Use of images in online courses


SUMMARY: As you begin to prepare for your Canvas classes for the spring semester, think about the many ways you could use images to engage learners, make your classes more interesting, and increase student learning.

Use images in online courses

As you begin to prepare for your Canvas classes for the spring semester, think about the many ways you could use images to engage learners, make your classes more interesting, and increase student learning. Did you know that images have different communication functions and that certain types of images are more effective in promoting high-level thinking skills? Consider this …

Most faculty members use decorative images in their course materials. Decorative images are images that only have aesthetic appeal, such as borders used on slides and images unrelated to the content. While these images can make your teaching materials look great, research shows they have little effect on learning and can even be confusing for learners.

On the other hand, research shows that representative images – pictures that duplicate textual information – actually have a moderate effect on learning. Representative pictures are especially useful for teaching new concepts, facts, and processes because they show in pictures the information you are trying to convey in words.

Research shows that explanatory pictures have an even greater effect on learning than representative images because they help explain and interpret content for the learner. These images are divided into subcategories according to their specific communication function. Relational images, such as pie charts and bar charts, show quantitative comparisons. Organizational images demonstrate qualitative relationships between content. Concept maps and site maps are good examples of organizational images. Transformational Images illustrate the change in time or space. An animation that shows how fractions are made when a pizza is cut into 4 equal pieces is an example of a transformational image. Ultimately, interpretation images help learners better understand abstract or underlying processes. An illustration that shows how blood circulates through the heart is an example of an interpretive image.

Mnemonic images support cognitive processes by creating visual analogies that allow learners to view content in a new way, and then relate the newly considered content to information they already know. These images are difficult to create and use in different cultures, as their meaning is often culture specific.

Regardless of the communicative function of the image, it is important to remember that simple, iconic, high contrast images are often the most effective in educational applications because they minimize cognitive load and focus the attention of students. learners on the most important information of the visuals. When creating online course materials, be sure to use visual design principles to manage cognitive load, such as information fragmentation, white space, judicious use of color, contrast, repetition, alignment and closeness. Use a hierarchical layout and put the most important information at the top of the page.

When designing your courses for online use, remember that accessibility is important. All of your images should have high contrast to ensure they can be seen by visually impaired people. In addition, it is best to use simple, gender neutral and culturally neutral images to ensure that the images are meaningful to a wide audience. Finally, all images should be tagged with alt text to ensure they are accessible to everyone who uses the content.

JMU Libraries provide links to a number of free image resources, from stock photos to vector images. Recently added image collections include Nappy, which features free high-resolution images of black and brunette people, and The Gender Spectrum Collection, which features photos of trans and non-binary models. You can find these resources at


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