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.
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.
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.
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.
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.