would learn better and faster. Other top-notch research supports this finding.

Continue reading For lecturers, there is life beyond Death by PowerPoint

Life after death by PowerPoint

Copyright David Roberts 2016

Probably everyone’s experienced at some time ‘Death by PowerPoint’: a presentation that, rather than engaging your attention, makes you want to run away. Slides packed full of bullet points ‘organizing’ text that appears as a wall of words, and to add insult to injury, the speaker is often duplicating the text.

Continue reading Life after death by PowerPoint

Active learning in lectures – the value of imagery

I have been concerned with the question of student engagement in large group lectures – an issue familiar to many teaching colleagues confronted with the government’s never-ending agenda for High Education (HE). Given that lectures are the means by which we disseminate most learning to undergraduates the world over, and given that we use PowerPoint or other associated digital platforms to do this, I was interested in Richard Mayer’s research on Multimedia Learning (MML) that predicts better audience engagement if images were used with words, instead of just words. His position is based on decades of research on memory and cognition that tells us we are ‘dual processors’ of information. We are equipped with an auditory-textual channel and an image processing channel, so to him and many others, it was silly to be shoveling primarily words into both our ears and eyes.

Dual processing to reduce overload on working memory and increase visual interrogation and absorption. Copyright David Roberts 2016

I developed an image-based method of lecturing (keeping text in the notes view section of PowerPoint where desired) that reflected these cognitive positions, teaching across 9 disciplines in all. My last blog reported on a 3-year evaluation of the method with my own students as the subjects who were reporting the method’s effects. The results are summarized below:

Copyright David Roberts 2016
This data confirms Mayer’s predictions and the method has been very popular with students. In my Final Year option, the percentage of ‘firsts’ in coursework results verified by the second marker and external examiner increased by more than 50%. The pattern in the chart above has been mirrored when the same questions were applied with dyslexic students, and this is the subject of another post later this year.

My initial interest in this research had been inspired by broad problematising of the lecture as a medium for higher learning. Lectures are criticized on many grounds, not least of which is their immobility in an era when people expect to be able to get such material online at home. However, I was more concerned with ontological and epistemological challenges to lecturing that characterize the learning process involved as passive in nature. In this scenario, an esteemed academic or ‘sage on the stage’, asAlison King described it, holds the greatest wisdom and imparts it to his or her students, who consume the information as it is directed to them – that is, uncritically and unreflectively.

This convention has been challenged by those who favour the idea of ‘active learning’, a notion that includes and reflects the ideas of ‘problem-based learning’ and ‘inquiry-based learning. So active learning is understood as ‘meaningful learning activities [in which students] think about what they are doing’ (Prince, 2004, p. 223).  Clearly, it would be very challenging to run a lecture composed entirely of such prerequisites, since it implies a surrendering of the lecture space to a more interactive process much harder to organise, predict or manage.

In the course of my earlier research on images and engagement, focus group members were identifying particular processes that alerted me to the presence of active learning characteristics. This is not predicted by Mayer or other scholars of multimedia learning. As a result, I reframed my research on engagement to investigate a new hypothesis concerning active learning. I used the same methods outlined in my earlier blog to test for the presence or active learning.

Based on what I had unintentionally learned in the earlier focus groups on engagement, I expected some minor presence of active learning processes as a result of image use. However, the results refuted this assumption. All key elements of active learning were present in abundance, and mainly it concerned problem-solving activities.

Copyright David Roberts 2016

The chart compares the presence of active learning characteristics as displayed by the control and test groups, as per the earlier methodology. The control group exposed to text only is shown in yellow. The test group exposed to images appears in blue. The pattern is again clear and the differences substantial, reflecting a similar asymmetry in results to that concerning engagement.

Testing MML theories for engagement by introducing apposite images into lectures had confirmed the value of images in generating engagement. An unexpected outcome in those initial tests led to further testing of the MML method for the presence of active learning processes, where predictions were exceeded substantially. Although the number of participants has been fairly low, ranging between 15-60 students, the results have been consistent across the board and served as the basis for a successful bid for a Senior Fellowship with the Higher Education Academy. But more than this, they affirm other ways of teaching that are easy to achieve and which can turn lectures from places of passive boredom and disengagement into spaces of curiosity, inquiry and engagement.

This Blog post was written by Dr David Roberts, Senior Lecturer of International Relations and member of the International Business, Strategy and Innovation group at the SBE.

Continue reading Active learning in lectures – the value of imagery