Adapting: Online Learning Environments, Visual Pedagogy, and Active Learners, by W. Michele Simmons
While most of us would agree that there has been a shift from print to screen as the primary mode of communication, many of us have yet to understand the effects this shift might have on teaching our courses. Indeed while many courses talk about the effects of technology, few incorporate it into their curriculum in ways that actually enhance learning. According to J. L. Lemke, "the first generation of interactive learning technologies has mostly been, not unexpectedly, simply a transposition of the textbook model of education to a new display medium. Trees may be grateful, but little about the nature of learning changes, perhaps only the increased motivation for some students generated by novelty" (87). Many instructors merely transport their course materials from a Microsoft Word document to a Web site—without understanding the missed opportunities of interactivity that an online medium mightprovide. Simply encoding information in html does not necessarily exploit online media in a way that engage our students. But even if we do not fully utilize the medium, transporting documents to the Web does necessarily change how our students can interact with the information we provide. For example, adding hyperlinks does not automatically create productive interactivity, but it does complicate the ways students assemble the course materials. In this essay, I consider changes in the literacy skills required to make sense of online materials that we must consider if we hope to develop engaging online learning environments. Specifically, I examine ways in which interactivity and visuals in online materials increase opportunities for learning but also simultaneously introduce complexities.
While the online format may present additional opportunities for involving the student, it also requires additional skills for assembling, analyzing, and using the needed information. Being more aware of these skills can help us think carefully about how we adapt materials online. The manner in which online text is "chunked" into shorter fragments and linked across multiple pages requires users to assemble and analyze information in ways that defy the typical notions of a text with closure—of a definite beginning, middle, and end. Users are forced to know what they need and arrange it in the order in which they need it—a daunting task that traditional media does not often demand. Effectively completing this task of making meaning out of online media requires fairly sophisticated skills for locating and categorizing information (Lemke, 79). Richard Lanham (2004) asserts that the electronic technology in new media "creates a different literacy" from traditional print-based literacies (466). Yet the literacy practices necessary to engage with these online course materials are more complex than we typically consider.
Complexity is generated by the interaction between information and interface—between mode and media. Online materials are both multimodal and multimedia (103). As Kress and Van Leeuwen note, a mode is a type of content: writing, images or diagrams (i.e., "visuals"), or even color. It is the "material resource" used "as a means of articulating discourse" (25). Each mode offers the potential for different "representational and communicational action by their users" (Kress 5). An example of monomodality would be a text-only document, while a document with text and images would exhibit multimodality. Modes are expressed through different media: a book, CD or Web site. Medium, then is the "material resource" used in the production of the discourse (22). New media allow teachers and students to choose the mode of their communication based on what they want to emphasize and what is appropriate for their particular audience rather than on cost—encouraging multimodality and the opportunity it affords for engaging readers in different ways. Kress and Van Leeuwen identify four "strata" within modes and media that affect a communication’s meaning: discourse, design, production, and distribution (4). In thinking about mode, for instance, one chooses which mode will best present the content (type of discourse), how the content is to be arranged, as well as what rhetorical or epistemological position is to be adopted (design) (51). As to medium, the way in which the information is produced—such as whether the communication is on paper or online—and the way the information is distributed—such as the encoding used to transmit the information into a particular interface—determine the view one gets upon accessing a document as well as the user’s ability to assemble the information (87, 103). Because these two issues, production and distribution, are as potent as issues of discourse and design, and because they are imbricated in them, Kress and Van Leeuwen argue that moving printed text to an electronic format results in fragmented information that cannot be assembled in the same ways as when instantiated in more traditional media. If teachers do not consider the production and distribution of the information, they risk producing a less structured and needlessly complicated method for gathering information, resulting in a reduced capacity for users to assemble information (87) and also—more seriously—failing to exploit the pedagogical possibilities offered by the process of assemblage itself.
Pitfalls and Promises of Interactivity
However, providing too much structure in an attempt to simplify online texts can disrupt the very advantages of online learning environments. Kress and Leeuwen discuss a group of Web designers, Oran et. al., who developed "user guides" to direct students’ paths in navigating online information because the designers believed that individuals become overwhelmed by choices, "clicking aimlessly from screen to screen," unable to "assembl[e]" information presented in a hypertext format (377 qtd. in Kress and van Leeuwen 103). Yet they found that these guides prevented students from exploring on their own (104). Such guides do not encourage students to interpret how the information relates to their own situations, to build on what they already know. Students’ own inquiry and production is necessary in online spaces if they are to make sense, and just as importantly, make use of the information they read.  Indeed, a promise of interactivity in online material is that it might "critically engage" users in ways that help them produce new knowledge (Porter).
All kinds of interactivity are not equal. Interactive options for online material range from clicking and dragging the edge of "catalogue pages" in order to turn the "pages" of the text to entering correct answers about a topic in order to reach a more advanced "playing level." While the former inexplicably perpetuates the metaphor of the book but offers no real advantage to the user, the later can engage students to learn in ways that are not always offered in traditional pedagogy, but that may be more familiar and intuitive to students. It is here that interactivity holds much promise: it may be possible through Web design to reach our students who learn differently than traditional approaches accommodate. To truly help our students learn, materials online should incorporate interactivity that encourages students to produce usable knowledge. Our work lies in making the connections between the ways students learn and the ways that information can be distributed online.
Online Learning and Visual Literacy
The ubiquitous nature of graphics in online materials presents a different challenge to online learning environments. While most of us in the academy have been entrenched in reading, teaching, and writing text, our students have been saturated with the visual, creating a gap between how we teach and what they know. Charles Hill argues that, "so far, our educational system has failed to take seriously and to adequately respond to the fact that so much of the information our students have been exposed to is in visual form" (107). Since students are immersed in a visual world, we may be able to provide them with a more powerful learning experience if we address their physical eye—and maybe ear and hand as well—and then enhance their literacy skills by combining text and images.
Our students may be visually literate, yet they rarely come to our courses with (or learn in our courses) the ability to analyze complex ideas conveyed by an image juxtaposed with text (Lemke, 78). According to Craig Stroupe, when an image and text are placed next to one another, they enter into a "dialogic relationship": juxtaposition allows the image to "respond [to] and resist" the text and vice versa, complicating the possibilities of meaning for each (27). Stroupe maintains that the availability of desktop publishing and Web authoring tools make it possible for us (and our students) to create documents that illustrate this dialogic relationship between image and text. However, both the writer and reader of such documents, he claims, cannot understand the implications and possibilities without a "critical tradition for describing these effects and a pedagogical apparatus for teaching them" (32). We have long worked to teach our students to critically evaluate the text on the page, but less to critically evaluate the images on that same page, and much less to consider how the two might function together.
- The opportunities that online environments afford us for engaging students in active learning are vast—even beyond interactivity and visuals. Yet these two issues are important to consider especially when developing interactive course materials from existing print-based materials. What links or interactivity might be added to a document in order to encourage students to critically analyze information and couple it with their own inquiry and experiences as part of the task of assembling it? How can one teach students to analyze images as effectively as text and then to read the dialogue between them? Much is at stake in working through these questions with each text or assignment. In visually rich, interactive online environments, it may be possible to impart skills to students who cannot comprehend them when represented in words on a printed page.
 I make a similar point about the complexity of accessing civic websites in an article, Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places: Invention, Performance, and Participation, under review by College Composition and Communication. [Back]
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Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age. New York : Routledge, 2003.
---. and Theo Van Leeuwen. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London : Arnold Publishers, 2001.
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Porter, James. "Interactivity and Audience: Toward a Rhetorical Model of Design for Interactive Systems." 20 Oct. 2004 . <http://www.rhetoric.msu.edu/porter/interactivity_abstract.pdf>.
Stroupe, Craig. "Visualizing English: Recognizing the Hybrid Literacy of Visual and Verbal Authorship on the Web." Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Carolyn Handa New York : Bedford/St. Martin, 2004. 13-37.