Using graphics in eLearning: where to draw the line?

Education and learning graphic icons, vector illustration design

Jamie Paddock our eLearning Consultant intern explores the use of graphics in eLearning, including his top tips to create interesting and eye-catching content.

Using graphics in eLearning can add a more engaging and visually friendly element to the learner experience. We know that sometimes courses don't cover the most exciting topics, but you don't need to fill your eLearning with endless screens of text. Using graphics can be a good way of breaking up content and making the learning more memorable.

Here are some handy tips to help guide you on how to make the most of graphics in eLearning:

Use low fidelity images as much as possible

Connie Malamed, an eLearning specialist, found in her research that graphics of objects that were less detailed (such as line drawings and icons) turn the graphic into a simple form of information that then takes less time to encode the information into long-term memory. The key to this is that an object might not be recognised by other cultures unaware of its specific meaning, whereas a simpler image of an object might be known across cultures and languages. As Connie explained, the advantages of low-fidelity images include quick scanning, less information in working memory, fewer distractions, fewer misunderstandings, and less information to process. However, high-fidelity images (those most likely to be pictures or photographs with greater detail), are still best used when it is required in more technical subjects and learning objectives.

Mixing too many kinds of graphics is a big turn off

Combining images and clip art together doesn’t always blend well. It can look a bit of a mess and stylistically inconsistent. Trying to figure out the right kind of graphic to use can depend on the subject matter, for example, courses covering compliance topics might use images which match the professional tone of the subject. Make sure you stick to that style so that it enhances the course overall, this will mean it looks more pieced together and thought through.

It’s a cliché, but size matters

Let’s face it, not everyone has a fast mobile or home internet connection. To bump buffering out of the way you have to face the brutal truth of optimising your images so that they can load quickly. To do this, use a photo editor such as Photoshop to compress the size of the image, making sure you use the right file format as well. Here is a quick guide:

  • For continuous tone images you should use JPEG. However, don’t over-do it as the more you compress a JPEG, the lower the image quality will be.
  • For flat graphics with solid colours go for GIF. The danger here is that the more you compress, the lower the image quality.

Also, don’t overload your course with too many graphics as it can overload the learner as well as pack up the overall size of the course to load.

Graphics should be productive, not decorative

Graphics shouldn’t be eye-catching tinsel on your eLearning course. If you can’t think of a reason why there is a graphic on a slide, then it’s only because it’s decorative and makes the course shinier. The truth is, learners will want to make a correlation between different pieces of information and how it might be visualised. If an image doesn’t correspond to any information, then it only adds to the learner’s cognitive load. It’s like a brain buffering, not being able to make a connection.

Images and text together

To then speed up that connection, it is best to have pictures and text together in the same place or slide. It makes sense that if words and pictures are separated from one another on a screen, the learner has to use more of their cognitive power to match them up. For instance, having images on another screen when answering a question on them, means the learner has to go back to the previous screen. They could instead have it in one space as they work out their answer with the visual prompts.

Use charts and graphs to convey complex information simply

Charts and graphs are useful ways to help a learner understand complex material. Using icons that relate to the subject matter (food for food production, people for population) can help aid in memory retention by having a reinforcing element. By using visual communication, complex information can be digested with some ease.

Be careful with copyright

There are many good images out there, but a simple Google image search is a risky move when it comes to copyright. Make sure when you are searching for free images and graphics that you use images which are royalty and copyright free. Better still, use stock photos for glossy professional pictures, it does come at a price but it is worth it. If your company can afford it, organic graphics are the best thing you can do as it means that you have a graphic design that is tailored to your course and company needs.

Graphics are an important part of learning design, so don’t forget:

  • Use low fidelity images (low detail of an object) where it is appropriate.
  • Don’t mix images and clipart/icons.
  • Compress images to avoid lag and buffering while not diminishing quality.
  • Graphics should have a purpose in the learning experience and not be for decoration.
  • Having images and text together in the same slide can keep the learning flowing.
  • Charts and graphs can help convey complexity simply.
  • Be careful with searching images by avoiding copyrighted images.

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